I LOVED Snow Flower and the Secret Fan! It was sad, yet fulfilling, true and honest, yet fictional. A truly moving story about the hardships of being a woman in nineteenth-century China. Yes, foot binding too. We’ll get there. By the way, this is going to be a buddy read review, so get ready to read a lot of questions and answers! I read this book along with Sarabi @ Swallow Song, who was an AMAZING buddy to read with because we had the best discussion ever <3 so read her review here!
In nineteenth century China, a girl from a poor family is paired into a lifelong female friendship match with a girl from a family of a higher social standing. So her life begins, and we learn about it through her own eyes, as she is growing up. Not only does Snow Flower and the Secret Fan extensively cover the woman’s place and life in pre-modern China, but it’s also a tale about sisterhood, trust and empathy, as well as just being a good human being, no matter what your circumstances are — or failing to be one.
This book includes a lot of detail on Chinese customs, especially regarding women’s life and circumstances, and the main premise also hangs on the concept of nu shu, a somewhat secret writing system that the Chinese women taught from generation to generation, as they were forbidden to learn men’s writing and had no other means to communicate with the families they were forced to leave behind when they married.
Since this is a buddy read review, let’s move on to the questions!
When reading about customs that are very different from your own, how to you analyze the information? Do you try to accept it for what it is, or does your mind filter it in terms of what is “right” and “wrong”?
What a good question! I usually try to be as open-minded as I can, when reading about foreign customs, but sometimes it’s hard – I remember, when I was reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, there was a custom
What do you think would have happened if the women didn’t bind their feet? Would there still be a need for the women’s chambers and secret societies?
I believe there probably wouldn’t have been. I remember reading somewhere else that back in the golden age of China, women had much more freedom in society. Binding women’s feet, an act of brutality not only against a person’s body, but also against their freedom of movement, presented as simple aesthetics? It’s all part of the plan of keeping them under control. What’s sad is that had these women not been jailed in their inner chambers, the villages might have not even been so poor – there are a lot of jobs a healthy woman can help out with on a farm, if, you know, she can walk.
Nu shu seemed to be an open secret throughout Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Women claimed it was something men could neither touch nor know of, yet all the men in the novel seemed to know whether the women in their lives were literate, despite not knowing the content of the letters. Why do you think the women insisted on keeping up this charade of secrecy?
I also really wondered about that. Nu shu is sort of an open secret, and not just in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but in other books I have read that included this practice. I guess the secrecy might have been grasping at straws, to keep at least some dignity that the men allowed them? Having a secret gives importance to the self. In traditional Chinese society, a woman’s place was no place at all – having a secret that all nu shu literate women shared as an item must have given women a deep sense of meaning and purpose, especially as Confucian society is built on constantly striving to better oneself.
Which character impacted you and which character did you identify with the most?
Sad to say, it was Beautiful Moon. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so that’s all I’ll say, and let the ones who have read the novel understand. As for the others, I still loved the main characters! However, Lily was too callous to relate to too much, and Snow Flower, as a proper mirror image of Lily, was too fluid, too free. But, as a pair of main characters, they paint an incredibly contrasting picture – which works so well for the novel. I wonder if it was intended as a sort of yin and yang?
Women regard themselves as “useless branches” throughout Snow Flower and the Secret Fan because they are raised only to be married out into other families, and because they are not able (or not allowed?) to do strenuous farm work after their feet have been bound. I still can’t figure out how this power structure makes sense because allowing the women to be free means more farmers on the family plot, which would create a better crop and more profit. The women believe they are useless but their don’t need to be. Why do you think the Yao people created this tradition? What are your thoughts on the power structure as a whole?
I am no historian, but the only logical conclusion is that this tradition must have come about when society was relatively prosperous and women simply didn’t need to work? There are such periods in every society. And the Chinese society seems to be very customs-prone and follow tradition almost religiously, so once it was there, it must have been there to stay, sadly. It goes without saying, that it must’ve not just been women who bought into these values, but the men as well, and given several generations, they would never really consider going back to the older ways, because it should be simply too hard to understand that a woman could really be capable of anything.
Was there anything in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that surprised you?
Actually, yes! The fact that the women were kept like prisoners, and yet allowed to form sisterhoods and strong bonds that were respected by the whole of society incredibly contrasted and surprised me. I didn’t think they would be allowed to have any sort of emotional freedom, but I guess you can coerce a person into a box for only so long before they’ll succumb to depression or something else. It must have been a sort of preventative measure then? A society needs women, however much you devalue them, and 19th century China didn’t seem to have any scientific means of procreating without actual living women, after all.
What do you think could have been improved in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?
Actually, I was pretty happy with the novel the way it was! I am not sure I would change anything in it. Maybe cover some loose ends, things that were hinted at, but never quite told about. But all of these are details that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book at all.
Books Like This You Might Enjoy
I have quite an assortment of books for this one! First of all, naturally I’m going to recommend another novel of Lisa See’s that tells about the traditions of a different minority of the Chinese people: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Meanwhile, if you are more into reading about courtesans, you might enjoy Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, which is also a tale of hardship and involves some foot binding and other traditions, but in a completely different situation for the main character. I will even go as far as saying that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has ties to The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s about strong female relationships in a terribly restricting, even violent society for women. Brick Lane is also from a different cultural context, not China – however, it also deals with women’s freedom and the woman’s place in different cultures. And The Secrets of Jin-Shei is fantasy, and might have one or two cliches, but it’s also the only (older!) book that I’ve read that uses nu shu as a part of the plot.
Be sure to head on to Sarabi’s post to read her take on this book!
Did you read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? Do you read books about ancient or traditional China? And have you read any well-researched books like this one, that don’t buy into stereotypes or cliches?