Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in a remote area in Hunan province in nineteenth-century China. At seven years of age, a “so-so” girl named Lily is paired with a well-educated girl as a laotong, or “old same”, to be emotionally matched and friends for life. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a token of her hopes for their relationship in the future in the form of a silk fan. On the fan she writes a poetic greeting in nu shu, an exclusive, ancient language that Chinese women created to communicate in secret, away from the domination of men. Most girls at her age are part of sworn sisterhoods until marriage, but Lily and Snow Flower maintain a relationship for many years, sharing their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments through sending messages on the fan and composing stories on handkerchiefs. They both suffer the torture of foot-binding and together contemplate their arranged marriages, isolation, and the satisfactions and hardships of motherhood. This novel tells the story of their companionship over many years, and how one misunderstanding threatened to tear their laotong-sisterhood to shreds.
This book is both heart-warming and educational. Before reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I knew nothing about Chinese culture, so it was especially fascinating for me to learn about Chinese rituals, systems and traditions. Chinese people, and women especially, lived narrow lives, knowing little about the provence next door let alone the rest of the world, which fascinates me. I felt like I became Lily while embarking on her journey with her, enduring everything she endured. I realised that so many of the women Lily came across in her life, who at first seemed so passive and thoughtless, were actually amazing people in their own rights. When one woman needs love and care, other women abandon their families to help their friend. They displayed ordinary acts of kindness that the men surrounding them were not even aware of, which is all the more impressive.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a good book for people who like Asian historical fictions and books about the feminist struggle. It may not be such a good fit for people who like fast-paced books, or a book that discusses in detail the politics or way of life of men in China, as it is thoroughly based on women. I would recommend this book for people in their mid to late teens and older.
My Ratings (out of 10 As):
Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)
Writing: AAAAAAA (7)
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