SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN
By Lisa See. Random House. 258 pp. $21.95 During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, an old woman fainted in a rural train station. While trying to identify her, authorities found scraps of paper with writing they had never seen, leading them to think she was a spy. But scholars identified the script as nu shu, a writing that had been used exclusively by women for over a thousand years in a remote area of southern Hunan province. Nu shu was different from conventional Chinese script in that it was phonetic and its interpretation was based on context. Years later when author Lisa See became aware of nu shu, her discovery turned into an obsession, resulting in her fourth novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Written in the style of a memoir, the book is narrated by 80-year-old Lily Yi as she looks back on her life. Her story begins in 1828 in her village of Puwei in southwestern China. Her father is a hardworking, respected farmer. As in all traditional Chinese families, sons are revered and daughters are seen as temporary obligations, to be passed on to other families at the time of marriage. Even at age 5, Lily, the third daughter in a family of five children, understands her position.
But everything changes on the day the village diviner arrives to help her mother choose a propitious date for Lily and her cousin to begin having their feet bound. The diviner declares that Lily is no ordinary child. A special matchmaker announces that Lily's feet have particularly high arches and, if properly bound, could be shaped into golden lilies -- those highly coveted tiny, perfect feet that might be their key to prosperity. "Fate -- in the form of your daughter -- has brought you an opportunity," the matchmaker says. "If Mother does her job properly, this insignificant girl could marry into a family in Tongkou." Thus in one day, Lily's position in her family changes -- she remains a commodity, but one that now needs to be nurtured so that the family can realize her full value.
Later the matchmaker also suggests to Lily's mother a laotung match for her daughter, a relationship with a girl from the best village in the county. She is the same age as Lily, and their friendship is meant to last a lifetime, being perhaps even more profound than marriage itself. This match would signal to her future family that Lily is not only a woman with perfect golden lilies but also one who has proved her loyalty. When Lily meets her laotung, Snow Flower, she is given a fan with a secret message written in nu shu script inside.
So begins a correspondence between Lily and her new friend in nu shu -- a language considered by men to be of little importance because it belonged to the realm of women. But for Lily and Snow Flower it provides an opening for expressing and sharing their hopes and fears in lives that are otherwise powerless, repressed and bound by rigid social conventions. In the years that follow, Lily teaches Snow Flower the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning, while Snow Flower teaches Lily the more refined arts of weaving and calligraphy. Their bond also deepens during the extended visits Snow Flower makes to Lily's home.
Through See's careful, detailed descriptions of life in a remote 19th-century Chinese village, we experience a world where women spend their days in upstairs chambers, kowtowing to elders, serving tea and communicating in nu shu. She reveals to us the horrors of foot binding (foot bent back, bones broken and reshaped), a young girl's innocent dreams of life in a new home mingled with fears of being married off to a stranger, and the obsession with bearing sons. Woven through all this is the friendship between Lily and Snow Flower, which is compromised when Lily misinterprets a letter from her friend, cutting herself off from the one person she loves most. Years later, when Lily begins to understand her own failings and the depth of Snow Flower's affection for her, it is too late. She must find other ways to seek forgiveness and make amends.
The wonder of this book is that it takes readers to a place at once foreign and familiar -- foreign because of its time and setting, yet familiar because this landscape of love and sorrow is inhabited by us all. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a triumph on every level, a beautiful, heartbreaking story. *
Judy Fong Bates is the author of "Midnight at the Dragon Cafe."