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On Sale: June 10, 2008
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-45563-5
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Language and love collide in this inventive novel of a young Chinese woman's journey to the West and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.Zhuang – or “Z,” to tongue-tied foreigners – has come to London to study English, but finds herself adrift, trapped in a cycle of cultural gaffes and grammatical mishaps. Then she meets an Englishman who changes everything, leading her into a world of self-discovery. She soon realizes that, in the West, “love” does not always mean the same as in China, and that you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your lover. And as the novel progresses with steadily improving grammar and vocabulary, Z's evolving voice makes her quest for comprehension all the more poignant. With sparkling wit, Xiaolu Guo has created an utterly original novel about identity and the cultural divide.


alien (’ei.li.En) adj. 1. foreign; 2. repugnant (to);  3. from another world – n. 1. foreigner; 2. being from another world.


Is unbelievabal, I arriving London, “Heathlow Airport.” Every single name very difficult remembering, because just not “London Airport” simple way like we simple way call “Beijing Airport.” Everything very confuse way here, passengers is separating in two queues.

Sign in front of queue say: ALIEN and NON ALIEN.

I am alien, like Hollywood film Alien, I live in another planet, with funny looking and strange language.

I standing in most longly and slowly queue with all aliens waiting for visa checking. I feel little criminal but I doing nothing wrong so far. My English so bad. How to do?

In my text book I study back China, it says English peoples talk like this:

“How are you?”

“I am very well. How are you?”

“I am very well.”

Question and answer exactly the same!

Old saying in China: “Birds have their bird language, beasts have their beast talk”. English they totally another species.

Immigration officer holding my passport behind his accounter, my heart hanging on high sky. Finally he stamping on my visa. My heart touching down like air plane. Ah. Wo. Ho. Ha. Picking up my luggage, now I a legal foreigner. Because legal foreigner from Communism region, I must re–educate, must match this capitalism freedom and Western democracy.

All I know is: I not understanding what people say to me at all. From now on, I go with Concise Chinese–English Dictionary at all times. It is red cover, look just like Little Red Book. I carrying important book, even go to the toilet, in case I not knowing the words for some advanced machine and need checking out in dictionary. Dictionary is most important thing from China. Concise meaning simple and clean.

hostel (’hos.tel) n. a building providing accommodation at a low cost for a specific group of people such as students, travellers, homeless people, etc.


First night in “hostel.” Little Concise ChineseEnglish Dictionary hostel explaining: a place for “people such as students, travellers and homeless people” to stay. Sometimes my dictionary absolute right. I am student and I am homeless looking for place to stay. How they knowing my situation precisely?

Thousands of additional words and phrases reflect scientific and technological innovations, as well as changes in politics, culture, and society. In particular, many new words and expressions as well as new usages and meanings which have entered the Chinese language as a result of Chinas open-door policy over the last decade have been included in the ChineseEnglish section of the dictionary.

That is sentence in Preface. All sentence in preface long like this, very in–understandable. But I must learning this stylish English because it high–standard English from authority. Is parents’ command on me: studying how speak and write English in England, then coming back China, leaving job in government work unit and making lots money for their shoes factory by big international business relations. Parents belief their life is dog’s life, but with money they save from last several years, I make better life through Western education.

Anyway, hostel called “Nuttington House” in Brown Street, nearby Edward Road and Baker Street. I write all the names careful in notebook. No lost. Brown Street seem really brown with brick buildings everywhere. Prison looking. Sixteen pounds for per bed per day. With sixteen pounds, I live in top hotel in China with private bathroom. Now I must learn counting the money and being mean to myself and others.

First night in England is headache.

Pulling large man–made–in–China–suitcase into hostel, second wheel fall off by time I open the door. (First wheel already fall off when I get suitcase from airport's luggage bell.) Is typical suitcase produced by any factory in Wen Zhou, my hometown. My hometown China’s biggest home–products industry town, our government says. Coat hangers, plastic washbasins, clothes, leather belts and nearly–leather bags, computer components etc, we make there. Every family in my town is factory. Big factories export their products to everywhere in the world, just like my parents get order from Japan, Singapore and Israel. But anyway, one over–the–sea trip and I lost all the wheels. I swear I never buy any products made from home town again.

Standing middle of the room, I feeling strange. This is The West. By window, there hanging old red curtain with holes. Under feet, old blood-red carpet has suspicions dirty spots. Beddings, they covering by old red blanket too. Everything is dirty blood red.

Room smelling old, rotten. Suddenly my body feeling old too. “English people respect history, not like us,” teachers say to us in schools. Is true. In China now, all buildings is no more than ten years old and they already old enough to be demolished.

With my enormous curiosity, walking down to the night street. First night I away home in my entirely twenty–three years life, everything scare me. Is cold, late winter. Windy and chilli. I feeling I can die for all kinds of situation in every second. No safety in this country, I think unsafe feeling come from I knowing nothing about this country. I scared I in a big danger.

I scared by cars because they seems coming from any possible directing. I scared by long hair black man passing because I think he beating me up just like in films. I scared by a dog. Actually chained with old lady but I thinking dog maybe have mad–dog–illness and it suddenly bite me and then I in hospital then I have no money to pay and then I sent back to China.

Walking around like a ghost, I see two rough mans in corner suspicionly smoke and exchange something. Ill–legal, I have to run—maybe they desperate drug addictors robbing my money. Even when I see a beggar sleeping in a sleep bag I am scared. Eyes wide open in darkness staring at me like angry cat. What he doing here? I am taught everybody in West has social security and medical insurance, so, why he needs begging?

I going back quickly to Nuttington House. Red old carpet, red old curtain, red old blanket. Better switch off light.

Night long and lonely, staying nervously in tacky room. London should be like emperor’s city. But I cannot feel it. Noise coming from other room. Laughing in drunkenly way. Upstairs TV news speaking intensely nonsense. Often the man shouting like mad in the street. I worry. I worry I getting lost and nobody in China can find me anymore. How I finding important places including Buckingham Palace, or Big Stupid Clock? I looking everywhere but not seeing big posters of David Beckham, Spicy Girls or President Margaret Thatcher. In China we hanging them everywhere. English person not respect their heroes or what?

No sleeping. Switching on the light again. Everything turning red. Bloody new world. I study little red dictionary. English words made only from twenty–six characters? Are English a bit lazy or what? We have fifty thousand characters in Chinese.

Starting at page one:

Abacus: (meaning a wooden machine used for counting)
Abandon: (meaning to leave or throw away)
Abashed: (meaning to feel embrassed or regretful)
Abattoir: (meaning a place to kill the animals)
Abbess: (meaning the boss of woman monk's house)
Abbey: (meaning a temple)
Abbot: (meaning the boss of a temple)
Abbreviate: (meaning to write a word quickly)
Abduct: (meaning to tie somebody up and take away to somewhere)

Words becoming blurred and no meaning. The first night I falling into darkness with the jet–lag tiredness.

1. Builders Super Platter:
double egg, beans, bacon, sausage, bubble, mushroom, tomato, 2 toast, tea or coffee included.

2. Vegetarian Breakfast:
double egg, bubble, mushroom, beans, veggie sausage, hash browns, tea or coffee included.

full english breakfast

Talk doesn’t cook rice,” say Chinese. Only thing I care in life is eating. And I learning English by food first, of course. Is most practical way.

Getting up early, I have free Full English Breakfast from my hostel. English so proud they not just say hotel, they say Bed and Breakfast, because breakfast so importantly to English situation. Even say “B and B” everyone know what thinking about. Breakfast more important than Bed.

I never seeing a breakfast like that. Is big lunch for construction worker! I not believe every morning, my hostel offering everybody this meal, lasting three hours, from 7 clock to 10 clock. Food like messy scrumpled eggs, very salty bacons, burned bread, very thick milk, sweet bean in orange sauce, coffee, tea, milk, juice. Church or temple should be like this, giving the generosity to normal people. But 8:30 in the morning I refuse accepting two oily sausage, whatever it made by pork or by vegetables, is just too fat for a little Chinese.

What is this “baked beans”? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate.

Sitting on breakfast table, my belly is never so full. Still two pieces of bread and several “baked tomatoes” on my plate. I can’t chew more. Feeling guilty and wasty, I take out little Concise ChineseEnglish Dictionary from my pocket, start study English. My language school not starting yet, so I have to learn by myself first. Old Chinese saying: “the stupid bird should fly first before other birds start to fly” ().

When I am studying the word Accommodate, woman come clean table, and tell me I must leave. She must hate me that I eat too much food here. But not my fault.

First morning, I steal white coffee cup from table. Second morning, I steal glass. So now in my room I can having tea or water. After breakfast I steal breads and boiled eggs for lunch, so I don’t spending extra money on food. I even saving bacons for supper. So I saving bit money from my parents and using for cinema or buying books.

Ill–legal. I know. Only in this country three days and I already become thief. I never steal piece of paper in own country. Now I studying hard on English, soon I stealing their language too.

Nobody know my name here. Even they read the spelling of my name: Zhuang Xiao Qiao, they have no idea how saying it. When they see my name starts from “Z,” stop trying. I unpronouncable Ms. Z.

First three days in this country, wherever I walk, the voice from my parents echo my ears:

No talking strangers.”

No talking where you live.”

No talking how much money you have.”

And most important thing: no trusting anybody.”

That my past life. Life before in China. The warns speaking in my mother’s harsh local dialect, of course, translation into English by Concise ChineseEnglish Dictionary.

proper (’prop.er) adj. 1. real or genuine; 2. suited to a particular purpose; 3. correct in behaviour; excessively moral.

properly (’prop.el.li) adv. 1. in a proper way; 2. in the precise sense.


Today my first time taking taxi. How I find important place with bus and tube? Is impossibility. Tube map is like plate of noodles. Bus route is in–understandable. In my home town everyone take cheap taxi, but in London is very expensive and taxi is like the Loyal family look down to me.

Driver say: “Please shut the door properly!”

I already shut the door, but taxi don’t moving.

Driver shout me again: “Shut the door properly!” in a concisely manner.

I am bit scared. I not understanding what is this “properly.”

“I beg your pardon?” I ask. “What is properly?”

“Shut the door properly!” Taxi driver turns around his big head and neck nearly break because of anger.

“But what is ‘properly,’ Sir?” I so frightened that I not daring ask it once more again.

Driver coming out from taxi, and walking to door. I think he going kill me.

He opens door again, smashing it back to me hardly.

“Properly!” he shout.

Later, I go in bookshop and check “properly” in Collins English Dictionary (“THE AUTHORITY ON CURRENT ENGLISH”). Properly means “correct behaviour.” I think of my behaviour with the taxi driver ten minutes ago. Why incorrect? I go to accounter buy little Collins for my pocket.

My small Concise Chinese–English Dictionary not having “properly” meaning. In China we never think of “correct behaviour” because every behaviour correct.

I want write these newly learned words everyday, make my own dictionary. So I learn English fast. I write down here and now, in every second and every minute when I hear a new noise from an English’s mouth.

fog (fog) n. a mass of condensed water vapour in the lower air, often greatly reducing visibility.


“London is the Capital of fog.” It saying in middle school textbook. We studying chapter from Charles Dickens’s novel Foggy City Orphan. Everybody know Oliver Twist living in city with bad fog. Is very popular novel in China.

As soon as I arriving London, I look around the sky but no any fogs. "Excuse me, where I seeing the fogs?" I ask policeman in street.

“Sorry?” he says.

“I waiting two days already, but no fogs,” I say.

He just look at me, he must no understanding of my English.

When I return Nuttington House from my tourism visiting, reception lady tell me: “Very cold today, isn’t it?” But why she tell me? I know this information, and now is too late, because I finish my tourism visiting, and I wet and freezing.

Today I reading not allowed to stay more than one week in hostel. I not understanding hostel’s policy. “Money can buy everything in capitalism country” we told in China. My parents always saying if you have money you can make the devil push your grind stone.

But here you not staying even if you pay. My parents wrong.

I checking all cheap flats on LOOT in Zone 1 and 2 of London and ringing agents. All agents sound like from Arabic countries and all called Ali. Their English no good too. One Ali charges Marble Arch area; one Ali charges Baker Street area. But I meet different Alis at Oxford Circus tube station, and see those houses. I dare not to move in. Places dirty and dim and smelly. How I live there?

London, by appearance, so noble, respectable, but when I follow these Alis, I find London a refuge camp. 

beginner (bi’gin.er) n. a person who has just started learning to do something.


Holborn. First day studying my language school. Very very frustrating.

“My name is Margaret Wilkinson, but please call me Margaret,”my grammar teach tells in front blackboard. But I must give respect, not just call Margaret. I will call Mrs. Margaret.

“What is grammar? Grammar is the study of the mechanics and dynamics of language,” Mrs. Margaret says in the classroom.

I not understanding what she saying. Mrs. Margaret have a neatly cut pale blonde hair, with very serious clothes. Top and her bottom always same colour. She not telling her age, but I guessing she from 31 to 56. She wearing womans style shoes, high heel black leather, very possible her shoes are all made in home town Wen Zhou, by my parents. She should know it, one day I tell her. So she not so proud in front of us.

Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb–change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But, English language is boss of English user.

From the Hardcover edition.
Xiaolu Guo|Author Q&A

About Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo - A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, she published a number of books in China. Since 2002, she has been dividing her time between London and Beijing. She has written and directed award-winning documentaries; her first feature film “How is Your Fish Today” has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival 2007. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, her third novel, is the first one she has written in English.

Author Q&A

Q and A with Xiaolu Guo

Q: What gave you the idea for your new novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers?

The idea really started from the difficulty of communicating as a native Chinese in England. When I arrived in London from Beijing four years ago, everyone laughed at the way I spoke English. I thought that might be a good idea for a book in English, or about British culture.

Q: Why did you choose to tell your story in brief chapters, each chapter beginning with a definition of a word?

The only book I read the first year I came to London was the Oxford edition of English dictionary. I thought my Western mind was shaped by that dictionary — words after words, in a fragmentary and confusing way — that hold the key towards writing this novel.

Q: How long did it take you to write it?

Three years, but at the same time I made three films too.

Q: This is the first novel that you, yourself, have written in English. (Your previous works were translated from Chinese.) Writing in a second-language must have been a huge challenge — how did you overcome the hurdles?

I don't think living in England for four years for a native Chinese like me is enough time to write fluently in English. It is impossible. But with this novel, I made it possible because it is all about speaking broken English from a naive Chinese peasant girl’s point of view. It’s also how people like me speak. So I don't think I can use this word “overcome.” How can I?

Q: You are also a documentary film-maker. Which do you prefer, writing books or making films?

Both. I am a writer first. That is my identity, then I make films, because some stories work well with the visuals —- images and sound.

Q: What do you do when you are not writing or making films? Do you actually have time for anything else!?

When I’m not writing or filming, then I read books and watch films; I also spend lots of time cooking and eating and looking around the world. I travel a lot because of my films. I am kind of free since I manage my own life but I don't really work in a crazy way. I can easily sleep nine hours a day so far, but don’t know if things will carry on like that in the future.

Q: Who is your favorite writer? What are your favorite books?

I could re-read some books I’ve already read in Chinese translation over and over, like J. D. Salinger or Boris Vian's Foam of the Daze or Marguerite Duras or Charles Bukowski. I have been reading The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa as if I’m reading my own diary. I love those old books but I worry that I might never read any new authors for the rest of my life.

Q: Which Chinese writers would you like to see translated into other languages? Do you think the literary world will be more aware of Chinese literature in the years to come?

So many: Zhu Wen, Wang An Yi, Jia Ping Wa, etc. The world will definitely become more aware.

Q: Why do you think that a Chinese writer is “in danger of losing the soul” as s/he enters the global marketplace?

Well, it is a big gap between Chinese culture and Western culture, starting from the difficulty of the Chinese language. Westerners know little about communist China; most stories from China are set a half a century ago or longer. The real China today has developed extremely fast and it is complex. The result is that this has created a great communication desert between the East and the West. I think there is a huge need for more contemporary Chinese literature and art to be introduced in the West so that everything Westerners understand about China and the Chinese is not based only on the bad and outdated concepts/images that are reported by and shown on CNN or BBC.

Q: What are you working on now?

Two films, then the translation of my short story collection, then some crazy novel ideas which jump in front of me every morning when I am fresh.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


"Funny, childlike and wise all at once." —Los Angeles Times“What makes this novel winsome is hearing the authentic voice of a young woman — bewildered, self-deprecating, funny, wise — as she navigates the world on her own.” —USA Today“Endearing. . . . Concise takes us into a new territory, all the more exciting for its virginity.” —Chicago Sun-Times“A fast, breezy read, don't be so easily entertained as to miss the many nuances-beyond the most obvious definitions are deeper, more satisfying meanings.” —San Francisco Chronicle


FINALIST 2007 Orange Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"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.

About the Guide

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.

About the 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.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

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.

  • A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
  • June 10, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $15.95
  • 9780307278401

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