Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.jpg
AuthorLisa See
CountryUnited States
PublisherRandom House, Inc.
Publication date

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a 2005 novel by Lisa See set in nineteenth-century China. In her introduction to the novel, See writes that Lily, the narrator, was born on June 5, 1824—"the fifth day of the sixth month of the third year of the Daoguang Emperor's reign".[1] The novel begins in 1903, when Lily is 80 years old. It continues on to tell the story of her life from birth, childhood, marriage, and old age. During her lifetime, Lily lives through the reigns of four emperors of the Qing dynasty: Daoguang (1820–1850); Xianfeng (1850–1861); Tongzhi (1861–1875); and Guangxu (1875–1908).

The University of Southern California China historian Charlotte Furth wrote that Western readers think of Chinese women simply as victims and focus on such problems as footbinding and arranged marriages, but that Lisa See's historical novels "follow the best feminist scholarship on women in the Ming-Qing period by tackling these stereotypes." In Snowflower and the Secret Fan and in Peony in Love, See "asks readers to imagine how a few such women might have found voices of their own within, rather than in opposition to, the Confucian social order, and how they found ways to self-fulfillment without flouting their culture’s fundamental values." [2]

The novel received an honorable mention from the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature.

Plot summary[edit]

In rural Hunan province called Puwei (nicknamed the Common Beauty Village), a county in China, Lily is destined to become a laotong pair with Snow Flower, a girl of the same age frrom Tongkou (the Wood Mouth Village). The laotang relationship is characterized as a sisterly relationship that is far stronger and closer than a husband and wife's. Lily's aunt describes a laotong match this way: "A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose—to have sons." This relationship begins for Lily and Snow Flower when they're at the age of 7 and goes until adulthood when the two are women and mothers.

The two girls experience the painful process of foot binding at the same time. Foot-binding was the tradition of binding a young daughter's feet by wrapping cloth around their feet tightly and forcing them to walk until their bones broke and were easier to mold and change, then tightening the bindings as time progressed. The ideal foot (called Golden Lotus) was 3 Chinese inches (about 10 cm or 4 inches in Western measurements) in length. To understand this, the book draws the parallel: "Men in China feel about women's feet as men in west do about a woman's legs."

Lily and Snow Flower write letters to one another on a fan with Nü Shu, a secret phonetic form of 'women's writing which Lily's aunt taught them.'[3][4] In addition to the language itself, the young women learn Nü Shu songs and stories.They also frequently meet at the Temple of the Gupo, a fictional temple where the women go to pray for the birth of healthy sons, which in their culture, is the "measure of a woman's worth."

Both friends are born under the sign of the Horse, but they are quite different. Lily is practical, her feet firmly set on the ground, while Snow Flower attempts to fly over the constrictions of women's lives in the 19th century in order to be free. Their lives differ as well. Although Lily comes from a family of relatively low station, her feet are considered beautiful and play a role in her marriage into the most powerful family in the region. Lily is later known as Lady Lu, the region's most influential woman and a mother to four healthy children (three sons and one daughter). Although Snow Flower comes from a formerly prosperous family, she is not so fortunate. She marries a butcher, culturally considered the lowest of professions, and has a miserable life filled with children dying and beatings at the hand of her husband.

The novel depicts human suffering in many ways: the physical and psychological pain of foot binding; the suffering of women of the time, who were treated as property; the terrible trek up the mountains to escape from the horrors of the Taiping Rebellion; the painful return down the mountain trail with dead bodies everywhere. Some estimate that the number of people killed during the rebellion was approximately twenty million.

The detailed treatment of the suffering which Lily and Snow Flower experience in their laotong relationship is a major aspect of the book. Lily's need for love and her inability to forgive what she considers to be acts of betrayal cause her to inflict harm on many people, Snow Flower most of all. Believing that Snow Flower has not been true to her, Lily betrays her by sharing all her private secrets to a group of women, virtually destroying Snow Flower's reputation. When Snow Flower is dying, Lily is called to her bedside and tends to her until the end.

As the book returns to the present (1903), Lily is an 80-year-old woman who has lived forty years after her dearest friend's death. Her own husband and children have since died, and she quietly watches the next generation in her home.


The film version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was directed by Wayne Wang and produced by Florence Sloan, Wendi Murdoch, and Hugo Shong. Angela Workman adapted the original script, revised by Ronald Bass and Michael Ray.[5] It starred Gianna Jun, Li Bingbing, Vivian Wu and Hugh Jackman. Filming in China began in February 2010. Fox Searchlight acquired North American rights to the film,[6] and released it July 15, 2011.[7]


  1. ^ Lisa See, introductory note, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. New York: Random House (2005)
  2. ^ Furth (2009), p. 18.
  3. ^ Susan Kelly writes: "The secret fan of the title provides the folds in which the girls write to each other in Nü Shu, the secret phonetic 'women's writing' used by women in Hunan Province to communicate with each other" "Snow Flower Unfolds Secrets." USA Today, 07/13/2005
  4. ^ See comments on Nü Shu in her brief introduction to the novel: "It is believed that Nü Shu . . . developed a thousand years ago. It appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use", Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
  5. ^ Landreth, Jonathan (November 6, 2009). "Murdoch's Wife to Produce Chinese Period Drama". ABC News. Retrieved 2009-11-15.
  6. ^ Thompson, Anne (May 13, 2010). "Searchlight Buys Murdoch-Produced Snow Flower and the Secret Fan". Archived from the original on August 26, 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-15.
  7. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (March 9, 2011). "Exclusive: First Look At Wayne Wang's 'Snow Flower And The Secret Fan'". Archived from the original on March 12, 2011. Retrieved 2011-03-11.


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