“I understand there is a girl of good character and women’s learning in your home. You and I are of the same year and the same day. Could we not be sames together?”
With these words, Lily, the narrator, is introduced to her laotong—her old same—and we enter the world of nu shu, the secret women’s writing that flourished for a time in Hunan, China, part of a separate culture learned and cherished by generations of Chinese women.
Lily is the daughter of an undistinguished tenant farmer in Yongming County, until the matchmaker sees something special in her, and brings in a matchmaker from a distant city to have a look. Auntie Wang sees other possibilities, and proposes an unusual arrangement for someone of Lily’s class: that she be paired with a laotong from a distinguished family, an arrangement that may change the fortunes of Lily’s own family. All of this is based on the possibility that Lily may prove to have perfect golden lilies—the bound feet that were the measure of a woman’s beauty and worth in this time and place.
When the girls are seven, their feet are broken and bound on the same day. See describes the excruciating process by which the feet are transformed, and how Lily’s mother shows her mother love—unrelenting cruelty—in making sure that her daughter has perfect feet. Her own feet had been badly bound, which made her both crippled and ungraceful, and doomed to a poor match. Lily resents her mother’s ambitions for her, but also sees that her only option is dishonor.
Lily and her laotong, Snow Flower, do not meet for at least another year, when they sign a contract even more binding than marriage, since “no concubines are allowed,” according to Auntie Wang, who cultivates Lily as a suitable match for a high-born family. After that, Snow Flower always comes to stay with Lily. Normally, this match between two girls would involve reciprocal visits. During Snow Flower’s visits, they practice the women’s arts of embroidery, weaving, and learning the characters of nu shu, as well as its lore and music. In turn, Lily teaches Snow Flower the more practical aspects of women’s work, such as cooking and cleaning, of which Snow Flower seems mysteriously ignorant. Lily assumes it is because she has servants to do this mundane work for her. The turn in the novel comes when Lily learns the true circumstances of Snow Flower’s family.
The novel follows the two girls through their betrothals, marriages, and the births of their children. They strive to have many sons, since daughters are “useless branches” on the tree. Their development as girls and then women is marked by their annual visits to the Temple of Gupo in Shexia, the place they made their contract, until circumstances and misunderstandings come between them.
The most compelling section of the book occurs when Lily, now well-married and a mother, is on a visit to Snow Flower, who has married much beneath their original expectations. A rebellion forces all of the villagers to flee to a remote part of the mountains, where they live outdoors for three months. Reduced to elemental circumstances, Snow Flower’s reviled husband proves to be a practical and generous man, who keeps Lily alive along with most of his own family. This episode gives us a much-needed glimpse into the wider world of China and its changes at that time.
In an after word, See describes her travels to rural Western China to do research. There she met ninety-six-year-old nu shu writer Yang Huanyi, whose feet had been bound when she was a girl. Much of the nu shu writing was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but the government recently reversed that policy, and a nu shu school was recently opened in Puwei. See’s journey in itself would make an interesting book.
“We are like a pair of mandarin ducks mated for life” is a stock phrase written on the secret fan of the title passed back and forth between the laotong. As the girls mature, they learn to compose original messages that reflect their joys and sorrows. See wisely does not attempt to interpret the complexity of these relationships in modern terms, but allows the reader to see the void that they filled when most of a woman’s world was glimpsed from the lattice of an upper window. For this reason, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would be of interest to book groups, supplying plenty of material to which American women can compare their own lives and desires.
Reviewed by Kathleen Alcalá