Sarah's Reviews > Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
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Aug 03, 11

bookshelves: china, women, friendship, foot-binding, coming-of-age, culture, marriage, childhood, adult
Read in August, 2011

Lily is a young girl in rural China in the nineteenth century, living with her poor, traditional farming family. A matchmaker approaches her parents about pairing Lily with a laotong (another girl whom she will share a lifetime friendship with, commonly called an "old same"). The matchmaker knows of a young girl who is Lily's age. Her name is Snow Flower, and her family's prestige will help increase Lily's chances of a successful marriage and future. The girls astrological signs show it will be a successful match. The arrangements are made, and Lily and Snow Flower begin their laotong relationship.

The girls mothers isolate them in the family home and begin traditional foot-binding, where the bones of the foot are repeatedly broken, then tightly wrapped to stunt the growth. This produces "golden lilies" or very small feet, usually no more than 3 inches in length. Having small feet was a sign of prosperity and honor, and was considered very attractive to potential suitors.

I found the descriptions of these procedures to be gut-wrenching and utterly morbid. At the end of the novel See described how footbinding was still practiced in rural China well into the 20th century, and it was only in 1951 that it was outlawed after Mao liberated Jiangyong County.

Snow Flower and Lily slowly develop a tight friendship, as they grow through adolescence. Their mothers teach them Nu Shu, which is a secret language written solely in characters. Only women know the art of Nu Shu, in order to secretly communicate with other women. No men are able to interpret the symbols. Snow Flower and Lily share a special fan, where they enscribe messages in Nu Shu detailing important chapters in their lives, including marriage, childbirth, death of their children, and the tribulations of disease and war.

This is a beautiful story of a lifelong, close friendship between two women from different social classes. See does a remarkable job of capturing the setting imagery, most likely inspired by her travels to the region. Fictional story, but fairly well based on historical events. Well done.

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