SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN
BOOK reading: March 10-11, 2012 | DVD viewing: March 15, 2012
Though I knew that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan told the story of two Chinese women who had taken a lifetime vow of sisterhood, I was wholly unprepared for the ways this story would affect me. After introducing the first of these girls, young Lily, the story begins with harrowing descriptions of the long-practiced tradition of footbinding in young girls. All I’ve ever known was that the feet of Chinese girls were bound to prevent them from growing beyond the tiny size of a child’s and that the length of those feet determined a woman’s desirability in later life. I had no idea that such binding involved the literal breaking of the bones so that the woman’s foot was actually reshaped to the point where the ball of the foot touched the heel of the foot and all weight became distributed onto the large toe. The “ideal” size for young women was three inches! And the size of the feet, in large part, actually determined a woman’s marriageability, and thus, social status. Girls whose feet were not bound, or whose feet grew beyond an “acceptable” size due to poor binding methods, were destined to be no greater than a servant or, if lucky, a concubine. As recent as the early 20th century, the restrictive practice of footbinding was still carried out in Chinese cultures, and many women were still seen as nothing more than a vessel for bearing sons and performing household duties.
Beginning the book about Lily and Snow Flower, her sworn sister (laotong, in the Chinese language), I struggled to move past the descriptions of footbinding; it seemed everything that came after was directly tied to the two girls’ experiences of the tradition. But Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is really the story of a lifelong friendship between two women during a time in history when Chinese women were not allowed lives of their own. Despite such oppression, the women of ancient China developed a secret written language called nu shu as a way to communicate freely amongst themselves without men being able to know what they shared. This language was passed down from woman to woman within the sanctity of the women’s chambers of their homes, and each group who practiced the art would come to develop their own version of nu shu that could be understood only by reading the context of the entire message. In this way, the recipients of the messages were often the only women who could interpret what was written to them, making it ever more secret as the years passed. Snow Flower and Lily wrote their messages in nu shu upon the individual panels of a fan, and as they grew older and their lives progressed from young girls to teen brides to motherhood and into later life, their shared story was chronicled upon this single fan – each panel becoming a missive from one to the other and then back again in response. So the secret fan detailed the lives of two sworn sisters (known as “old sames” for the similarities in their lives that paired them together in the first place) as they came to love each other in a way that surpassed even the love of mothers to children and wives to husbands. And it also reflected the pain and betrayals that accompany such deeply-held love.
The book is incredibly engaging. Even as I struggled to keep my own Western perceptions in check – not being able to contain my shock and frustration at the way Chinese mothers degraded their daughters and Chinese daughters considered themselves unworthy of any kind of goodness in their lives – I also could not put the book down for a full 12 hours one night. The story of Lily and Snow Flower is one of beauty and even courage, at times, and it is remarkably vivid in its presentation of Chinese culture in the late 19th century. Every phrase paints a clear picture, and every scene provokes some kind of emotion. Yet, in everything there is the thread of friendship that perhaps only women usually come to know… that which transcends family and which thinks nothing of intense affection. I have felt such love in my own life only a couple of times, and it is truly deeper than familial love because it is one of choice. Ultimately, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the chronicle of two friends who chose to devote themselves to each other for life, no matter the cost. Author Lisa See made me desire that type of love once again simply by telling the story of the laotong.
The film version of this book is equally beautiful, though it does not capture the full depth of love that is described in the written work. Instead, the movie tells the story of Snow Flower and Lily in parallel to a modern story of two women who also chose to become sworn sisters after learning of the first pair’s bond many generations before. As the film progresses, we see the modern story of Nina and Sophia in flashback while the story of Snow Flower and Lily is told as a book written by Sophia. Though there are some similarities between the two tales, the movie does not do justice to the ancient story of the laotong, placing far too much emphasis on the modern sisterhood. Had I not already read the full story of Snow Flower and Lily, this film version would not have prompted me to turn to the book for more. That causes the film to do the book a disservice, so I would encourage anyone who has not read the book to absolutely do so. The film version is very artistic and moody and beautifully shot, but the book contains the better story. And the book is the true work of art.
Side Note: Don’t be fooled by seeing Hugh Jackman‘s name listed prominently on the DVD. He appears in only three scenes, and his character is only found in the modern tale of Nina and Sophia. He does sing, and in Mandarin(!), but his appearance is not enough for fans who will want to see this movie just for him. You won’t be satisfied at all.
MEMORABLE PASSAGES FROM THE BOOK
The book featured many, many passages that captured me, and I write them here for posterity. Be aware that details of the story are revealed in these passages, so do not continue further if you wish not to know anything about the story before reading the book. I think the reading is actually much more satisfying that way. Had I known some of these details I may not have had the same engaging experience that I did while reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. But having read it now, these passages will always take me back to a specific moment in the tale and I can’t imagine that my heart response will lessen over time.
When I knew I couldn’t suffer another moment of pain, and tears fell on my bloody bindings, my mother spoke softly into my ear, encouraging me to go one more hour, one more day, one more week, reminding me of the rewards I would have if I carried on a little longer. In this way, she taught me how to endure — not just the physical trials of footbinding and childbearing but the more torturous pain of the heart, mind, and soul. She was also pointing out my defects and teaching me how to use them to my benefit. In our country, we call this type of mother love teng ai. My son has told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain; the second means love. That is a mother’s love.
I am still learning about love. I thought I understood it — not just mother love but the love for one’s parents, for one’s husband, and for one’s laotong. I’ve experienced the other types of love — pity love, respectful love, and gratitude love. But looking at our secret fan with its messages written between Snow Flower and me over many years, I see that I didn’t value the most important love — deep-heart love.
Daughter Days: Milk Years
These last years I have copied down many autobiographies for women who never learned nu shu. I have listened to every sadness and complaint, every injustice and tragedy. I have chronicled the miserable lives of the poorly fated. I have heard it all and written it all down. But if I know much about women’s stories, then I know almost nothing about men’s, except that they usually involve a farmer fighting against the elements, a soldier in battle, or a lone man on an interior quest. Looking at my own life, I see it draws from the stories of women and men. I am a lowly woman with the usual complaints, but inside I also waged something like a man’s battle between my true nature and the person I should have been.
Daughter Days: Footbinding
Even now, after all these years, it is difficult for me to think about Mama and what I realized on that day. I saw so clearly that I was inconsequential to her. I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters — as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home. I was five, old enough to know I didn’t deserve her attention, but suddenly I craved it. I longed for her to look at me and talk to me the way she did with Elder Brother. But even in that moment of my first truly deep desire, I was smart enough to know that Mama wouldn’t want me to interrupt her during this busy time when so often she had scolded me for talking too loudly or had swatted at the air around me because I got in her way. Instead, I vowed to be like Elder Sister and help as quietly and carefully as I could.
All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life — a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet with seven distinct attributes: They should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of these requirements, length is most important. Seven centimeters — about the length of a thumb — is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. Finally, the cleft formed by the forefoot and heel should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicularly within its folds. If I could attain all that, happiness would be my reward.
“A true lady lets no ugliness into her life,” Mama repeated again and again, drilling the words into me. “Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind, but you will have the reward.”
I often think back on those first few months of our footbinding. I remember how Mama, Aunt, Grandmother, and even Elder Sister recited certain phrases to encourage us. One of these was “Marry a chicken, stay with a chicken; marry a rooster, stay with a rooster.” Like so much back then, I heard the words but didn’t understand the meaning. Foot size would determine how marriageable I was. My small feet would be offered as proof to my prospective in-laws of my personal discipline and my ability to endure the pain of childbirth, as well as whatever misfortunes might lie ahead. My small feet would show the world my obedience to my natal family, particularly to my mother, which would also make a good impression on my future mother-in-law. The shoes I embroidered would symbolize to my future in-laws my abilities at embroidery and thus other house learning. And, though I knew nothing of this at the time, my feet would be something that would hold my husband’s fascination during the most private and intimate moments between a man and a woman. His desire to see them and hold them in his hands never diminished during our lives together, not even after I had five children, not even after the rest of my body was no longer an enticement to do bed business.
Daughter Days: The Fan
This match would cost my father resources — the constant exchange of gifts between the old sames and their families, the sharing of food and water during Snow Flower’s visits to our house, and the expense for me to travel to Tongkou — all of which he did not have. But as Madame Wang said, it was up to Mama to convince Baba that this was a good idea. Aunt helped too by whispering in Uncle’s ear, since Beautiful Moon’s future was attached to mine. Anyone who says that women do not have influence in men’s decisions makes a vast and stupid mistake.
Daughter Days: Learning
Aunt’s words did not comfort Elder Sister. She sobbed harder, putting her hands over her ears. Mama had to speak, but when she did the words that came out of her mouth slithered from the deepest part of the yin — negative, dark, and female.
“You married out,” Mama said, in a way that seemed oddly detached. “You go to another village. Your mother-in-law is cruel. Your husband doesn’t care for you. We wish you would never leave, but every daughter marries away. Everyone agrees. Everyone goes along with it. You can cry and beg to come home, we can grieve that you have gone, but you — and we — have no choice. The old saying makes this very clear: ‘If a daughter doesn’t marry out, she’s not valuable; if fire doesn’t raze the mountain, the land will not be fertile.'”
Hair-Pinning Days: The Flower-Sitting Chair
Three days before my wedding, I began the ceremonies associated with the Day of Sorrow and Worry. Mama sat on the fourth step leading to the upstairs chamber, the women of our village came to witness the laments, and everyone went kit, ku, ku, with much sobbing all around. Once Mama and I finished our crying and singing to each other, I repeated the process with my father, my uncle and aunt, and my brothers. I may have been brave and looking forward to my new life, but my body and soul were weak from hunger, because a bride is not allowed to eat for the final ten days of her wedding festivities. Do we follow this custom to make us sadder at leaving our families, to make us more yielding when we go to our husbands’ homes, or to make us appear more pure to our husbands? How can I know the answer? All I know is that Mama — like most mothers — hid a few hard-boiled eggs for me in the women’s chamber, but these did little to give me strength, and my emotions weakened with each new event.
The next day my in-laws arrived in Puwei early enough to pick me up and get me back to Tongkou by late afternoon. When I heard the band on the outskirts of the village, my heart began to race. I couldn’t help it, but tears leaked from my eyes. Mama, Aunt, Elder Sister, and Snow Flower all cried as they led me downstairs. The groom’s emissaries arrived at the threshold. My brothers helped load my dowry into waiting palanquins. Again I wore my headdress, so I couldn’t see anyone, but I heard my family’s voices as we went through the final traditional calls and responses.
“A woman will never become valuable if she doesn’t leave her village,” Mama cried out.
“Goodbye, Mama,” I chanted back to her. “Thank you for raising a worthless daughter.”
Why was I making such a fuss when I would return to my natal home in three days? I can explain it this way: The phrase we use for marrying out is buluo fujia, which means not falling into your husband’s home immediately. The luo means falling, like the falling of leaves in autumn or falling in death. And in our local dialect, the word for wife is the same as the word for guest. For the rest of my life I would be merely a guest in my husband’s home — not the kind you treat with special meals, gifts of affection, or soft beds, but the kind who is forever viewed as a foreigner, alien and suspect.
Hair-Pinning Days: Truth
Perhaps it is a joke that only girls and women can understand. We are seen as completely useless. Even if our natal families love us, we are a burden to them. We marry into new families, go to our husbands sight unseen, do bed business with them as total strangers, and submit to the demands of our mothers-in-law. If we are lucky, we have sons and secure our positions in our husbands’ homes. If not, we are faced with the scorn of our mothers-in-law, the ridicule of our husbands’ concubines, and the disappointed faces of our daughters. We use a woman’s wiles — of which at seventeen we girls know almost nothing — but beyond this there is little we can do to change our fate. We live at the whim and pleasure of others, which is why what Snow Flower and her mother had done was so beyond. They had taken cloth that had once been sent from Snow Flower’s family to Snow Flower’s mother as a bride-price gift, been shaped into the dowry of a fine maiden, been reshaped again into clothes for a beautiful daughter, and now restructured another time to announce the qualities of a young woman marrying into the house of a polluted butcher. All of it was women’s work — the very work that men think is merely decorative — and it was being used to change the lives of the women themselves.
Hair-Pinning Days: The Temple of Gupo
As in most marriages, the most important person for me to build a relationship with was my mother-in-law. Everything Snow Flower had told me about Lady Lu following the usual conventions was true. She watched over me as I did the same chores that I did in my natal home — making tea and breakfast, washing clothes and bedding, preparing lunch, sewing, embroidering, and weaving in the afternoon, and finally cooking dinner.
My mother-in-law ordered me about freely. “Dice the melon into smaller cubes,” she might say, as I made winter melon soup. “The pieces you have cut are fit only for our pigs.” As for the food I brought from home, she would sniff and say, “Next time bring something less smelly. The odors of your meal ruin the appetites of my husband and sons.” As soon as the visit was over, I was sent back home with no thank-you or goodbye.
That about sums up how things were for me — not too bad, not too good, just the usual way. Lady Lu was fair; I was obedient and willing to learn. In other words, we each understood what was expected of us and did our best to fulfill our obligations.
Hair-Pinning Days: The Temple of Gupo
That afternoon I sat down with my ink and brush and composed a letter to Snow Flower. “When we see each other this year at the Temple of Gupo,” I wrote, “We will be as round as the moon.”
Mama, as you can imagine, was as strict with me during those months as she had been during my footbinding. It was her way, I think, to consider only the bad things that could happen. “Don’t climb hills,” she chastised me, as though I had ever been allowed to do that. “Don’t cross a narrow bridge, stand on one foot, watch an eclipse, or bathe in hot water.” I was never in danger of doing any of those things, but the food restrictions were a different matter. In our county we are proud of our spicy food, but I was not permitted to eat anything seasoned with garlic, chilies, or pepper, which could delay the delivery of my placenta. I was not allowed to eat any part of a lamb, which could cause my baby to be born sickly, or eat fish with scales, since this would cause a difficult labor. I was denied anything too salty, too bitter, too sweet, too sour, or too pungent, so I couldn’t eat fermented black beans, bitter melon, almond curd, hot and sour soup, or anything remotely flavored. I was permitted bland soups, sautéed vegetables with rice, and tea. I accepted these limitations, knowing that my worth was based entirely on the child growing inside of me.
Rice-and-Salt Days: Sons
For these reasons I have told the young women who have married into the Lu family, and the others I eventually reached through my teaching of nu shu, that they should hurry to have a baby boy. Sons are the foundation of a woman’s self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value. They create the link between her husband and his ancestors. This is the one accomplishment a man cannot achieve without the aid of his wife. Only she can guarantee the perpetuation of the family line, which, in turn, is the ultimate duty of every son. This is the supreme way he completes his filial duty, while sons are a woman’s crowning glory. I had done all this and I was ecstatic.
Rice-and-Salt Days: Sons
I looked out the lattice window toward Jintian, wishing that I could at least see Snow Flower. I felt terrible knowing that she was suffering and I couldn’t put my arms around her to comfort her. In front of my mother-in-law and the other women in the upstairs chamber I pulled out a piece of paper and mixed ink. Before I picked up the brush, I reread Snow Flower’s letter. The first time I had taken in only her sadness. Now I realized she’d broken from the traditional stylized lines used by wives in their letters and was using her nu shu to write more candidly and forthrightly about her life.
With her bold act, I realized the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands’ families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written. The men in our households never expected us to have anything important to say. They never expected us to have emotions or express creative thoughts. The women — our mothers-in-law and the others — put up even greater blockades against us. But from here on out, I hoped Snow Flower and I would be able to write the truth of our lives, whether we were together or apart. I wanted to drop the set phrases that were so common among wives in their rice-and-salt days and express my real thoughts. We would write as we had talked when we were huddled together in the upstairs chamber of my natal home.
Rice-and-Salt Days: Sons
Miscarriages were common occurrences in our county, and women were not supposed to care if they had one, especially if the child was a girl. Stillbirths were considered dreadful only if the baby was a son. If a stillborn child was a girl, parents were usually thankful. No one needed another worthless mouth to feed. For me, while I’d been petrified when I was pregnant that something might happen to my baby, I honestly didn’t know how I would have felt if he had been a daughter and had died before breathing the air of this world. What I’m trying to say is that I was bewildered that Snow Flower felt the way she did.
I had begged her to tell me the truth, but now that she had I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to reply with sympathy. I wanted to give her comfort and solace. But I was scared for her and didn’t know what to write. Everything that had happened in Snow Flower’s life — the reality of her childhood, her terrible marriage, and now this — was beyond my understanding. I had just turned twenty-one. I had never experienced real misery, my life was good, and these two things left me with little empathy.
I searched my mind for the right words to write the woman I loved, and to my great shame I let the conventions I’d grown up with wrap around my heart as I’d done that day in the palanquin. When I picked up my brush, I retreated to the safety of the formal lines appropriate for a married woman, hoping this would remind Snow Flower that our only real protection as women was the placid face we presented, even in those moments of greatest distress. She had to try to get pregnant again — and soon — because the duty of all women was to keep trying to give birth to sons.
Rice-and-Salt Days: Letter of Vituperation
I was thirty-three years old. I would be lucky to live another seven years, luckier still to get seventeen. I could not endure the sick feeling in my stomach for another minute, let alone a year or more. My torment was great, but I summoned the same discipline that had gotten me through my footbinding, the epidemic, and the winter in the mountains to help me. I began what I called Cutting a Disease from My Heart. Anytime a memory came into my mind, I painted over it with black ink. If my sight fell upon a memory, I drove it away by closing my eyes. If a memory came in the form of a scent, I buried my nose in the petals of a flower, threw extra garlic in the wok, or conjured up the smell of starvation in the mountains. If a memory grazed my skin — in the form of my daughter’s touch against my hand, my husband’s breath against my ear at night, or the feel of a limp breeze across my breasts as I bathed — I scratched or rubbed or pounded it away. I was as ruthless as a farmer after harvest, yanking out every last remnant of what last season had been his most prized crop. I tried to clear everything down to bare earth, knowing this was the only way I could protect my damaged heart.
Rice-and-Salt Days: Into The Clouds
“She loved you as a laotong should for everything that you were and everything you were not,” Plum Blossom concluded. “But you had too much man-thinking in you. You loved her as a man would, valuing her only for following men’s rules.”