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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