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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers Reader’s Guide

By Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

READERS GUIDE

"Funny, childlike and wise all at once."
Los Angeles Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Xiaolu Guo’s touching and innovative debut A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers—where readers will see Western culture and the nuances of romance from a fresh, curious perspective and will find a heroine unlike any who have appeared in contemporary literary fiction.

Introduction

Zhuang is a 23-year-old Chinese language student who has come to London to learn English; she calls herself Z because no one can pronounce her name. When the book begins, she can barely ask for a cup of tea and spends her days looking up new words in her dictionary. Homesick, privacy, and lover are all new concepts for Z.

At the movies one night, Z falls for an Englishman who lives a resolutely bachelor life. When she tells him she’d like to see where he lives, he replies sardonically “be my guest.” Misunderstanding the meaning behind his words, Z moves in a week later. Over the course of a year, Z learns about love and sex, companionship and passion. She finds a freedom that she hadn’t known in China but she also comes to learn the painful truth that you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your lover.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is written in steadily improving English vocabulary and grammar. Why do you think the author chose to write the novel in this way? How does Z’s learning of the English language mirror Z’s personal growth?

2. From the opening pages, Z’s story is funny and charming, full of humorous observations about Western culture as well as amusing grammatical mistakes. Yet, as the story progresses, we also see that Z’s journey is filled with many poignant moments of sadness and deep longing as she struggles to overcome her vulnerabilities. On the whole, which parts of the story stay with you most by the end of the book?

3. Z falls in love instantly and becomes dependent on a man who is starkly different from herself. Discuss their differences and how her dependency may be more attributed to her effort to want to fit in than to her loneliness? Alternatively, why do you think he—a confirmed bachelor—lets her move in? Is he intrigued by her “exoticism” or do you think that he loves her?

4. Her lover persuades Z to travel around the continent alone. She’s reluctant but he tells her she needs to “find herself.” He’s hiding the truth that what he really wants is a break from her and the relationship. Do you think Z is aware of this? When she is in Portugal, she goes off quite impulsively with a Portuguese man who seemingly traps her in a sexual encounter. Do you think this is Z’s ultimate act of independence or defiance, or do you believe that there is a sense of violence in the act?

5. “Privacy” and “individuality” are completely new and foreign concepts to Z who’s coming from China where the collective and collectivization are preeminent. Discuss how she comes to grasp their meanings.

6. Z was a young child during the Cultural Revolution, yet her observations are politically acute. She refers to passages in Mao’s Little Red Book. She says: “In West, Mao’s words work for me, though they not work in China now.” What do you think she means?

7. Do you think the author wrote the novel more for Western or for Chinese readers who may see themselves in some of Z’s experiences? Do you find many of Z’s feelings and observations about love and life to be universal?

8. In literature and film, do you believe Westerners tend to romanticize the East, drawing more on China’s ancient past of emperors and concubines and traditional ceremony? In what ways do we see a very different China through Z’s eyes?

About this Author

Xiaolu Guo was born in the Zhe Jiang province of southern China. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, she wrote several books published in China. She has written and directed award-winning documentaries, including The Concrete Revolution; her first feature film, How Is Your Fish Today?, was an Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 International Women’s Film Festival. Since 2002 she has been dividing her time between London and Beijing.

Suggested Reading

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea; Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian; Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus; Gish Jen, Typical American; Yiyun Li, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
 
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