I recently came across a spectacular book that left me stunned and meditative.
I don’t smoke, but I felt like it was the perfect time to suck, with trembling fingers, into a cigarette, pondering what it all meant (Or maybe I’ve read too many Steig Larsson books.). Instead I lay on my bed with the fan blowing warm, futile wifts onto my arms and thought hard before I fell into a smoggy sleep. I had the weirdest dream that night, in which I was surrounded by a sea of women giggling and gossiping in a mass of red bodies. But then at some point in the dream, the group of friendly women turned vicious and I was caught in a stampede of female feet swathed in scarlet spike-studded silk boots.
The book that smoked up that strange dream is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, a freelance journalist turned best-selling author who is half-Chinese.Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.
You might have heard of it. It did so well on paperback that it was made into a movie (which I did not watch).
I’ve always loved historical fiction with China as the backdrop. Two of my favorite books are The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and Wild Swans by Jung Chang, and I’m excited to find another author whose writing style and writing subjects I love.
Ms. See’s book isn’t all that exciting. Set in the 1800s in China’s Hunan province, the plot basically swirls around the full life of Lily, a farmer’s daughter. The most excitement you get in this book is the foot-binding process– a months-long procedure of literal bone-breaking pain, odious putrefaction and matted blood just for the guarantee of arousing one’s future husband.Then, it was tiny feet. Now, it’s to be as tiny as possible. My, how much we’ve advanced!
After all that torture for the sake of aesthetic and sexual pleasure, Lily enjoys no steamy romance; her marriage life with her husband is cordial at best. There’s not much action in this book unless you count famine and typhoid. Lily is no Mulan and she doesn’t form the typical rebellious female protagonist who defies social pressures.
Mostly, the book is about the decades-long relationship between Lily and her laotong (老同), Snow Flower.
I’ve never actually known of laotongs before until this book. I might have heard that phrase, which literally means “old-same,” some time in my life, but not in the full detail that Ms. See draws out in her book. I guess the closest English definition for laotong is “soul mates”– not in the romantic sense, but in the sense of a female platonic love that is supposed to last for as long as they live. You can’t have any other laotong except the one. It’s like a non-sexual marriage– sacred, life-lasting and of course, no cheating.
So that’s the kind of relationship Lily and Snow Flower shared ever since they were little girls. They share many things together: born in the same year of the horse, the same day of foot-binding, the same fondness for fried sugared taro at the Temple of Gupo. But in truth, they are extremely different.
** Warning!!: I might be giving some plot away.**
Snow Flower is a spirited girl who longs for freedom and adventure, which is metaphorized by her obsession with birds. Born with noble blood, Snow Flower is exquisite in her etiquette and highly educated in nu shu (女书), a “secret” simplified form of writing used by Hunan women for centuries. But her family’s great wealth depletes quickly due to her father’s addiction to opium, which leaves her no dowry to marry well. She ends up marrying a butcher (considered a low-class, filthy occupation at the time) and suffers under a mean-spirited, “rat year” mother-in-law and a physically abusive husband.
Lily, meanwhile, may come from humble origin, but because of her delicate, lily bud-shaped bound feet and her laotong relationship with an (ex)aristocrat, she manages to marry into a wealthy family and soon presides as the honorable Lady Lu. She’s not as gale nor as refined as Snow Flower, but she’s a model female in her time– obedient, hard-working, eager to please and most importantly, totters around on erotic tiny feet. But all she ever truly craves is love, and she finds it in Snow Flower.Lily and Snow Flower, presumably skipping over on their tiny feet to the taro man. Credits: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures TM and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
One laotong meets social disgrace and misfortune, the other meets nobility and prosperity. One goes up, the other goes down. Somehow their friendship persists, but gradually, unconsciously, it wilts like a rose under a mid-summer sun.
Like most relationships, the deterioration starts long before the catalyst. Though not immediately explicit, Lily becomes proud. She’s proud that she’s a good and loyal friend to someone beneath her social standing. She gets hurt when her laotong hides her unhappiness, but rustles with impatience when Snow Flower finally shares her anguish and pain. As Snow Flower faces tragedy after tragedy, Lily tries to show her love through admonitions and moral sermons. She pushes and pushes Snow Flower to be strong, to not weep, to keep on trying, to make more sons, to be more obedient. She says all the “right” things, and she believes she’s loving Snow Flower through her preaching and Confucian quotes.
Instead, her words of “encouragement” and “support” form whips to an already broken spirit. What her friend needed weren’t more lectures on what to do and what not to do. What her friend needed was an ear to listen when nobody would hear her woes, and a heart that loves without judgment and disapproval. When Lily is unable to give that to her, Snow Flower finds solace in three other village women.
That plunges a stake into Lily, who takes it as a dagger of betrayal. In a surge of self-righteous fury and bitter jealousy, Lily stabs back by betraying all of Snow Flower’s secrets in front of a group of women, thus publicly shaming her laotong. Decades of friendships and swears of loyalty, burned into ash due to misunderstandings, miscommunications and mistakes. The ending is tragic, but satisfyingly so.
What I loved most about this book, besides the eye-opening culture references, is that it captures in vivid words and emotions what is most beautiful– and cruel– about female friendships. I believe a true friendship between women is one of the most powerful and sacred relationship ever. The bond that we share, the conversations that we enjoy, the pains and joys we relate with one another…it’s something miraculous. Just having one good friend with whom you can experience these is a tremendous blessing.
Yet…which of us (women) have not been scarred by another woman? Which of us have not been subject, or even participated, in catty gossip? Which of us have not judged another woman for the way she looks, dresses and weighs? Women typically feel things stronger and more acutely than men, and we also tend to talk more about feelings, which inevitably leads to mistakes, misunderstandings and major conflicts. I’ve been a direct witness to many messy situations that started out with something so ridiculously miniscule. Considering my exaggerative speech and foolish temper, I’ve put my foot in my mouth countless of times.
Although I didn’t really like Lily’s character very much at first, I saw my own flaws and mistakes in many of her actions and speech. How many times have I verbally condemned a friend who needed tender words? How many times have I envied a friend because of my own insecurities? How many times have I thought ill of someone because of my stubborn presumptions? How many times have I belittled someone because of my arrogance and impatience? Oh God, all the cruel things I did and said!
Through the stories of Lily and Snow Flower, Ms. See highlighted my own base desire and flaw: to be loved, and the inability to love fully, humbly and selflessly.
The conflicts that two 19th century Chinese women went through may be shrouded with antiquated rituals and outdated ideals, but they’re still the same timeless conflicts that smother us 21st century “emancipated” and educated women. We may be free from foot-binding practices, arranged marriages, and mother-in-law enslavements, but I wonder how free we are from each other.
I’ve tasted both the sweet and the bitter of female friendships. I’m incredibly grateful for the beautiful, unique women I have in my life, from my darling mother to my wonderful best friends to my favorite journalism professor. As for the ones I struggle with right now, I’m ready to make a change, starting with myself.