Snow flower and the Secret Fan – Lisa See | Book review

There are over 3814 distinct cultures in the world, according to Price’s Atlas of Ethnographic Societies. But that’s only an underestimation. Many cultures, due to civilization, have gotten lost, died out. More exist, yet undiscovered.

But one that serves as a backdrop to “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is that of Footbinding and arranged marriages.

The culture of footbinding might be alien to our world, but until the nineteenth century, it stood as a defining factor in Chinese marriages – a major one, at that.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a work of fiction, no doubt, but it is replete with the practices of footbinding and its consequences – trauma, disabilities, even death, in some extreme cases.

The story centers around two old sames; Snow Flower, and Lily, who also doubles as the narrator, recounting the story in her eighties; the age where one is called “the one who is yet to die”, having lost virtually everyone around them to death.

The average girl child in her culture is “worthless”. If she gives birth to a girl, her rank in her in-laws’ home remains the lowest. On the other hand, the more sons she has, the more powerful she is, and this is why she would have to make an annual visit to the Temple of Gupo, to “pray for sons”.


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It’s also why she keeps trying to get pregnant every year, until her womb says otherwise. If she doesn’t have sons, her husband takes in another wife, a concubine, or a “little daughter-in-law”; a girl whose feet has not been bound, and therefore has no dowry.

Lily has already been groomed to accept all these as her fate, but a match maker / fortune teller visits her home, takes one look at Lily’s feet, and declares that this is no ordinary child.

This match brings Lily and her “laotang”, her soul sister and lifelong friend, Snow Flower, together.

Through the years, their friendship must weather the storms of footbinding, going into arranged marriages, giving birth, losing loved ones, and being women in a society that reduces women to pieces of secret writings in a language they think men are not aware of – the “nu shu” language.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of how prejudice, with the undertones of barbarism in culture, influences lives, love, and friendship.

A touching story, it depicts the regrets that come with the years, as one ages and views them in retrospect.

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