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A Novel

Written by Lisa SeeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lisa See



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On Sale: June 28, 2005
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Synopsis

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, an “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s written a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on the fan and compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together they endure the agony of footbinding and reflect upon their arranged marriages, their loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace in their friendship, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their relationship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a captivating journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. Now in a deluxe paperback edition complete with an expanded Random House Reader’s Circle guide and an exclusive conversation between Lisa See and her mother, fellow writer Carolyn See, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel is, as the Seattle Times says, “a beautifully drawn portrait of female friendship and power.”

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Milk Years

My name is Lily. I came into this world on the fifth day of the six month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign. Puwei, my home village, is in Yongming County, the county of Everlasting Brightness. Most people who live here are descended from the Yao ethnic tribe. From the storytellers who visited Puwei when I was a girl, I learned that the Yao first arrived in this area twelve hundred years ago during the Tang dynasty, but most families came a century later, when they fled the Mongol armies who invaded the north. Although the people of our region have never been rich, we have rarely been so poor that women had to work in the fields.

We were members of the Yi family line, one of the original Yao clans and the most common in the district. My father and uncle leased seven mou of land from a rich landowner who lived in the far west of the province. They cultivated that land with rice, cotton, taro, and kitchen crops. My family home was typical in the sense that it had two stories and faced south. A room upstairs was designated for women’s gathering and for unmarried girls to sleep. Rooms for each family unit and a special room for our animals flanked the downstairs main room, where baskets filled with eggs or oranges and strings of drying chilies hung from the central beam to keep them safe from mice, chickens, or a roaming pig. We had a table and stools against one wall. A hearth where Mama and Aunt did the cooking occupied a corner on the opposite wall. We did not have windows in our main room, so we kept open the door to the alley outside our house for light and air in the warm months. The rest of our rooms were small, our floor was hard-packed earth, and, as I said, our animals lived with us.

I’ve never thought much about whether I was happy or if I had fun as a child. I was a so-so girl who lived with a so-so family in a so-so village. I didn’t know that there might be another way to live, and I didn’t worry about it either. But I remember the day I began to notice and think about what was around me. I had just turned five and felt as though I had crossed a big threshold. I woke up before dawn with something like a tickle in my brain. That bit of irritation made me alert to everything I saw and experienced that day.

I lay between Elder Sister and Third Sister. I glanced across the room to my cousin’s bed. Beautiful Moon, who was my age, hadn’t woken up yet, so I stayed still, waiting for my sisters to stir. I faced Elder Sister, who was four years older than I. Although we slept in the same bed, I didn’t get to know her well until I had my feet bound and joined the women’s chamber myself. I was glad I wasn’t looking in Third Sister’s direction. I always told myself that since she was a year younger she was too insignificant to think about. I don’t think my sisters adored me either, but the indifference we showed one another was just a face we put on to mask our true desires. We each wanted Mama to notice us. We each vied for Baba’s attention. We each hoped we would spend time every day with Elder Brother, since as the first son he was the most precious person in our family. I did not feel that kind of jealousy with Beautiful Moon. We were good friends and happy that our lives would be linked together until we both married out.

The four of us looked very similar. We each had black hair that was cut short, we were very thin, and we were close in height. Otherwise, our distinguishing features were few. Elder Sister had a mole above her lip. Third Sister’s hair was always tied up in little tufts, because she did not like Mama to comb it. Beautiful Moon had a pretty round face, while my legs were sturdy from running and my arms strong from carrying my baby brother.

“Girls!” Mama called up the stairs to us.

That was enough to wake up the others and get us all out of bed. Elder Sister hurriedly got dressed and went downstairs. Beautiful Moon and I were slower, because we had to dress not only ourselves but Third Sister as well. Then together we went downstairs, where Aunt swept the floor, Uncle sang a morning song, Mama—with Second Brother swaddled on her back—poured the last of the water into the teapot to heat, and Elder Sister chopped scallions for the rice porridge we call congee. My sister gave me a tranquil look that I took to mean that she had already earned the approval of my family this morning and was safe for the rest of the day. I tucked away my resentment, not understanding that what I saw as her self-satisfaction was something closer to the cheerless resignation that would settle on my sister after she married out.

“Beautiful Moon! Lily! Come here! Come here!”

My aunt greeted us this way each and every morning. We ran to her. Aunt kissed Beautiful Moon and patted my bottom affectionately. Then Uncle swooped in, swept up Beautiful Moon in his arms, and kissed her. After he set her back down, he winked at me and pinched my cheek.

You know the old saying about beautiful people marrying beautiful people and talented people marrying talented people? That morning I concluded that Uncle and Aunt were two ugly people and therefore perfectly matched. Uncle, my father’s younger brother, had bowlegs, a bald head, and a full shiny face. Aunt was plump, and her teeth were like jagged stones protruding from a karst cave. Her bound feet were not very small, maybe fourteen centimeters long, twice the size of what mine eventually became. I’d heard wicked tongues in our village say that this was the reason Aunt—who was of healthy stock, with wide hips—could not carry a son to term. I’d never heard these kinds of reproaches in our home, not even from Uncle. To me, they had an ideal marriage; he was an affectionate rat and she was a dutiful ox. Every day they provided happiness around the hearth.

My mother had yet to acknowledge that I was in the room. This is how it had been for as long as I could remember, but on that day I perceived and felt her disregard. Melancholy sank into me, whisking away the joy I had just felt with Aunt and Uncle, stunning me with its power. Then, just as quickly, the feeling disappeared, because Elder Brother, who was six years older than I was, called me to help him with his morning chores. Having been born in the year of the horse, it is in my nature to love the outdoors, but even more important I got to have Elder Brother completely to myself. I knew I was lucky and that my sisters would hold this against me, but I didn’t care. When he talked to me or smiled at me I didn’t feel invisible.

We ran outside. Elder Brother hauled water up from the well and filled buckets for us to carry. We took them back to the house and set out again to gather firewood. We made a pile, then Elder Brother loaded my arms with the smaller sticks. He scooped up the rest and we headed home. When we got there, I handed the sticks to Mama, hoping for her praise. After all, it’s not so easy for a little girl to lug a bucket of water or carry firewood. But Mama didn’t say anything.

Even now, after all these years, it is difficult for me to think about Mama and what I realized on that day. I saw so clearly that I was inconsequential to her. I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home. I was five, old enough to know I didn’t deserve her attention, but suddenly I craved it. I longed for her to look at me and talk to me the way she did with Elder Brother. But even in that moment of my first truly deep desire, I was smart enough to know that Mama wouldn’t want me to interrupt her during this busy time when so often she had scolded me for talking too loudly or had swatted at the air around me because I got in her way. Instead, I vowed to be like Elder Sister and help as quietly and carefully as I could.

Grandmother tottered into the room. Her face looked like a dried plum, and her back bent so far forward that she and I saw eye to eye.

“Help your grandmother,” Mama ordered. “See if she needs anything.”

Even though I had just made a promise to myself, I hesitated. Grandmother’s gums were sour and sticky in the mornings, and no one wanted to get near her. I sidled up to her, holding my breath, but she waved me away impatiently. I moved so quickly that I bumped into my father—the eleventh and most important person in our household.

He didn’t reprimand me or say anything to anyone else. As far as I knew, he wouldn’t speak until this day was behind him. He sat down and waited to be served. I watched Mama closely as she wordlessly poured his tea. I may have been afraid that she would notice me during her morning routine, but she was even more mindful in her dealings with my father. He rarely hit my mother and he never took a concubine, but her caution with him made us all heedful.

Aunt put bowls on the table and spooned out the congee, while Mama nursed the baby. After we ate, my father and my uncle set out for the fields, and my mother, aunt, grandmother, and older sister went upstairs to the women’s chamber. I wanted to go with Mama and the other women in our family, but I wasn’t old enough. To make matters worse, I now had to share Elder Brother with my baby brother and Third Sister when we went back outside.

I carried the baby on my back as we cut grass and foraged for roots for our pig. Third Sister followed us as best she could. She was a funny, ornery little thing. She acted spoiled, when the only ones who had a right to be spoiled were our brothers. She thought she was the most beloved in our family, although nothing showed her that this was true.

Once done with our chores, our little foursome explored the village, going up and down the alleys between the houses until we came across some other girls jumping rope. My brother stopped, took the baby, and let me jump too. Then we went home for lunch—something simple, rice and vegetable only. Afterward, Elder Brother left with the men, and the rest of us went upstairs. Mama nursed the baby again, then he and Third Sister took their afternoon naps. Even at that age I enjoyed being in the women’s chamber with my grandmother, aunt, sister, cousin, and especially my mother. Mama and Grandmother wove cloth, Beautiful Moon and I made balls of yarn, Aunt sat with brush and ink, carefully writing her secret characters, while Elder Sister waited for her four sworn sisters to arrive for an afternoon visit.

Soon enough we heard the sound of four pairs of lily feet come quietly up the stairs. Elder Sister greeted each girl with a hug, and the five of them clustered together in a corner. They didn’t like me intruding on their conversations, but I studied them nevertheless, knowing that I would be part of my own sworn sisterhood in another two years. The girls were all from Puwei, which meant that they could assemble often, and not just on special gathering days such as Catching Cool Breezes or the Birds Festival. The sisterhood had been formed when the girls turned seven. To cement the relationship, their fathers had each contributed twenty-five jin of rice, which was stored at our house. Later, when each girl married out, her portion of rice would be sold so her sworn sisters could buy gifts for her. The last bit of rice would be sold on the occasion of the last sworn sister’s marriage. That would mark the end of the sisterhood, since the girls would have all married out to distant villages, where they would be too busy with their children and obeying their mothers-in-law to have time for old friendships.

Even with her friends, Elder Sister did not attempt to grab attention. She sat placidly with the other girls as they embroidered and told funny stories. When their chatter and giggles grew loud, my mother sternly hushed them, and another new thought popped into my head: Mama never did that when my grandmother’s late-life sworn sisters came to visit. After her children were grown, my grandmother had been invited to join a new group of five sworn sisters in Puwei. Only two of them plus my grandmother, all widows, were still alive, and they visited at least once a week. They made each other laugh and together they shared bawdy jokes that we girls didn’t understand. On those occasions, Mama was too afraid of her mother-in-law to dare ask them to stop. Or maybe she was too busy.

Mama ran out of yarn and stood up to get more. For a moment she stayed very still, staring pensively at nothing. I had a nearly uncontrollable desire to run into her arms and scream, See me, see me, see me! But I didn’t. Mama’s feet had been badly bound by her mother. Instead of golden lilies, Mama had ugly stumps. Instead of swaying when she walked, she balanced herself on a cane. If she put the cane aside, her four limbs went akimbo as she tried to maintain her balance. Mama was too unsteady on her feet for anyone ever to hug or kiss her.

“Isn’t it time for Beautiful Moon and Lily to go outside?” Aunt asked, cutting into my mother’s daydream. “They could help Elder Brother with his chores.”

“He doesn’t need their help.”

“I know,” Aunt admitted, “but it’s a nice day—”


From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

READ WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT
SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN BY LISA SEE...


"Words can't express the thanks I have for you sending Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It was an incredible novel worth much praise and respect. I loved how the story was being told from an old woman's eyes and how her life unfolded with her laotong, Snow Flower. I've been recommending this book to every reader I meet and can't wait to make it my pick for our bookclub to read. Many thanks to Lisa See for an inspirational and riveting book."
Sharon Elfenbaum
Making Time For Books & Wine


"Thank you so much for sending Snow Flower and Secret Fan. It was such a wonderful and beautiful story and I'm thrilled that it's now in paperback. It will be a perfect book for book club discussions. It brings to life the history of women in rural China, the ability and strength of women (regardless of class and culture) to overcome emotional and physical obstacles, the bond of female friendship, and the ways that women can deeply effect each other in positive and negative ways. I also appreciated the additional information and historical context that Lisa See provided at the end of the book. I look forward to sharing this with my book club and others."
Tanya Maurer Cover to Cover
book club in San Diego, CA


"I would like to thank you for the opportunity to read this book. It was a book I may have never chosen for myself, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I never knew much about the whole foot binding ritual, and I felt I learned a lot from this book. It is always refreshing to read something about friends in a different time and culture. You see that even though we are from different places, a different time, and a different culture, we are all the same. We feel the same and love the same, and our friendships with our women friends are very important!"
Karen Garry
Anderson Island, WA


"Thank you for sending me this special book. Our book club enjoyed it so very much. We had a very thoughtful discussion of another culture and time. We all enjoyed this story friendship between these women."
Sydney Heimer
Stacyville Public Library


"Thank you so much for the copy of the book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I did not hear of this book until I received this copy but I am going to spread the word. What a poignant and moving story. I cried for the pain Lily caused Snow Flower and her regrets afterwards -I cried because Lily had some of her mother in her. I cried for Snow Flower and her miserable life. I cried for all the women that endured foot-binding. I will share this title with all who are interested!"
Mel Isaacson
Fairport,NY


"Although I have read many books dealing with women in China including information about foot binding, this book provided more detail about the process than I had previously encountered. The communication theme was interesting, not only with the secret language but with miscommunication and withheld information that caused many heartaches. We are passing it around our Book Club and will probably include it on our new list. Thank you."
Nancy Mudloff Newcomers' Book Club Activity Chair


"I just wanted to thank you for sending me a copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I just finished reading it last night. It is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have ever read. I hated to put it down and I was sad when I finished it. I felt like I had lost two friends -- Lily and Snow Flower. Ms. See certainly has a wonderful way of writing and her portrayal of life in a small village in China during the 19th century was educational and endearing. Thanks again for the opportunity to read this wonderful story."
Debbie Moore Chief Judge


"I was transformed into another culture, felt the pain of the foot binding, the loneliness of the women and the perceived betrayal of the "old sames". As I am involved in three monthly book clubs, I have put this author's work on the agenda to share with all the other members. It will make a wonderful discussion and I look forward to sharing it with other women. Thank you so much for sending me this wonderful read. I don't know if I would have discovered it on my own."
Marilyn Hurst
Matthews, NC


"I would like to thank you for introducing me to Lisa See. I read this book cover to cover, including the author's notes and reading guide, in 24 hours. I literally could not put it down. In my mind I could vividly see the world of Snow Flower and Lily. I cried throughout the novel, my heart touched be the often-painful circumstances of these characters lives. I look forward to sharing this book with others."
Mrs. Tiffany Lagueux Cypress, CA

"I just finished reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It definitely will go on our book club list. We especially enjoy reading novels that inform us about women in other cultures and this fits that category to a "T". I look forward to reading it again - just as soon as my feet stop hurting!!!! Thank you very much for this extraordinary look into lives of the women of ancient China."
Marti Dix WOW (Women of Words) Book Club

"I wanted to thank you for sending a copy of the recently released in paperback Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. I recently finished reading it and can not wait to share it with my reading group. This book is truly remarkable and touching. It was a pleasure to read and I raced right through. I will be presenting it to my book group at the end of this month and I think that they will embrace it."
Amy Biery-Skiba
Carnegie, PA

"This story about a remarkable friendship between two girls was very powerful and loving. I think if we are lucky, we too can have a "laotong" or as I would call them, "soul sisters". I have recommended this book to all my friends and will suggest it for my two book clubs. Too bad that women no longer have a secret written language!"
Rosa Lamour
Dorman Sewickley Library Brown Bag Book Club (leader)

"I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan last year in hardback. Then I recommended it to at least 6 people. It is one of the most amazing stories and at the top of my favorites from last year. During a lull in one of my book clubs I recommended it and the club immediately put it on the schedule. It was read and discussed for the better part of a month by the participants online."
Anne Glasgow ,Austin TX

"Thank you for this wonderful book!!!! It should come with a warning on the cover "Clear your schedule before starting this book". It is IMPOSSIBLE to put down. It was wonderfully written and I hated for it to end. Thank you for introducing this author to me. I have already put this book high on our bookclub MUST READ list."
Marcie Frank, book club leader

"I just finished reading the copy of Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See. Wow! It has been a long time since I have read a book that so literally touched my very soul! I will always carry Lily and Snow Flower in my heart. Even thought they lived in a different culture, I was able to relate, in so many ways, to their trials and tribulations as daughters, wives, mothers, and most of all, as friends. Lisa See is on my list of favorite authors. I know our Book Club will enjoy reading the book."
Sylvia Baker, book club leader
Lisa See|Author Q&A

About Lisa See

Lisa See - Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Lisa See and Her Mother, Author Carolyn See


Carolyn See:
What fun it’s going to be to get to ask you some questions about this wonderful new edition of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan! God knows, we’ve already had plenty of conversations about it–I’ll be so interested to see some of your answers in print. Although you’re a little young to have produced a masterwork, I think Snow Flower plainly is one. I’m so proud of you! (But then, I always am.) 

You know how much I admire the service you did for the Chinese American community when you wrote On Gold Mountain, and I’m a huge fan of your thrillers. But Snow Flower is something different and far more profound. I’ve told you before, I think it compares to André Malraux’s Man’s Fate. It’s deep, honey! Tell me when, or even if, you first realized that Snow Flower was a different kettle of fish, that you were on to something really big. 

Lisa See: I think of Snow Flower as part of a continuum, just the next step in my writing. On Gold Mountain was about my family, and very grounded in history. Snow Flower certainly has those same elements. At the same time, it’s very much a mystery. On page three you learn there’s a secret–a mystery, if you will–about what happened between Lily and Snow Flower, and the answer to it is hidden in the fan. That’s certainly the biggest mystery, but there are others, such as the truth of Snow Flower’s situation. I had to drop in clues for all of these things just as I did in my mysteries. What I’m saying is that I never could have written Snow Flower if I hadn’t written the other books first. 

CS: Once, an interviewer asked each of us what our predominate, life-driving emotions might be. Without hesitation you answered, “Fear.” And yet you traveled alone, to the boondocks of China, sometimes on ox cart, for your research. How did you get up the nerve? 

LS: I don’t think I’m unique in being fearful. Aren’t most of us driven by fear to some extent? The loss of a child, the death of a parent, the tragedies we go through with our friends are what all of us fear. And then there are the day-today fears: fear of failing, being rejected, public speaking, losing your job, the dark, or whatever. What matters is how we deal with fear, manage it, triumph over it. I’ll never do something like climb Mount Everest, but I do push myself to do things that scare me. However, going into the interior of China isn’t one of them. To me, China feels very familiar–like going to Chinatown or playing in my grandparents’ backyard when I was a kid. 

At the most basic level, I think there are two types of fear: one physical, the other emotional. The physical stuff isn’t all that frightening–which is why physical torture isn’t particularly effective–but emotional fear is. I know a lot of writers get scared about how a book will be received and things like that. But to me, the real fear is going to dark places in the writing. Seventeenth-century Chinese women writers used to talk about “cutting to the bone” to write. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, and that’s the part that leaves me weak with fear. When I write something like Beautiful Moon’s death, Lily’s Letter of Vituperation and what it does to Snow Flower, and Snow Flower’s death, I’m experiencing and reliving my own losses and those that haven’t happened (and I hope never do). That process leaves me weak and depleted, so that by the end of writing Snow Flower I felt like I’d survived a terrible illness. And that’s another element of the fear I feel–the anticipation of the toll that going to these sad places will have on me. Put another way, I didn’t wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, goodie, I get to kill off Snow Flower today.” Writing her death put me back in the room watching my grandmother, our friend Harvard, and your John die. 

CS: You’re one-eighth Chinese but you’ve said many times that you’re “Chinese in your heart.” You lived with me growing up, but I know your dad’s parents made a tremendous impression on you. Could you talk specifically of your wonderful grandmother Stella See? I have a hunch you picked up many of your storytelling skills from her. 

LS: Did I? I thought I picked up my storytelling skills from you! I don’t remember my grandmother telling many stories, actually. What I remember most is her essence. She wasn’t Chinese (I got my red hair from her). She was very shy and fearful in many ways, but she also was filled with daring. She married a Chinese man when it was against the law. She lit out on a round-theworld trip with a couple of girlfriends when she was sixty-nine. She traveled through India third class. She was an adventurer and kind of wild in her own way, and yet she was afraid of so many things. She could be very blunt and earthy, but often she was afraid to finish a sentence. It was only when I was writing Peony in Love that I realized that a version of my grandmother has appeared in every book I’ve written. There’s a lot of her in Madame Wang (the matchmaker in Snow Flower), the neighborhood committee director in the mysteries, the grandmother in Peony in Love, and the mother-in-law in Shanghai Girls. Writing these fictional characters has allowed me to have my grandmother with me every day. 

CS: So many blessings and surprises have come to you from Snow Flower. What was your favorite, or most unexpected, surprise? 

LS: That anyone read the book in the first place. And after that I’d have to say that the posters in the Paris Métro for the French edition were pretty amazing. I have a photograph of one of them on my desk. It just knocks me out. Beyond that, I’ve been extremely touched by the emails I’ve received from all over the world from women (and men) of every age. I wrote about friendship and what happens when a friendship falls apart. I thought I was writing about something unique to me, but it turns out we’ve all been either dropped or have dropped someone. The feelings about that are deep and they last a lifetime. 

CS: I’m sure you know that you reduced your sister Clara to raving hysterical tears when Beautiful Moon died, and after that the corpses piled up like cordwood–or like the unfortunate, double-crossed Communists in Man’s Fate. I’ve known you your whole life, dear one, and outside of a trying and taxing childhood (which as your mom I freely admit having been a party to), you appear, from the outside at least, to be an extremely fortunate woman! A wonderful husband, two darling sons, parents who admire you beyond words, a lovely home, a sparkling career. From where, then, this tragic sense of life? 

LS: For all the goodness and all the blessings we have in life, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s ultimately tragic. All the people we love most in the world are going to die. We’re going to die! All we can hope is that it will be later rather than sooner, painless and not prolonged agony, that we will have loved and been loved and not die alone. I think a lot about the Chinese concepts of fate and fortune. Are they ordained? How much control do we have? Exactly how fickle is it? I also think about what Bob Dylan wrote: “When you got nothing you got nothing to lose.” Well, when you’ve got something, you’ve got everything to lose. I don’t mean losing a car, a house, or a job. The greatest losses are things we can’t even see or touch: love, devotion, admiration, dedication, loyalty, memories. You and I have lived in Southern California–a place plagued by earthquakes, fires, and floods–all our lives. I can’t even count how many times we’ve had to evacuate. But you only need to do it once to know that stuff is unimportant. The truly important things are what we carry in our hearts. This is what Lily had to learn. She started from nothing, gained everything, and then lost the one thing that was most important to her: love. 

CS: Along this same line, you’ve often talked about the pain inherent in a mother-daughter relationship, both in Snow Flower and Peony in Love. The pain of footbinding, for instance, is endured by Lily, and inflicted by her mother, but experienced by both of them. The acculturation of women in almost every society involves a lot of suffering. How did this notion come to lodge in your mind? Was it because of your father’s profession? 

LS: My dad’s an anthropologist, but that isn’t how I came to think about these things. I’m a woman, a daughter, and a mother. When I was a kid, I had very long hair. Remember what you used to say when you brushed it? “In order to be beautiful one must suffer.” That was coming from you–one of the most liberated, smart, and open people I know. These things are just so deep in every culture. 

But what really interested me about footbinding was that it seemed so tied to the Chinese written character for mother love, which is composed of two elements: one part means love, the other part means pain. Of course, mother love is experienced in all cultures and through all times. I used to think that mother love is what daughters feel for their mothers–because they bind our feet, brush our hair, and nag us to clean our rooms, do our homework, get off the phone, and not stay out too late–but I’ve come to believe that mother love is really about what mothers feel for their children. Any pain or suffering our children feel–a fever or an earache as an infant, getting in with the wrong crowd in high school, failures in business or love once they’ve gone out into the world–we bear for them (whether they know it or not) and carry in our hearts. 

CS: You describe in painful detail the footbinding process young girls had to go through. How did this tradition start? Rather than a removed historical account, yours was an intimate portrayal of this horrific process; was it difficult for you, as a researcher and writer, to investigate it? 

LS: There are many theories about how the practice started. One of them is that there was a courtesan who used to wrap her feet when she danced. Obviously she wasn’t breaking her bones or else she wouldn’t have been able to dance. Nevertheless, it was said that she looked like she had little fox feet when she danced. She became hugely famous for this, and all the men wanted to see her. Pretty soon other courtesans were binding their feet. Now all the men wanted to see them. This resulted in a lot of wives saying the Chinese equivalent of “How am I going to get Harry to come home?” That’s how footbinding made the jump from the courtesan culture to the culture of fine upstanding women. 

Footbinding wasn’t difficult to research. What was hard was putting myself in the room with Lily, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister as they had their feet bound. I kept wondering how a mother could do that to her daughter. This question stayed with me. I wanted to look at footbinding from a mother’s point of view, which is what I did in Peony in Love

CS: Were women forbidden to have female friends aside from their laotong, or sworn sisters? Was what made these bonds strong simply the societal importance associated with these relationships? 

LS: A sworn sisterhood dissolved when girls were married out to other villages. In the most practical sense, how could they have friends and meet people if they had bound feet and were stuck in an upstairs women’s room for the rest of their lives? They couldn’t go out to meet other women. They couldn’t call each other on the phone or go out for coffee. They were pretty much stuck with the women in their husband’s household: their mothers-in-law, sistersin- law, and unmarried daughters. Once the children were grown or a woman became a widow, then she might join a late-life sworn sisterhood in her husband’s village, but that was relatively rare. 

The laotong relationship was completely different. These women would be allowed to visit each other at certain prescribed times during the year and they could write to each other until one of them died. While it’s true that these relationships did have societal importance–they were tangible proof that a girl could be loyal, that she was literate in nu shu, and that her family was wealthy enough to share food and water with a stranger–these bonds were extraordinarily strong. I came to look at the laotong relationship like an emotional marriage, when actual marriage had very little emotion attached to it. This doesn’t mean that when little girls first met and signed their contracts to become laotong that they loved each other right away. It takes a long time to become true, deep-heart friends. And often it didn’t work out. This is why I have the chapter called “Love,” in which Lily woos and cultivates Snow Flower. Don’t we do that even now? We meet someone, see matinees together, go for walks, have lunch, and talk, talk, talk, hoping to become friends. 

CS: Would there have been any recourse for a battered woman in Snow Flower’s position? Were there any outlets or resources a woman could turn to besides her laotong

LS: Not that I know of. She couldn’t even go back to her natal family, because once married, she belonged to her husband’s family. After I finished writing Snow Flower, I watched a documentary about nu shu that was filmed a few years ago. In it there was a group of elderly sworn sisters. They were heartsick over one of their friends whose husband was beating her. They felt they had no way to help her and she had nowhere to go for help. Sadly, even in this country, battered women are often too afraid or too immobilized to seek help, even though we have all kinds of legal, emotional, and physical sources to prevent or end the cycle of abuse. 

CS: Since a woman’s worth hinged on her ability to produce sons, what would have happened to a first wife who only had daughters, or who was barren? Were there issues of legitimacy for male heirs at that time and place? 

LS: If a woman didn’t have sons, she could be sold into another marriage, be sent back to her parents (if they’d take her), or be discarded out onto the street. But as you suggest, men often took multiple wives or concubines. If one of these women had a son, then the first wife could adopt him as her own. He would become the first son, the one who inherited everything. 

CS: This isn’t a very academic question, but Snow Flower and Lily enjoy–for a while–a very deep and intense friendship. Which one would you prefer to spend a day with, hang out with, as a friend? Or, better yet, go with to a weekend spa getaway where you could really talk? 

LS: I think it would depend on if we were kids or adults. As a kid, I would have loved to hang out with Snow Flower, because she’s creative and brave. I have a feeling we would have gotten into all kinds of trouble. (And I haven’t thought of this until now, but in a strange way doesn’t Snow Flower remind you of my best friend from elementary school, Barbie Sloan, who got me to be much more adventurous and do things I never would have done otherwise?) On the other hand, as an adult, Snow Flower is so caught up in her emotions and all the bad things that are happening to her that by the second day at the spa I’d be thinking, Get me out of here! For me, she’s a little too caught up in her victimhood to be much fun. 

I don’t think I would have liked Lily very much as a child. I don’t know if I’d want to spend a whole weekend with her as an adult, either, since she’s so stern and unforgiving. She’d probably be telling me to exercise more and eat spa food, when I’d want to lounge by the pool, eat hot fudge sundaes, and sip margaritas. (Okay, that’s disgusting! But we’re talking fantasy weekend here.) But if I could really get her to talk, I think she’d be fascinating. I’d like to peer into her darkness and regrets for a while. Doesn’t sound like much fun though, does it? I have a better idea. Why don’t the two of us go on that spa weekend and gossip about them instead? 

CS: In Snow Flower and Peony, men certainly take a back seat as far as importance is concerned. And in the thrillers, your character David Stark, though morally sound and very, very cute, is definitely a little dimmer than the intrepid Red Princess Hulan. Would you care to comment? 

LS: In the mysteries, which take place in contemporary China, Hulan is definitely more knowledgeable about things because she’s on her home soil, while David is the eyes and ears of the reader, discovering China for the first time. In Peony in Love,Wu Ren is the idealized object of Peony’s love. It takes her a long time to see, appreciate, and understand him as a real man–with strengths and weaknesses–and she learns a lot along the way because of that. This journey is central to the book. 

Snow Flower is completely different. So often we hear about men objectifying women, but I think women objectify men too. For the bound-footed nu shu writers, who lived practically their entire lives in the upstairs women’s chambers, men were strange and unknowable. Think about how women would have experienced the men in their lives: A father looked at his daughter as worthless, as someone to feed until she married out to her “proper” family. Husbands and wives had little contact. (Marriage wasn’t like it is today, where we talk to each other about the house, the kids, work, finances, and politics.) Women were told to obey their sons, not the other way around. So how would women have looked at the fathers, husbands, and sons in their lives? Men would have seemed like creatures from another planet. I’m not endorsing that point of view. I’m just saying that’s how it was and I tried to capture that. There are many reasons that I’m glad I didn’t live in China in the past, and this is a major one. 

CS: So if it’s not a secret, what are you working on now? 

LS: I’m so glad that you asked this today, because just last night I finished Shanghai Girls! It’s about two sisters who leave Shanghai in 1937 to come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. (We had a lot of arranged marriages in my family here in Los Angeles Chinatown, so I really know what life was like for them.) It’s got glamour, parties, great clothes, and plenty of heartache too. I wrote about best friends for life in Snow Flower, the three sister-wives in Peony in Love, and now sisters. Sisters, as you know, also have a unique relationship. This is the person who has known you your entire life, who should love you and stand by you no matter what, and yet it’s your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most. In some ways I would say that Shanghai Girls is my most personal book. I wanted to capture the people (and places) who are gone now, who meant so much to me, and who in many ways made me the person I am today. 

CS: In addition to writing books, you’ve written the libretto for an opera and mounted museum shows. You serve as a Los Angeles city commissioner and sit on various boards, plus you’re a wife and mother. Why do you do all these things? Do they distract you from writing novels? 

LS: Writers, as you know, tend to be solitary and shy. That’s why people become writers! There was a point about ten years ago when I realized that the only time I went outside during the day was to get the mail, pick up the kids, and do errands. I felt like I needed to connect to life beyond my imagination and the computer screen. This was not easy for me, but what I discovered–to my surprise–was that doing these other things made me a better writer. In writing the libretto, I learned the value of telling a story purely through the emotions of music. (Snow Flower is nothing if not operatic in its emotions.) In doing the museum exhibitions, I learned to tell a story in a purely visual way. (For example, I wanted to be right there with Lily and Snow Flower when they went to the Temple of Gupo: to feel the swaying of the palanquin, sort through the colors of embroidery thread, and taste the sugared taro dessert.) By doing community work, I’ve learned a lot about emotions and the connections between people. E. M. Forster wrote, Only connect. I’ve tried to take that idea– and all the things I’ve learned meeting people I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed glued to my computer–to create characters who are struggling with the same things I struggle with and that we all struggle with. For me, connecting has helped me realize the importance of home, family, friendship, love, despair, loss, failure, regret, and triumph not only on a deep personal level but as something I can bring to my writing. 

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Lisa See has written her best book yet. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination of a real and secret world that has only recently disappeared. It is a story so mesmerizing the pages float away and the story remains clearly before us from beginning to end.”—Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings

“I was mesmerized by this wondrous book–the story of a secret civilization of women, who actually lived in China not long ago. . . . Magical, haunting fiction. Beautiful.”—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace

“Only the best novelists can do what Lisa See has done, to bring to life not only a character but an entire culture, and a sensibility so strikingly different from our own. This is an engrossing and completely convincing portrayal of a woman shaped by suffering forced upon her from her earliest years, and of the friendship that helps her to survive.”
Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“[A] marvelous narrative . . . a timeless portrait of a contentious, full-blooded female friendship.”—Entertainment Weekly (Editor’s Choice)

“An achingly beautiful, understated and absorbing story of love [that] evokes the work of Jane Austen.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A triumph on every level, a beautiful, heartbreaking story.”—Washington Post Book World

“Both heartbreaking and heartbreakingly lovely . . . immerses the reader in an unimagined world . . . The characters and their surroundings come vibrantly alive.”—Denver Post

Awards

WINNER 2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

1. 1. In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?

 2. Do you think the concept of “old sames” exists today? Do you have an “old same,” or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenthcentury China? 

3. Some men in nineteenth-century China apparently knew about nu shu, the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication? 

4. Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently? 

5. When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate– almost erotic–moment together. Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship? 

6. Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “little daughter-inlaw”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet? 

7. The Chinese character for “mother love” consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love? 

8. The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well? 

9. In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value? 

10. The story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives–for instance, we don’t have our feet bound, and we’re free and mobile. Do you think we’re still bound up in other ways: by career, by family obligations, by conventions of feminine beauty, or even by events beyond our control (war, the economy, and natural disasters)? 

11. Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages was misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever received a message that you misinterpreted and had your feelings hurt? 

12. Madame Wang, the matchmaker, is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil? 

Teacher's Guide



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