No snarky title for “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See

September 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm 3 comments

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, Published 2005 

I enjoyed this book. Though “enjoyed” is maybe the wrong word.

I love Pearl Buck and her “House of Earth” trilogy is probably the last time I read anything remotely good about China’s traditions and customs always shown through family and character development (if you have not read this trilogy I would highly suggest it). This book “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” does a similar thing but for Chinese woman in the latter part of the 19th century.  I will not say the writing is as good as Buck (that would be hard) but I will say the writing is well done and works well to propel the story which is what really carries this book.

Snow flower and the secret fan: a novel [Book]

Lily, the narrator, is born into a fairly poor family but is found by the local diviner to be special.  So her life becomes invariably linked to another girl of higher status, Snowflower, and they became laotongs –  lifelong friends linked by tradition and contract.  They go through all the rites of the Chinese life together – foot binding, marriage, childbearing, poverty, shame, honor and eventually death.  They learn the ancient art of “nu shu” which was a writing only known by Chinese women that allowed them to communicate with each other without fear that the men in their lives would punish them for their candor.  Lily’s and Snowflower’s lives weave together, unravel and then mend.  All of this documented on a fan that carried the stories of their lives in messages back and forth.

Ultimately this is a story about tradition and the harm it can do to those considered to be the least – here, as often it is, that is the women.  Chinese women were beaten, starved and set apart all to honor tradition.  They bound their feet literally breaking their bodies and hobbling themselves for the respect of their future in-laws.  They hoped to be pregnant but when that joy came they unceasingly worried they would have a daughter. Their lives were spent in fear of shame, in hope of a restrained happiness, and looking forward to an ill-defined sense of honor.

I am not saying that traditions and a sense of honor are bad in all cases. What I am saying is that any society needs to step carefully.  What I found most telling with this book was the fact that women created this restraint, tradition and pain for each other.  Mothers’ bound their little daughters’ feet. Mothers-in-law scoffed at miscarriages and cruelly lamented the births of granddaughters.  Friends judged their girlhood friends for choices that fell away from the same traditions they themselves abhorred. And of course we, as modern women, do all of these things still. We all hold our daughters to traditions that even we don’t understand – why did I buy my two year old that lip gloss and then tell her she looked pretty?  We are all too young, too old, too loose, too bitchy, too smart “for her own good.”  We pluck, we diet, we enhance and exfoliate, we preen, we wax, we paint ourselves.  It can be painful and it can be constricting. We break our feet everyday to twist ourselves into things we are not. But we don’t have to. I am not sure the Chinese women had (or do have) a choice.

But our lives as women are beautiful as well. This book is also about friendship and, even with everything I have said above about how women hurt each other and themselves, at the end of the day a woman’s friendship can be as redemptive and as meaningful as the most fulfilling romance of your life.  And that often is enough.  Until L’Oreal tells you that “we have to do ten things at once. Perfectly.” And you catch yourself thinking “what does that mean?” and then “how can I do that?”

For more on foot binding check out:


Entry filed under: August 2011 reads. Tags: , , .

“One day I will write about this place” and Emily will be cool enough to like it but not today. Pete and Repeat were sitting on the fence, Pete fell off and Kate Morton wrote “The Distant Hours”

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. janewalters  |  October 31, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Good blog. I’ve read most of Lisa See’s books including this one – it really made me stop and think. Anchee Min is another author I’d recommend if you want an insight in to the world of Chinese women.

    • 2. Emily C  |  October 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      Thank you for the recommendation. I must admit this is something I need to learn more about so I will definitely add Anchee Min to the list. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

  • […] read Lisa See’s  ”Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” earlier this year and I enjoyed it. But there is something about “Shanghai Girls” that […]


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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