Tags: 16th century China, China, class, dead branch, foot binding, friendship, Lisa See, matchmaking, obedience and subservience, regret, role of women, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, value of daughters
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an amazing book about the lives of women in 16th century China. I selected the book for this very reason. I have two Chinese/American nieces and I wanted to learn more about the culture that has been permanently joined with my family. I am so very glad that I did. I enjoyed every moment reading this book. I hated to put it down.This is the story of Lily, a young girl born to a lower middle-class family. In her society, male children were prized above all other treasures in life. In fact, a mother’s worth is dependent upon them. A female child was seen as a dead branch. All of the time, energy, and resources used to raise a daughter are “wasted,” because her husband’s family will reap the rewards. Although Lily’s family was prosperous enough that the women did not have to work (that their feet could be bound, which very much limited their physical abilities), her outlook in life was not exciting. When Lily’s mother contacted a local soothsayer about the best time to bind Lily’s feet, he noticed a special quality to Lily and made a match between the family and a matchmaker from a much larger and more prosperous area. Assuming that Lily’s foot binding created the perfect “golden lilies” that the matchmaker believed were possible, Lily could be married to wealthy family. This relationship would serve to prosper Lily’s family as well. Although everyone hoped for a good match, Lily was also punished for the additional financial burden that went along with her upward mobility. Lily also seemed so special that the matchmaker proposed a “old same” match for Lily. If she could find an “old same” for Lily, this would add to her value as a wife. Old sames were two young women whose lives matched eight qualities exactly. The most basic and important are the girls’ birth month, day, and year. It is through this relationship that Lily first meets and then grows to love Snow Flower.
At the heart of this book is the quest for love and survival in a world where both are elusive. Lily’s mother was a cold-hearted woman who cared only for her two sons. Lily attempts to be obedient and pleasing to this woman in every way she can. Although tender moments seem to be shared during Lily’s foot binding, her mother sees her only as a liability. She does not rejoice in her daughter’s potential or even in the extra prosperity it will bring her own household. Instead, she punishes her daughter for the extra money that the family must spend on her behalf. Survival is even harder for a woman to attain. Although foot binding is essential to be matched in marriage, the process can prove deadly. Assuming that a young woman survives to marry, her husband, his family, and especially his mother own her outright. Little was done or said on a woman’s behalf to stop abuse. If a young woman survived her foot binding, she had to live the remainder of her life physically impaired. If an emergency took place, this handicap imposed by society through the hands of the girls’ family made it almost impossible to escape on foot.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an intriguing book. Although a beautiful love story between two friends, this book gave me cause to think about the society in which I live. The concept behind foot binding and being inadequate in all ways because I am a woman has never entered my mind. Sure, there are situations were it may be more advantageous to be a man, but never once have I been made to feel like a “dead branch” by anyone. I have received a good education and have the opportunity to make my own way in this world. I can’t imagine being physically handicapped by my family in order to meet society’s demands for beauty and acceptability. That magic sway in their hips as they walked those so aroused men meant that they couldn’t leave; they didn’t have the stamina to implement change, and they had no choice but live a life of obedience and subservience.
Lily’s only true source of comfort is her relationship with Snow Flower. Although she found her married life and mother-in-law a much more pleasant experience than most women she knew, she prized Snow Flower above it all. When the girls first meet in the company of their matchmaker, they vow to be true to each other to the death. In her culture, the relationship between two old sames was meant to be stronger and more intimate than a marital relationship. In fact, when sleeping under one household, the husband was to sleep elsewhere to allow the women to sleep together. If a woman was not lucky enough to be matched with an old same, women could not hope to experience this type of intimate friendship with another woman until she became a widow.
I would highly recommend this book. Very few bring tears to my eyes at any point. As I read the last sections, I had to wipe my eyes to see what I was reading. I am very thankful that I didn’t live in that day and age and that my nieces won’t be subjected to such humiliation. Still, women have the ability to survive some of the deepest hardships in human life and can emerge on the other side with the most beautiful and meaningful friendships.