Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2008

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), by Lisa See, read by Janet Song

snow-flower This is a mesmerising tale.  It is narrated by Lily, Lady Lu, mulling over her regrets.   Now in her old age, she is haunted by her memories of her lao-tong, (or ‘old-same’ ) whose friendship she betrayed.  She has tried to make amends to her old friend, Snow Flower, but the moral code ingrained since childhood means that she must accept responsibility for her actions, and beg forgiveness.


It is a slow-moving story, building to its climax through a series of incidents which serve mainly to reveal a way of life remote in place and time.  Lily lives in a small village in 19th century China, subject to ancient traditions which constrain the lives of women in ways unimaginable today.  She must submit to the excruciating practice of foot-binding when she is a very small child,  and when her mother slaps her if she complains about the pain, it is called ‘mother-love’ because ‘there is no beauty without pain’.  An old match-maker, Madame Wang, contracts her to be lao-tong to Snow Flower, ostensibly because diviners reveal that their eight ‘characters’ match, but also because it is an advantageous match and will improve her marriage prospects.  She is also contracted to marry, but she does not have to move permanently to her in-laws’ house until some time after the ceremony when she becomes pregnant.

Women have no worth unless they marry and produce sons.  Sons marry ‘in’, bringing wives and dowries to the family home.  Daughters must be married ‘out’, and dowries are a drain on family finances.  Women have to submit to their husbands in every way, tolerate beatings, and put up with concubines as rivals for their husband’s affection.  There are strict rules governing their friendships, and for women of Lily’s class, there are strict rules that govern every aspect of behaviour, even including the conventions of greetings and conversation.   There is a strict hierarchy within the family, with women deferring first to the men, and then to their mothers-in-law.  The wives of last-born sons have the lowest status of all (not including the servants.)

Women live in seclusion in the women’s quarters, spending their days cooking prescribed meals for the family (despite the servants) and in crafts including embroidery and making clothes for themselves and other members of the family.  Lily and Snow Flower exchange greetings in Nu-Shu, a secret women’s calligraphy, which they write onto fans.  They are excluded from learning men’s writing, and from the world outside altogether, though Lily is forced to confront it when the TaiPing Rebellion comes to her province (in about the middle of the century).

Lily and Snow Flower form a close emotional bond, closer than the feelings they have for their husbands.   They share the joy of having sons, and the disappointments of bearing daughters.  They endure famine, an epidemic and a period as refugees during the rebellion, but in time, their fates diverge.  Lily makes a fortunate marriage, while Snow Flower marries a butcher, considered to be a ‘polluting’ influence on her family and irrevocably consigning her to very low status in the village.  Lily’s rigid application of the social rules alienates Snow Flower and there is an irreconcilable breach, leaving both lonely and sad because their friendship is the only real love in their empty lives. 

The melancholy elegiac style is enhanced by graceful narration of Janet Song.  Confronting scenes such as the agonies of foot-binding and the perils of their flight from the rebels are vividly evoked without mawkishness, but the most disquieting aspect  of this book is the way it recreates a socially-imposed mind-set so rigid that it interferes with normal human relationships such as the bond between mothers and children. 

A very interesting book indeed.

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