With Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See has allowed us a window into the secluded world of women’s rooms in rural China in the 1800s. The central characters of this heart-felt and ultimately heart-wrenching tale are Lily, the daughter of a farmer; and her laotong (lifelong emotional partner), Snow Flower. The two communicate using special writing unique to women, called nu shu.
Their friendship deepens throughout their childhood and adolescence, but before Snow Flower’s marriage, Lily discovers something shocking about Snow Flower’s circumstances that causes her to mistrust her friend. Nevertheless, as they grow older and become mothers, Lily believes that she is continuing to be a true friend to Snow Flower, upholding the laotong vows they made to each other as children. However, Lily discovers the truth about Snow Flower only after a break in their friendship. Lily tells the story from the perspective of old age, looking back over her life, which allows her to reveal her actions and thoughts at the moment, as well as reflect upon her assumptions from the perspective of many years.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is told from within the culture. There is no Western-influenced judgment against traditional practices such as footbinding or the preference for sons. The women’s lives are depicted honestly through the lens of their cultural value system. Thus, while Lily admits that her footbinding was excruciatingly painful, and mourns when her younger sister dies from infection due to the practice, she does not hesistate to subject her own daughter to the process. The reality at that time made small feet one of the few ways for a woman to gain status and prosperity.
The rich daily-life details of the novel bring alive the milieu in which these women live: the feeling of riding in a cramped palanquin; the specific way that long strips of cloth are wrapped to bind a foot; the taste and texture of candied taro cubes, a favorite treat for Lily and Snow Flower. Traditional stories, poems, and songs are woven throughout to illustrate the social values these women aspired to and had to live within. The novel features a wide variety of women characters: business-minded matchmakers; a soft-hearted aunt; a strong-willed mother; and compassionate friends.
A movie based on the book was released in 2011. The image above is from the movie poster. For more information about the setting and culture of the book, check out Lisa See’s page, Inside Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Although Lisa See does not look Chinese, she is in fact part Chinese and spent much time during her childhood in the home of her father’s family in Los Angeles Chinatown. Her Chinese-American family is chronicled in her fascinating book, On Gold Mountain.