In “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” Lisa See creates a convincing memoir of an intimate friendship between two women, Lily and Snow Flower, raised in the harsh patriarchal structure of traditional China in the 19th century. Living in different villages and unable to visit each other frequently, they communicate through a secret women’s language called nu shu, a language that could be hidden in the embroidery of a handkerchief or in the decoration of a fan. See’s narrator, Lily writes, “The true purpose of our secret writing was … to give us a voice … a way to write the truth of our lives.” The fan that passes between them becomes a secret record of their lives, allowing us a glimpse into their private thoughts as they grow through childhood, betrothal, marriage, motherhood, war, and betrayal.
For nearly a thousand years, women’s lives in China were dominated by their feet – or more precisely, by what happened to their feet when they were mere children, younger than six. At that tender age, while the growing foot is still malleable enough to be re-formed, the gruesome process of foot- binding began. See writes: “A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at
the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone. . . . The toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel.”
X-rays of bound feet show the four small toes folded tightly under the foot to form a point, the rest of the foot scrunched back and accordioned up like a three-car collision. Think Clara- belle Cow jammed into heels. The little girls were forced to pace endlessly in order to break the toes, lift the arch, and form the foot into a perfect”golden lily.” It took over two years of repeated binding and excruciating walking before a girl’s foot became completely folded. Rare photographs indicate that the result looked more like pig’s hooves than lilies, but the shape and size of a girl’s feet would determine her marriageability. If the feet were particularly tiny, her whole family might benefit from the match.
Footbinding served several purposes. It was a tether, keeping a woman in her home for life – teetering on three-inch feet, she could go nowhere on her own, even down the street. Lily writes, “Except for three terrible months in the fifth year of Emperor Xian-feng’s reign, I have spent my life in upstairs women’s rooms . . . embroidering, weaving and cooking.”
Footbinding was considered a precursor of a woman’s personality as a wife. How she bore the pain revealed her obedience, self-control, endurance, childbearing potential, familial loyalty, and reverence for culture and tradition. It also indicated her strength and healthiness, as many girls died of gangrene during the process. Footbinding also led to a bizarre sexual fetish, fueled by the belief of Chinese men that the mincing walk developed the vaginal muscles and increased a man’s marital pleasure. Finally, footbinding reinforced the cultural belief that the needs of the individual must be restrained in favor of the needs of the group.
Why would a woman force her daughters to go through this ordeal, knowing firsthand the lifetime horror of it? See explains that the masculine Chinese word for “mother love” is teng ai, written by combining the words for “pain” and “love.” Lily discovers that this characterization does not refer just to the pain of childbirth. A mother experiences pain as she inflicts pain while teaching her daughters to endure pain.
We in the West may consider our- selves above such cruel and foolish torture in the name of fashion, but think of how corsets crushed Victorian rib cages, leading to weakened lungs and death in childbirth; how Hollywood stars have ground down their natural teeth to replace them with caps and veneers; how women (and men) inject themselves with toxins and carcinogenic implants; and how pointed sti-
Little girls were forced to pace endlessly in order to break the toes, lift the arch, and form the foot into a perfect “golden lily. “
letto heels mimic the tiny footprint and unnatural arch of the bound foot (and produce painful bunions). Cinderella’s prince was willing to marry any girl whose foot fit inside the glass slipper, and her stepsisters were urged by their mother to cut off a toe and a heel in order to squeeze into it and marry the prince. Not very charming, is it?
Within the strict Chinese social structure, where little girls were unable to run, pla~ or even walk downstairs for several years, normal friendships were impossible. Instead, formal agreements were established with other girls in the village, either as “sworn sisters” (girls of similar ages who would serve as confidantes and bridesmaids until they were married) or as laotongs in a lifelong pairing between special girls whose circumstances were a close match. While marriage had “only one purpose: to make sons,” a laotong was a relationship “made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity.” “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is the story of two such friends, matched at the age of six to become lifelong friends.
Most interesting to me is See’s discovery that two written languages developed, representing masculine and feminine cultures, using the same words but not speaking the same language. Lily writes, “Men’s writing is bold, with each character easily contained within a square, while our nu shu looks like mosquito legs or bird prints in dust.” Men’s language was straightforward and literal, because theirs was the language of the dominant culture. Women’s language was nuanced, and relied heavily on metaphor to communicate emotion and carry on relationships while concealing their most intimate thoughts.
It’s likely that men were aware of the women’s writing, but ignored it as a silly feminine fancy. After all, men spent years of study memorizing the more than 50,000 Chinese characters, each representing a separate word, while the phonetic language of nu shu encompassed perhaps 600 characters. But those 600 characters could be used to create thousands of words and concepts. See indicates in her epilogue that nu shu was written in the 5-7-5 syllabic structure familiar to us as haiku, add- ing yet another layer of complexity to the women’s writing. Ironicall~ the “weaker” culture mastered a vastly more complex system of language, filled with symbols and multilayered meanings requiring contextual analysis and understanding, despite its users lacking any formal education.
Subversive language often develops among oppressed people. Nu shu was a secret language, yet it was out in the open, embroidered on shoes, jackets, and handkerchiefs or painted on fans, teacups, and vases. African-American slaves developed two languages side by side, both using the same English vocabulary but ascribing different meanings to those words. This double language allowed slaves the self-preservation that came with saying the “right” words to their masters, while maintaining the satisfaction and self-respect that came from knowing the secret signification of those words. A complex system of puns, homonyms, and reversed structural contexts gave them the satisfaction of having the last laugh.
Similarly 16th-century Incas, using the language of iconic art, subversively painted images of their own nature gods into the religious paintings and icons of
For nearly a thousand years, women’s lives in China were dominated by what happened to their feet when they were children.
the churches they were forced to build, allowing them to worship their own gods while pretending to worship the god of their new masters. Their mastery of language gave them a voice and an inner freedom. As Lily’s mother-in-law taught her: “Obe~ obe~ obey, then do what you want.”
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, most examples of nu shu were destroyed, but recently the People’s Republic reversed its stance and recognized it as an important example of the struggle against oppression. Lisa See traveled to remote villages in China to learn more about this poetic language and the culture that spawned it. Her carefully researched and beautifully written novel ensures that the language, and the women who created it, will not be forgotten.