Feb 022012
  This 2005 novel is about the friendship between two Chinese women in mid-19th century rural China. I found it  wonderful to feel as if I was part of their world and totally accepted their view of life as my own. I decided to review this book since it has received much more attention now that it has  been adapted into a movie.
 Snow Flower and Lily are friends, but their friendship was not by chance. When they were only seven years old, a marriage broker arranged a contract in which they agreed to be friends for life. They did not live in the same town and Snow Flower came from a more prosperous family than Lily, but Snow Flower visited Lily often, and learned to do household chores as well as the complicated embroidery that all young Chinese girls did in preparation for their future marriages. Yes, both of these girls, as well as the other girls in their households had bound feet. The pain must have been awful. Yet, it was an accepted part of being a woman in those times, and mothers who wanted their daughters to marry well had to force their young girls to go through the agony.

 A woman’s world was completely different from the world of men. Their lives were that of isolation. In order to communicate, they actually had a secret written language. This language has been documented and did exist. It is the only known language in the world to have been developed exclusively by women for women. The two girls would write to each other in this language on a fan which they sent back and forth to each other. Both of them had hopes for a bright future.

As the girls grow up we share their experiences of marriage. They didn’t meet their husbands until the wedding day, and their function in their new households was only to bear sons. Mothers-in-law were usually hard, overbearing  taskmasters and were always critical of them. But if they were married to the eldest son, they would, one day, become a mother-in-law themselves. And so their lives were that of stoicism and acceptance. This was the only way for them to live.

Lily was fortunate to end up in a good marriage. She produced boy children, and, through the years, she and her husband got to know each other and accept each other. However, the person she was closest to in the world was Snow Flower and they communicated throughout their lives. In contrast, Snow Flower’s life was a harsh, terrible situation, I shudder to think of it. I am saddened even more when I think of the rift between them when they were in their thirties. Lily does something that she regrets for the rest of her life. The book, in fact, is told in the first person through the eyes of Lily, who lives on to old age.

The author, Lisa See, is part Chinese and has researched this novel impeccably. She even traveled to rural China and interviewed many people, including experts on the secret writing. Times have changed and Chinese women no longer bind their feet, but interviews with elderly women regarding this practice as well as marriage rituals and food preparation add the essential authenticities that are the basic building blocks of this book.

I enjoyed this book: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan  and although I know that it will appeal mostly to women, I know it would add to every one’s understanding of a culture that is no more, and a lifestyle which once defined China.