you're reading...

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

a concise chinese-english dictionary for lovers

A Chinese girl adrift in London.
An English man adrift in life.
A whole dictionary of possible misunderstandings…

Xiaolu Guo’s first novel in (deliberately bad) English is a romantic comedy about two lovers who don’t speak each other’s language. The heroine is a Chinese girl who has been sent to London to study by her parents. She calls herself Z because English People can’t pronouns her name, but when she arrives at Heathrow she’s no better at their language. Set loose to find her way through a confusion of youth hostels, Full English Breakfasts and a lack of famous London fog, she winds up lodging with a Chinese family in Tottenham, and thinking she might as well not have left home. For the first-quarter of the book, in order to improve her English skills, she carries with her a Concise Chinese-English Dictionary wherever she goes. Her initial experiences are both painful and hilarious.

Pronoun n word, such as she or it, used to replace a noun.
Chinese we starting sentence from concept of time or place. Order like this:
Last autumn on the Great Wall we eat barbeque.
So time and space always bigger than little human in our country. Is not like order in English sentence, ‘I’, or ‘Jake’ or ‘Mary’ by front of everything, supposing be most important thing to whole sentence. English is a sexist language. In Chinese no ‘gender-definition’. Maybe Chinese too shaming putting their name first, because that not modest way to be.

Then she meets a man who is 20-years her senior and that changes everything…… 

MISUNDERSTANDING vb fail to understand properly.
‘I want see where you live.’ I say.
You look in my eyes. ‘Be my guest.’
That’s how all start. From a misunderstanding. 

From the moment he smiles at her, she enters a new world of sex, freedom and self-discovery. But she also realises that, in the West ‘Love’ does not always mean the same as in China, and you can learn all the words in the English Language and still not understand your man.

Privacy n the state of being alone or undisturbed; freedom from interference or public attention.

‘You invaded my privacy! You can’t do that!’ first time, you shout to me, like a lion, when you found out I read your diary while you were away.
‘What privacy? But we living together! No privacy if we are lovers!’
‘Of course there is! Everybody has privacy!’
But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China we eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart. When I arguing about privacy, you just listen and not say anything. I know you disagree with me, and you not want live inside of my life, because you are a ‘private’ person. A private person doesn’t share life. 

Intimate adj having a close personal relationship; personal or private; (of knowledge) extensive and detailed; (foll by with) euphemistic having a sexual relationship (with); having a friendly quiet atmosphere n close friend. 

How can intimate live with privacy?
We have lived together after first week we met. You said you never lived so closely with the other person. You said to have your friends more important than your lovers. That’s so different with my Chinese love – family means everything.
Maybe people here have problems being intimate with each other. People keep distance because they want independence. Maybe that why Westerners much more separate, lonely, and have more Old People’s House. Maybe also why newspapers always report cases of peterfiles and perverts. 

Half way through the book, I was disappointed as the book progressed into a predictable, clichéd plotline. While Z is an interesting character, she throws herself at a man whose name we don’t even learn (or bother to learn). Although he doesn’t speak a second language, he belittles her attempts to improve her English. Although he relies on her to do the cooking and cleaning, he gets irritated at having to pay the bills and having to explain every single English word. When they are with his friends, he treats her like a sibling. 

And then came the horrific episodes of Z’s Solo trip around Europe. I have read enough books and seen enough films with themes of East meet West and innocent girl meets older man and falls in love; and sexual awakenings of Asian girls in the most explicit nature, that I was devastated that this book falls on the same pit hole of the cliché. 

Reading the bad English at the beginning can be disruptive and annoying, but soon you will get used to it and you will be amazed how much you understand what Z said in her limited English. Months pass, Z’s English improves, and her sensibilities expand with a multitude of new experiences ranging from learning vegetables names in English to participating in her first family Christmas. While her communication skills develop nicely, fundamental concepts, such as love, still require some reconciling. 


If you take how the book described Chinese girl literally, you will think most Chinese girls are stupid, naïve, needs Western influence to discover her own sexual awakenings, and happy to take off her clothes for no particular reason and bed any stranger she meets. And this puts me off.

But if you appreciate the book for its literary nature, it’s brilliant. It’s creative, it’s original (not the plot) in the way the chapters are presented. It contains astute observation of the cultural differences in daily anecdotes and language use. It witty and hilarious and also sad and pathetic.  Guo handles the personal, cultural and political aspects of this story deftly and with humour. Definitions are succinct, clear, tidy. It’s a literary piece which challenges the preconception that a good book has to be written in good English. 

Overall I have my soft spot for the heroine, Z. The book is a romantic comedy. She instils Z with a sensitivity, cleverness and poetic streak that makes the book highly readable. I ended up feeling sorry for Z. Feeling sorry for Z craving for a love that is not reciprocated. Sorry for all the irreconciliable misunderstandings between the lovers, for e.g. where she expects a future plan, while the man live for the present. Will you learn a new word of English from the book? No, you will not, as most vocabularies are pretty elementary. But you will come out of it learning a few things about the cultural intricacies of how a Chinese defines self, freedom, home and love, and how different their minds are wired from the West. Sometimes there is not much we can do to reconcile differences, except to let it go…………

Verdict: 4.5/5
What I like most about the book: The book’s ability to capture the idiosyncrasies of English language, muddled by a Chinese understanding. The occasional Chinese characters that sprout from the pages, where Z sometimes classified them as nonsense and the Editor then translated them, the chinese characters are not utter nonsense but a sensitive and heart wrenching philosophical questions about love.
What I like least about the book: The same pit that most books written by Far Eastern writers fell into, i.e. contains-sexually-explicit-content-to-pique-interest-in-the-West pit hole. 

Xiaolu GuoAbout the writer:
Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973 in a fishing village in south China. She studied films at Beijing Film Academy, worked as a screenwriter and film teacher as well as writing several books in Chinese. Xiaolu move to London in 2002 where she began a diary written in English which became the seed for the novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Xiaolu has directed award-wining films including The Concrete Revolution and How is your Fish Today? She divides her time between Europe and China. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is shortlisted for the Orange Fiction Prize 2007. This is Xiaolu Guo’s first novel written in English; she said “Nothing in the book is true, except the love between her and him”.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


One thought on “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

  1. I kinda skimmed through your old posts and this one caught my eyes. I read this book a while back and I had exactly the same disappointment as yours. The weird thing is we took exactly the same quote! (the one about love 🙂

    Posted by mee | January 21, 2010, 10:30 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 276 other followers

Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
Share book reviews and ratings with JoV, and even join a book club on Goodreads.

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

%d bloggers like this: