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Friendship by the Book: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

April 1, 2015 | By | 2 Replies Continue Reading
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel by Lisa See (Random House, 2005), describes the friendship between two peasant girls in South China—as told by one of them, now an 80-year-old widow, as she looks back upon her life.

As a very young child, the narrator, Lily, is introduced to her friend, Snow Flower. The two are divined to share an intimate, lifelong relationship called a laotong (referring to themselves as old sames) because they have been matched (by a matchmaker) along eight traditional dimensions, including foot size.

Describing this relationship, she says:

“This is a joining of two hearts that cannot be torn apartment by distance, disagreement, loneliness, better marriage position, or by letting other girls—and later women—come between you.”

Over the years, the girls communicate primarily through a secret language (called nu shu) that has been passed down to them by their ancestors, and they see each other on occasional visits. They have a stronger emotional connection with each other than with their husbands.

They are kindred spirits who share the common life passages of women of that time and culture: footbinding (which began when they were six years old), teenage rebellion, arranged marriages, childbirth, education, conflicts with their natal families, economic woes, war and the deaths of siblings and parents.

After the two women become mothers, the narrator receives a nu shu message from Snow Flower she perceives as a betrayal, which threatens their long-time relationship. In an extensive and fascinating interpretive epilogue to the book, author See compares that communication to an email message someone might receive today that is read totally out of context. Lily becomes so hurt by what she reads that she reacts with fury and revenge, essentially breaking up her laotong and humiliating her in public.

This gripping friendship story offers a glimpse into Chinese culture, its history, symbols and rituals, and also portrays the inferior status of women and their abuse by their husbands at that time. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is carefully researched and beautifully written. However, most striking, perhaps, is that although is describes a friendship in rural Hunan, China in the 1800s, its timeless themes are relevant to women around the world today.


‘Friendship by the Book’ is an occasional series of posts on this blog about books that offer friendship lessons. To read other posts in the series, use the search function on the right side of the page.

 

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Category: Communication

Comments (2)

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  1. Lauren says:

    Thanks for describing this book. Yes, it seems like there are a lot of parallels between friendships back then and today, especially with the old style messaging and todays messaging which can be taken the wrong way, ending the friendship. It look s like a case of …Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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