There’s definitely something to be said for reading a book all the way through in one sitting (I read this for Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon). You get more absorbed, your mind more focused, like a movie-watching experience (especially one in the cinema): a highly cohesive, tight story-telling experience with no channel-surfing. Like when you’re a kid, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of your teacher as they read aloud from a picture book, pointing out the details in the illustration while you gaze, mouth open, riveted.
Or like watching a train crash. It’s that same “can’t look away” feeling. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is definitely not a train wreck, in terms of writing or accomplishment, but it did have an element of threat and suspense that is symbolic of one.
Taking place in rural 19th century China (by our calendar, that is), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is about Lily, now a remarkably old lady in her eighties, writing her private memoir from her days as a girl growing up poor and her friendship with Snow Flower. Taught the secret women’s written language of nu shu by her aunt, when she is six the matchmaker arranges for her to have a laotong – like an official best friend – and agrees that with her feet, her mother should not bind them until she is seven, but that she will have the smallest “golden lilies” and will be able to get a rich and important husband in the nearby village of Tongkou – a very high aspiration indeed.
It is her friendship with Snow Flower, the daughter of a wealthy and important family in Tongkou, that is the driving force of this story, the focal point, the ugly truth that Lily now wants to tell us. We are silent witnesses to an old lady unburdening herself.
Rich in cultural detail, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is powerful not just in its story – a story about women in a land where the women wholeheartedly believe they are worth nothing – but in its historical accounting. I remember when I was small, going with my mother to the museum with its Chinese exhibit, and seeing these tiny shoes, brightly embroidered little slippers that looked like they might just fit a baby. No, my mother told me, these shoes were worn by women. She told me about their tiny feet, and how they bound them. It was something my child’s mind couldn’t really grasp but was still fascinated by.
Years later, while in a doctor’s waiting room, I read an article on the last living women – rural women, from a small village somewhere in China – who had had their feet bound (in, I want to say Cosmo). The account of the procedure was somewhat different from what is described in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – more horrific, if that’s possible. Like with female genital mutilation (FGM, or female circumcision), it’s yet another torture inflicted on women in the name of either fashion or purity or whatever nonsense the men can concoct. Because, of course, on these tiny feet, the women could barely walk (and with FGM, they can’t take any pleasure in sex). What an effective way to control them! And even better, like with FGM, they do it to themselves – willingly!! What idiots we women can be! (Let’s not forget the corset, or even the things we do to ourselves today.)
I loved reading about footbinding in this book. I was riveted. It wasn’t just the process, which was educational in its detail, but also the mentality behind it. Some of these girls died from this. But because girls are considered worthless (sons are the greatest treasure and the only reason to have women around), the mothers don’t hesitate to do what is necessary in order to marry them off – and get them off their hands. They’re just mouths to feed otherwise.
Lily is a product of her time, her culture: she doesn’t judge this, not even when her sister dies from blood poisoning. She is proud of her Golden Lilies (the men had sexual fetishes for them); it’s because of her tiny feet that she married so high and became Lady Lu. And anyway, it’s not the point of the story.
The novel celebrates women, and as we bear witness to Lily, the book itself gives witness to all the Chinese women who lived this life. It’s not a pretty life. But amongst it there is beauty. The secret language of the women, nu shu, is remarkable: a phonetic alphabet created by women, used only by women, that men couldn’t read – and, to be honest, had no interest in reading. It may be the only language like it, but the Japanese had something similar. In Japan, there are several alphabets in use: kanji, the adopted Chinese characters; hiragana and katakana, two Japanese alphabets; and romaji, our Roman/Latin alphabet. Hiragana and Katakana are lovely, simple characters, easy to read and I wish they would dump the kanji and just use these! But I digress. Hiragana was used by women because the men considered it beneath them – Chinese kanji was the alphabet of scholars and leaders. (Katakana is a shorthand version of kanji, like writing quickly, that is now used for foreign words.) I learnt this interesting tidbit from some of my students when I lived in Japan. Because the men considered it an inferior alphabet, they couldn’t read it, thus the women had their own secret language. Just not so secret!
But I haven’t mentioned Snow Flower yet. The characterisation in this novel is excellent, and I especially liked the development of Snow Flower. She isn’t an easy character to like (neither is Lily at times – mostly because the mentality of these women is so different from the western one), but she is perfectly understandable and this makes her sympathetic. Even more so as the novel goes on and the lives of these laotong diverge so greatly – Lily goes from poor to rich while Snow Flower goes from rich to poor and abused. There is tragedy in this story, but it’s balanced by the strength, resilience and fortitude displayed by these women. What’s interesting, with Lily, is what she doesn’t tell us. There’re many details and people she skims over. She doesn’t talk about her husband – he’s there, he talks, but it’s like a business arrangement or a room in a house: it’s there, you accept it, but you don’t love it or hate it. It’s just part of your life. Like a mole on your face. There’s the wife of Elder Brother, whom we never see even when she must be in the room, and Lily’s children – the sole purpose of her existence, apparently – she doesn’t reflect much upon. I guess, from the premise of her writing from an old age and writing the story she wants to tell, some characters just aren’t important at all, and others just aren’t that necessary. She can be almost heartless at times, and very generous and loving at others. Really, she’s a more complicated character than Snow Flower is.
Calling a novel “powerful” is a terribly boring cliché but it is a true one. This novel is powerful. I felt like I lived it. Even if I hadn’t been taking part in a readathon, I doubt I would have been able to put it down easily.