"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: Foot binding, love and a secret language
We are drawn into Lily's life when she is a young girl. The story takes us through her childhood, which does include foot binding as well as a long list of abuses to which women and girls are subjected. But, Lily's life also includes a surprising joy: her laotong, Snow Flower. The author describes the laotong or "old same" as akin to a female soul mate. Stronger than the bond of marriage, a laotong relationship lasts forever, continuing even after death. Another bright spot in the women's lives is nu shu. This was a secret, written language, unbeknownst to men, in which women subversively communicated.
Lisa See, the author, conducted extensive research in rural China on the history, use and revival of nu shu. I was fascinated. Women who were completely disenfranchised and thought to be as worthless as animals raised for slaughter, found a way to love and support each other. Their nu shu communications gave them an iota of hope that there may be things that make life worth living.
The story goes beyond sharing the cultural and political context of women's lives in 19th century, rural China. It is also a personal story of love, misunderstanding, regret and redemption. By the conclusion, Lily is a very old woman and has learned that being a true friend requires one to let go of prescribed roles and go beyond what is taught as a proper response to a given situation. In other words, if love is true, it must be unconditional. It is left to the reader to decide whether Lily learns this lesson too late.
It took me a while to get into this book, but by the middle, I was looking forward to reading more, needing to know what would become of Lily and her laotong, Snow Flower.
Have you read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? What did you think?
Photo credit: Lucius Beebe Memorial Library