- The Water Lily Pond: A Village Girl's Journey in Maoist China
Different from other autobiographies by Chinese women immigrants in the West, Han Li's The Water Lily Pond: A Village Girl's Journey in Maoist China stands out by its recounting of the everyday lives of ordinary villagers at the bottom of society during the turbulent years between the 1960s and early 1980s. Unlike Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), in which the protagonists' lives are entangled with China's political mainstream, mirroring major political trajectories of modern history, and Hong Ying's Daughter of the River (1998), which impresses the reader more as fiction than autobiography with its elaborately detailed descriptions of the protagonist's personal life story, The Water Lily Pond is a memoir of a naïve countryside girl growing to maturity, woven in with the ill fate of peasants, chiefly female, and the people around her.
Nowhere does the story's interest depend on exciting drama. Yet somehow the reader is held by it from beginning to end. The first part of the book is as much about May-ping's childhood and her formative years [End Page 406] as it is about the village people, while the second is about her university education and teaching. Apart from her own life, the narrator draws attention to other women characters, brought to life by being skilfully knitted into May-ping's own story, exposing the age-old tradition of discrimination against women as still a dominant force in Maoist China. May-ping is brought up witnessing her father losing his temper all the time at her mother and learns that her great-grandmother drowned herself because she could not put up with her husband's abuse. Political discrimination imposed yet another yoke on Chinese women. May-ping's best friend Lan-ann commits suicide when forced to marry a man she does not love. She is forced because this way her brother can marry the groom's sister. Since both families belonged to the landlord class, no one else wanted to marry their children. Later, while an English teacher at a medical college in the city Wuhan, May-ping after two painful love experiences finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage. Yet by then the heroine has learned how to fight for her rights as a human being and woman.
The title of the book has a twofold meaning, the place where May-ping grows up, and as a metaphor echoing a classical poem by the Song Dynasty poet Zhou Dunyi, in which he celebrates his preference for the water lily over the 'dazzling' peony and 'alluring' chrysanthemum for its purity and aloofness that mud cannot contaminate. Self-identified with the water lily, the narrator unfolds her life in an environment where the impact of constant political movements entrenches the village's life, while patriarchal tradition has remained intact. Through her innocent eyes, May-ping observes injustice done in the name of the right, stupidity displayed with solemnity, and cruelty dealt out to women as judgment. In order to keep herself distant from the ideological discrimination that prevailed in every corner of society, May-ping learned at a very young age to hide her true feelings to guard herself against political attacks. This also keeps her distant from the craving for power around her, a mania that corrodes the soul. She is lucky to be able to do so because she was born to a 'Poor peasants-Class family,' a class glorified at the time. Ironically, May-ping ' s grandfather had to sell his land to pay for his addiction to opium. Otherwise, May-ping's family would have belonged to the Landlord Class, a class enemy.
Yet her habit of self-protection is reflected in the very style of her narration: calm, unhurried, and restrained. Even when describing her feelings for her secret lover, after he is sent to a labour camp for his outspoken criticism, there is no burst of emotion. After...