Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've read a few books recently that show the problems faced by women who lived in different times and locations. The Blood of Flowers takes place in 17th century Persia and Memoirs of a Geisha takes place in mid 20th century Japan. In both those books women were placed in difficult situations just because they were women. But I believe the wealthy women of 19th century China as portrayed in Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, had the hardest lives. The poor Chinese women of that period also had hard lives, but their troubles were based more on their economic situations than on their gender. They spent most of their lives working their small farms. The wealthy women were taught from birth that their only value would come from giving birth to sons, hopefully the sons of a rich man.
To have a chance at a good marriage to a man in a wealthy family, women had to be attractive. They achieved this level of beauty by having their feet bound at a young age, generally six or seven. This process killed one in ten girls and left the survivors crippled to various degrees. The women who had the most successful binding experience still could not run or even walk fast. The less fortunate women were sometimes unable to walk without using canes.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan spends a great deal of time on the subject of foot binding, but that isn't the only problem those women suffered. When they were young girls they were allowed to play outside, but after they reached the foot binding age they spent most of their lives in an “upstairs women's rooms” with the other women in their family. They spent their days weaving, sewing, and telling stories to each other. They were constantly reminded by their mothers that they were worthless. And, of course, the mothers were the ones who bound their feet, complicating that important relationship in ways that are unimaginable.
The women of that period were not allowed to learn men's writing, so they developed their own written language called nu shu. Men knew about this language but considered it too insignificant to acknowledge. The two main characters of this book, Snow Flower and Lilly used nu shu to write to each other on the folds of a fan.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan felt like two books to me. The first part was interesting because of what it taught me about Chinese society, but I didn't get into the characters until the second part. After that the relationship between Snow Flower and Lilly was fascinating. Their friendship had problems that could apply to people in any place and time. There was lying, jealousy, competing and misunderstanding, but there was also hope, loyalty and love. It seems that the relationships between women in that society was made stronger by the difficulties and isolation they had to bear. Although the women went to their husbands for “bed business,” they slept with other women and sometimes their relationships were sexual.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a great book for people interested in learning about living in different places and times.
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