Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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.


Sue Guiney said...

I just read this book, too (great minds...). I agree. It's lovely. A light touch on important subjects.

Lauri said...

That's funny Sue. I actually found it on my bookshelf in a desperate search for something to read and realised I'd never read it. My American English professor friend brought it with her when she came to visit and somehow it got lost in my bookshelf. But now it is thankfully found.

Helen Ginger said...

It sounds like a fascinating book. I love books that immerse me to a different world where I can not only get lost, but learn.

Straight From Hel

karen said...

Thanks, Lauri. I think I have also been recommended this by somebody else, and never got round to it, so i'ts now on my list!
Been catching up on your earlier posts, including the post on Sydney Pilane and the Kalafatis dramas. Strange times we live in, indeed, and I echo your sentiments in many ways...

Lauri said...

Karen- I keep repeating to my husband like a mantra- Evil happens when good people do nothing. On Saturday there is a march in Gaborone against these killings-12 so far. I'll unfortunately be in Cape Town but I will be there in spirit. Please anyone who can should attend We need to let the government know that we will not stand by and watch Botswana fall.