“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” – A Glimpse of Women in 19th Century China

Book Review : Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa Lee

Spoiler Alert!

Lily receives a silk fan from Snow Flower as an inquiry and introduction asking for a friendship that will last through their entire lifetime. Their communication is written in the secret women’s writing, nu shu, which is subtle and represents sounds rather than words like the men’s writing which is coarse in comparison. These two young girls’ friendship is sealed in a contract and they become laotongs or “old sames” sharing their lives through messages on handkerchiefs, stories and periodic visits including time at the temple to pray. As they experience arranged marriages, changes in fortune, children, sorrow, suffering, sometimes joy and even misunderstanding they have the love of their friendship. In a time of isolation for women we gain insight into this unique time and place in the outer provinces of China.

Adult Point of View

I found Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to be compelling, sad and beautiful. As historical fiction much of the book felt authentic because the world of men is removed and we are isolated in time and place even as the main characters are isolated to the upper room.
To witness the cruelty of binding feet and suppressing women was heartrending. It was interesting to see how Aunt Wang, the matchmaker, kept her independence in a world of men. To see the rise of Lily into Lady Lu and the downfall of Snow Flower into the butcher’s wife doesn’t make sense from a western perspective, but Lisa See explains the social structure so well that I can understand how this might have happened. I am horrified that women perpetuated this repressive society while I understand that they were powerless to do otherwise. I liked the varieties of women’s personalities being described by the Chinese zodiac. The monkey mother was conniving, the rat mother-in-law was selfish and the horse women needed freedom and to guide their partners.

As a caution, there is one scene which is sensual between the two “old sames” though not literally sexual, because Lily explains they didn’t know “the ways of a man and wife”, however, it does have a lesbian undertone and I believe that a laotong relationship was meant to be like a sisterhood and not physically intimate. Lily’s aunt describes a laotong match this way: “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.”  (p. 43)

And so, because of this intimate scene, and the ever-present topic of “bed business”, I would not let my teenage daughter read this book even though she might be interested in the rest of the book centered around 19th Century Hunan, China.

3.5 out of 5 stars

– Michelle

– One extra note, I have read that those who grew up speaking Chinese felt that the author has misinterpreted the Chinese poetry, the laotong relationship and other historical details. I believe that is always the danger in writing historical fiction.

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About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow cooked in a tagine. Weekly I get together with friends and go to yoga for a bit of mommy time. Some may find me quirky, I prefer to think I am one of a kind.
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4 Responses to “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” – A Glimpse of Women in 19th Century China

  1. Amber says:

    Felt the need to leave a reply due to your comment included about not letting your daughter read Snow Flower. Am interested to know what you think would happen if she did read it?

    • Thank you for your comment. I chose not to allow my young teenage daughter read Snow Flower because I felt like the sensual scene between the laotongs and the talk of “bed business” would make her uncomfortable. I based this decision upon my own experience that I was very uncomfortable reading about intimacy when that part of my life was still closed.

      In my mind there are three main purposes in reading : 1) pure enjoyment 2) to stretch our perceptions of the world and 3) to learn. My oldest would say a fourth purpose is because it was required. Our school district introduces students in junior high to books that stretch their perceptions that include Flowers for Algernon, Stargirl and The Diary of Anne Frank. In high school they move into more difficult subjects and include books like The Count of Monte Cristo, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies and 1984 into the curriculum. Even though I enjoyed Snow Flower I don’t feel like there is the substance or symbolism found in literature, and I don’t feel like my daughter would have enjoyed the book at this time in her life.

  2. Bibiana says:

    I feel that a laotong relationship WAS meant to be an emotional connection. In. Old China the rules of society kept men and women in seperate spheres, and they were not able to get emotionally connected. However, I feel that Lily and Snowflower went beyond the definition of laotong -they were definitely in love. They have one erotic scene between them in the novel, but if you read carefully, you can see that their sexual relationship was ongoing.

    • My question was what was an actual laotong relationship meant to be. Obviously Lily and Snowflower – who are fictional women – had a sexual relationship, but I do not feel it is based on historical evidence that the laotong relationship was ever more than an arranged friendship. I appreciate your comments for the discussion.

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