Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
by Lisa See
Random House, 2006
[Challenge #2: A book taking place in Asia]
Of all the books I’ve read in the first half of the year, this is the one that’s stuck with me the most, because it delivered far more than the blurb and cursory glances I gave the inside before I bought it.
It was also one of the rare book club selections that I picked. I had actually bought it some years ago because the premise looked intriguing, but had not picked it up again until I took on this reading challenge.
The back cover copy made me think it was about the story of two women, perhaps lovers, told in a secret Chinese woman’s language, and therefore be short and the style experimental. But in actuality it was an often brutal first person account of a peasant woman’s life in a country village in late 18th century China, before its infiltration by the west. Confucianism and superstition run strong, as well as the barbaric custom of female foot binding.
The narrator, Lily, tells her story in a confessional tone to an unnamed listener. When I read the author’s notes at the end (I was very good in that I did leave them for the end, instead of jumping ahead like I often do) I could see the story was shaped by the author’s experiences in interviewing elderly women like the narrator as research for the book. The author was also intrigued at the concept of a private woman’s language called nu shu, special Chinese characters with less defined meanings than the standard ones, that was used by women and girls to communicate with each other without the fear of men reading them (because men were not schooled in the characters, and, as was said in the book by the narrator, men didn’t stoop to such things.)
The story spans the narrator’s life from a young girl of 6 or 7 up to extreme old age, and the core of it centers around another girl known as Snow Flower, who is chosen by the local marriage broker to be her best friend, her laoshong, or “old same,” a bond close as marriage (“like two mandarin ducks”) for two female best friends. Looking at it objectively, it serves as a woman’s support outside her family, in which she is otherwise closely confined, and provides a necessary social and emotional service. The book follows Lily and Snow Flower as they visit together and learn to communicate in nu shu through characters written on silk and even on the fan of the title. We are also brokered through Chinese customs that to Western sensibilities are hard to swallow, like the painful footbinding of small girls and limited reach of her life, and her ingrained sense of worthlessness as a female through Confucian teachings. Though the hardships are alien, the pain is very real, and gradually, the girls’ lives diverge through betrothal, marriage, and childbirth. Lily’s circumstances become more favorable than her friends’, which leads her, out of religious righteousness, to make some tragic, mistaken choices.
I did enjoy the personal nature of the story, but found the nu shu, while intriguing, was only a small part of it. What I took away mostly was a sense of Jeez, women’s lives in pre-modern China were crap. Over and over in the text the narrator tells us female lives matter only because they provide sons to their husbands and their families; the only hope they have of any agency at all is as their eldest son’s surviving parent. In this hierarchy, the younger female children are the lowest of all — they aren’t even fed as well as males, and are constantly reminded of their uselessness.
Then there’s the issue of footbinding, which is described in graphic yet domestic detail.
I found myself horrified at that part in the book, that active, happy children were made to suffer like that, their freedom to even move taken away from them. Think about it. Even normal household chores, like cooking and tending the kitchen garden, must have been agony for women, and much less efficient, as they stumped around on truncated feet. In a later part of the book the heroine’s family has to flee some invaders and they climb into the mountains to hide; women fall off the cliffs right and left because they can’t keep their balance on the trail.
It’s not really up to me to judge a foreign culture, and one that is long past to boot, but I can’t help feel that the footbinding, traditionally written about as a fashion fad, was really about social control. A populace that cripples half its adult members is so much easier to control than one where able-bodied women also participate in the economy. Even with women doing the grunt labor, the men are free to go to war, or rebel against the rulers. To the book’s credit the footbinding was presented as being how the people of that time really would have seen it, not as a necessary evil, but a custom ingrained so long and so deeply no one can even think to question it, or stop it. (The author in her afterword, compares it to plastic surgery like breast implants, but come on, breast implants don’t hamper a woman’s ability to walk or hold down a job.)
Another thing that struck me about this peasant society, some of whom were wealthier than others, was their extreme self-interest. There was no sense of charity; the less well off, or those who lacked sons to take care of them, simply died. There was no outreach or charity from the other families; that Christian sense of obligation wasn’t there. Social and material exchanges were all tit-for-tat, so many gifts of slippers and clothing requiring a returning gist of the same value, a pig or such. The social system was thus kept in balance, but there was a price.
I found the book beautiful in its language and simplicity, and strange in its depiction of a different way of life. But mostly grim, in that the beauty of all the embroidery done, appreciation of nature, and seasonal celebrations did not make up for the fact these were extremely oppressed women who, by custom, had a hand in oppressing themselves.