Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See

I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.

I have been struggling with how to talk about this novel, which will be compared to Memoirs of a Geisha. Like Memoirs, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan follows a poor girl’s rise to power in an exotic place and time. Unlike Memoirs, the narrator Lily’s worth is not in her dancing ability, beauty or charm, but in her three-inch long feet. The book begins with Lily and her best friend, Snow Flower, at age seven when the ritual of foot binding begins. I knew what it was, sort of, but the description of this ordeal was stomach churning. I’ll leave the details to your reading. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is about the lives of two women, and a lot happen to them, but I found it very difficult to get past the whole idea that beauty equals not only pain, but being crippled for life. It’s a beautiful book about something I found terribly ugly. Snow Flower and the Secert Fan by Lisa See. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.

This novel is set in 19th century China, and the first thing you need to know is there will be foot binding. If you can get past that — and it is pretty graphic — it’s a look at the hidden world of women in a very repressive time. The secret fan of the title refers to nu shu, which may be the only language ever devised for and by women. Lily, the narrator, and her best friend Snow Flower, communicate in secret by writing their stories on the silk fan. They grow up and apart, have children, survive plagues and bandit attacks, and Lily rises to prominence in her village, all while staggering around on three-inch long feet. I am adding 19th century Chinese lady to the long list of people who are tougher than I am! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is gorgeously written, haunting and sad, about a world that devalued and crippled its women, and how some of them managed to rise above. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.

Well, we found another group of people that I am not tough enough for. We already know I’d make a lousy frontier wife, between the mud and the snakes, and the muddy snakes — and we can now add 19th century Chinese lady. Two words — foot binding.

Raised as I was by PBS and National Geographic, I try to respect cultures no matter how foreign they seem, but I can’t find anything that isn’t brutal and pointless about this custom, which lasted a thousand years.  I can’t understand why a poor country would effectively cripple half its work force. According to the author, bearing the agony of this ritual — it took about two years to complete — showed first of all that your mother loved you, because without bound feet, you weren’t going to make a good marriage. (Only skanks had big feet!) And if you could stand the pain without dropping dead of blood poisoning or infection, you would be a stoic and submissive wife and a good source of children. There are still women alive today with bound feet, although it was banned by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution — that’s one for Mao I guess.

I’ve been describing the ritual and talking about this book maybe a little too passionately to my friends with the righteous rage of the recently informed — like I just found out there was slavery before the Civil War. How dare they! I don’t think it was Ms. See’s intention to turn the bright light of world outrage on a custom that will be completely vanished in our lifetime, but she got my attention, all right.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is about the lives of two women in particular in rural China, and many other things happen to them, but I have to say their experiences for me were constantly colored by the fact that They! Had! Three-Inch Long! Feet! Plus, everything else was hardly a picnic. Childbearing was of paramount importance — bearing a male child, I should say — and as potentially lethal as for women anywhere in that time. Marriage was a minefield of Byzantine relationships and customs — I learned that the bride was not allowed to eat for ten days before her ‘special day’ — apparently to make her more compliant and ladylike. My boyfriend was quick to point out that not all old customs should be rejected out of hand. I’m picturing myself passing out cold in the cake. On my three-inch feet. And they were all so mean to each other! The idea was to call someone ugly and foolish so that the ever-present demons would pass them by. So you wound up saying things like ‘girls are but worthless branches unable to carry on their father’s lines’ and ‘There is nothing so evil as a woman’s heart.’

The women had little of their own, and made unable to work in the fields, or walk down the block, they were expected to stay in their rooms upstairs, embroidering and weaving, and having — hopefully male — babies. Their lives turned inward — there was no place else to go — and they invented something called nu shu, a secret language that the men could never see. Lisa See says in her research she could find no other language developed specifically by and for women.

In this book, Lily — the narrator, looks back on her life starting with the footbinding ritual at the age of 7, and continuing as she and her ‘old same’, which is to say her best girlfriend, Snow Flower grow up and marry and take very different paths in their lives. The custom of pairing a little girl with an ‘old same’ or laotong is an interesting concession which seems to take the place of the emotional bonds they are not expected to have with their husbands.

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lily’s life is a series of boundaries, starting with those on her feet, the walls of her upstairs room, the conventions of what she was and was not allowed to say or do. Yet at the end of her long, long life, she regrets only the misunderstanding that threatened to destroy her relationship with her deep-heart love, Snow Flower.

I came away from this book knowing a whole lot more about foot binding than I had before, and I confess I found the details so gruesome I had to stop reading some passages. Like I said, I’m not tough. When I wasn’t describing broken toes, my friends and I had a long conversation about what we Westerners do to ourselves that might one day be considered revolting. Everyone said: high heels, boob jobs, Botox. And just like Lily and her mother defended their lotus feet, I defended my 4-inch high gold snakeskin strappy sandals.   If beauty was pain in 19th century China, I guess it still is now. At least I can kick my shoes off and run around outside.

The book is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


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