Sunday, August 12, 2007

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Lily is the daughter of a humble farmer, and to her family she is just another expensive mouth to feed. Then the local matchmaker delivers startling news: if Lily's feet are bound properly, they will be flawless. In nineteenth-century China, where a woman's eligibility is judged by the shape and size of her feet, this is extraordinary good luck. Lily now has the power to make a good marriage and change the fortunes of her family. To prepare for her new life, she must undergo the agonies of footbinding, learn nu shu, the famed secret women's writing, and make a very special friend, Snow Flower. But a bitter reversal of fortune is about to change everything. - Synopsis from the back cover of the novel.

I was instantly attracted to Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan the moment I read its synopsis. China, footbinding, laotong as a special friend, nu shu -- these words intrigued me. I am glad I picked it up.

Lily was born in 1823. By the age of seven, she is prepared for footbinding. All she knew at that time was that footbinding would make her more marriageable and bring her closer to the one thing a married woman could hope for in life -- a son. The novel described the footbinding process in detail (when Lily's mother binds her feet) and I cringed in pain just by reading it.

A special arrangement is also being made for Lily to meet with Snow Flower, her laotong (old same). Snow Flower is from the village of Tongkou where Lily's well respected, wealthy future in-laws are from. As laotongs, they both share a lot of sames: eight characters well aligned; exact birthdays; number of brothers and sisters; and both are third child. To seal their relationship, they will be required to write their contract in the Temple of Gupo.

Lily and Snow Flower become the best of friends. Their laotong relationship is meant to last their lifetime, unlike that of sworn sisters (for those who are not fortunate enough to deserve a laotong) which will dissolve at marriage. They exchange correspondences on the fan which was given to them. Later, I found out that the fan records much joy and grief, filled with memories of yesteryears. So much love there -- love stronger and deeper than that of a husband and wife.

The book tells the story of their lives, the hardship they and their loved ones go through, the secrets, love, betrayal, pain, and reconciliation. I learned that being a girl born during that time in China does not give you much say in anything except to grow up, help the family with household chores, get your feet beautifully bound (a 'golden lily' is the ideal), marry into (hopefully) a good family (or risk possible abuse as in the case of Snow Flower), and once married, to bear sons as that will determine the position in your in-laws' family.

I have totally enjoyed the beautiful story-telling by Lisa See and strongly believe it's not to be missed. A definite re-read for me. I will be checking out her other works such as Peony in Love, Dragon Bones, The Interior, Flower Net and On Gold Mountain.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a work of fiction, but Lisa See has done extensive research. She had access to nu shu documents, met with the oldest living nu shu writer Yang Huangyi in Tong Shan Li Village, travelled to the villages mentioned in the novel such as Puwei and Tongkou, and made contact with people both in and outside of China who provided great insights into the customs and traditions mentioned in her novel.

Note on nu shu: It is believed to be the secret-code writing used by women in a remote area of southern Hunan Province, developed a thousand years ago. It appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women for their own use.