Snow Flower & The Secret Fan

Snow Flower & The Secret Fan 

com­ments by Thor May

When Wendi Deng from China mag­i­cally fell into the pan-national world of inter­na­tional busi­ness and mar­ried the media bil­lion­aire Rupert Mur­doch, (who had aban­doned Aus­tralia for the same state­less realm of five star hotels), at once we rec­og­nized that age old story of the gold dig­ger and the sugar daddy. Per­haps though our belief in a sim­ple sto­ry­line was, if not wrong, at least incom­plete. Ori­gins mat­ter after all.

As a teacher to young women in Zhengzhou, cen­tral China for three years recently, I could sense the con­flict­ing cur­rents of duty, ambi­tion and the hope for love that tossed them about in rela­tion­ships. The mix for each mod­ern girl was indi­vid­ual, and Deng her­self is a pro­duct of those choices. It is surely no acci­dent then that Wendi Deng and another high pro­file Chi­nese-Amer­i­can trans­plant, Flo­rence Sloan, were co-pro­duc­ers of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a film which deals directly, though often through a veil of tears, with just these dilem­mas.

The film is a fairly free adap­ta­tion of Lisa See’s now widely praised novel of the same name. What fol­lows here are some per­sonal reac­tions to the film, plus a few ref­er­ences to the book, which I have not read yet (some pub­lished reviews about the book are pasted at the end of these notes). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a film about rela­tion­ships between women. It also high­lights the con­flict between fem­i­nine friend­ship and how each woman deals with the men in her life. Partly because of the Chi­nese his­tor­i­cal con­text, the dimen­sion of affec­tion between men and women gets lit­tle atten­tion in the film, which makes a jar­ring con­trast with the world many of us like to think we live in today (even if we are deluded). How­ever, the film’s direc­tor, Wayne Wang, has done a mas­ter­ful job of bring­ing to life the rela­tion­ships between two pairs of women. The first pair, Snow Flower (Korean actress, Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bing Bing), were both born in 1823 and tied into a life­long fem­i­nine sworn bond called lau tong, which may have been more emo­tional and stronger than the man-woman con­tract of mar­riage in 19th Cen­tury Qing China. The sec­ond pair are two young and ambi­tious women in today’s Shang­hai, Sophia and Nina, equally enmeshed in a life­long but tem­pes­tu­ous bond of friend­ship.

The novel itself has no mod­ern Chi­nese female char­ac­ters, only Qing women, but is appar­ently rich in descrip­tion of late Qing dynasty life, cus­toms and rela­tion­ships. The film makes a cred­i­ble attempt at Qing imagery, but like any film hardly has time or space to explore his­tory in depth. The film plays to cin­e­matic strengths of prob­ing human rela­tion­ships, or rather female rela­tion­ships. The hand­ful of men who appear in cameo roles have lit­tle depth.

Some Amer­i­can review­ers have picked up on the poor treat­ment of men. Oth­ers have dis­liked the intru­sion of a mod­ern sto­ry­line at all. How­ever, review­ers (includ­ing this one) always really say more about their own lim­i­ta­tions of back­ground than about the novel or film as art and fact. For exam­ple, there are some impor­tant role rever­sals between the novel and film char­ac­ters which no reviewer noticed, but which I have tried to out­line in a table at the end of these notes. Per­son­ally I found the film version’s attempt to explore both rela­tion­ship and cul­ture clashes it’s most inter­est­ing fea­ture.

Both the novel and the film empha­size that the life of a Qing dynasty Chi­nese woman was a mis­er­able expe­ri­ence. The women’s feet were crushed in child­hood to make sup­pos­edly sexy “lotus flow­ers” – surely one of the most per­verted abuses of beauty in human cul­tural his­tory, and the mark of a sick soci­ety. Offi­cially, male-female rela­tion­ships within mar­riage were purely for pro­duc­ing sons, rigidly for­mal, and expected to be love­less. Per­haps we need to be cau­tious about assum­ing that this was true in every case though. For exam­ple, the West­ern stereo­type of veiled Mus­lim women today is rather sim­i­lar, but many such women do have warm and inti­mate friend­ships with their hus­bands in pri­vate. In the film in fact, Snow Flower’s hus­band is a rough, even brutish butcher who beats her when their son freezes to death in a snow storm. Nev­er­the­less, she under­stands his tor­ment and puts her love for him before her loy­alty to her fem­i­nine lau­tong, Lily.

The clois­tered and closed life of women in neo-Con­fu­cian China forced these women to find unique ways to express them­selves. One out­come (only in Hunan province, from per­haps around 900 AD to the end of the 19th Cen­tury) was nu shu, a secret women’s writ­ten lan­guage, and this is a crit­i­cal ele­ment in the story. Snow Flower and Lily send mes­sages to each other in this lan­guage, writ­ten on fans and, a nice touch, in the rhyming cou­plets of Chi­nese poetry.

Some idea of the main plot ele­ments can be seen from the table below, and it is not my inten­tion to retell the story. How­ever, this is a tale of many lay­ers, and here are a few ele­ments that piqued my inter­est.

1. It has become fash­ion­able amongst some main­land Chi­nese to try to bring back Con­fu­cian val­ues as a key to cul­tural sur­vival. This is partly because many of the present rul­ing class of Chi­nese Com­mu­nists have turned out to be a spir­i­tu­ally hol­low men, utterly cor­rupt and lit­tle more than agents for fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship (often clones in fact of the Kuom­intang and war­lords they replaced in 1949). How­ever it is not obvi­ous that Con­fu­cian prac­tice is the way of the future. The orig­i­nal philoso­pher, Con­fu­cius, surely had some excel­lent ideas, espe­cially for his period, but the social per­ver­sions that were built by schem­ing politi­cians in his name in later cen­turies finally par­a­lyzed Chi­nese soci­ety. Books like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan are a pow­er­ful warn­ing against sen­ti­men­tal retreats into an imag­i­nary golden past.

2. The bonds between female friends are directly chal­lenged by male-female rela­tion­ships in every cul­ture. The solu­tions vary greatly, and some­times become very strict, even deadly rules of behav­iour, as in Qing China, Chosun Korea, or some con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim cul­tures. The truth is that both women and men come in many dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity types. Some cul­tures are sym­pa­thetic to par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship pref­er­ences, but not to oth­ers. In the film for exam­ple, it is clear that both the Qing woman, Snow Flower, and mod­ern Sophia are instinc­tively more com­fort­able and roman­tic around men than the cooler Qing lady, Lily, and mod­ern Nina. Yet Snow Flower and Sophia are also emo­tion­ally bound to Lily and Nina, no mat­ter how much they strug­gle to be free. In the end, for these women, the fem­i­nine rela­tion­ships are the most impor­tant. This is a sense I also had of many of the 20 year old nurs­ing stu­dents I was teach­ing in Zhengzhou so recently.

3. The film is bilin­gual between Eng­lish and (stan­dard) Chi­nese. Some review­ers com­plained about this, but I think it per­fectly cap­tures the dilem­mas of work­ing across cul­tures, whether male-female worlds, or bridg­ing national and inter­na­tional cul­tures (as exam­pled by Wendi Deng). In the film itself, mod­ern Sophia comes as a child from Korea to China. For that mat­ter, the Qing China of the 19th Cen­tury was in many ways less homo­ge­neous than mod­ern China, frac­tured by a mul­ti­tude of sub-cul­tures and lan­guages. Mao Zedong him­self was also a native of cen­tral China’s Hunan province, briefly trapped in an arranged mar­riage at the age of 14, and with a rural accent so thick that he was barely under­stood in the more cos­mopoli­tan cities of Shang­hai and Bei­jing. Thus all lan­guage is at once a facil­i­ta­tor and a bar­rier. The secret women’s lan­guage, Nu Shu makes rela­tion­ships pos­si­ble at all, yet for Snow Flower and Lily, as their Nu Shu is trans­ported spar­ingly on fans in rhyming cou­plets (like the SMS of their day), it is also the mes­sen­ger of con­fu­sion, betrayal and rejec­tion.

4. The film alludes briefly to the wrench­ing death throes of the Qing dynasty, notably the so-called Taip­ing Rebel­lion which cost an enor­mous 20 mil­lion lives. The novel appar­ently describes this hor­ror in some detail. Amid such cat­a­stro­phe, com­pounded by epi­demics of dis­ease like typhoid, we would expect per­sonal for­tunes to be smashed as “col­lat­eral dam­age”, and so it is with Snow Flower and Lily. On the face of it, Sophia and Nina, bask­ing in the glo­ries of resur­gent Chi­nese neo-cap­i­tal­ism, should expect a hap­pier fate. Yet it is not to be. Here per­haps is another layer of the story. What­ever the social and polit­i­cal sys­tems of the day, peo­ple some­how still man­age to make their own hap­pi­ness and mis­ery.

5. Choos­ing one lover before another, or one kind of love before another kind of love is a theme for much of the world’s great lit­er­a­ture. Often enough, it is also the drama in our own lives, lived bravely or with lies, or in timid denial – an ulti­mate test of char­ac­ter. We might feel remote from the bar­barous choices that 19th Cen­tury Qing China inflicted on love, yet (for exam­ple) Oscar Wilde, impris­oned as a homo­sex­ual in 19th Cen­tury Britain, put a sim­i­lar choice with stark clar­ity in his Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol :

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bit­ter look,
Some with a flat­ter­ing word,
The cow­ard does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!



nüshu  – a secret, syl­labic writ­ing sys­tem used among women only in Hunan, China no ear­lier than about 900 AD, but most used from the 13th Cen­tury to the end of the 19th Cen­tury –

lau tong  – a sworn and for­mal bond of friend­ship and loy­alty between two women, often arranged in child­hood by some­one like a for­tune teller. The lau tong rela­tion­ship was more rare, though stronger than lau tang, or sis­ter­hood pacts often formed amongst female friends. See also

See, Lisa (2005 ) Snow Flower and the Secret Fan . Novel pub­lished in New York: Ran­dom House. See also

Wang, Wayne (direc­tor, July 2011) Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the film. Lead actresses, Gianna Jun (Korea) and Li Bing Bing. See also

Wilde, Oscar (1897) The Bal­lad of Read­ing Gaol. Online at


Snow Flower & The Secret Fan – plot out­line

The film flashes between two mod­ern women and two women in the 19th Cen­tury


The Film – 21st Cen­tury Shang­hai 19th Cen­tury

Hunan (Film flash-back)


Snow Flower Sophia

Lily  Nina

Snow Flower


Well off fam­ily from Korea; close rela­tion­ship with stock investor father; hor­ri­ble snob mother who tries to for­bid friend­ship with Lily

Low mid­dle class par­ents but speak Eng­lish in Shang­hai. Tol­er­ant and bal­anced

From a respectable town fam­ily. No vis­i­ble emo­tional rela­tion­ship between the men and women. Women are prop­erty and men’s toys.

From an ordi­nary farm­ing fam­ily. Strictly Con­fu­cian rela­tion­ships, but warmer towards mother than father. Life is very prac­ti­cal – e.g. cook­ing & clean­ing

Emo­tion­ally rest­less teenager. Father dies when the fam­ily for­tune is lost on the stock exchange. The fam­ily becomes reduced to poverty

Fakes exam for Snow Flower, then pun­ished by the school for 3 years. Mother says she has ruined the fam­ily.

Has feet bound at age 6–7. Lily and Snow Flower are brought together by a for­tune teller and raised in iso­la­tion as Lao Tong (sworn friends). They com­mu­ni­cate on fans in the secret woman’s writ­ing of Nu Shu

Has feet bound at age 6–7. Lily has per­fect “lotus petal” feet, and so is mar­ried to a young mer­chant. When the fam­ily elders die of typhoid, she becomes the rich lady of the house

Returns the fan” ; that is, spurns Nina’s help because she is con­sumed by guilt over shame and emo­tional debt to Lily. Also, she is more drawn to real “man-woman” love than Lily

Becomes a suc­cess­ful busi­ness women, “mar­ried to the com­pany”. Thus she is child­less, appar­ently reject­ing the tra­di­tional idea of a woman’s role to have sons.

Snow Flower is mar­ried to a butcher (the low­est occu­pa­tion) and her life is rough. When the Taip­ing rebels come they flee to the moun­tains where her son dies of cold. He hus­band beats her for the loss of his son, but there is a kind of affec­tion in the rela­tion­ship and she loves him.

Lily is vis­it­ing Snow Flower when the Taip­ing rebels come and has to flee tem­porar­ily to the moun­tains. Lily can­not really under­stand the bond between Lily and her rough hus­band. She offers to take Snow Flower back to town life.

Is writ­ing a book about Nu Shu and Lao Tong.


Snow Flower chooses her fam­ily and man-woman lover over her Lao Tong love of Lily. She asks a ser­vant to destroy the fan, and pre­tends to have a sis­terly rela­tion­ship with vil­lage women.

Finally, when Snow Flower is dying, the ser­vant brings the fan (she didn’t destroy it) to Lily and the two women are rec­on­ciled.

Mar­ries an Aus­tralian singer, against Lily’s advice, and emi­grates; loses child and returns to Shang­hai depressed

Torn between a career oppor­tu­nity in New York, or remain­ing with her Chi­nese roots in Shang­hai


Unsuc­cess­fully tries to phone Lily


Is crit­i­cally injured in a bicy­cle acci­dent; in coma

Even­tu­ally rejects trans­fer to New York to remain with crit­i­cally injured Snow Flower. That is, she finally chooses “woman-woman” bond­ing ahead of a man’s world



19th Cen­tury China recalled by Lily as an 80 year old woman

the Novel

Snow Flower


From a respectable town fam­ily. No vis­i­ble emo­tional rela­tion­ship between the men and women. Women are prop­erty and men’s toys. From an ordi­nary farm­ing fam­ily. Strictly Con­fu­cian rela­tion­ships. Life is very prac­ti­cal – e.g. cook­ing & clean­ing
Has feet bound at age 6–7. Lily and Snow Flower are brought together and raised in iso­la­tion as Lao Tong. They com­mu­ni­cate on fans in the secret woman’s writ­ing of Nu Shu Has feet bound at age 6–7. Lily has per­fect “lotus petal” feet, and so is mar­ried to a rich mer­chant with whom she has four healthy chil­dren
Snow Flower’s fam­ily is ruined in the Taip­ing Rebel­lion (killed 20 mil­lion peo­ple) and has to flee to the moun­tains where her son dies Lily, in her role of merchant’s wife is “suc­cess­ful” but hurts many less lucky peo­ple.
  Over a mis­un­der­stood mean­ing in Nu Shu on the fan, she rejects Snow Flower, and (appar­ently) dam­ages her rep­u­ta­tion by reveal­ing secrets. She returns the fan
  As an old woman Lily real­izes that the most impor­tant love in her life was Snow Flower


Pub­lished reviews of the Novel (please go to the orig­i­nal sources for up-to-date reviews)


From the San Diego Union Tri­bune:

Unfold­ing Secrets: An old woman’s mem­oirs reveal a cul­ture wrapped in a story

By Julie Brick­man

Noth­ing is as riv­et­ing as a story that informs as it charms: What do we read for, if not to live alter­nate lives and learn about extra­or­di­nary set­tings? Lisa See’s new novel, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” takes us into remote 19th-cen­tury China, where girls had their feet bound – mean­ing crushed to the size of lily flow­ers – in a rit­ual of beauty that started at age 6 and took two full years to com­plete. From foot-bind­ing onward, girls and women lived secluded in a sec­ond-story cham­ber of their house­hold, because ” … the dif­fer­ence between nei – the inner realm of the home – and wei – the outer realm of men – lay at the very heart of Con­fu­cian soci­ety.”

At 80, the nar­ra­tor, Lily, is the senior woman of a wealthy house­hold, pow­er­ful enough that she can speak her mind about her life’s trea­sures and errors. Born in 1823 in the Hunan province, Lily started off as “a sec­ond worth­less girl” in a poor farm­ing fam­ily. Because her feet were high in the arch and poten­tially breath­tak­ing, she had the poten­tial to marry well and ele­vate the sta­tus of her fam­ily. She could also enter a sec­ond for­mal match, to another woman, a life­time best friend called a sworn sis­ter or lao­tong.

A lao­tong match is as sig­nif­i­cant as a good mar­riage,” Lily’s aunt explained. “A lao­tong rela­tion­ship 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.” “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is the story of such a friend­ship.

Snow Flower becomes Lily’s sworn sis­ter, or “old same,” mean­ing per­fect match. Snow Flower is from a high fam­ily in a pres­ti­gious neigh­bor­ing town, her grand­fa­ther an impe­rial scholar. She can teach Lily the social rit­u­als of impor­tant fam­i­lies. Lily can teach her the hum­ble arts of cook­ing and clean­ing.

Rural, 19th-cen­tury China was a cul­ture in which edu­ca­tion and schol­ar­ship was lim­ited to the male elite. Secluded from age 7 until death, “mar­ried out” into a husband’s fam­ily, where they remained abject in stature and sub­servient to their husband’s mother unless they had sons, women were iso­lated from any­one who cared about them per­son­ally. What they said and how they com­mu­ni­cated was rigidly for­mal­ized, learn­ing the cal­lig­ra­phy of men was pro­hib­ited, so they devel­oped a secret writ­ing called nu shu. Only in nu shu and only to each other could they write or speak from the heart.

The first com­mu­ni­ca­tion between Snow Flower and Lily was inscribed on a fan in the code of nu shu. The secret fan became the jour­nal of their lives.

That fan guides Lily as she records her mem­oirs. Because she is old and times have changed, she fil­ters her mem­o­ries through the late-life aware­ness of what mat­tered and what didn’t. And what mat­tered most of all was the friend­ship with Snow Flower.

This is a stun­ning setup for describ­ing a cul­ture inside a story, and Lisa See takes full advan­tage of it. On every page, she pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing details of the lives of women in China. (“Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”) The par­tic­u­lars sug­gest that the inden­ture and con­fine­ment of women by men started in the Far East and trav­eled west across India to the Mid­dle East, where it appears daily in the dark cur­tains of cloth women wear to pre­vent them­selves from being vis­i­ble par­tic­i­pants in the pub­lic arena of men.

Lisa See is the author of four pre­vi­ous books, a mem­oir that recon­structs four gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can her­itage called “On Gold Moun­tain” and three mys­tery nov­els set in China. The deft weave of fact and fic­tion stands out as her sig­na­ture strength: All her books probe themes like archae­o­log­i­cal theft, the smug­gling of undoc­u­mented immi­grants, sweat­shop labor.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” con­tains such an unex­pur­gated descrip­tion of the tor­tures of foot bind­ing and the mis­eries of walk­ing on tiny, folded feet that I looked up pic­tures of bound feet on the Web. To my hor­ror, I dis­cov­ered that they look exactly like high-heeled shoes. That is the bril­liance of the light See shi­nes between cul­tures.

Julie Brick­man is on the fic­tion fac­ulty of the brief-res­i­dency Mas­ter of Fine Arts in Writ­ing Pro­gram at Spald­ing Uni­ver­sity in Louisville, Ky. She lives in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.


From the Cleve­land Plain Dealer

Loy­alty and love abide in a cul­ture that crip­ples girls
By K Long, Book Edi­tor

When our nar­ra­tor Lily is 6 years old, her mother strikes her hard across the face, a slap for good luck and to ward off evil spir­its on the cusp of Lily’s foot bind­ing.

Although my face stung, inside I was happy,” she tells us. “That slap was the first time Mama had shown me her mother love, and I had to bite my lips to keep from smil­ing.”

Appalled, I was also thor­oughly hooked. It is a mea­sure of author Lisa See’s craft that by the time a grown Lily slaps her own daugh­ter, Jade, we no longer reg­is­ter sur­prise. The reader has learned enough about the ways of women in provin­cial 19th-cen­tury China to antic­i­pate the blow.

In her fourth book, See has tri­umphed, writ­ing an achingly beau­ti­ful, under­stated and absorbing story of love. The love is between Lily and Snow Flower, her lao­tong, a match with another girl that Chi­nese fam­i­lies once con­sid­ered as sig­nif­i­cant as a good mar­riage. Lao­tong means “old same” and served as a des­ig­nated soul mate to help each woman nav­i­gate a life of sor­row, pain and con­fine­ment.

All three con­verge in foot bind­ing, a four-year ordeal that Lily describes as the novel begins in a straight­for­ward, step-by-step fash­ion. It sears a reader to know that the toes finally break and rat­tle loose in the bind­ings, that moth­ers deform their daugh­ters’ feet to achieve “golden lilies,” dumpling-sized feet con­sid­ered highly desir­able and highly erotic.

The child of a poor farmer, Lily car­ries on her crip­pled feet the prospect of mar­riage into a bet­ter life – and there­fore the sur­vival of her extended fam­ily.

Snow Flower and the Se cret Fan” is so rich in psy­chol ogy, fem­i­nine high stakes and mar­i­tal intrigue that it evokes the work of Jane Austen. The war­ring match­mak­ers are mar­velous char­ac­ters, and the story made me recall the girl clos­est to my own lao­tong. See’s novel con­tains all the ele­ments – joy, knowl­edge, betrayal, erot­ica – that give female friends a power over each other that hus­bands can­not match.

Lily tells her story chrono­log­i­cally, intro­duc­ing her­self in old age: “I am what they call in our vil­lage ‘one who has not yet died’ – a widow, eighty years old.” See’s writ­ing calls as lit­tle atten­tion to itself as Lily’s plain, for­mal voice, but both accu­mu­late in power. The reader picks up vocab­u­lary from con­text and ten­sion from Lily’s forth­right dis­clo­sure that much will go wrong.

This novel has none of the over­ripe, oper­atic tone of “The Joy Luck Club.” See forms her char­ac­ters as sub­tly as strokes of cal­lig­ra­phy. Typhoid and a polit­i­cal upris­ing move the plot, but so does the Chi­nese insis­tence on sons, which sat­u­rates every page of this book and every day of these women’s lives. Because they were con­fined to upstairs cham­bers in their fathers’ homes, then their hus­bands’, Lily and Snow Flower must find a way to cul­ti­vate their bond.

The pair write on a secret fan in Nu Shu, a 1,000-year-old lan­guage thought to be the only one ever invented and sus­tained for the exclu­sive use of women. See tells us in her end note that Nu Shu obsessed her, that she trav­eled from her Los Ange­les home to the Chi­nese province of Jiangy­ong to meet sur­viv­ing prac­ti­tion­ers. Here she found the remark­able, tucked-away town of Tongkou, in which she set her novel.

Last year, Ann Patch­ett gar­nered a lot of favor­able atten­tion for her depic­tion of female friend­ship in the mem­oir “Truth and Beauty.” That book pales to near-insignif­i­cance next to the truth and beauty in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.”

It moved me to tears of recog­ni­tion.


From the Bal­ti­more Sun:

Secrets, mis­ery in a Chi­nese woman’s tale
By Vic­to­ria A. Brown­worth

From its under­stated open­ing pas­sage titled “Sit­ting Qui­etly,” through to its extra­or­di­nary fin­ish, Lisa See’s lat­est novel cap­ti­vates.

Phrases like “breath­tak­ing” are used so often to describe what is usu­ally dreary prose, deaf to nuance, that one comes to ignore such mod­i­fiers as mere hyper­bole crafted by pub­li­cists. Not so with See’s novel, which is, by any descrip­tion, breath­tak­ing in its most lit­eral sense: For much of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you hold your breath, feel­ing as if the wind has been knocked out of you, or as if you are drown­ing.

In 1832, in China’s Hunan Province, Lily is born a “so-so girl to a so-so fam­ily in a so-so vil­lage.” Hope has no place in her lex­i­con. Nei­ther poor nor rich she has one irrev­o­ca­ble flaw: she is female. At seven, her feet are bound and soon she is, along with the other older girls and women, rel­e­gated to the upper story of the house where women are kept like pretty crip­pled birds in rooms with sin­gle win­dows and no access to the outer world. Caged and cowed by the men who orches­trate their lives, they have no recourse to any­thing resem­bling a fully actu­al­ized life.

Into this suf­fo­cat­ing and pain-wracked world, in which life careens between phys­i­cal drudgeries and emo­tional cat­a­clysm, there appears Snow Flower, Lily’s lao­tong or “old same,” a girl of vaguely sim­i­lar breed­ing and exact age who shares with her the nu shu. Nu shu is a 1,000-year-old lan­guage speci­fic to the Hunan Province of encoded ideograms devised by women for women. It is, See, explains in a brief early note, “the only writ­ten lan­guage in the world to have been cre­ated by women exclu­sively for their own use.”

This lan­guage, mes­sages writ­ten in nu shu to Lily along the folds of a secret fan, and Lily’s deep, insa­tiable and unre­quited desire to be loved – by her mother, her natal fam­ily, her husband’s fam­ily, her chil­dren and Snow Flower – form the evolv­ing plot of See’s remark­able and almost unbear­ably sad tale.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is told by Lily from the van­tage point of her old age. At 80, “I have noth­ing left to lose and few to offend.” She tells her story in antic­i­pa­tion of the after­life, as an expla­na­tion of her actions to her ances­tors, her hus­band and most impor­tantly, Snow Flower, all of whom she expects to meet there, but only one of whom she longs for.

Her story reeks of mis­ery. From the hideous cru­elty of her foot-bind­ing at seven (Lily’s mother tells her over and over, “Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suf­fer­ing will you have peace.”) to her con­flicted old age, See reveals Lily as a 19th-cen­tury rural Chi­nese woman whose life is rigidly defined and pro­grammed by her gen­der: foot bind­ing, arranged mar­riage, vir­tual impris­on­ment by both her fam­ily of origin and her husband’s fam­ily. The infe­rior sta­tus that women held is made all the more hell­ish by the adher­ence to Con­fu­cius and to a range of ancient super­sti­tions.

The mes­mer­iz­ing rela­tion­ship between Lily and Snow Flower comes to super­sede every­thing in Lily’s life – it sus­tains her through every har­row­ing moment. As she re-reads mes­sages on the fan, Lily recalls “We were to be like long vines with entwined roots, like trees that stand a thou­sand years, like a pair of man­darin ducks mated for life.”

But alas, nu shu, the very lan­guage of suc­cor that has led Lily to the most impor­tant and last­ing rela­tion­ship of her life, the only rela­tion­ship in which she is an equal and respected for her­self despite her gen­der, ulti­mately betrays both her and Snow Flower as mis­un­der­stand­ings become explo­sive, mis­trust takes hold and their con­nec­tion is sun­dered.

This haunt­ing, beau­ti­ful and inef­fa­bly sad tale of long­ing so intense as to be taken beyond the grave, is writ­ten in See’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally strong prose. She has a keen ear for Lily’s yearn­ing, and man­ages to depict an era and place vastly dif­fer­ent from our own West­ern­ized world with grace, acu­men and not a lit­tle humil­ity. In her capa­ble hands, Lily evolves as a char­ac­ter with whom the reader (of either gen­der) can feel a deep affin­ity, for Lily’s quest is irre­spec­tive of era or geog­ra­phy or even iso­la­tion. See makes her audi­ence feel what Lily feels, to iden­tify with her des­per­ate desire to be touched at that place we call “soul,” to exor­cise the alien­ation she feels through one pas­sion­ate con­nec­tion with another per­son.

Like Lydia Kwa’s equally com­pelling, This Place Called Absence, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan jour­neys into the dark dual­ity of women’s lives in an ear­lier time, illus­trat­ing what it was to live an exte­rior life from dawn till dusk while main­tain­ing a deep and res­o­nant inte­rior life that was secret to all, save one.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is redo­lent of his­tory, mem­ory and the bru­tal nature of the unre­quited. It is an extra­or­di­nary novel, sim­ply breath­tak­ing.

Vic­to­ria A. Brown­worth is the author of sev­eral works of fic­tion and non-fic­tion, and has edited numer­ous col­lec­tions of short sto­ries and essays, includ­ing the award-win­ning Com­ing Out of Can­cer. She wrote about foot bind­ing for the Har­ring­ton Lit­er­ary Quar­terly in 2003.


From the Los Ange­les Times:

By Marc Wein­garten, Spe­cial to The Times

The women of 19th cen­tury China whom Lisa See writes about in her ten­der­hearted new novel were a bru­tally oppressed class. They were the repro­duc­tive oxen of a cul­ture that was ruled by men for men, a cul­ture that insisted upon absolute obe­di­ence and lots and lots of baby boys from “bed busi­ness.”

Women were par­ti­tioned, forced to dwell in women’s cham­bers with their moth­ers, aunts and sis­ters. They endured the abject pain and humil­i­a­tion of foot bind­ing, in effect under­go­ing prim­i­tive recon­struc­tive surgery to appeal to poten­tial suit­ors. Every impulse toward self-actu­al­iza­tion was tamped down; iden­tity was sub­sumed within the fam­ily unit and then buried within the cer­e­mo­nial folds of the arranged mar­riage.

All of this is well-trod his­tory, a rich seam that has been exca­vated by many nov­el­ists both here and in Asia. What See brings to the story is a his­tor­i­cal secret, some­thing, as she explains in the after­word to this book, that she her­self learned from Wang Ping’s book on the his­tory of foot-bind­ing in China, “Aching for Beauty.” It’s nu shu , a writ­ten lan­guage that was invented in order for women to freely com­mu­ni­cate among them­selves with­out fear or restraint. It was a gen­der-speci­fic lex­i­con; men couldn’t write or read it and there­fore couldn’t sup­press it.

Nu shu becomes a life­line between the two pro­tag­o­nists in See’s novel: Lily, the daugh­ter of an une­d­u­cated, neglect­ful farmer and an over­bear­ing matri­arch, is now the 80-year-old spin­ster who nar­rates this story, and Snow Flower is a girl from the upscale vil­lage of Tongkou who has delu­sions of hau­teur. The two girls, who are sep­a­rated by thou­sands of miles and vastly dif­fer­ent cul­tural assump­tions, are brought together by a diviner, a kind of match­maker who sees in Snow Flower and Lily the pos­si­bil­ity of a lao­tong , a rare con­join­ing of two kin­dred souls that lasts a life­time.

This lao­tong is put to the test in myr­iad ways as See’s story unfolds, chang­ing like the Chi­nese char­ac­ters on the shared fan that Snow Flower and Lily dec­o­rate with their del­i­cate cal­lig­ra­phy and exchange back and forth across the pass­ing years. Bound by obdu­rate tra­di­tion, the two friends sense some­thing of the lib­er­at­ing force in each other, the pos­si­bil­ity that the future could burn brighter from their mutual ardor. “Lying next to [Snow Flower],” Lily muses, “look­ing at her face in the moon­light, feel­ing the del­i­cate weight of her small hand on my cheek, lis­ten­ing to her breath­ing deepen, I won­dered how could I make her love me the way I longed to be loved.”

See, who has writ­ten three crime thrillers set in Com­mu­nist China and the acclaimed mem­oir “On Gold Moun­tain,” has pulled off a decep­tive bal­anc­ing act here. China’s cul­ture of rit­ual and cer­e­mony is both an attrac­tion and a repel­lent for the two girls, as it is for read­ers of See’s evoca­tive novel. Lily is entranced by Snow Flower’s elab­o­rate fin­ery, her “sky-blue tunic embroi­dered with a cloud pat­tern,” her feath­ery pen­man­ship and her gift for nu shu metaphor. Snow Flower, in turn, envies Lily’s capac­ity for prac­ti­cal labor, the hand­i­work of the work­ing class.

But rit­ual leads to stran­gu­la­tion of the spirit. Sti­fled by the mores of their cul­ture, Snow Flower and Lily are locked in cages within cages, alter­ing their per­sonas to attract a bet­ter class of hus­band and putting on airs with each other. This leads to a fis­sure in their lao­tong as the two friends glean each other’s secrets through the hazy scrim of Chi­nese cus­tom.

Even nu shu , the very thing that allows their friend­ship to blos­som, is an elab­o­rate code, another rit­ual of indi­rec­tion and obfus­ca­tion. The tragic irony that pro­vides the heart-rend­ing con­clu­sion to See’s novel results from a mis­read­ing of nu shu ; nuance and shad­ing in a sin­gle line turns the entire story on its axis.

See’s translu­cent prose style gleams with the beauty of 19th cen­tury Chi­nese cul­ture but also makes us burn with indig­na­tion at its sex­ist ugli­ness and injus­tice. By bring­ing the secret world of these Chi­nese women into vivid relief, See has con­jured up an alien world that is the bet­ter for being lost.


From the Wash­ing­ton Post:

Scripted in the Shad­ows
By Judy Fong Bates

Dur­ing the Chi­nese Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion of the 1960s , an old woman fainted in a rural train sta­tion. While try­ing to iden­tify her, author­i­ties found scraps of paper with writ­ing they had never seen, lead­ing them to think she was a spy. But schol­ars iden­ti­fied the script as nu shu , a writ­ing that had been used exclu­sively by women for over a thou­sand years in a remote area of south­ern Hunan province. Nu shu was dif­fer­ent from con­ven­tional Chi­nese script in that it was pho­netic and its inter­pre­ta­tion was based on con­text. Years later when author Lisa See became aware of nu shu , her dis­cov­ery turned into an obses­sion, result­ing in her fourth novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan .

Writ­ten in the style of a mem­oir, the book is nar­rated by 80-year-old Lily Yi as she looks back on her life. Her story begins in 1828 in her vil­lage of Puwei in south­west­ern China. Her father is a hard­work­ing, respected farmer. As in all tra­di­tional Chi­nese fam­i­lies, sons are revered and daugh­ters are seen as tem­po­rary oblig­a­tions, to be passed on to other fam­i­lies at the time of mar­riage. Even at age 5, Lily, the third daugh­ter in a fam­ily of five chil­dren, under­stands her posi­tion.

But every­thing changes on the day the vil­lage diviner arrives to help her mother choose a pro­pi­tious date for Lily and her cousin to begin hav­ing their feet bound. The diviner declares that Lily is no ordi­nary child. A spe­cial match­maker announces that Lily’s feet have par­tic­u­larly high arches and, if prop­erly bound, could be shaped into golden lilies — those highly cov­eted tiny, per­fect feet that might be their key to pros­per­ity. “Fate — in the form of your daugh­ter — has brought you an oppor­tu­nity,” the match­maker says. “If Mother does her job prop­erly, this insignif­i­cant girl could marry into a fam­ily in Tongkou.” Thus in one day, Lily’s posi­tion in her fam­ily changes — she remains a com­mod­ity, but one that now needs to be nur­tured so that the fam­ily can real­ize her full value.

Later the match­maker also sug­gests to Lily’s mother a lao­tung match for her daugh­ter, a rela­tion­ship with a girl from the best vil­lage in the county. She is the same age as Lily, and their friend­ship is meant to last a life­time, being per­haps even more pro­found than mar­riage itself. This match would sig­nal to her future fam­ily that Lily is not only a woman with per­fect golden lilies but also one who has proved her loy­alty. When Lily meets her lao­tung, Snow Flower, she is given a fan with a secret mes­sage writ­ten in nu shu script inside.

So begins a cor­re­spon­dence between Lily and her new friend in nu shu — a lan­guage con­sid­ered by men to be of lit­tle impor­tance because it belonged to the realm of women. But for Lily and Snow Flower it pro­vides an open­ing for express­ing and shar­ing their hopes and fears in lives that are oth­er­wise pow­er­less, repressed and bound by rigid social con­ven­tions. In the years that fol­low, Lily teaches Snow Flower the domes­tic arts of cook­ing and clean­ing, while Snow Flower teaches Lily the more refined arts of weav­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy. Their bond also deep­ens dur­ing the extended vis­its Snow Flower makes to Lily’s home.

Through See’s care­ful, detailed descrip­tions of life in a remote 19th-cen­tury Chi­nese vil­lage, we expe­ri­ence a world where women spend their days in upstairs cham­bers, kow­tow­ing to elders, serv­ing tea and com­mu­ni­cat­ing in nu shu. She reveals to us the hor­rors of foot bind­ing (foot bent back, bones bro­ken and reshaped), a young girl’s inno­cent dreams of life in a new home min­gled with fears of being mar­ried off to a stranger, and the obses­sion with bear­ing sons. Woven through all this is the friend­ship between Lily and Snow Flower, which is com­pro­mised when Lily mis­in­ter­prets a let­ter from her friend, cut­ting her­self off from the one per­son she loves most. Years later, when Lily begins to under­stand her own fail­ings and the depth of Snow Flower’s affec­tion for her, it is too late. She must find other ways to seek for­give­ness and make amends.

The won­der of this book is that it takes read­ers to a place at once for­eign and famil­iar — for­eign because of its time and set­ting, yet famil­iar because this land­scape of love and sor­row is inhab­ited by us all. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a tri­umph on every level, a beau­ti­ful, heart­break­ing story. ·


From Book­list

Snow Flower is an Enter­tain­ment Weekly Editor’s Choice and an A rat­ing. “You can rel­ish See’s extra­or­di­nary fourth novel as a metic­u­lously researched account of women’s lives in 19th cen­tury China, where it is “bet­ter to have a dog than a daugh­ter…. You can also savor See’s mar­velous nar­ra­tive as a time­less por­trait of a con­tentious, full-blooded female friend­ship, one that includes, over sev­eral decades, envy, betrayal, erotic love, and deep-seated loy­alty.”

Snow Flower is one of Good Housekeeping’s 10 Fic­tional Babes We’d Like You to Read This Sum­mer.

A long­ing for con­nec­tion is at the dis­ci­plined heart of Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel set in a remote province of 19th-cen­tury China. For Lily and Snow Flower, life­long friends and pris­on­ers of domes­tic tra­di­tion, the coded women’s lan­guage of nu shu was “a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other…to write the truth about our lives.” Inti­mate rev­e­la­tions about betrayal and for­give­ness art­fully bridge the cul­tural divide.” O Mag­a­zine

As both a sus­pense­ful and poignant story and an absorbing his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle, this novel has best­seller poten­tial and should become a read­ing group favorite as well.” Pub­lish­ers Weekly

See’s writ­ing is intri­cate and grace­ful, and her atten­tion to detail never wavers, mak­ing for a lush, involv­ing read­ing expe­ri­ence.”



From Kirkus:

A nuanced explo­ration of women’s friend­ship and women’s writ­ing in a remote cor­ner of Impe­rial China.

At the end of her life, Lady Lily Lu, the 80-year-old matri­arch of Tongkou vil­lage, sits down to write her final memoir—one that will be burned at her death. Using nu shu, a secret script designed and kept by women, Lily spends her final years recount­ing her train­ing as a woman, her long­ing for love and the cen­tral friend­ship of her life. Born, in 1823, into an ordi­nary farm­ing fam­ily, Lily might not have ended up as a wealthy matri­arch. Her ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of run­ning through the fields out­side with her cousin Beau­ti­ful Moon in the last days before her foot-bind­ing. But in child­hood, Lily’s mid­dle-class fate changed dra­mat­i­cally when the local diviner sug­gested that her well-formed feet made her eli­gi­ble for a high-sta­tus mar­riage and for a spe­cial cer­e­mo­nial friend­ship with a lao­tong (sworn bosom friend). Accord­ingly, Lily became lao­tong with Snow Flower, a charm­ing girl from an upper-class house­hold. Together, the two begin a friend­ship and inti­mate nu shu cor­re­spon­dence that devel­ops with them through years of house train­ing, mar­riages, child­births and changes in social sta­tus. See (Dragon Bones, 2003, etc.) is fas­ci­nated by imag­in­ing how women with con­strained exis­tences might have found solace—and poetry—within the unex­pected, lit­tle known writ­ing form that is nu shu. Occa­sion­ally, in the midst of notes about child­birth and mar­riages, Lily and Snow Flower won­der how to under­stand the value of their secret writ­ing in rela­tion to the men’s “out­side world.” The ques­tion is left del­i­cately open. As the Taip­ing Rebel­lion (1851–64) approaches the vil­lages around them, threat­en­ing to dis­rupt the social order, Lily and Snow Flower’s pri­vate inti­macy changes, stretches and is strained. Taut and vibrant, the story offers a del­i­cately painted view of a sequestered world and pro­vides a richly tex­tured account of how women might under­stand their own lives.

A keenly imag­ined jour­ney into the women’s quar­ters


From Publisher’s Weekly:

See’s engross­ing novel set in remote 19th-cen­tury China details the deeply affect­ing story of life­long, inti­mate friends ( lao­tong , or “old sames”) Lily and Snow Flower, their impris­on­ment by rigid codes of con­duct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While grant­ing imme­di­acy to Lily’s voice, See ( Flower Net ) adroitly trans­mits his­tor­i­cal back­ground in grace­ful prose. Her in-depth research into women’s cer­e­monies and duties in China’s rural inte­rior brings fas­ci­nat­ing rev­e­la­tions about arranged mar­riages, women’s infe­rior sta­tus in both their natal and mar­ried homes, and the Con­fu­cian proverbs and myr­iad super­sti­tions that informed daily life. Begin­ning with a detailed and heart­break­ing descrip­tion of Lily and her sis­ters’ foot bind­ing (“Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suf­fer­ing will you have peace”), the story widens to a vivid por­trait of fam­ily and vil­lage life. Most impres­sive is See’s incor­po­ra­tion of nu shu , a secret writ­ten pho­netic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the south­west­ern Hunan province (“My writ­ing is soaked with the tears of my heart,/ An invis­i­ble rebel­lion that no man can see”). As both a sus­pense­ful and poignant story and an absorbing his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle, this novel has best­seller poten­tial and should become a read­ing group favorite as well. Agent, San­dra Dijk­stra. Author tour . (July)


Lisa See has writ­ten her best book yet. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is achingly beau­ti­ful, a mar­vel of imag­i­na­tion of a real and secret world that has only recently dis­ap­peared. It is a story so mes­mer­iz­ing that the pages float away and the story remains clearly before us from begin­ning to end.”

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

Only the best nov­el­ists can do what Lisa See has done, to bring to life not only a char­ac­ter but an entire cul­ture, and a sen­si­bil­ity so strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from our own. This is an engross­ing and com­pletely con­vinc­ing por­trayal of a woman shaped by suf­fer­ing forced upon her from her ear­li­est years, and of the friend­ship that helps her to sur­vive.”

Arthur Golden, Mem­oirs of a Geisha

I was entranced by this won­drous book—the story of a secret civ­i­liza­tion of women who actu­ally lived in China not long ago…Magical, haunt­ing fic­tion. Beau­ti­ful.”

Max­ine Hong Kingston, The Woman War­rior



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