snowflowerAfter doing some research about Wang Ping’s Aching for Beauty, a book I was unable to finish earlier this year, I found many recommendations for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. As it turns out, Lisa See was inspired to write this book after having read Aching for Beauty and writing a review about it for The Los Angeles Times. She became interested in the practice of foot binding, but also in the briefly mentioned nu shu, a secret writing used by women to communicate their feelings to their mothers, sisters, and friends without fear of their husbands or fathers finding out. This book is about the secret (and public) lives of women in the China of the past, where women were marginalized and treated more like livestock than like human beings.

I would categorize this book as historical fiction, as it recounts with great accuracy the practice of foot binding and the history of nu shu. Some of the wording and trite sentiments may seem strange to westerners who have no first-hand experience with China and the Chinese, but I found it charming because it reminded me so much of things my students would actually say. The story itself is sad and sometimes painful to read, especially the descriptions of foot binding, which I am assuming came from her research into Wang Ping’s book. Lisa See did her research and even went to the birthplace of nu shu to interview the women of the village to write a fairly accurate description of the place and the time period. She even interviewed a 97-year-old woman to get some historical perspective. It is not clear whether her story is at all based on this woman’s own life. However, the book is told from the perspective of Lily, now in her 80’s, who describes the events of her life.

The story is mainly about two women, Lily and her laotang (lifelong friend, literally translated as “old same”), Snow Flower. The two are put into contact at the age of 7 by a matchmaker who discovers that Lily has perfect feet for foot binding. Snow Flower is introduced to her to become her laotang in the hopes that both girls can win a high marriage despite Lily’s current low standing as a farmer’s daughter. If her foot binding goes well, she could have the perfect fair of golden lotus feet and marry into a wealthy family, securing safety and prosperity for her entire family for the future. In the years that follow we see how her relationship with Snow Flower develops and changes. I do not want to give away too many details as there are some surprises, so I will leave it at that.

I personally didn’t think the book was incredibly well written. I wasn’t interested in the characters or their plight until more than halfway through the book, when things really became interesting. There were also several instances where foreshadowing was used, but then nothing ever seemed to be made of those warning signs we were given throughout the book that something terrible was going to happen. It kept me on edge and had me feeling confused when these bad omens she talks about do not actually lead to bad things happening. Perhaps I misread it?

If you are interested in foot binding and the traditional treatment of women in China, I would suggest this book. It gives a lot of information, along with having a good story to follow. Just be aware that you may need some patience to get through the first bit.

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