Lady Han is a matriarch in Sichuan province during the last years of the Qing dynasty. She has supported the education of her daughter, Iris, and formally adopted Jasmine, the daughter of her trusted maid, A-mei. Life in the Han household is pleasant and comfortable until 1911, and it’s not because of the impending fall of the dynasty.
XH Collins’s debut novel, Flowing Water, Falling Flowers, presents a mystery: what really happened in Sichuan back in 1911 to cause Lady Han’s family to tear apart?
This mystery will be solved a century later, when Lady Han’s descendant, Rose Ming, finds her own life in tatters in Chicago. Born and raised in the United States, Rose has to date only been a visitor in China. She’s met some of the Sichuan relatives, but has never stayed long enough to develop any sort of meaningful connection. Not, that is, until the summer of 2017, when she loses both her tenured job and her long distance relationship. Through a dream, Rose feels singled out to uncover the events that led to her family’s troubles in 1911.
The water in the title refers to the rivers that make up the Sichuan town, Three Rivers, Rose and her mother Lily’s destination. The flowers represent Rose, her mother Lily, along with most of the similary-named women in their family: Peony, Iris, and Daisy.
The narrative flips back and forth between Rose in 2017 and a century or so earlier in the late Qing/early Republican eras, but the earlier setting predominates. And although Collins dips her toe into the paranormal with Rose’s mysterious dream, the story feels more like traditional historical fiction than magical realism.
It’s apparent Collins didn’t need to take a research trip to China for her novel. These are areas she knows in her sleep. For example, in a part of the story that takes place in 1911, Rose’s great-grandmother Iris finds herself outside, thinking about the tragic events that have recently plagued her family.
In front of me was the point where the three rivers came together. In this downpour, I saw a different kind of beauty than I had ever seen before. The rain had connected the sky and the water. It was hard to tell where one began and one ended. The river took all the water that came from the Heavens above and carried everything away. I collapsed on the riverbank, which was in danger of flooding soon.
The year 1911 is a turning point in the story for several reasons, including the evicent historical one. But Collins instead centers her revolutionary scenes in Chengdu at the site of the Sichuan Railway Protection League strike, which ended in a massacre. Although a small but significant part of the book, it tells of the Protection League’s determination to build the railroads with Chinese funds without relying on foreign money. The Wuchang Uprising has been heralded as the start of the 1911 Revolution, and Collins states in her author’s note that this earlier incident in Chengdu made it easier for the revolution to succeed.
Mr. Sun Yat-sen, the Father of modern China, was quoted saying that “… without the rebellion of the Sichuan Railway Protection League, the Wuchang Uprising (the first successful uprising after a series of failures in the Revolution of 1911) would have been delayed.”
Collins’s background in science, namely biology and nutrition, is apparent throughout the story, both in the late Qing/early Republican parts and the modern day. Soon after Rose arrives in Sichuan, she takes note of the way she feels in the morning compared to her routine in Chicago.
I had become accustomed to the light Chinese breakfast: rice porridge, steamed bun, hardboiled egg, a small dish of pickled cabbage or daikon, or a small dish of fermented bean curd. It did more for my energy than my old staple—black coffee and whatever pastry I could grab on my way to work—had ever done.
Flowing Water, Falling Flowers is marketed as a love story, and that’s true. But it also centers around the strong bonds between sisters, cousins, mothers, and grandmothers, regardless of place and time. Most of all, perhaps, it’s a love letter to Collins’s birthplace and the importance it played in Chinese history 110 years ago.