Book Quote:

“Sons are the foundation of a woman’s self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value. They create a link between her husband and his ancestors. This is one accomplishment a man cannot achieve without the aid of his wife. Only she can guarantee the perpetuation of the family line, which, in turn, is the ultimate duty of every son. This is the supreme way he completes his filial duty, while sons are a woman’s crowning glory. I had all this and I was ecstatic.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (MAY 26, 2009)

Snow Flower and The Secret Fan is an epic tale which chronicles the lives of two Chinese women, Lily and Snow Flower. Set in a remote area of Hunan Province, Lily was born in 1823, “on the fifth day of the sixth month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign.” During her lifetime, Lily lives through the reigns of four emperors. Most Chinese girls had their feet bound and spent their lives in seclusion in nineteenth century China. Isolated and illiterate, they were not expected to think or to express emotions. They were expected to bear sons. However, the fortunate women living in Hunan villages of the Jian-yong region were exempt from some of this harsh oppression. They were taught to write a special women’s language and they were allowed, on occasion, to form special friendships.

This deeply affecting novel begins with Lily, an eighty-eight year-old woman, and our narrator, who looks back over her life with bitterness and regret. She is haunted by memories of the past, by actions and events she cannot change. And she remembers, above all else, her laotong friend Snow Flower. “This special relationship formed by two girls, is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose — to have sons.” Often “this special friendship would be formed through an intermediary, like a matchmaker, much like an arranged marriage. Women of suitable birthdays, ages, backgrounds and birth-signs would be paired this way in a bond of exclusive sisterhood that would last a lifetime and would survive marriage, child-birth and widow-hood. A laotong relationship would be rarely renounced or broken.”

The people in Lily’s village now call the venerable woman, “one who has not yet died.” For her entire life she longed for love, although as a girl and later as a woman, she knew it was not right to expect it. As a third child, a second worthless girl, her mother looked upon her as a temporary visitor who was just another mouth to feed, another body to dress, until she went to her husband’s home.

At the age of six, Lily never dreamed of sharing a laotong relationship. But one day, the town’s foremost matchmaker, Madame Wang, visits Lily’s family and seeks to examine the child, primarily inspecting her yet unbound feet. Madame proclaims that Lily’s feet are not developed enough to be bound at this time. “The girl is indeed very lovely but golden lilies are far more important in life than a pretty face. A lovely face is a gift from heaven, but tiny feet can improve social standing.” She suggests that Lily’s mother and aunt do their best to educate the girl in traditional ways. If she learns well, she might be eligible to marry into a well born family in the village of Tongkou. Madame Wang also speculates that Lily may be eligible for a laotong relationship.

During the next year, Lily is taught the two Confucian ideals which govern a woman’s life. The first is the “Three Obediences: when a girl obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow obey your son.” The second is the Four Virtues: ” Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” Most importantly, Lily’s aunt taught her the secret women’s writing Nu Shu. Believing women to be inferior, men disregarded this new script, and it remained unknown for centuries. Nu Shu, which is Chinese for “women’s writing,” was once written and sung by many of the women in Hunan villages.

When Lily turns seven, it is time to bind her feet, a symbol for the subjugation of women in China. A perfect foot should be shaped like a perfect lotus bud and be no longer that the length of a thumb. This perfection is called the Golden Lotus. “Every pair of small feet costs a bath (kang) of tears.” It is at this time that Madame Wang returns and tells the family that she has found a well-matched laotong relationship for the girl. Lily and Snow Flower are seemingly alike in all ways. The most important relationship in the girls’ lives is about to begin and they are only seven years-old. Snow Flower has composed a poem of introduction for Lily, in Nu Shu, written within the tiny folds of a silk fan. Their friendship is sealed and they become “old sames.”

As years pass, through arranged marriage, childbirth, war, rebellion, famine, drought, loneliness and suffering, the bond between the two becomes stronger and they find happiness and solace in each other. Lily is blessed by good fortune. Snow Flower is not. Their friendship of over 30 years takes a turn for the worse. Although both friends are born under the sign of the horse, they are really quite different in spirit and in circumstances, and these differences become more marked by age and fate. Lily is practical and very traditional. It is easier for her to accept her subservient role, given her good fortune with a husband and many sons. Eventually her position is elevated to “Lady Lu,” a respected community leader. However, she becomes limited in her ability to love Snow Flower. She can love her laotong “as a man would, valuing her only for following men’s rules.” Snow Flower, on the other hand, is a “horse with wings” who attempts to fly over life’s constrictions. Now Lily laments that she didn’t understand that “the bold horse of Snow Flower’s childhood had been broken in spirit” by so much oppression. Lily was “stubborn enough to believe she could fix a horse that has gone lame.”

I have read all of Lisa See’s novels and this is one of my favorites. I was really moved by the story of these two women and by their fortitude living in such a terribly repressive, misogynistic environment.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 753 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 26, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

Our review of  SHANGHAI GIRLS


Red Princess Mystery Series


May 26, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: China, Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.