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.
If it wasn’t for Gianna Jun, one of my top favorite South Korean stars, I wouldn’t have learned about this book. After I finished watching her TV drama, My Love from the Stars, and her movie The Thieves, I just couldn’t get enough of her. So while I was searching for more movies with her, I chanced upon her 2011 film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
As it turned out, the movie was a film adaptation of Lisa See’s novel of the same title. This piqued my interest. After all, who would want to make a film based on a book if it’s sucks, right?
It wasn’t a long read, as the book is only 200+ words, but it was long in the sense that it’s a novel about the lives of two women, starting from when they were little until they were old. Yet, despite that, it was an interesting read.
Snow Flower and the Secret fan is a didactic tale about friendship, family, honor, tradition, etc. Not only that, it’s also peppered with historical facts and Chinese cultures, such as the Qing Dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion, the Laotong relationship (a bond between two girls for eternity, Nu Shu (a phonetic form of women’s writing in that time) as well as the ever popular foot binding.
It begins by way of narration by the main character, Lily, as her 80-year-old, widowed self, contemplating on her life in the past, the sufferings she had endured all in the name of love, for wanting and expecting it. She then proceeded to tell her story, starting from when she was born, her childhood and how she, a third child from a poor family, was privileged to be matched for a Laotong relationship with a girl of the same age from a rich family, their marriages and the reversal of fortunes, her insecurities, the sufferings, the ups and downs of their friendship, and lastly, old age.
It was a quite a read for short novel, but it was thought-provoking and insightful nonetheless. Aside from that, reading it brought me in to an emotional roller coaster ride. High whenever something good and positive happened to them, like Lily being matched to a wealthy young man and then being able to produce a son for him. Low when Snow Flower had an unfortunate marriage match as well as whenever she and Lily would fight. There was also the part where the process of footbinding was narrated, and it just made me cringe the whole time. Boy am I glad to be born in this day and age. The thought of it just made me think of bones crackling and braking. Ugh (shudder).
Another reason I like the book is that it gave me a glimpse of my husband’s culture. Although they no longer practice Chinese tradition in its purest form, and I say that because there are still some practices that they follow but only a pinch, it helped me understand his ancestor’s culture.
Overall, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is rich with historical facts and cultures. Insightful and engaging. However, it’s not for light reading. If that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, if you want something new to learn, albeit not for everday application, but just for added knowledge, then this worth the time.
The writing is flawless. The style is quite old school, but I guess that’s pretty understandable since it’s supposed to be a narrative. An autobiography of some sort for Lily. That’s why I said it’s not for light reading because you really have put your mind to it in order to understand. I had to re-read some paragraphs just to understand them. Of course, if you’re used to reading historical fiction then it won’t be a problem. The last time I read a classic was two years ago, so I had to get used to it again.
Just a tip. When you read, have your marker ready because you’re going to want to highlight excerpts and insights you’ll learn along the way. That’s what I did. And that’s why I like the book. 🙂
You may be desperate, but never let anyone see you as anything less than a cultivated woman.