Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (See)

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan 
Lisa See, 2005
Random House
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812980356


Summary 
Lily is haunted by memories-of who she once was, and of a person, long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now, as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for forgiveness.

In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu ("women's writing").

Some girls were paired with laotongs, "old sames," in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.

With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become "old sames" at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive.

But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—February 18, 1955
Where—Paris, France
Education—B.A., Loyola Marymount University
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California



Lisa See is an American writer and novelist. Her Chinese-American family (See has one Chinese great-grandparent) has had a great impact on her life and work. Her books include On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995) and the novels Flower Net (1997), The Interior (1999), Dragon Bones (2003), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007), Shanghai Girls (2009), which made it to the 2010 New York Times bestseller list, and China Dolls (2014).

Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones make up the Red Princess mystery series. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love focus on the lives of Chinese women in the 19th and 17th centuries respectively. Shanghai Girls chronicles the lives of two sisters who come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages and face, among other things, the pressures put on Chinese-Americans during the anti-Communist mania of the 1950s. See published a sequel titled Dreams of Joy.

Writing under the pen name Monica Highland, See, her mother Carolyn See, and John Espey, published three novels: Lotus Land (1983), 110 Shanghai Road (1986), and Greetings from Southern California (1988).

Biography
Lisa See was born in Paris but has spent many years in Los Angeles, especially Los Angeles Chinatown. Her mother, Carolyn See, is also a writer and novelist. Her autobiography provides insight into her daughter's life. Lisa See graduated with a B.A. from Loyola Marymount University in 1979.

See was West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly (1983–1996); has written articles for Vogue, Self, and More; has written the libretto for the opera based on On Gold Mountain, and has helped develop the Family Discovery Gallery for the Autry Museum, which depicts 1930s Los Angeles from the perspective of her father as a seven-year-old boy. Her exhibition On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience was featured in the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and the Smithsonian. See is also a public speaker.

She has written for and led in many cultural events emphasizing the importance of Los Angeles and Chinatown. Among her awards and recognitions are the Organization of Chinese Americans Women's 2001 award as National Woman of the Year and the 2003 History Makers Award presented by the Chinese American Museum. See has served as a Los Angeles City Commissioner. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 5/21/2014.)



Book Reviews 
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is written with a stately but unremarkable prettiness; it is not a book that will make its mark for reasons of style. But Ms. See has worked enough joy, pain and dramatic weepiness ("Oh, how I wanted to dip a cloth into that water and wipe away the cares that played across my laotong's features") to give it a quiet staying power. It's liable to be read by women's groups and valued for its quaintness. ("All people cherish the hair on their moles, but Uncle Lu's were splendid.") But what will work best for this book is its own secret message: cultures vary, but old sames and same-olds don't change.
Janet Maslin - The New York Times


The wonder of this book is that it takes readers to a place at once foreign and familiar—foreign because of its time and setting, yet familiar because this landscape of love and sorrow is inhabited by us all. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a triumph on every level, a beautiful, heartbreaking story.
Judy Fong Bates - The Washington Post


See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or "old sames") Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters' foot binding ("Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace"), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province ("My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,/ An invisible rebellion that no man can see"). As both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle, this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group favorite as well.
Publishers Weekly


Foot binding; nu shu, a secret language used exclusively by the women of Hunan Province for 1000 years; and laotong, the arranged friendship between little girls meant to last a lifetime, provide the framework for See's (Dragon Bones) riveting look at a little-known chapter in 19th-century Chinese history. In 1903, 80-year-old Lily looks back on her life, which was anchored by her laotong relationship with the beautiful Snow Flower. As little girls, the two communicated in nu shu, writing of their mutual devotion on a fan they passed between each other over the years. Raised according to the traditional restrictions of the times, they lived most of their lives confined to the upstairs women's chamber in their homes, enduring the relentless societal insistence that women are worthless except for their value in producing sons. The laotong bonds of Lily and Snow Flower endure through family tragedies, a typhoid-fever epidemic, and the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, but it is a misunderstood message in nu shu, the language that held them together for decades, that ultimately tears them apart. See's meticulous research and exquisite language deliver a story that is haunting, powerful, and, at times, almost too painful to bear. Highly recommended. —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Library Journal


A nuanced exploration of women's friendship and women's writing in a remote corner of Imperial China. At the end of her life, Lady Lily Lu, the 80-year-old matriarch of Tongkou village, sits down to write her final memoir-one that will be burned at her death. Using nu shu, a secret script designed and kept by women, Lily spends her final years recounting her training as a woman, her longing for love and the central friendship of her life. Born, in 1823, into an ordinary farming family, Lily might not have ended up as a wealthy matriarch. Her earliest memories are of running through the fields outside with her cousin Beautiful Moon in the last days before her foot-binding. But in childhood, Lily's middle-class fate changed dramatically when the local diviner suggested that her well-formed feet made her eligible for a high-status marriage and for a special ceremonial friendship with a laotong (sworn bosom friend). Accordingly, Lily became laotong with Snow Flower, a charming girl from an upper-class household. Together, the two begin a friendship and intimate nu shu correspondence that develops with them through years of house training, marriages, childbirths and changes in social status. See (Dragon Bones, 2003, etc.) is fascinated by imagining how women with constrained existences might have found solace-and poetry-within the unexpected, little known writing form that is nu shu. Occasionally, in the midst of notes about childbirth and marriages, Lily and Snow Flower wonder how to understand the value of their secret writing in relation to the men's "outside world." The question is left delicately open. As the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) approaches the villages around them, threatening to disrupt the social order, Lily and Snow Flower's private intimacy changes, stretches and is strained. Taut and vibrant, the story offers a delicately painted view of a sequestered world and provides a richly textured account of how women might understand their own lives. A keenly imagined journey into the women's quarters.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Lily endures excruciating pain in order to have her feet bound. What reasons are given for this dangerous practice?

2. Did See's descriptions of footbinding remind you of any Western traditions?

3. If some men in 19th-century China knew about nu shu and “old same” friendships, why do you think they allowed these traditions to persist?

4. Reflecting on her first few decades, Lily seems to think her friendship with Snow Flower brought her more good than harm. Do you agree?

5. Lily's adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us today. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. Why?

6. Lily defies the wishes of her son in order to pair her grandson with Peony. Does she fully justify her behavior?

7. Lily sometimes pulls us out of the present moment to reflect—as an old woman—on her youthful decisions. What does this device add to the story?

8. How would you film these moments of reflection?

9. If Lily is writing her story to Snow Flower in the afterworld, what do you think Snow Flower's response would or should be?

10. Did you recognize any aspects of your own friendships in the bond between Lily and Snow Flower?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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