I just finished reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. An excellent book about a special relationship between two women during unbearable times. There is so much about China and Chinese culture that I knew nothing at all about and I found the book fascinating for that too. It is about two girls growing up in the mid 1800's in rural China. Lily comes from a poor family, her father a farmer, while Snow Flower is from an educated, wealthy family. Though their backgrounds would normally have kept them apart a matchmaker decides that they are 'old sames' and the two girls begin the most important relationship for women of the time, in many ways more important than their marriages; a laotong relationship. They are now paired for life.
Though much about Chinese culture is revealed; foot binding and its importance, the very strict class system, and the role of women in society, the most interesting to me was Nu Shu. Nu Shu is a secret language only known by Chinese women of the time. It nearly disappeared until recently when the government realised its importance in their society and resurrected it.
Nu Shu was taught by mothers to daughters and by sworn sisters or, in the case of Lily and Snow Flower, by laotongs. It was a secret language not to be shown or learned by men. It was used as decorations when embroidering with poetic messages about women's lives. It was also used to make books called third day books, in which sworn sisters, mothers and laotongs wrote messages about the newly married young woman. The book was read on the third day after the marriage. For Lily and Snow Flower, they used Nu Shu on their secret fan to record the important events in their lives.
Apparently it is the only language written only for women. That seems quite astonishing to me. In so many cultures women suffered similar oppression as Chinese women, one would have thought naturally such languages might have developed, as a secret code to express their real thoughts and wishes that society forced them to hide.
I recently read a post at Helen Ginger's blog about researching for fiction and how the author should be knowledgeable about their material, but they shouldn't set out to use their fiction to teach their readers. I think Lisa See does an excellent job at doing just that, of walking that difficult line. The facts about China in the mid 1800's are brought out through the beautiful love story of these two girls. A very good book I highly recommend.