I stayed up late to finish reading Lisa See‘s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I started on Sunday evening.
Wow, I was practically sobbing as I read the last few chapters; this book is that good.
First, See‘s writing is fantastic! Secondly, Chinese still take filial piety (孝順, xiàoshùn in pīnyīn) very seriously (so seriously that we even learned about it in Mandarin Chinese language class) and See‘s depictions of it hit home. And any woman can relate to the theme of female friendship and the great damage that simple misunderstandings can cause. And lastly, one of the characters in Snow Flower shares my Chinese name – Plum Blossom (婷梅)!
For those of you who haven’t read it yet, the story takes place in 19th-century rural Yongming County (永明縣, Yǒngmíng xiàn in pīnyīn) in Hunan province (湖南省, Húnán shěng in pīnyīn) in China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn). The narrator, Lily (Lady Lu) at age 80 writes her memoirs in nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) — women’s secret writing — to be burned at her funeral (along with money and other items to accompany her in the afterlife) so that her friends and ancestors will welcome her.
Society was ruled by rigid codes of conduct; women had to have their feet bound preferably to 7cm or less if she wanted to improve or keep her social standing, marry men through arranged marriages (matchmaking was done as early as age 6), and reside in upstairs women’s chambers. Women often died in childbirth and their children often did not live past the age of 4. To secure her status in her new household, a woman was expected to produce sons to continue the family line. Daughters were considered “dead branches” and were taught “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.”
Lily was born to a lower-middle class family but still her family had enough resources to bind their daughter’s feet. When Lily’s mother took Lily to the local diviner, he saw in Lily and her feet something special and brought her to the attention of Madame Wang, the matchmaker (紅娘, hóngniáng in pīnyīn) in the prosperous neighboring village. If Lily’s foot binding created the perfect “golden lilies” (Madame Wang believed they could be the most beautiful feet in the county), Lily could marry into a wealthy family and her natal family could become more prosperous through the bride-price (gifts given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family). But this would bring long working hours for Baba (爸爸, bàbà in pīnyīn) and the other men in the family to raise money for gifts in the dowry and making extravagant gifts for Lily’s wealthy future husband and his family.
Lily was so special that Madame Wang even suggested that Lily be matched with a laotong or “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) even though no woman in Lily’s family had such a relationship (though all had their own group of sworn sisters). Old sames were two young women whose lives matched eight qualities exactly, which included the girls’ birth month, day, and year, the date of their foot binding, the number of siblings, and a few other characteristics.
Thus, Lily and Snow Flower — both born in the year of the horse (馬, mǎ in pīnyīn) and thus destined to be headstrong — are matched at age 7 as laotongs or “old sames” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn), an emotional match that would last a lifetime through the isolation and hardship of womanhood. They use the secret women’s writing of (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) to share their joys and heartaches on a fan that they pass back and forth over the years.
See tells a beautiful well researched story of love, female friendship, rebellion, and pride. If I say anything else about the story, I’d ruin the book for you.
Anyway, since I am reading this for a book club, thought I would share some discussion questions:
- Lily endures excruciating pain in order to have her feet bound. What reasons are given for this dangerous practice?
- Did See‘s descriptions of footbinding remind you of any Western traditions?
- If some men in 19th-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn) knew about nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) and “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) friendships, why do you think they allowed these traditions to persist?
- Reflecting on her first few decades, Lily seems to think her friendship with Snow Flower brought her more good than harm. Do you agree?
- Lily’s adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us today. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. Why?
- Lily defies the wishes of her son in order to pair her grandson with Peony. Does she fully justify her behavior?
- Lily sometimes pulls us out of the present moment to reflect — as an old woman — on her youthful decisions. What does this device add to the story?
- How would you film these moments of reflection?
- If Lily is writing her story to Snow Flower in the afterworld, what do you think Snow Flower’s response would or should be?
- Did you recognize any aspects of your own friendships in the bond between Lily and Snow Flower?
- In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?
- Do you think the concept of “old sames” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) exists today? Do you have an “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn), or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenth-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn)?
- Some men in nineteenth-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn) apparently knew about nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn), the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication?
- Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently?
- When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate — almost erotic — moment together. Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship?
- Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “little daughter-in-law”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet?
- The Chinese character for “mother love” (疼愛, téngaì in pīnyīn) consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love?
- The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well?
- In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value?
- Although the story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives — we don’t have our feet bound, we’re free and mobile — do you think we’re still bound up in other ways; for instance, by career, family obligations, conventions of feminine beauty, or events beyond our control such as war, the economy, and natural disasters?
- Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīyīn) could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages has been misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a message that you misinterpreted and your feelings were hurt?
- Madame Wang, the matchmaker (紅娘, hóngniáng in pīnyīn), is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil?
I am adding Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to my list of favorites and will have to read See‘s latest, Peony in Love, to my list of books to read! I wish I had attended Lisa See‘s Rockville, MD book signing event tonight!
Now, on to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers!