This book was recommended to me after I read Wild Swans by Jung Chang earlier this year and as I had heard a lot of good things about it, I decided to give it a try.
Lily is a Chinese girl born in Hunan Province in 1823, the daughter of a poor farmer. When she is six years old, the local matchmaker has an exciting announcement to make: if Lily’s feet are bound properly they will be the perfect size and shape, allowing her to marry well and improve the fortunes of herself and her family.
As well as arranging marriages for young girls, another job of the professional matchmaker is to find them a laotong or ‘old same’ – a special friend whose personal circumstances match in a number of different ways (e.g. same birthday, same number of siblings). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Lily and her ‘old same’ Snow Flower.
If you haven’t read this book yet, I should warn you that the chapter on footbinding goes into a lot of detail, describing exactly what it involves and how much suffering the girl is forced to endure – all because small feet were considered the ideal and a girl with large feet would be virtually unmarriageable. One of the worst things about the whole process in my opinion was that it was usually carried out by the child’s mother – I just can’t imagine a mother inflicting so much pain and suffering on her daughter and even risking the girl dying from infection. If you can manage to get through this chapter though, there are plenty of other Chinese customs and traditions to learn about.
For example, did you know that Chinese women had a secret language of their own known as nu shu? This came about because women were discouraged from learning standard Chinese writing, so invented their own writing system which they then tried to keep hidden from the men. Throughout the book, Lily and Snow Flower communicate by writing messages to each other on a silk fan, using nu shu.
I also found the custom of the laotong fascinating. Most young Chinese girls had a group of ‘sworn sisters’, who would be her closest friends only until the day she married. Lily, however, was chosen to have a laotong – a girl who would remain her best friend throughout her entire life.
I thought it was sad that women were considered to be worthless and their only value to society was as a potential mother of sons. If a woman only gave birth to girls she was no use to her family. Here Lily and Snow Flower are discussing the possibility that they will both give birth to daughters.
Snow Flower smoothed her hands over her belly and in a small voice reminded me that girls are but worthless branches unable to carry on their fathers’ lines.
“They will not be useless to us,” I said. “Could we not make a laotong match for them now – before they are born?”
“Lily, we are worthless,” Snow Flower sat up. I could see her face in the moonlight. “You know that, don’t you?”
While I wouldn’t say I loved this book, I did enjoy learning about a culture so completely different to my own and I would welcome any suggestions for more historical fiction novels set in China.