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. ·
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.” Booklist
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