A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

a-concise-chinese-english-dictionary-for-loversby Xiaolu Guo

United Kingdom/China. 304 pages. 2006.

Twenty-three-year-old Zhuang, the daughter of shoe factory owners in rural China, has come to London to study English. She calls herself Z because English people can’t pronounce her name, but she’s no better at their language. Set loose to find her way through a confusion of cultural gaffes and grammatical mishaps, she winds up lodging with a Chinese family and thinks she might as well not have left home. But then she meets an English man who changes everything. From the moment he smiles at her, she enters a new world of sex, freedom, and self-discovery. But she also 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.

Drawing on her diaries from when she first arrived in the UK, Xiaolu Guo winningly writes the story in steadily improving English grammar and vocabulary. Freshly humorous, sexy, and poignant, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is an utterly original novel about language, identity, and the cultural divide.

About the author

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese novelist and filmmaker, who uses film and literary language to explore themes of alienation, memory, personal journeys, daily tragedies and develops her own vision of China’s past and its future in a global environment.Xiaolu Guo

She 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 including The Concrete Revolution. Her first feature film, How Is Your Fish Today?, was screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 International Women’s Film Festival. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, her third novel, is the first book she has written directly in English; it was short-listed for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction.


  1. A great idea, but I found the book pretty unsatisfying beyond the gimmick. It’s a fast read, cute and would be an okay YA (young adult) book except for some overly explicit sex…and I am pretty tolerant in what I consider manageable for that group.

    Having taught English to university freshmen in China (Harbin) in 2000, the narrator’s voice is also surprisingly not credible as to how I know Chinese English learners. Her vocabulary was jolting to me, sometimes much behind and sometimes much ahead of what she would know from standard English classes.

    Booker Tea’s reading list is almost always literature. This is far from literature, although it brought a lively discussion to our Berlin group last night. So even with a rather shallow central woman character (in any culture) we were able to discuss what is a cultural difference and what is universal. Maybe that’s the point of a book like this.

  2. Hi,
    for some reason we all missed out on the fact that her visa limited the time of her relationship, a fact that was known to both persons in the relationship.Or did I miss this part of the discussion? I think it fits nicely into the character of the guy that he chose a partner with a big “best-before” date attached to her. But I’m not sure if I understand why she stayed so long after the relation went bitter, well knowing that her time would be up soon… What was her gain in this? I don’t think she was hoping to marry the guy.


  3. Hi, I very much enjoyed this quick and easy read (read it in three days). In particular, I was impressed with the way the narrator’s English improved throughout the novel- how it read smoother with each page/ month that went by.
    Sorry I missed the meeting. I would have liked to have heard other people’s views on why she stayed with him for so long. Does anyone know if there are any parallels to the author’s biography?
    The end left me feeling a bit blue. Having said that, I would still recommend the book.

  4. Despite its limitations, I enjoyed the voice and felt sympathy and even empathy for the narrator. I did look forward to picking it up again to see what would happen, though obviously it wasn’t going to be good as far as the relationship goes. Although the book is billed as exploring cultural divisions, it really doesn’t do much of that. It is a coming-of-age story, a doomed love story, and a fairly slight one in the end. I would not particularly recommend it, even though I enjoyed it to some extent. It was ultimately more lightweight than I’d hoped.

  5. The author is also a screenwriter, and I was struck by how much the book “read” like a film: scenes cutting from one dictionary word to the next, also the way people suddenly appeared or disappeared from the story. Were all the people she got to know guys? Well, no, not from the description of her birthday party… In a film you can have one shot of her classroom, even w/o explicit interaction between her and another student, and that shot presents the possibility that she has interactions with these people offscreen. In a novel, though, the author can mention a classroom but you don’t see the other students in the same way and without an explicit scene there’s a gap there, not a possibility… All to say I thought her film experience shaped the writing of this book, sometimes in interesting ways, but on the whole, unsuccessfully.

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