Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Overview

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, ...

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Random House Reader's Circle Deluxe Reading Group Edition): A Novel

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Overview

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared 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 deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
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.
— The New York Times
Judy Fong Bates
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.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. Author tour. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
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. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/05.]-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Lily at 80 reflects on her life, beginning with her "daughter days" in 19th-century rural China. Foot-binding was practiced by all but the poorest families, and the graphic descriptions of it are not for the fainthearted. Yet women had nu shu, their own secret language. At the instigation of a matchmaker, Lily and Snow Flower, a girl from a larger town and supposedly from a well-connected, wealthy family, become laotong, bound together for life. Even after Lily learns that Snow Flower is not from a better family, even when Lily marries above her and Snow Flower beneath her, they remain close, exchanging nu shu written on a fan. When war comes, Lily is separated from her husband and children. She survives the winter helped by Snow Flower's husband, a lowly butcher, until she is reunited with her family. As the years pass, the women's relationship changes; Lily grows more powerful in her community, bitter, and harder, until at last she breaks her bond with Snow Flower. They are not reunited until Lily tries to make the dying Snow Flower's last days comfortable. Their friendship, and this tale, illustrates the most profound of human emotions: love and hate, self-absorption and devotion, pride and humility, to name just a few. Even though the women's culture and upbringing may be vastly different from readers' own, the life lessons are much the same, and they will be remembered long after the details of this fascinating story are forgotten.-Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 todisrupt 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.
From the Publisher
Advance praise for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

“Lisa See has written her best book yet. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination of a real and secret world that has only recently disappeared. It is a story so mesmerizing the pages float away and the story remains clearly before us from beginning to end.”
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings

“I was mesmerized by this wondrous book–the story of a secret civilization of women, who actually lived in China not long ago. . . . Magical, haunting fiction. Beautiful.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace

“Only the best novelists can do what Lisa See has done, to bring to life not only a character but an entire culture, and a sensibility so strikingly different from our own. This is an engrossing and completely convincing portrayal of a woman shaped by suffering forced upon her from her earliest years, and of the friendship that helps her to survive.”
Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812968064
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/21/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 50,849
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa See

Lisa See is the author of Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com  

Biography

At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.

See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."

See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots. "I knew three things," See said, "I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off—‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer."

In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.

See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored See accolades from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, and The School Library Journal, while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera

See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover.

Good To Know

In our interview, See shared lots of fun facts and anecdotes about herself, including:

"I asked my husband what he thought was an interesting fact about me, and he said that he always thought it was strange that when we first met I had to drink three cups of coffee before I got out of bed, but that after I got pregnant I never ever had another cup of coffee again. That didn't seem terribly exciting, so I asked my sister. She said that I take perverse pleasure in grossing people out, which I do. But this didn't seem very interesting either. I asked my mother and she remembered that I'd been a demon crawler and had once crawled away from the house, down to a busy boulevard, and was rescued by a couple of barbers. So I was a demon crawler and probably took ten years off my mother's life that day, but was it a fun fact? I've even asked some other people and they all have talked about my desire to travel and the scary places I have traveled alone. While I know that I'm a compulsive traveler, a lot of other people love to travel, so it still doesn't seem that unusual to me."

"I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco."

"I think one of the strangest things about me is the way I read books. This dates back to when I started reading chapter books as a kid and continues to this day. I read the first 20 pages, then the last 20 pages. After that, the second 20 pages and the penultimate 20 pages. I read from front to back and from back to front until I meet in the middle. Why? I can't stand not knowing what happens to the characters. Will they be okay? Will they live? Will they get together? It doesn't take away from the suspense or ruin the story for me in any way. Not doing it would ruin the story because I would have to rush and I'd be so anxious that I wouldn't be able to do anything else until I was done."

"I'm a movie fanatic. I see more than 100 movies a year. Sometimes I'll see two or three movies in a day. Between this and reading books the way I do, I have a very good sense of plot. I can watch the first five minutes of any television show and the first ten minutes of just about any movie and tell you everything that will happen. It's very rare that I'm taken by complete surprise. But to me it isn't about the surprise. I'm just curious to see how things have been structured, if the right clues have been doled out, and if the right people will get together."

"I like to eat, but I don't like to cook. I'll eat anything and have—a low point would have to be the stir-fried pig penis in China—but there are only three things I won't eat: lima beans, brains, and kidneys. I hate exercise, but I love to play tennis, walk, and hike. I love stories in any form: film, books, song, and TV. Yes, I'm a real couch potato! I'm a nut for reality shows like ‘Survivor' and ‘American Idol.' My three favorite shows this season are ‘The OC,' ‘Lost,'and ‘Battlestar Gallactica.' And I'm a not-so-closet Trekkie. (Yes, I've even been to Star Trek conventions, but I blame that on my sons.) For so long I would say I hated sci-fi, and then I finally realized that it was one of my favorite genres. Go figure. My favorite way to unwind? That would have to be sleeping, hands down. I love to sleep and I take it very seriously. We recently got a Tempur-Pedic mattress and it's my favorite purchase ever. I long to go to bed and feel enveloped."

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    1. Hometown:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Paris, France
    1. Education:
      B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Milk Years

My name is Lily. I came into this world on the fifth day of the six month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign. Puwei, my home village, is in Yongming County, the county of Everlasting Brightness. Most people who live here are descended from the Yao ethnic tribe. From the storytellers who visited Puwei when I was a girl, I learned that the Yao first arrived in this area twelve hundred years ago during the Tang dynasty, but most families came a century later, when they fled the Mongol armies who invaded the north. Although the people of our region have never been rich, we have rarely been so poor that women had to work in the fields.

We were members of the Yi family line, one of the original Yao clans and the most common in the district. My father and uncle leased seven mou of land from a rich landowner who lived in the far west of the province. They cultivated that land with rice, cotton, taro, and kitchen crops. My family home was typical in the sense that it had two stories and faced south. A room upstairs was designated for women’s gathering and for unmarried girls to sleep. Rooms for each family unit and a special room for our animals flanked the downstairs main room, where baskets filled with eggs or oranges and strings of drying chilies hung from the central beam to keep them safe from mice, chickens, or a roaming pig. We had a table and stools against one wall. A hearth where Mama and Aunt did the cooking occupied a corner on the opposite wall. We did not have windows in our main room, so we kept open the door to the alley outside our house for light and air in the warm months. The rest of our rooms were small, our floor was hard-packed earth, and, as I said, our animals lived with us.

I’ve never thought much about whether I was happy or if I had fun as a child. I was a so-so girl who lived with a so-so family in a so-so village. I didn’t know that there might be another way to live, and I didn’t worry about it either. But I remember the day I began to notice and think about what was around me. I had just turned five and felt as though I had crossed a big threshold. I woke up before dawn with something like a tickle in my brain. That bit of irritation made me alert to everything I saw and experienced that day.

I lay between Elder Sister and Third Sister. I glanced across the room to my cousin’s bed. Beautiful Moon, who was my age, hadn’t woken up yet, so I stayed still, waiting for my sisters to stir. I faced Elder Sister, who was four years older than I. Although we slept in the same bed, I didn’t get to know her well until I had my feet bound and joined the women’s chamber myself. I was glad I wasn’t looking in Third Sister’s direction. I always told myself that since she was a year younger she was too insignificant to think about. I don’t think my sisters adored me either, but the indifference we showed one another was just a face we put on to mask our true desires. We each wanted Mama to notice us. We each vied for Baba’s attention. We each hoped we would spend time every day with Elder Brother, since as the first son he was the most precious person in our family. I did not feel that kind of jealousy with Beautiful Moon. We were good friends and happy that our lives would be linked together until we both married out.

The four of us looked very similar. We each had black hair that was cut short, we were very thin, and we were close in height. Otherwise, our distinguishing features were few. Elder Sister had a mole above her lip. Third Sister’s hair was always tied up in little tufts, because she did not like Mama to comb it. Beautiful Moon had a pretty round face, while my legs were sturdy from running and my arms strong from carrying my baby brother.

“Girls!” Mama called up the stairs to us.

That was enough to wake up the others and get us all out of bed. Elder Sister hurriedly got dressed and went downstairs. Beautiful Moon and I were slower, because we had to dress not only ourselves but Third Sister as well. Then together we went downstairs, where Aunt swept the floor, Uncle sang a morning song, Mama—with Second Brother swaddled on her back—poured the last of the water into the teapot to heat, and Elder Sister chopped scallions for the rice porridge we call congee. My sister gave me a tranquil look that I took to mean that she had already earned the approval of my family this morning and was safe for the rest of the day. I tucked away my resentment, not understanding that what I saw as her self-satisfaction was something closer to the cheerless resignation that would settle on my sister after she married out.

“Beautiful Moon! Lily! Come here! Come here!”

My aunt greeted us this way each and every morning. We ran to her. Aunt kissed Beautiful Moon and patted my bottom affectionately. Then Uncle swooped in, swept up Beautiful Moon in his arms, and kissed her. After he set her back down, he winked at me and pinched my cheek.

You know the old saying about beautiful people marrying beautiful people and talented people marrying talented people? That morning I concluded that Uncle and Aunt were two ugly people and therefore perfectly matched. Uncle, my father’s younger brother, had bowlegs, a bald head, and a full shiny face. Aunt was plump, and her teeth were like jagged stones protruding from a karst cave. Her bound feet were not very small, maybe fourteen centimeters long, twice the size of what mine eventually became. I’d heard wicked tongues in our village say that this was the reason Aunt—who was of healthy stock, with wide hips—could not carry a son to term. I’d never heard these kinds of reproaches in our home, not even from Uncle. To me, they had an ideal marriage; he was an affectionate rat and she was a dutiful ox. Every day they provided happiness around the hearth.

My mother had yet to acknowledge that I was in the room. This is how it had been for as long as I could remember, but on that day I perceived and felt her disregard. Melancholy sank into me, whisking away the joy I had just felt with Aunt and Uncle, stunning me with its power. Then, just as quickly, the feeling disappeared, because Elder Brother, who was six years older than I was, called me to help him with his morning chores. Having been born in the year of the horse, it is in my nature to love the outdoors, but even more important I got to have Elder Brother completely to myself. I knew I was lucky and that my sisters would hold this against me, but I didn’t care. When he talked to me or smiled at me I didn’t feel invisible.

We ran outside. Elder Brother hauled water up from the well and filled buckets for us to carry. We took them back to the house and set out again to gather firewood. We made a pile, then Elder Brother loaded my arms with the smaller sticks. He scooped up the rest and we headed home. When we got there, I handed the sticks to Mama, hoping for her praise. After all, it’s not so easy for a little girl to lug a bucket of water or carry firewood. But Mama didn’t say anything.

Even now, after all these years, it is difficult for me to think about Mama and what I realized on that day. I saw so clearly that I was inconsequential to her. I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home. I was five, old enough to know I didn’t deserve her attention, but suddenly I craved it. I longed for her to look at me and talk to me the way she did with Elder Brother. But even in that moment of my first truly deep desire, I was smart enough to know that Mama wouldn’t want me to interrupt her during this busy time when so often she had scolded me for talking too loudly or had swatted at the air around me because I got in her way. Instead, I vowed to be like Elder Sister and help as quietly and carefully as I could.

Grandmother tottered into the room. Her face looked like a dried plum, and her back bent so far forward that she and I saw eye to eye.

“Help your grandmother,” Mama ordered. “See if she needs anything.”

Even though I had just made a promise to myself, I hesitated. Grandmother’s gums were sour and sticky in the mornings, and no one wanted to get near her. I sidled up to her, holding my breath, but she waved me away impatiently. I moved so quickly that I bumped into my father—the eleventh and most important person in our household.

He didn’t reprimand me or say anything to anyone else. As far as I knew, he wouldn’t speak until this day was behind him. He sat down and waited to be served. I watched Mama closely as she wordlessly poured his tea. I may have been afraid that she would notice me during her morning routine, but she was even more mindful in her dealings with my father. He rarely hit my mother and he never took a concubine, but her caution with him made us all heedful.

Aunt put bowls on the table and spooned out the congee, while Mama nursed the baby. After we ate, my father and my uncle set out for the fields, and my mother, aunt, grandmother, and older sister went upstairs to the women’s chamber. I wanted to go with Mama and the other women in our family, but I wasn’t old enough. To make matters worse, I now had to share Elder Brother with my baby brother and Third Sister when we went back outside.

I carried the baby on my back as we cut grass and foraged for roots for our pig. Third Sister followed us as best she could. She was a funny, ornery little thing. She acted spoiled, when the only ones who had a right to be spoiled were our brothers. She thought she was the most beloved in our family, although nothing showed her that this was true.

Once done with our chores, our little foursome explored the village, going up and down the alleys between the houses until we came across some other girls jumping rope. My brother stopped, took the baby, and let me jump too. Then we went home for lunch—something simple, rice and vegetable only. Afterward, Elder Brother left with the men, and the rest of us went upstairs. Mama nursed the baby again, then he and Third Sister took their afternoon naps. Even at that age I enjoyed being in the women’s chamber with my grandmother, aunt, sister, cousin, and especially my mother. Mama and Grandmother wove cloth, Beautiful Moon and I made balls of yarn, Aunt sat with brush and ink, carefully writing her secret characters, while Elder Sister waited for her four sworn sisters to arrive for an afternoon visit.

Soon enough we heard the sound of four pairs of lily feet come quietly up the stairs. Elder Sister greeted each girl with a hug, and the five of them clustered together in a corner. They didn’t like me intruding on their conversations, but I studied them nevertheless, knowing that I would be part of my own sworn sisterhood in another two years. The girls were all from Puwei, which meant that they could assemble often, and not just on special gathering days such as Catching Cool Breezes or the Birds Festival. The sisterhood had been formed when the girls turned seven. To cement the relationship, their fathers had each contributed twenty-five jin of rice, which was stored at our house. Later, when each girl married out, her portion of rice would be sold so her sworn sisters could buy gifts for her. The last bit of rice would be sold on the occasion of the last sworn sister’s marriage. That would mark the end of the sisterhood, since the girls would have all married out to distant villages, where they would be too busy with their children and obeying their mothers-in-law to have time for old friendships.

Even with her friends, Elder Sister did not attempt to grab attention. She sat placidly with the other girls as they embroidered and told funny stories. When their chatter and giggles grew loud, my mother sternly hushed them, and another new thought popped into my head: Mama never did that when my grandmother’s late-life sworn sisters came to visit. After her children were grown, my grandmother had been invited to join a new group of five sworn sisters in Puwei. Only two of them plus my grandmother, all widows, were still alive, and they visited at least once a week. They made each other laugh and together they shared bawdy jokes that we girls didn’t understand. On those occasions, Mama was too afraid of her mother-in-law to dare ask them to stop. Or maybe she was too busy.

Mama ran out of yarn and stood up to get more. For a moment she stayed very still, staring pensively at nothing. I had a nearly uncontrollable desire to run into her arms and scream, See me, see me, see me! But I didn’t. Mama’s feet had been badly bound by her mother. Instead of golden lilies, Mama had ugly stumps. Instead of swaying when she walked, she balanced herself on a cane. If she put the cane aside, her four limbs went akimbo as she tried to maintain her balance. Mama was too unsteady on her feet for anyone ever to hug or kiss her.

“Isn’t it time for Beautiful Moon and Lily to go outside?” Aunt asked, cutting into my mother’s daydream. “They could help Elder Brother with his chores.”

“He doesn’t need their help.”

“I know,” Aunt admitted, “but it’s a nice day—”

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Foreword

1. 1. In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?

 2. Do you think the concept of “old sames” exists today? Do you have an “old same,” or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenthcentury China? 

3. Some men in nineteenth-century China apparently knew about nu shu, the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication? 

4. Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently? 

5. When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate– almost erotic–moment together. Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship? 

6. Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “littledaughter-inlaw”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet? 

7. The Chinese character for “mother love” consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love? 

8. The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well? 

9. In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value? 

10. The story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives–for instance, we don’t have our feet bound, and we’re free and mobile. Do you think we’re still bound up in other ways: by career, by family obligations, by conventions of feminine beauty, or even by events beyond our control (war, the economy, and natural disasters)? 

11. Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages was misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever received a message that you misinterpreted and had your feelings hurt? 

12. Madame Wang, the matchmaker, is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil? 

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?

2. Do you think the concept of “old sames” exists today? Do you have an “old same,” or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenth-century China?

3. Some men in nineteenth-century China apparently knew about nu shu, the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication?

4. Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently?

5. When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate–almost erotic–moment together Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship?

6. Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “little daughter-in-law”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet?

7. The Chinese character for “mother love” consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love?

8. The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well?

9. In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value?

10. Although the story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives–we don’t have our feet bound, we’re free and mobile–do you think we’re still bound up in other ways; for instance, by career, family obligations, conventions of feminine beauty, or events beyond our control such as war, the economy, and natural disasters?

11. Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages has been misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a message that you misinterpreted and your feelings were hurt?

12. Madame Wang, the matchmaker, is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 874 )
Rating Distribution

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(525)

4 Star

(211)

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(96)

2 Star

(22)

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(20)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 877 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    SHOCKING!

    Lily's words detail experiences in her life that will break your heart. The excruciating pain of foot-binding, the secluded life hidden away from men, and the necessity of creating their own secret language, were endured by the women in this culture. This is shocking how women are so devalued in this 19th century Chinese culture!! It reveals a culture that makes you shake your head with disbelief and makes you feel blessed to be living in America in the 21st century!! So much pain and heartbreak and so eye-opening! A real learning experience!

    21 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Amazing Writing

    This is a book that should be recommended for everyone. It is not just a book for women --- it is far too good to be limited to any subset of readers.

    It is a book for anyone who loves great writing that illuminates not just the characters in the book but the readers and all their attributes both good and bad. It is a book that will lay your emotions and prejudices bare. It is a book for anyone who thinks --- and it is also good for those who spend there life reacting without thinking --- good writing can improve any mind no matter how bound up in ideological straight jackets --- perhaps we should include this book on a mandatory reading list for all politicians. It is a book for anyone who loves or is loved or wants to be loved. It is a book for anyone who feels anything --- you can not read this book without some emotion rocking and vibrating sympathetically with the events and joys and sufferings of the story. It is not a book just about footbinding --- it is much more than that --- it is a book about the binding of the soul --- how humans distort and deform their relationships with those around them --- how we reject our most natural allies and friends and lovers ---- those around us ---- our own family ---- but in the end there is hope --- the hope that things will improve even if only a little --- the hope that even if it cannot be improved now things can be made a little more tolerable --- with secret solaces and shared dreams and every once in a long while the breath-taking realization of the potential of us all when a true love is allowed to survive . Perhaps it is hidden and must speak in secret languages but once fired love fills the world from the tiniest of places --- there is no need for hope once that love flickers --- even under the greatest tyranny love makes things right.

    14 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Amazing Must Read Book

    Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan consists of every emotion: joy, sorrow, grief, and most important, love. Through her vivid diction and unique storyline, the author takes the reader to nineteenth-century rural China. In the course of this novel, Lily, one of the main characters, reminisces stories of her younger days, mainly with her laotong, or "old same", Snow Flower. While Lily's elder sister partakes in the usual sworn sisterhood of four girls that only lasts until marriage, a lifelong laotong match is found for Lily and Snow Flower, causing their bond to overrule every relationship that Lily beholds. Though Lily and Snow Flower share much more than love and friendship, these two girls' bonds are forced to undergo many ordeals as they suffer the effects of jealousy.
    Though the reader may experience joy from the first chapters of this book, grief soon follows as we convert our minds to the pain of foot-binding that these young girls start experiencing. As the two main characters start maturing over time, we, as readers begin to understand the effect of foot-binding and this laotong relationship on these girls as it helps them settle their future. Ideas of famine, denial, distrust, pressure, poverty, and jealousy are all expressed throughout this one story.
    This interesting, well-written book will not let you, as a reader, put it down as Lily's each separate memory gives the story more unexpected twists and turns. Not only does See provide an amazing storyline, but she tries to enhance the pleasure of reading this novel by expanding on each little detail. In all, this book is a must-have and will not let you down.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Arranged marriages, loss, and motherhood in nineteenth-century China

    I can't believe I waited so long to read this book. Shame on me. This book was wonderful, lyrical, entertaining - all the makings of a wonderful novel. I was transported to 19th century China as I read the words of Lily and her experiences with footbinding, marriage, and her lifelong friendship (laotong) with Snow Flower. Chinese women in this period of China's history lived a rather secluded life, almost always separated from men. They even had their own written language, nu shu, which is spotlighted throughout the novel.

    The aspect of the novel that most affected me were the detailed descriptions of the footbinding process that most Chinese girls endured in the early years of their lives. This process was incredibly painful and basically handicapped the woman's movement for the rest of their lives.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Heart Wrenching

    A sad story about the plight of women during the food binding period in China. Excellent.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    READ, TAKE A TRIP, GET TO KNOW A DIFFERENT CULTURE

    I STARTED WITH LISA SEE WHEN I FOUND "SHANGHAI GIRLS" AND WAS READING DAY AND NIGHT. THIS IS AN EXCELLENT NOVEL WITH REAL TRADITIONS. IF YOU WANT TO TRAVEL AND ENJOY A GOOD TRIP READ THIS ONE. I ALSO JUST FINISHED "SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN" ALSO BY LISA SEE. THIS IS ANOTHER EXCELLENT READ. I ACTUALLY HAD TEARS IN MY EYES IN ONE PART. THIS IS HOW "INTO" A BOOK THIS ONE IS. NOW I"M READING "PEONY IN LOVE". I CAN'T TELL YOU ANYTHING ABOUT THIS ONE AS I JUST STARTED.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Fantastic!

    Lisa See's "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is a beautifully written exploration of the connections that women have over the spans of their lives. It is poignant, disturbing, and spot on regardless of whether the reader is a lover of the 19th century (in which the story is set) or one who favours the contemporary. The disappointments the women of the novel face are simialr to our own; and the burdens that society places on women today are much the same that were placed on women from Lily's time, though in different ways. See's tale begs the question of "what is really different" as it explores the issues of "beauty' and the sacrifices women make to be "beautiful". It approaches the ways in which women demean themselves for the sake of "beauty". Is women's image of beauty cultural or universal,and from whence do we get these notions of what is means to be "beautiful." For See, the answer is that we can all see oursleves as beautiful and if we (as women) would stop judging our sisters we might find happier lives. As well, See allows us to see the absolute determination of women to survive ina ll ways possible. In the end, what we collectivly allow is a universal subjection of ourselves, never recognizing our abilities to be strong and united, and we all contribute to this situation by our own "policing" of other women. Also explored are the notions of family dynamics which (for women) can be oppressive and challenging to say the least. The characters in See's novel may seem distant to the western woman, but read intuitively, her women teach us lessons that should not be ignored. her women live life in the most subtle and charming terms, but they also live life more valiantly and meaningfully than we can imagine. This book SHOULD be on OPRAH"S BOOKLIST . . . it is a MUST for any woman who has a family, children, parental difficulties, and who loves another woman in any fashion. The book is simply a MUST READ for those who love literature whether academically, as a pleasure reader of women's fiction, or for the general reader. A simply amazing piece.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2009

    A friendship in a different culture

    This book was recommended by my adult daughter, whose friends I assume have also read it. I thoroughly enjoyed the level of friendship developed between the two main characters and how it changed as they got older. This was not only enjoyable but enlightening of what the Chinese culture imposed on its girls and women. I've passed my copy on to a friend.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Snow Flower delivers more than secrets...this is a touching story; will not disappoint the faithful reader.

    Delivered in beautiful layers, resplendent in telling and alive with imagery, history and cultural, magnificent detail that linger long after reading. Hard to put down.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I will never forget this book

    A powerful story about female relationships. I loved this book.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Beautifully written and very moving.

    I was very enveloped in the story. I had little knowledge about Chinese culture before reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It was moving and captivating.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2009

    review- great book

    An excellent book with wonderful characters and story.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Life In Restrospect

    I fell in love with this book from the moment I picked it up. The relationship between Lily and Snow Flower is truly heartwarming. Listening to Lily describe her life, step by step through all the ups and downs she's experienced is both engrossing and heartwreanching. It's an especially good read if you are even the slightest bit interested in Chinese culture. The chapters in the book, describing the proces of "foot-binding" is so gut wrenching, I came close to tears for these small girls.

    It was sad and dramatic and in the end makes you think about all the important relationships in your own life. Highly reccommend!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A TRIUMPH!

    Another triumph for womanhood, that keeps your heart pounding! I agree with all of the positive reviews!!! Another winner in my opinion is E X P L O S I O N I N P A R I S, by LINDA MASEMORE PIRRUNG, a thought- provoking mystery, suspense and love story, fight for survival, life, love and fulfillment...Should be on every woman's book club list!!! I'm totally in love with this book!! Check out the reviews! They'll hook you as they did me! EXPLOSION IN PARIS...An absolute joy to read!!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    filled with sorrow...

    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is filled with sorrow with a touch of happiness sprinkled in for good measure. In this novel, Lily is recounting to us her life story and the one thing that she cannot forgive herself for. This novel is about her friendship with Snow Flower and ultimately the regret that Lily feels for a misunderstanding that threatens the love they have for one another. Snow Flower and the secret fan is suffused with hopelessness, anguish and sorrow. We see famine, plague, rebellion, death, pain and much more. This is not the book to read if your looking for a heartwarming story! The friendship we watch blossom between Snow Flower and Lily is breathtaking though. The writing is beautiful and as long as you don't let the story depress you, it's an absorbing tale.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2013

    Sonia K Worthington Ohio I thought that Snow Flower and the Sec

    Sonia K
    Worthington Ohio

    I thought that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a great book overall. It had good details that made me want to read more and more. There were only a few things I didn't like about it. But other than that I thought it was a great read.
    I really like that I learned a lot about Chinese culture and traditions that were practiced back in the day. It made the book more realistic. I thought this information made me more interested in the book. There was information regarding foot binding, weddings, sworn sisters, laotangs and birth giving. It was fascinating learning about the way things happen in different cultures.
    Although it was interesting to learn about food binding, it was very gruesome. Lisa See (the author) explained things with great detail. She added in the fracturing and breaking of bones that comes with foot binding. She described the pain the girls went through in the process of foot binding. I had to put the book down in the middle of when I was reading this because it was horrific picturing what they were going through. This is one of the things I didn't like at all. I wish Lisa See would have just brushed on the topic of foot binding and just explained what it was instead of digging deep into the details.
    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has amazing imagery. As I was reading I saw images of the setting of the story. Lisa See did an exceptional job making the book come alive in her audience's head. She enhanced the story with her explanations. I think this was my favorite part of the book. She wasn't bland with her words but was bright with them.
    I believe that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is more appealing to women. That is probably because there are a lot of relationships throughout this book. The two main characters are girls and since they are females they are going to do thing than girls do. If a male asked me for some book recommendations I would probably not tell them to read this book. They might not be able to relate to some things in the book.
    This book is great for high school students. It might help them realize that if you keep on trying, you will reach your goals. Lily is poor and struggles as a young girl but marries into a good family and becomes a very important women in her marital village. She never gave up as a child and she made it big.
    Even if you don't like historical fiction I would give this book a try. I was the same way. I honestly thought that this read would be boring and static but it really wasn't. It was interesting and great. When any character died my heart sunk and it was like I knew the characters. I loved this book so much and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is on my list of the best books I've read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2010

    Family and Friendship

    Though I almost quit reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by page 40, I now must admit Lisa See has written a remarkably compelling story. It is filled with the history of China, family, friendships, social status issues, women's rights, and the pull of culture and beauty.
    I continued to read this book, during the day only for quite a few pages, until then I could not put it down. I felt compelled to understand why these women allowed this practice of foot binding to continue - and then personally put their daughters through the same torture.
    But I think the point of putting this at the beginning of the story was not just chronological order, but for us to understand the strength of will and pull of culture and custom on these 2 girls destined to be matched as Lao Tong by their families. Children in the beginning, we see them grow up together, get married, and help each other through great perils as best they could with a surprising twist to their lives.
    I reflected on my own Western customs of high heels, women's liberation (not!), cosmetic surgery, lack of family ties and guidance and I was truly drawn into this world, despite its seemingly barbaric ways.
    Ms. See, who is part Chinese herself, writes in her notes "on the surface, we as American women are independent, free, and mobile, but at our cores we still long for love, friendship, happiness, tranquility and to be heard".

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    Touching

    Beautifully written. Shocking. Full of painful truths and raw emotions. I couldn't put it down!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Enjoyed it!

    I have read other fiction books about early Chinese history, mostly for women but this auther introduced me to new terms and practices. The way the main character matures with her awareness about her life long friend toward the end, is marvelous to witness.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2009

    Good Read

    I liked this book but I didn't get it when she totally disavowed her friend without even talking to her face to face. I wasn't happy with the ending but the rest leading up to it was really fantastic.

    I loved the way the girls' friendship blossomed and strengthened throughout the years.

    It's a nice book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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