During the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution an old woman fainted at a train station. While going through her belongings to identify her, police found scraps of paper with strange writing they’d never seen before. They assumed she was a spy and arrested her. But scholars sent to identify the characters realized the script was nu shu-a written language written exclusively by women in remote areas of China.
Literally meaning “Women’s Writing” nu shu had very little in common with the “traditional” Chinese characters that men used. Girls were forbidden from getting an education, and once they were married they were sent away to live with their in-laws. They used nu shu to communicate with the women from home. This secret language inspired author Lisa See’s fourth book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
The book is narrated by the 80-year-old Lily Yi as she looks back on her life. The third of five children, Lily was sure what her future held. Like every other female she knows, she will bind her feet, she will get married, and she will (hopefully) give her husband many sons. Until then, she is to be tolerated.
Things change one day when a local matchmaker proclaims that Lily is no normal child. Her feet, still unbound, have high arches that could be shaped into perfectly tiny, coveted feet-known as “Golden Lilies.” If the foot binding is sucessesful, Lily could make a prosperous match. She also suggests that Lily gets a laotung match. Laotung translates as “friends for life” or “old sames” and it bonds two girls together for eternity as kindred sisters in a relationship many consider to be more profound than marriage. The matchmaker suggests Lily find her laotung in a respected, wealthy family. Doing so will show her future in-laws that she’s loyal, because no one can simply leave that kind of relationship.
When Lily meets her laotung, Snow Flower, the pair gives each other fans with secret messages written in nu shu. So begins a relationship that spans the rest of their lives. As they’re married and have children, they continue to correspond. If her mother-in-law is being impossible, or her child is sick, Snow Flower and Lily can only vent their frustrations to each other, in their secret script.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction, and I was waaaay more interested in the “historical” part. The story was fine, if a little predictable. I didn’t particularly care about our main characters and their relationship didn’t feel compelling. Instead, I was fascinated by the concepts of the laotung relationships, the secret language, the agony of foot binding, and the descriptions of a remote 19th century Chinese village. In fact, I was more interested in the old woman at the train who inspired See’s story. Now I’m on the prowl for more books about women during that time period (so feel free to throw some recommendations my way!). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan isn’t a perfect book, but it takes you to a fascinating time and place. I can’t wait to explore it more.