Snow Flower and the secret fan / Lisa See

This month I’m concentrating on “oldies but goodies”, titles not published recently but still very well worth a read.

Snow Flower and the secret fan  is a 2005 novel by Lisa See set in nineteenth-century China. 

It concentrates on the lives of  Chinese women from birth through childhood marriage and old age, focusing on Lily and her best friend Snow Flower from the Hunan province. Lily is from a poor family and needs to marry well for her family’s sake. Snow Flower is from a much wealthier family so Lily is overjoyed to have such a prestigious laotong . In Hunan culture  a female best friend  is assigned to girls when their marriages are arranged, and they are  bonded  together for eternity as “sworn sisters”.  The novel is narrated by an 80 year old Lily, telling the story of their lives from 1824 to the present and bringing  history to life and outlining the reversal of fortunes that occurred for them.

Western readers tend to think of Chinese women simply as victims and focus on such problems as foot binding and arranged marriages, and I have to admit I was appalled the more I learned about foot binding when reading this novel. I didn’t know that so many young girls actually died during the process, and I was shocked that it was the mothers, who had endured so much agony and debilitation as girls themselves, who forced the foot binding on their daughters.

These Chinese women became almost wholly ornamental with their deformed and useless feet and the ornate and impractical clothing they wore. When the revolution came many of these women perished trying to flee over the hills in the winter.

There was another side to the story though, how these women overcame some of their frustrations by finding a voice and a life of their own without flouting their culture’s fundamental values.

Traditionally the women of Hunan were not allowed to learn to read or write, so they  practised in secret a form of writing know as nu shu,  which allowed them to communicate. Missives were passed back and forth in disguise, in this case along the edges of a fan. This language was kept secret from the men for over a thousand years, and when a laotong died her sworn sister always burned all of their correspondence on the funeral pyre, so there are very few extant samples of this language left.

Beautifully written, this novel is as informative as it is moving with fascinating insights of a Chinese culture that has only just disappeared.

There was a movie made of the book in 2011, which we have available in the library  but I found it very disappointing as most of it was set in the present time with the lead female character reflecting back on her grandmother’s life.