Lisa See, the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, explains that she was inspired to write the novel after learning about nu shu, a secret, simplified writing used by women in a remote area of China to communicate with each other for centuries. The writing was suppressed for years after the Japanese invasion of China and during the Cultural Revolution, so it is now known only by a few scholars who learned it from the last women who knew it.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a beautifully written story about the love between two women in 19th century China. Near the beginning of the novel, Lily’s mother delays the date of her foot binding a year from the traditional age of six so that she can enter into a special relationship, called laotong, with another girl named Snow Flower. Laotong, or “old same” girls must match each other as closely as possible in birth date and time, height, and other qualities, including the date of their foot binding. Snow Flower sends Lily an invitation to enter into this relationship written on a fan in nu shu. This relationship is supposed to be advantageous to Lily, the daughter of a farmer, because Snow Flower comes from a family that is higher in status and can teach her to be more refined. The end purpose of all this is to find her the best husband possible when the time comes.
The foot binding itself is horrifically described near the beginning of the novel, when Lily’s short life as a free child is ended by this process of trying to bend the foot so that all but the big toe meet the heel and it ends up as close to three inches long as possible.
At lot of the novel is about suffering. The way of life was circumscribed in many ways, with the women spending most of their lives in one room. As children and young women they are considered worthless burdens to their family until they “marry out.” Then they are considered burdens by their husbands and mothers-in-law until they justify their existence by having sons.
Lily’s relationship with Snow Flower opens up her world a bit. They visit a shrine together every year. Snow Flower comes to visit Lily, and they spend days and nights whispering, telling their secrets and hopes. They send messages to each other on their fan.
The hardest thing for me to explain is the extent of the innocence of these girls, how they are full of good will, despite their difficult and painful lives. How they try to do their best even though they are constantly criticized. How even the aphorisms and songs that they hear every day tell them their purpose is just to serve others, yet they try to be cheerful.
Lily relates the story from the viewpoint of an old woman to explain something that she did that she will always regret. Eventually, Lily’s successful marriage and good luck and Snow Flower’s loss of status lead to a divide between the women and then an apparent act of betrayal. The story effectively explores the linkage between love, hurt, and jealousy.