Book Club Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

March 2016: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

blog by Cindy Bushey


The old adage assures us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we accept this.  However, it is difficult to appreciate and recognize other cultural standards that have defined beauty until they stare you in the face.  Zion’s readers had a vivid picture of an older, foreign type of beauty seared into their minds while reading their March selection Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.

Set in 19th century China, this novel explores the relationship between two girls growing up in rural China who are bound physically and mentally by the strict cultural mores of their time.  Foot binding was discontinued officially in 1912 but instances happened into the 1960’s.  To understand it required us to abandon our 21st century outlooks and immerse ourselves in a society alien to our values.  In this unfamiliar society, females were repeatedly told they were personally worthless.  Their only value was to marry higher on the social ladder, have sons, and thereby improve their family social standing.  To achieve that end, young girls had their feet bound to train them into a shape aesthetically pleasing to men.  Foot binding seems too simple a term for this brutal process.  All toes but the large toe were bent under the foot and forced back.  The foot was bound with strips of cloth tortuously tight, and then the girl was compelled to walk until the bones broke.  The cloth strips were changed every few days, always tighter, and fatal infections sometimes developed.  The ideal foot was only as large as a fist and always concealed in tiny shoes laboriously embroidered by the girls as they suffered.  The process was intended to teach them obedience through pain and prepare them to deal uncomplainingly with childbirth.

With their feet bound and thus restricted to a shuffling gait (again deemed beautiful) and the confines of the women’s upper room, a girl’s contact with the outer world was limited.  Denied what we would term a mother’s love, married to unknown, sometimes abusive men whose mothers could also be abusive , girls developed sustaining emotional relationships with other females, some of which could last a lifetime.  These relationships were begun and maintained through stylistic rituals and language, and thus it was that Lily and Snow Flower became laotongs –or “old sames.”  Using the female secret language of nu shu, these friends communicated their hopes, desires, and feelings by writing on a fan. The author traced the ups and downs of the relationship through engagements, marriages, “bed business” (this was a favorite euphemism of our readers), and children.  There were times of closeness and times of estrangement.

Zion’s readers were variously repulsed and attracted as they read this book.  Being products of their own time, they found the portrayed treatment of women repugnant.  Google supplied images of bound feet that were hard to forget and the knowledge that one in ten girls died from the procedure.  We had trouble empathizing with many of the characters – mothers who reserved love for sons, mothers-in law who were perfect b*tches as one reader put it, misogynous husbands, and women always pressured to produce sons, perfect household skills, and accept their innate worthlessness.  Ms. See kept her focus solely on this isolated, rigid world and only once had the plot encompass a historical event.  Some of our readers felt playing the story against the events happening in China during the 1820’s would have added a great deal to the story and maintained their interest.  Other readers appreciated the interaction between Lily and Snow Flower even though the stilted language and the addition of a character’s suicide rang a false note.  While understanding that nu shu and writing on the fan gave Lily and Snow Flower a voice, it was disheartening to see Lily become as cold as her own mother.  Many readers felt the author inferred that close physical relationships could exist between the laotongs; perhaps they took comfort wherever they could find it in a world that often was unending drudgery and pain.

Ms. See acknowledged that she wove true stories of her ancestors into her plot thereby giving a voice to relatives who had none while they lived.  While our readers deplored the fanatical devotion to a flawed image of beauty, we recognized the parallels in other cultures where filed teeth, pierced lips, stretched earlobes and necks, and anorexia are all done to achieve a cultural standard of beauty.  To view a naked bound foot next to the image of a ballerina’s foot with bruised, deformed toes from dancing en pointe raises the question: what price beauty? As Ms. See’s novel demonstrated, a great price is often demanded and given.  Zion’s readers had mixed reviews with 7 giving it one thumb up, 4 remaining neutral, and 2 giving it one thumb down.