Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is about many things: a girl growing up in rural China in the 19th century; foot binding; nushu; arranged marriages; friendship; a woman’s place in the world; refection; regret. To try and sum-up what the book is about would not do it justice; to talk about it in depth would give the plot away. See manages to talk about all these things with depth, accuracy, and care.
I really enjoyed this book for many reasons. First of all, the subject of foot binding I have always found fascinating. The practice was horrific. The only good thing to come out of Mao’s rule in China was a abolition of foot binding. But out of foot binding came the amazingly beautiful art of decorated slippers and they are something I collect. See also seems to have a love/hate relationship with this practice. She goes into depth about the practice and pain and horrid consequences of it, but at the same time the practice is glorified in that though the act the protagonist, Lily, is raised from poverty because of her lovely lotus feet. Some readers will no doubt find her treatment of foot binding far too kind.
The second interesting thing about the book is nushu, the art of “women’s writing.” Nushu is the only gendered writing in the world that we know of. (Unless, of course, you count the fact that women developed nushu because they were denied the right to read and write “men’s writing” also known as “Chinese.” In that case, Chinese could also be considered “gendered” writing until the 20th century and women were allowed to be educated as well. But I digress). Very little is known about nushu because most of what the women wrote was burned with them when they died. What we do know is that it is a phonetic-based language developed over hundreds of years in southern Hunan. Which would lead me to interesting point 2.5, the book takes place in Hunan and talks about the hardships people faced during the Taiping Rebellion and the Grand Hunan Army’s campaign to reclaim the region.
The last thing I enjoyed/hated about the book was the way women are portrayed. The book is about women, from the view-point of women, written by a women, and for women readers, but it is filled with so much misogyny it made me want to scream. But that is kind of the point. See isn’t writing women as lesser creatures because she believes them to be so, she is writing them that way because they were treated as lesser creatures and even women themselves believed they were so in China at the time. The main character says absurd things like “who among us has not felt disappointment at the sight of a daughter” and “sons give a woman her identity.” The book is filled with so much nonsense it is maddening. But it is mostly maddening because it isn’t nonsense at all, but is a true reflection of the role of women at the time. It provides a backdrop to show just how little in China has changed today. Women are still viewed as less, and this book shows why this archaic view-point is still prevalent today.
So, should you read this book? I say yes. It is at least a 4 out of 5 and I look forward to seeing more books by Lisa See and finding the film adaptation to compare.