“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” by Lisa See, is a book about friendship and the human need for love.
Through the backdrop of 19th-century China, the book follows the path of a friendship throughout a lifetime, all the while exploring the deep bonds between women, and testing exactly what a friendship can endure.
Young Lily’s only hopes to escape her family’s mediocre destiny lie in the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding.
When her feet measure a delicate and enviable 7 centimeters long, her life is forever changed. Because of her “beautiful” feet, Lily is selected to form a life-long friendship bond with Snow Flower, a girl from better standing than she. This gives her hope that she might be able to trade life on her parents’ farm for a brighter, richer future.
The deep friendship bond that Lily and Snow Flower share is referred to as a laotong match, and is considered a bond that is deeper and more permanent even than marriage.
Although the two women’s lives take vastly different paths, sometimes leading them hundreds of miles apart, the laotong match is enough to keep them connected throughout their lives and sustain them through long separations.
Besides yearly visits to the temple, the women’s friendship is also goaded on by clandestine messages written on a fan that is passed between the two. These notes are written in a secret writing system, known only to the women of China.
Because they were banned from the world of men, which included all education and knowledge of the Chinese language, women of the time period developed their own writing system to communicate with each other.
This method proved very effective, and each new generation of girls was taught this “secret language” in order to keep it alive.
With this kind of information, the book becomes even more than an endearing and uplifting tale of life-long friendship; we also become familiar with important Chinese customs. See’s depiction of Chinese foot binding, which comes at a pivotal place in the story, is told in excruciating detail.
This not only garners sympathy for the characters, but places the story in its historical context. For generations, women in China had no worth except in what kind of marriage match they could obtain, which was somewhat determined by the “success” of their foot binding.
They therefore subjected themselves and their daughters to many months of horrible pain in the form of broken toes and bruised soles, in order to obtain the perfect “golden lilies,” as they called their feet.
Through the description of this gut-wrenching practice, See takes us into the world of women and inside the separate and secret culture they shared inside the women’s chamber.
This, combined with the messages relayed to Lily on Snow Flower’s fan, highlight what was important to women, what they thought about and discussed regularly. The messages on Snow Flower’s fan show that idea that a woman’s only worth lied in finding a good marriage and producing healthy sons was never far from their minds.
The thought of losing these precious sons, or even their “worthless” daughters haunted them constantly, as well.
Elements of a foreign culture pervade every part of the novel. The reader gains clear perspective of another time and place. The book is so richly detailed, it’s almost as if the author lived the story herself.
See remains true to the heart of the novel: It is a story about a friendship that evolves over a lifetime. Even though the story focuses on Chinese women, the characters’ individual journeys and plights for approval in their relationships are universal.
And, although historical events take place, they do not become the focus of the book; instead, we follow the lives of Lily and Snow Flower in the midst of these happenings.
The book is strong but not forceful, sweet yet never saccharine. All of these things make it a story that is easy to appreciate and worth every page.
Through the relationship of two 19th-century Chinese women, See artfully intertwines history, fiction, and the power of friendship, creating a legend-like tale. With beautiful language and meaningful descriptions and dialogue, she succeeds in telling a story that speaks to the human heart.