Lisa See's Cultural and Historical Cues Illuminate Chinese Womanhood

By Rising McDowell

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Lisa See, Penguin Random House LLC, Copyright 2005, $17.00

Lisa See paints a gripping portrait of Chinese womanhood in this historical-fiction memoir of a 19th-century rural Chinese girl. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan follows the life of Lily who, at the age of seven, is matched with a laotong –  another girl of the same age who will serve as her closest confidante and lifelong friend. Together Lily and her laotong, Snow Flower, endure the agony of footbinding, arranged marriages and the cultural degradation and self-abasement as girls in a man’s world.

See takes great care to weave the text with as many cultural and historical cues as possible. In her afterword she describes the months of travels, interviews and research conducted in China to produce an accurate historical context in which to tell her tale.

This attention to detail is both dazzling and heartbreaking. See’s illuminating portrayals of household life, marital dynamics and social etiquette provide so much more than one could learn through a purely historical lens. The way these elements present through Lily’s narrative gives such great weight to the grievous abuse of women so widespread and unquestioned in China at the time.

Reading Snow Flower, I felt a distinct sense of remembrance – that my blood has been through the unspeakable hardships so vividly described by See. While my mother was born and raised in Thailand and passed that culture onto me, her parents were immigrants from China and she is fully Chinese by blood.

This cultural swap that occurred when my grandparents left China separated me from the generations of cultural impressions and trauma that have been recorded in my DNA. I have always identified as Thai, but See’s raw, unfiltered writing gave me the most intimate and realistic look at my true ancestry that I have ever had.

“She looked exhausted. I felt the same way after visiting my husband’s home – from the nonstop labor, from being polite, and from always being watched.”

Another gem in Snow Flower is the spotlight on nu shu, the “secret writing” of women used to communicate outside the sphere of men. All official contracts, laws and texts were written in “men’s writing” that no woman would dream to read, but the unique set of symbols comprising nu shu could be used between laotongs to relay their deepest emotions, dreams and fears.

I was moved by the beauty and refinement of the nu shu expressions, but also agitated at times with how conventional and submissive See’s characters stayed in their communications. I hoped to see more defiance and individuality prevail in any of the female characters but See, perhaps in the quest for historical accuracy, kept the reigns on Lily and Snow Flower as tight as their husbands would have liked.

Nevertheless, amidst the melodrama of friendship and betrayal between women (and between them and their husbands), I was able to extract enough value to feel grateful I picked up See’s work and I genuinely enjoyed reading it. The honest look into the intimacies of historical China was fascinating and, for someone of Chinese descent like me, long overdue. If you are ready to be transported to the emotional depths of another place and time in history, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will easily do the trick.

“My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart. An invisible rebellion that no man can see.”

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