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Read About Women’s Struggles And Relationships In Traditional China Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

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 SarabiSwallow 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 to do with killing babies and I just couldn’t accept that. Traditional or not – I will not approve of murder, especially of helpless beings. It was the same story with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – it seems, all the traditional Chinese customs were aimed at making the women submit, have no power, and even meant to pit them against each other – just so they could be controlled. Women seem to have been taught to hate their own kind, to disrespect the self, to devalue the life of a female child. It’s hard to view such customs with an open mind, because they are just harmless to women as a whole. But I was glad to read about it – it made me value what we have now so much – whether we complain of inequality or not, now we have a choice to walk out of our house without aid or permission. I think that on its own says enough.

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.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane The Valley of Amazement The Handmaid's Tale Brick Lane The Secrets of Jin-shei (Jin-Shei #1)

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?

I’m Evelina and I try to blog about books that matter, with a bit of fun there too! Disability and equality will be topics you see a lot, but there’s also a lot of scifi, fantasy and… GIFs. I’m also the proud founder of #ARCsAnonymous.

54 thoughts on “Read About Women’s Struggles And Relationships In Traditional China Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

    1. Great! I’m sure you will enjoy it 🙂 it’s such a great book. I swear I was sitting there at my breakfast bowl reading the book when I should have been working for at least two mornings 😀

  1. I forget which book I read, but I took a Gender and Sexuality in Asian Literuate corse in undergrad (I was a Chinese minor). We alternate between movies and novels every week, from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean movies and authors (both male and female), and from ancient times to somewhat current – but theme in all of them was the struggles that that females would face and how life existed for them in those patriarchies. Quite a shocker sometimes, to say the least.
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  2. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while now. I always find it so interesting to read about foreign cultures, especially ones that are so different from my own. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. Great review!

    1. Well, if you love the buddy read format, then perhaps we should do a buddy read for our two blogs sometime 🙂 I have two buddy reads booked (so march and april), but then we can totally figure something out if you’d be willing 🙂

  3. Being Chinese, I don’t actually read any books related to ancient China, except for my history lessons in school, of course. The Chinese history is so rich (with stories of kings eating their kids, and making swimming pools of wine–which have, thankfully, stopped), so I’m glad that there are books like these with proper research to represent all these traditions.

    I’ve not read this one, but it seems interesting, especially since my own grandmother told me stories of her mother’s experiences with foot-binding. It’ll probably be a pain to read for me.

    Anyway, if you haven’t read Chinese Cinderella yet, you should! It also covers the Chinese lifestyle, although much more modernly. 🙂
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    1. Yeah, Chinese history can go both ways! Especially near the 20th century though, it’s always so depressing… But I can never stop reading about it! I have read so many books about China, it seems.

      Swimming pools of wine, though xD really xD

      Wow! It’s incredible that you knew someone who’s heard a relative tell it first-hand. That’s absolutely incredible… Seems so long ago, but yet.. Not quite that long ago. Incredible.

      Chinese Cinderella? Nope, I haven’t! Who’s the author? 🙂

  4. It seems like reading this one would be quite difficult actually, because there are some things you might not agree with. But the thing about history and moments like these is that they are all valuable as they have helped contribute to where we are in the present day and where we will be progressing toward in the future. I am very interested in Chinese culture and history for no particular reason and have read a lot about it. Thanks for putting this one on my radar too.
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    1. Yeah, you’re right – it was one of those books where you’re between being shocked but also not being able to put the book down 🙂 those books are usually so adrenalin-filled though (at least, for me!)

  5. You did such a good job of actually telling people what the book is *about*! I think I forgot to mention the plot in my answers…. oops, haha. I love that we gave the book almost the same rating, I was curious to see how many stars you would give it.

    After reading your response about Beautiful Moon, I realize that there actually aren’t that many characters to choose from. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has shallow characterizations of the male characters, and we only see the women as they interact with Lily and Snow Flower. We never really see them as their own people. Besides the two main characters, we’re given detailed descriptions of Madame Wang and (who has the most full characterizations imo) and Lily’s mom and Lily’s Aunt. I don’t relate to any of them, which may be why it took me so long to get into the book. xD

    1. Hahaha 😀 well, it was an interview! And I loved your post, it was loads of fun to read 🙂 also, don’t forget I am more familiar with these formats of review cause I sort of made it up myself 😀 these buddy read reviews started with me! Haha 😀

      And although we gave it the same amount of stars, our reviews are so different 🙂 I felt like I liked the book more, after I read your review 😀

      You’re absolutely right, there are not that many characters in the book. The only ones that truly come out (out of the secondaries, I mean) are Beautiful Moon and the aunt, her mother (although she does so much less). Maybe it’s good that way, cause the novel focuses on how closed in the women’s lives are – barely any people around them.

  6. I also loved all the details about Chinese culture, and for me the further back in time the more interesting. I found the stuff about foot binding to be equally horrifying and fascinating, and I had never heard of nu shu before this book. It all completely hooked me! I’m excited to check out the read-alikes you listed now.
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  7. I really liked this buddy read review!

    I feel like just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean we don’t have to question it and simply accept it. Also it is really intriguing that despite being prisoners of some sort they were aloud to form bonds with other women. You made me really curious about this book!

  8. The older I get, the more I want to know about history and what other cultures go through, and this is a novel I would definitely pick up. I analyze everything(lol), so I definitely have lots of thoughts on what occured. Thanks so much for sharing this important post! Hugs…RO
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    1. You know, based on the posts you post and the topics you like on your blog, I think you would really enjoy this book and it might give you inspiration for posting as well 🙂

  9. Another fascinating-sounding read! I actually know nothing whatsoever about this era of Chinese history and how women dealt with it, so this sounds intriguing. Also not to be shallow but that cover is SO pretty.

  10. What a wonderful post, I enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan too. I remember cringing during the foot binding scenes. I definitely analyze and like to discuss the books I am reading, especially ones like this where there is so much to talk about. I need to read The Handmaid’s Tale one day.
    Enjoy your week!

  11. Wonderful review Evelina. This looks like an interesting and important read. I haven’t read anything about Chinese culture before but I am adding this to my TBR.
    Knowing secrecies and customs like nu shu of any culture definitely horrifies you. It is hard to imagine the things that women in past needed to do for making themselves stand in the society.
    I think I have got a book about Chinese culture through Edelweiss and I can’t wait to read it now 🙂
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    1. Thank you, Sim! Oh, Chinese culture can be amazing to read about. I don’t know if it’s the same over there, but for me, it’s quite as far removed from my culture as you can imagine, so it’s very refreshing and different, and incredibly interesting.
      Which book do you have on Chinese culture from Edelweiss? I am curious now 🙂

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