Like Spilled Water

Like Spilled Water by Jennie Liu, to be published on 1 September, 2020.

Split water is a reference in Chinese, just as other people’s gardens is in Indian, to daughters. Daughters are suffered rather than wanted as, when they marry, they cease to be part of their own family, and become part of the husband’s. Investment is only worthwhile in as much as bride price (dowry) warrants it.

Under China’s one-child policy, this has only become worse. Those whose first child is a daughter are permitted to try a second time for a son, but those who have a son first, do not get a second try for a daughter. And, to make up for China’s low birthrate, women are encouraged to marry and bear children early.

Na is one such young woman. After her brother, Baobao, was born, her parents concentrated all the family resources on him. They moved from the countryside to the city to earn more money to prepare Baobao for the gaokao exams that will earn him a place in college; they leave Na at home in the countryside, though she is bright enough to earn a scholarship at a third-tier college.

The book opens at the end of her first year, when she receives a call summoning her home: Baobao has died by his own hand. The pressure of the exams was too much and, like many other students, his shame was such that he was unable to face his own parents when he scraped through the exam with an indifferent result.

Because she was left in the countryside to be raised by her grandmother, Na scarcely knew her brother. His death is a source of sadness, not grief. But, as she goes to the city to support her parents, the effect on her own life becomes more and more pronounced: her parents borrowed heavily to support Baobao through his studies, and Na must now abandon her own studies and work, to help her parents pay back the debt.

It’s not only the money. She comes under pressure to marry, in part to remove the split water from her own family, and in part to gain the bride money to help with the debt. Yet, just as her options become more and more limited, help arrives in the form of her late brother’s friend Min, who opens Na’s eyes to Baobao’s own life – not the one that Na’s parents told Na about – and to her own potential as a person.

I live in Hong Kong and have been visiting China since the mid-1980s. The one-child policy, the gaokao exams, and the system by which those who live outside the main metropolises are second-rate citizens are factors I was aware of; just how toxic the combination is, was something that this book opened my eyes to. Throw in the sexism that is resurgent under the current leadership in China, and the plight of women is bad.

Yet the novel is more than a fictionalised commentary on contemporary Chinese society. The characters are clearly depicted; the sense of place is strong, with, for example, Na’s phlegmatic acceptance of the pollution in the big city contrasting with the clear air of her countryside home. The grinding monotony of scraping together a living from hard labour for minimal reward and little prospect of a better future is subtle, but all the more powerful for it.

The only shortcoming is the writing itself, which at times lacks a certain zest; I’m not always quite in the moment with Na. But having said that, I finished the book in two sessions, and would read it again. A simple story, well-told, and set against a fascinating milieu. Well worth the read.