Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Random House, 2009
• Price: $17.00
• ISBN-10: 0812980352
• ISBN-13: 978-0812980356
As I began to read Lisa See’s meticulously researched novel based on 19th-century life in China, I was instantly transported to my girlhood days of reading Pearl S. Buck’s wonderful books about China (The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; Peony; Pavilion of Women; A House Divided; and many others). I have always been very interested to learn about other cultures, especially those very different from mine, and Buck had early on introduced me to life in China, as seen through the eyes of women. Now, Lisa See reopened my eyes and brought me back to that adventure and all of its exotic intrigue.
Lily is the voice of the narrator, an 80-year-old Chinese woman recalling her life as a girl, then as a woman, in a culture that subjugated women and considered the female gender in general almost entirely worthless. The author shows us, helps us to feel and understand, what it meant to be a female in this particular time and place.
Lily is a child as the first scene opens, a little girl who is contemplating the cruel practice of foot binding that she is about to endure. This tradition, supposedly started by a Chinese empress who had a club foot and wanted other women to match her deformity (other variations on this tale include a Chinese ruler who thought the tiny feet of a dancer were so erotic that he wanted all Chinese women to have such feet, later called “lily feet”), was perpetrated for centuries, elevated to the erotic by Chinese men (one wonders why the male idea of eroticism so often seems to involve some form of forced control over women), and raised to the level of being a external sign of belonging to the upper class, of having grace and education. Indeed, lower classes were spared this horrendous practice.
Foot binding, as the author describes it, would begin as early as at the age of 3. Because it was the only way to have a marriageable daughter, mothers were often those who bound the feet of their daughters. The process began when the bones of the foot were still malleable, and the foot would be bound in ever tightening strips of cloth, and the little girls forced to walk back and forth, back and forth, on their bound feet throughout the day. Beneath that binding, toes were folded under the foot, so that walking would, usually over a period of a few days, effectively break the bones of the toes and curl them permanently under the foot. As the girl grew, the foot would become nearly folded in half, a deep cleft forming in its middle section. Since toenails continued to grow, often directly into the flesh of the foot, infection would result, sometimes leading to the girl’s death. Adult women with bound feet would hobble on these tiny stubs that were the size of a small child’s feet, but a few inches in length. The pain these girls and women had to endure from their crippled feet lasted a lifetime.
“Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace,” writes See of the thinking of that time.
It is interesting to contemplate how women today suffer pain for beauty in comparison to these 19th-century Chinese women. If we read these historic accounts aghast at what women were subjected to and even themselves encouraged one upon another, accepting these deformities as “beautiful,” one wonders at the contemporary woman on stilettos, which any podiatrist will attest cause foot, leg and spinal injury over time, or the cosmetic and plastic surgery, liposuction, Botox injections, and a long list of modern-day torments, on into eating disorders, to which women today subject themselves, all in the name of “beauty.”When looked at that way, we can hardly read about these girls and women with a sense of superiority—we’ve come a long way, baby? Or perhaps not so very long at all. If there is a lesson for women throughout history, we may yet have to learn it.
The narrator Lily writes about the companionship between women, about the special relationship she has with another Chinese girl, Snow Flower, who is her “laotung,” or “old same,” an allusion to two kindred spirits. In a male dominated world, women live segregated from others, much of their lives lived out in women’s chambers, out of the sight of men and rarely seeing daylight—until the men need them to do their household chores or perform (and that would be the correct word here) their wifely duties. The women show a different face among themselves, but another face entirely to their men. To their men, they are ever flattering and complimentary, ever serving their needs and fluffing their egos, soft and gentle and kind and sweet. In their intimate moments with their husbands, which are usually not intimate at all (Lily refers to this as “bed business”), women will do anything to make their men feel special and to keep them loyal, even as they withdraw later to their own chambers to trade horror stories. Girls are trained from birth to treat men with this external face of honor, while they are never allowed to forget that they themselves are completely without value outside of what they bring to a man’s world.
“My education in the upstairs women’s chamber began in earnest, but I already knew a lot. I knew that men rarely entered the women’s chamber; it was for us alone, where we could do our work and share our thoughts. I knew I would spend almost my entire life in a room like that. I also knew the difference between nei—the inner realm of the home—and wai—the outer realm of men—lay at the very heart of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions. I also understood that two Confucian ideals ruled our lives…’When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son’… the Four Virtues, which delineate women’s behavior, speech, carriage, and occupation: ‘Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.’ If girls do not stray from these principles, they will grow into virtuous women.” (Page 24)
Set against this background, these women develop “nu shu,” a form of writing that is understood only by women. It is a secret code, and Lily and her laotung Snow Flower write messages to each other on a beautiful fan that they send back and forth to each other throughout their lifetimes. The author has researched here an actual secret code used a thousand years ago by Chinese women to communicate with one another. The messages were often poetic, artistically embroidered. Nu shu was often the only truth communicated in a women's world that otherwise was lived only behind masks.
As we watch the relationships of these women unfold—the mothers and daughters, the aunts and grandmothers, the female matchmakers, the sisters and laotung, it is clear that most of these women know real love only in their circles of women, while outside of these circles all is harshly enforced tradition and rule. As Lily grows into a young woman and marries, her mother-in-law advises her to “obey, obey, obey, and then do what you want.” The nu shu secret writing is one means of that quiet independent spirit that keeps these women alive in such a cruel world. Their bonds give them strength, companionship, courage to endure, shared wisdom. In one scene between Lily and Snow Flower as young girls first becoming aware of their own physical beauty, we see the only real eroticism among the many “bed business” scenes in the novel. Together, they discover their bodies and their sensuality, even though it is clear they are heterosexual women … the point taken is that this was the only way some of these women ever knew a truly intimate touch, one given out of mutual love. Most never knew a loving touch at all.
The novel traces the lives of Lily and Snow Flower as the two intersect, grow close, and then again grow apart. False pretenses come to light, “white lies” prove to have very dark consequences, real identities are revealed, and the differences between the upper and lower classes develop chasms between even the closest friends. The author examines the repercussions of violence between intimate partners, but also the occasional budding of true feeling between a woman and a man—yes, against all odds, that occasionally happens.
When all cultural differences and historical details are brushed aside, it can be sobering to realize how many of these human interactions and behaviors thrive even today. Women are still objectified, still suffer for beauty, and still wear masks to gain popularity with the opposite gender. Abusive behavior transcends generations, and painfully often—it is women themselves who break the spirit of the next generation. Domestic violence is at epidemic levels, as current statistics show that the least safe place for a woman to be today—is in her own home. Along with all that dark reality, however, other things still hold true, too—the unique communion of women, the power of redemption, the remarkable endurance of the human spirit, and the human need for intimacy no matter how many masks we wear to get through the day.
Lisa See has written a fascinating historical novel that shines a light on modern society even as she writes about ancient history. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is but one of many novels the author has written about the Chinese culture. The book is thought provoking, entertaining, moving, worthy of deeper discussion, expertly written and thoroughly researched, and, like any good book, entices the reader to want to learn more.
~for The Smoking Poet, Summer 2010 Issue