I am fascinated by books that transport me to an era and culture different from my own. If that culture happens to be Chinese, my reading pleasure is twofold. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is one such book that not only satisfied my wanderlust by transplanting me to southern Hunan province in 19thcentury China, but also immersed me completely in the experience of growing up as a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. I was part of a cloistered world where a woman’s conduct was governed by the Confucian doctrines of the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow, obey your son.”and 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.” In this environment where women were accorded an inferior status and expected to be subservient to men, See explores the intense friendship of two peasant girls from their daughter days to hair pinning days, rice and salt days to sitting quietly, in other words, from their girlhood to married life to old age.
Lily and Snowflower are two young girls , from different walks of society who are ‘old sames’ paired in a laotong relationship. A laotong is a contractual friendship arranged by a matchmaker between girls of two different villages just like an arranged marriage. Girls of suitable birth who may share birthdays, birth signs and birth order or other traits in common are brought together in an eternal friendship. A marriage is only good for ‘bed business’, the rather crude but practical manner in which lovemaking is described in the novel. You have to look elsewhere for an emotional connection. Many young women have a community of a sworn sisterhood in their natal homes where they sing songs together, embroider, exchange stories and share companionship .The sworn sisterhood is dissolved at the time of marriage but the laotong relationship is a lifelong commitment. Being a laotong improves your social standing and makes you a more eligible catch for marriage.
Lily is prized for her dainty and exquisite golden lily feet. Footbinding was a strange and barbaric practice that was started in the royal court in China and gradually became widespread in the rest of the country and among all social classes. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet in order to attract a wealthy match. The girls were around six years old when they started the process that would take two to three years to complete. The four little toes were bent underneath the sole of the foot and tied with bandages. The bandages were periodically removed and tightened till the heel was twisted and reshaped. The girls suffered excruciating pain which could last months or even years.
Their muscles atrophied and the less fortunate ones got infections like gangrene. Some like Lily’s third sister, died from the ordeal. The girls who survived were disfigured and crippled for life. They would limp and couldn’t walk long distances and had to be carried by men. They developed a peculiar faltering gait which was considered a sexual turn on to men. Footbinding became a way of controlling women and keeping them confined to their homes so they wouldn’t go astray. They were physically incapable of moving far from their homes or the ‘inner realm’ and thus less likely to cheat on their men. They lived in seclusion and were kept subjugated. They learned to tolerate pain and suffering. Of course, it wasn’t just the feet that were bound. The girls were tied to male conventions of beauty, to matrimony, to domesticity and to maternity.
In this sequestered world, women reached out to each other for solace and support. They communicated through nu shu, a syllabic script used in Jiangyong County in Hunan province. Nu shu was used exclusively by women to compose letters, songs and stories either written on paper or on a fan or embroidered on a handkerchief. Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a silk fan on whose folds they take turns writing their thoughts to each other. The fan chronicles all the important events in their life, both joyous and sorrowful. The nu shu gave the girls a voice and a chance to soar in spite of being bound. Their lives become more expansive just like the delicate unfolding of the fan. Lily observes: “Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the field…”
The girls establish a tender connection through correspondence and through Snow Flower’s numerous visits to Lily’s home but Snow Flower’s family does not reciprocate the invitations much to Lily’s mother’s ire. At times their friendship has homoerotic overtones not uncommon in a gender segregated society. The girls go through all the trials and tribulations of life together. With marriage comes a total reversal of fortunes. Lily marries into a wealthy family of good social status but due to circumstances beyond her control, Snow Flower is married to a poor butcher and has to endure hardship and abuse. The sweet and sensitive Lily changes gradually into a different person when her position is cemented as matriarch of the family. There arises a misunderstanding between the two friends that threatens their strong friendship and whether they reconcile or not is the crux of the remainder of the plot.
My main criticism of the book is that the latter half seems rushed and melodramatic. It wasn’t the story of the complex friendship that caught my fancy as much as the insight into ancient Chinese history and culture which was an eye-opening experience. I felt a piercing sadness to learn about the different ways daughters were demeaned within their own community. Their worth only came from their ability to procreate and to produce sons. The protagonists deal with the agonizing pain of foot binding, experience great sorrow on leaving their parents’ homes, endure cruelty in the homes of their in- laws, face the pressure to bear sons, lose children in childbirth and accept their husbands’ concubines. You wonder why strong women like Lily perpetuate the patriarchy by following old traditions. Foot binding was no different from customs like forced marriages, dowry and FGM where women are often complicit in the patriarchal oppression. The rebel in me would have liked to see Lily stand up to injustice. But she ends up being a stickler for rules and is herself ‘bound’ by convention. I understand her powerlessness and realize that being dutiful is her only coping mechanism. At the most Lily can follow her mother in law’s sage maxim: “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”
The atrocities committed on the women made me reflect on my own life and the choices I’ve made and appreciate the freedoms I enjoy and take for granted. Lily and Snow Flower’s world may seem like a world very foreign to our own but yet we can all relate to it to some extent. If you’ve ever felt undervalued as a woman in any way, if you’ve been expected to defer to a man unworthy of your respect, if you’ve taken pains to be beautiful whether going for cosmetic surgery, waxing body hair or wearing stilettos that hurt your feet, if you’ve endured a disparaging remark from an in-law, if you’ve heard the words ‘ I hope this time you have a boy’, then this achingly beautiful novel will strike a chord with you.