Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
|Publisher||Random House, Inc.|
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". 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." 
The novel received an honorable mention from the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature.
In rural Hunan province, a county in China, Lily and her friend Snow Flower are a laotong pair whose sisterly relationship 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.
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 about 7 cm (approximately 3 inches) 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."
They 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.' In addition to the language itself, the young women learn Nü Shu songs and stories.
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.
The film starred Li Bingbing, Jun Ji-hyun, Vivian Wu and Hugh Jackman. Filming in China began in February 2010. Fox Searchlight acquired North American rights to the film, and released it July 15, 2011.
- Lisa See, introductory note, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. New York: Random House (2005)
- Furth (2009), p. 18.
- 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
- 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
- Landreth, Jonathan (November 6, 2009). "Murdoch's Wife to Produce Chinese Period Drama". ABC News. Retrieved 2009-11-15.
- Thompson, Anne (May 13, 2010). "Searchlight Buys Murdoch-Produced Snow Flower and the Secret Fan". Retrieved 2010-07-15.
- Jagernauth, Kevin (March 9, 2011). "Exclusive: First Look At Wayne Wang's ‘Snow Fbull shitlower And The Secret Fan’". Retrieved 2011-03-11.
- Douglas, Carol Anne. "White Snakes and Secret Fans: Chinese Women in Fiction." Off our Backs, vol. 36, no. 3.
- Furth, Charlotte (2009). "Premodern Chinese Women in Historical Fiction: The Novels of Lisa See". Education about Asia (Association for Asian Studies) 14 (1): 18–22.
- See, Lisa. "The Ties that Bind." The Times (UK), 01/14/2006.
- Lisa See, "On Writing Snow Flower"
- Lisa See, "The Secrets of nu shu." Bloomsbury.
- "Q and A: A Conversation with Lisa See and Her Mother, Author Carolyn See"
- "Chinese Foot Binding." BBC Home.
- Lousa Lim. "Painful Memories for China's Footbinding Survivors.
- "Nu Shu: A Hidden Language of Women in China". A film by Yue-Qing Yang. Women Make Movies.
- Lisa See interviewed on Conversations from Penn State.
- Ellen Emry Heltzel. "Bound Women in Charge." St. Petersburgh Times, 07/17/2005.
- Claire Hopley. "A Wealthy Woman's Life in China Not So Long Ago." Washington Times. 09/11/2005.
- Susan Kelley. "Snow Flower Unfolds Secrets." USA Today, 07/13/2005.
- Bridget Kinsella. "Seeing China." Publishers Weekly, 07/11/2005.
- Janet Maslin. "Books of the Times; 2 Women Cling in a Culture of Bound Feet." The New York Times, 08/15/2005
- Sara Payton. "Bound by Oppression and a Secret Tongue." San Francisco Chronicle, 07/03/2005.
- Clea Simon. "Novel's Powerful Prose Brings History to Life." The Boston Globe, 07/27/2005.
- Anna-Marie Slaughter. "Beyond Beijing: China's Past, Present, and Future." All Things Considered, 08/25/08.