On Writing Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

One day in the 1960s, an old woman fainted in a rural Chinese train station. When police searched her belongings in an effort to identify her, they came across papers with what looked to be a secret code written on them. This being the height of the Cultural Revolution, the woman was arrested and detained on suspicion of being a spy. The scholars who came to decipher the code realized almost at once that this was not something related to international intrigue. Rather, it was a written language used solely by women and it had been kept a “secret” from men for a thousand years. Those scholars were promptly sent to labor camp.

That secret language is called nu shu—women’s writing—and I first came across a brief mention of it when I wrote a review of Wang Ping’s Aching for Beauty for the Los Angeles Times. I became intrigued and then obsessed with nu shu and the culture that rose up around it. Nu shu doesn’t look anything like written Chinese, which is heavy and boxy. Rather, nu shu is long, slim, and frail. Many have said it looks like mosquito legs. I have thought that in many ways it has the delicacy of bird prints.


No one knows the true origin of nu shu, but it is believed that a young girl from Hunan Province, who was chosen to become the emperor’s concubine, invented it. She had thought that she would live a life of privilege. But she was hardly prepared for her loneliness or the palace intrigues that surrounded her. In order to write truthfully to her mother and sisters back home about her experience, she invented the code.

Over time a whole culture rose up around nu shu among women in what was then called Yong Ming County but now called Jiangyong County. At age seven, a girl had her feet bound. (The ideal size was just three inches long when completed.) From that time until she married out to another village at age seventeen, she lived in an upstairs room with only one window. When she went to her husband’s home, she spent the rest of her life in similar upstairs rooms, again with only one window from which to view the world. So, from the age of seven until their deaths, these women lived as virtual prisoners—hobbled by their bound feet and illiterate in men’s writing. Still, even in their solitude, they longed to express themselves and find consolation from other women in identical circumstances. They used nu shu to write letters, stories, and poems. It was “hidden” in embroidery, in weaving, and in paintings on fans. Women wrote about their joys, which were few, and their sorrows, which were many.

Two types of relationships developed that had nu shu at their core. The first was called a sworn sisterhood. In a particular village when all seven-year-old girls were having their feet bound, their mothers helped them form a sworn sisterhood. The girls would learn nu shu together, work on their diaries together, and prepare what were called “third-day wedding books” for each of their friends as they married out at age seventeen. Once all the girls had married out, the sworn sisterhood dissolved.

The other type of relationship was called a laotong—old same. When a woman had a daughter about to turn seven and begin her footbinding, she would meet with a matchmaker, not to find a suitable husband but to look for another girl in another village who could match eight characteristics with her daughter. The two girls had to match birth dates, be in the same birth order in both families, have the same size foot, and the like. Obviously, this was much harder to find than just linking up with other girls in the same village. If a prospect could be found, the two girls would be brought together to sign a contract matching them for life as a pair of old-sames. At seventeen, the girls would marry out to other villages, have children, and follow the normal course of their lives, but they would also continue to keep in contact with their laotong through their writing and occasional meetings for their rest of their lives. This type of “emotional marriage”—at a time and in a culture when emotions didn’t enter into marriages between men and women—is what I wanted to write about with the characters of Lily and Snow Flower.

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A good part of my interest in nu shu stems from how I was raised. I’m part Chinese and grew up spending a lot of time with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles in Los Angeles Chinatown. I’ve often said that I may not look Chinese (although when people see me with my family they say that the resemblance is quite striking) but that I’m Chinese in my heart. Perhaps because I come from a pioneer family—my great-great-grandfather came to work on the Transcontinental railroad and my great-grandfather was the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown—we have tenaciously held on to our customs and beliefs even though we’ve become better educated, lost our fluency in the language, and—in my case—lost most of the physical characteristics.

I’m only a couple of generations removed from my peasant roots. My great-great-grandmother carried people on her back from village to village to earn money to support her children. Sorrow—from losing a child or experiencing some other tragedy—was a luxury she and her immigrant descendants couldn’t afford. Later, when I began writing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I was able to show that kind of stoicism and acceptance in the characters of Snow Flower, Lily, and the other women who populate the novel, but I also called upon other beliefs that have been handed down in my family. I—like all my female cousins—grew up hearing “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.” Of course, we rebelled, but we also absorbed more of that aphorism than perhaps we’d like to admit.

As I did my research, I discovered that few nu shu documents—whether letters, stories, weavings or embroideries—have survived, since most were burned at gravesites for metaphysical and practical reasons. In the 1930s, Japanese soldiers destroyed many pieces that had been kept as family heirlooms. During the Cultural Revolution, the zealous Red Guard burned even more texts, then banned the local women from attending religious festivals or attending gatherings where nu shu might be written, read, sung, or exchanged as gifts. In the following years, the Public Security Bureau’s scrutiny further diminished interest in learning or preserving the language. During the last half of the twentieth century, nu shu nearly became extinct as the primary reasons that women used it disappeared. (For more information on nu shu, please read Cathy Silber’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Writing from the Useless Branch: Text and Practice in Nushu Culture.)


After I chatted about nu shu in an e-mail with Michelle Yang, a fan of my work, she very sweetly took it upon herself to look up and then forward to me what she found on the Internet about the subject. That was enough for me to begin to plan a trip to Jiangyong County where I went in the fall of 2002. When I arrived, I was told I was only the second foreigner to go there, although I knew of a couple others who had apparently flown under the radar.

I can honestly say that this area is still as remote as ever. The moment I crossed into Hunan Province with Mr. Li (my driver) and Chen Yi Zhong (my interpreter), the four-lane highway gave way to a badly rutted dirt road. The villages we went to were located down muddy roadways or accessible only by crossing a river on a sampan. People who live in this area aren’t just removed from the outside world or from the neighboring province but also from each other. A hundred years ago, the land was fertile and the people were relatively prosperous. Back then, even the poorest peasants were better off than they are today.

Mr. Li was not only a great driver (which is hard to find in China), but he also proved to be very patient when his car got stuck in one muddy track after another as we traveled from village to village. I was also extremely lucky to have Mr. Chen as my interpreter. His friendly manner, eagerness to walk unannounced into houses, subtlety with the local dialect, familiarity with classical Chinese and history, and enthusiastic interest in nu shu— something that he had not known existed—helped make my journey especially fruitful. He translated conversations in alleys and kitchens, as well as nu shu stories that had been collected by the nu shu museum. Since the Jiangyong area is still closed to foreigners, it was also necessary to travel in the company of a county official, also named Chen.

Together, Messieurs Li, Chen, and Chen took me by car, pony-pulled cart, sampan, and foot to see and do everything I wanted. To truly understand the nu shu women I needed to see what remained of their culture, walk the alleyways of their villages, and try to meet the last surviving original practitioner of the language. I didn’t want to approach my trip as a journalist. Instead, I wanted to see, taste, touch, smell, and hear everything Jiangyong County had to offer, and then filter it through my own experience as a woman deeply influenced by my Chinese family.


We went to Tong Shan Li Village to meet Yang Huanyi, who was then aged ninety-six and the oldest living nu shu writer. (She passed away in September 2004.) Her feet had been bound when she was a girl and she told me about that experience, as well as her wedding ceremonies and festivities. She had learned the secret language as the only way to communicate with her friends. (Young women today no longer need to learn nu shu. Their feet aren’t bound, they’re literate, and they work outside the home where they can meet their friends. Nowadays, young women learn the language as one might learn a national dance or a folksong. They’re preserving and honoring the past, but it has no direct meaning to or purpose in their lives.) Yang Huanyi lived in three rooms with her son and daughter-in-law. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling and a television, which carried only state-run channels, dominated the tiny room. We sat on hard country-style benches much like the ones my grandparents used in our family store. We were offered oranges, which the men ate, spitting their seeds and dropping their peels on the concrete floor.

On the surface Yang Huanyi and I couldn’t have been more different, but I felt instantly close to her. She reminded me very much of my grandmother. Yang Huanyi’s hair was wrapped in a headdress. Her back was hunched. Her hands and fingers were crooked and knobby. Her eyes were watery. Her skin was rice paper thin and when she scratched her cheek, her skin tore and bled. She wore a child’s pair of kung fu slippers with tissue stuffed into the toes to fill the empty space. Like Lily at the end of Snow Flower, she was too old and too tired to shoo away the flies that came to rest on her. But she was completely alert. She spent most of the afternoon talking about her childhood, her marriage, and her seven sworn sisters. Many of the lines that are found in the novel come directly from Yang Huanyi’s life. “Marrying a daughter is like throwing out a cup of water,” people had told her when she got into her flower-sitting chair.


Some of the most special moments that day were when she sang her nu shu wedding songs. “Why do I not cry when I get married?” she chanted in a quavering voice. “Because my life is not so happy. I want to get married, have children, and have a happy life.” She remembered as well a woman who sang to her: “I’m already thirty-two. I live a miserable life. I wish I could get married and have a happy life.” As hard as their lives were, Yang Huanyi explained, it was better to get married than not, for marriage was the only way to true happiness and fulfillment—giving birth to a son.

So much was still clear in Yang Huanyi’s memory, including the drudgery of making wedding quilts. Her daughter-in-law brought out her own wedding quilts for me to look at. The two of them showed me how to make the stitches. And although in the novel I used very little of what they told me about the process of making bound-foot shoes, I’m fairly confident that I could make a pair if I had to.

In addition to spending time with Yang Huanyi, I also visited Puwei, where the Chinese government is making an effort to keep the language alive by opening a nu shu school. It was there that I met and interviewed Hu Mei Yue, the new teacher, and her family. She shared with me tales about her grandmothers and how they taught her nu shu. In the novel, Puwei became Lily’s home village.

Then it was off to Tongkou, which in the novel is Snow Flower’s home village and the place where Lily eventually lives. Even today, the village of Tongkou is an extraordinary place. The architecture, paintings on the houses, and what remains of the ancestral temple all attest to the high-quality of life that was once enjoyed by the people who lived there. Interestingly, although today the village is poor and remote by any measure, the temple lists four men from this area who became imperial scholars of the highest rank during the reign of Emperor Daoguang.

The entire trip was extraordinary, if difficult. Every meal was an adventure. In the Yao nationality town of Gongcheng , we had a lunch that became Lily and Snow Flower’s favorite meal during their annual visit to the Temple of Gupo. My interpreter picked out a live chicken and a few minutes later it was dropped into broth that boiled in a brass basin on our table. (The only difference between what my two fictional laotong and I experienced was that their broth was heated with coal and mine by propane tank.) We also tried the sugared taro dessert, which was truly one of the better things I’ve eaten in my life—certainly better than the sautéed pig penis I had on that same day. Every meal that appears in the novel is something either I ate on the trip or that my family makes.

On another day, in what is believed to be the birthplace of the Yao culture, we came across the home of the local butcher. Outside the front door was a raised platform with an embedded wok for boiling the skin off carcasses. It turned out that my interpreter’s parents had raised pigs to earn money to send him to school, so we sat on the platform and had a long talk about all that. Until that afternoon I hadn’t known Snow Flower would be married to a butcher.

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I was still in China when I wrote the opening pages for Snow Flower. In many ways Lily’s voice and her view of life were easy. She reminded me of my grandmother, great-aunt, and other female relatives—Chinese or not—at the end of their lives. To a person, they had felt tremendous regret that they hadn’t been better wives, mothers, or friends, but they each also had at least one episode in their lives that gnawed at them and they hoped fruitlessly to somehow make amends. Sitting in my hotel room, I felt as though those women—especially my grandmother—were looking over my shoulder, encouraging me to tell the truth of their lives. I thought that through the character of Lily maybe I could make amends for all of them.

I would say that the entire novel flowed from that emotional place. My only real struggle was how I was going to deal with the subject of footbinding. Although anti-footbinding activities began in the late-nineteenth century, the practice lingered in rural areas well into the twentieth century. Only in 1951, when Mao Zedong’s armies liberated Jiangyong County, did the practice finally end in the nu shu region. Many preconceptions and misconceptions still surround the practice of footbinding. It’s easy to equate it with the horrific practice of female genital mutilation in Africa, the tradition of shrouding women in burkas in the Middle East, or even the strange, peculiar, often extreme cosmetic surgery treatments that so many American women seek. But I didn’t want to put my contemporary Western values on the practice. Rather, I wanted to write about footbinding from the perspective of the women and girls who had grown up with it. For me, this brought up a lot of questions: How does a culture decide what’s beautiful? How does our worth as women change according to that sense of beauty? How can a mother put her daughter through such agony? And what would it mean to have achieved the socially accepted and acknowledged beauty of three-inch feet yet be hobbled or possibly crippled in the process?

Between my own family background, research, and imagination, the writing came easily. Then, when I was about halfway through the novel, I had an accident and got a very bad concussion. For the first month or so I stayed in bed. Like the nu shu women, I couldn’t read or write. Unlike them, I had two windows to look out of. For another two months I wasn’t allowed to drive. In a strange way, I felt as though my feet had been bound, since I was confined to my home and cut off from the rest of the world. Like many people who’ve had a sudden medical problem, I was surprised at what happened around me. Friends I thought would be supportive weren’t, while others brought food and treats, drove me to doctors’ appointments, and in every way acted as sworn sisters. My confinement and isolation, and the kindness and generosity of the women who cared for me, gave me a visceral experience of the nu shu women and their world.

But I hope you don’t have to have a concussion to connect to Lily and Snow Flower! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story about friendship and what it means to be a woman. Yes, our lives are completely different from those lived by the nu shu writers, but inside we are the same. We want people to hear our thoughts, appreciate our creativity, and feel empathy for our emotions. As daughters, we have all experienced complicated—and sometimes thorny—relationships with our mothers. As mothers, we have all felt deep terror when one of our children gets sick. As women, we have all at one time or another wondered about the true and ever-lasting mystery of the men in our lives. These are universals, as is the fear women feel during times of political upheavals that occur in what could still be called the outside world of men—whether during the Taiping Rebellion so many years ago or today for women in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or even right here in this country in the post-9/11 era. On the surface, we as American women are independent, free, and mobile, but at our cores we still long for love, friendship, happiness, tranquility, and to be heard.

I hope you enjoy the book!