Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, or Why I'm Glad I Wasn't Born in 19th Century China

Friday, July 01, 2011

Sometimes I am in horrified awe at the things that people have done to make women more "desirable".  As oppressive as I find the ridiculously unrealistic American beauty ideal, it is downright feminist when compared to past and present practices from around the world.  And while I realize that this novel is probably supposed to be about the power of women to create community, but I couldn't get past the foot-binding.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of Lily and Snow Flower, who meet at young girls in 18th century China.  They become laotong, or friends bonded for life, at age seven at the behest of a matchmaker in the hopes that their friendship will yield better marriages for both.  Because of their families' social status, the girls have their feet bound at the age of seven.  Foot binding was practiced by all but the poorest families in China, the goal being to stop the girls feet from growing.  The smaller the feet, the better the marriage.  Lily tells the story of her friendship with Snow Flower through all of the stages of life-childhood, adolescence, womanhood-through their use of nu shu, a special written language used only by women.

Lisa See does an excellent job using the story of Lily and Snow Flower to paint a vivid picture of Chinese culture, especially women's culture.  My 21st century brain was routinely appalled by how the women were treated. But nothing was as horrifying as the description of the foot binding process.  The girls toes were bent under their foot and bound there.  They were then forced to walk on them until they broke, and the foot slowly bent under until there was only the big toe left to balance on.  Perhaps the most disturbing part was the fact that it was generally their mothers who bound their feet.  As a mother myself, I can't imagine the social pressure that a person must be under to cause that kind of pain to your own child.

It also struck me reading this novel how many times in the history of the world people have created social rules that in fact work against not just their self-interest, but their actual survival.  Forced to flee their homes due to civil unrest, many of the women died trying to walk up a mountain on their "golden lilies", as their small bound feet were called.  Purposely keeping whole classes of people illiterate also seems counterproductive, to say the least.  And of course, determining a woman's value by her physical attributes...seems like we're still working on a few of those today.


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this one! It's been awhile since I have read it, but obviously it isn't something you easily forget. Great point about how the footbinding process actually led to many of the women's demise. So sad but you are right about certain elements of this one still ringing true today. Thankfully, not in such a physically painful manner.

  2. This book is written like a memoir, so the narrator has plenty of perspective now as she's writing it, and you feel like you're almost there. I never knew so much about footbinding or about the roles of girls. It's a touching story, and I'd recommend it if you're looking for an engrossing read.

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