-Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Random House, 2005)
The friend who recommended Snow Flower And The Secret Fan to me said it was a story about friendship between women. She knew me well, because that was enough to catch my attention. Female friendships are like wild vines, which interlace gently together to become a thick, resilient web that can withstand any weather. Snow Flower And The Secret Fan is the story of one woman’s regret — a woman who had found the purity of a true friendship and yet had suffocated and destroyed it.
The story is woven around a historical background, covering the period from the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign in 1823 to the end of the Taiping Rebellion in 1864. Lily, who is also the narrator, is timid and obedient as a young child. She understands her role within the family as a girl — to obey and accept her fate. She craves love from her mother’s cold face and endures the great pain of foot binding in the hope of acceptance and affection. Each chapter in Lily’s life is carefully chronicled: foot binding, learning household chores, getting matched for a husband. In short, Lily’s life depicts the lives of all women of her time — from the moment of birth, she was prepared to be sent away to serve a man. Lily’s childhood, which shows her unsuppressed, eager, patient and yet frantic hunger for love, is perhaps my favorite part of the story. Even as I winced and despised the hideous practice of foot binding, when Lily is forced to walk on bent toes until her bones crack and break, oozing out blood and pus, I couldn’t help but admire Lily’s resilience. For a few moments, I found myself persuaded by the story’s glorification of pain and began to think that even such horrendous torture could bring out beauty and a demonstration of a woman’s perseverance.
My misconception was quickly dispelled when Snow Flower came into Lily’s life. Unlike Lily, Snow Flower is a self-contained spirit who asks for no one’s acceptance, a rebellious young girl whose dream was something more than marrying and being a good wife. But perhaps the first step in breaking a woman’s soul is to physically cripple her body. Even as Lily and Snow Flower strive to bridge the distance their domestic lives imposed on them, they cannot walk far with their permanently disfigured feet. In order to sustain their friendships, they have to send letters and visit in secret. The nu shu language, a secret code invented by women to communicate exclusively amongst themselves, is one of the only methods through which they can rebel. Yet the nu shu‘s characters are described as weak, the lines thin and almost disappearing, not enough to subvert a culture of oppression. Throughout the story, I continued to hope for a change, an overturning of the system. I thought, perhaps, the friendship between Lily and Snow Flower would be enough, but the novel, consistent with Chinese history, did not give me that.
I cannot say I was disappointed by the outcome, because in many ways, it was the only outcome possible for women at the time. It is difficult to accept that strength is rooted in perseverance alone. But from a society designed to imprison its women, their only attribute left is their ability to endure. Even as Snow Flower dreamed, her only dream — of escape — was not actually her own, but stemmed from her condition. My only criticism, perhaps, is that the story was always contained within the boundary of history, and that in itself is a kind of failure, when it gives us nothing to hope for.
Abbigail N. Rosewood is an editorial assistant at The Missing Slate. She describes herself as a vagabond at heart, a traveler and a couch potato, a library “frequenter”, a believer in God and an agnostic. Abbi studies Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University and her work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Blazevox, Pens on Fire, The Bad Version and Greenhills Literary Lantern.