Saturday, December 26, 2009
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
From the publisher:
"In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, or "old same," in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on the fan and compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. They both endure the agony of footbinding and together reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart."
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan absolutely took my breath away. Words such as enlightening, powerful, haunting, and heartbreaking come to mind as I search for ways to describe Lisa See's novel of life's journey for two young girls in 19th century China.
With our modern views of equality, self-worth, motherhood and parenting, and relationships with men, it was very difficult to read about the treatment of females in a Confucian society and their inevitable destinies.(There was a saying, "Marrying a daughter is like throwing out water.") As Lily, the narrator, states,
"Whether you are rich or poor, emporer or slave, the domestic sphere is
for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond
the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions...When a girl,
obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your
son." (p. 24)
In order to have any hope of a marriage, young girls at the tender age of six or seven years of age, began the agonizing and tortuous process of footbinding. While I had a vague knowledge of footbinding and the associated pain, I was completely unprepared for the true process and the concept of "mother love."
"A true lady lets no ugliness into her life....Only through pain will you
have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind,
you will have the reward." (p. 50)
It was enlightening to me to learn that girls with unbound feet, or "big footed" as they were called, were viewed with contempt and destined for pitiful futures. Small, delicate feet (only a few centimeters long!) that had been bound were called beautiful "golden lilies" and were proof of a young girl's personal discipline and the ability to bear pain during future childbirth (with the hopes of producing the highly prized sons); it was also proof of her obedience to her family, and, most importantly to men, considered to be very sensual.
In order to rise above the long, excruciating days of footbinding and obedience, the females, who remained secluded in chambers, spent their days singing, chanting, telling stories, and embroidering beautiful images and nu shu. I found the concept of the secret language of nu shu to be fascinating. Girls would embroider fabrics or use ink on fans with nu shu, a written language known only to women as a way to secretly communicate with each other. It is through one of these fans that the reader is introduced to Snow Flower, a lovely young girl from another village. Traditionally, girls are paired with a laotong, as a partner for friendship and guidance. As I learned through the journey of Snow Flower and Lily, a laotong's relationship was deeply emotional and spiritual and as committed as any marriage between a husband and wife.
Beautifully written with prose that is as lovely as a delicate silk fan, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a memorable tale that I highly recommend. Book clubs will find a wealth of topics to discuss and debate here, as well. I am looking forward to reading more of Lisa See's beautiful prose in Peony in Love.
Title: Snow flower and the Secret Fan
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Random House