Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Lotus Feet

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Thanks to the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale in Penang recently. I bought this book for a mere RM8.00. Yes! You heard me right! This paperback is priced at $24.98 on Amazon. So, the Wolf did destroy the high book prices in the North!

Lisa See's novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes us into remote 19th-century China, where girls had their feet bound; meaning crushed to the size of lily flowers, in a ritual of beauty that started at the tender age of six and took two full years to complete. From foot-binding onward, girls and women lived secluded in a second-story chamber of their household.

At 80, the narrator, Lily, is the senior woman of a wealthy household, powerful enough that she can speak her mind about her life's treasures and errors. Born in 1823 in the Hunan province, Lily started off as "a second worthless girl" in a poor farming family. Because her feet were high in the arch and potentially breathtaking, she had the potential to marry well and elevate the status of her family. She could also enter a second formal match, to another woman, a lifetime best friend called a sworn sister or 'laotong'.

"A 'laotong' match is as significant as a good marriage," Lily's aunt explained. "A 'laotong' relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose, to have sons." "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" is the story of such a friendship.

Snow Flower becomes Lily's sworn sister, or "old same," meaning perfect match. Snow Flower is from a high family in a prestigious neighboring town, her grandfather an imperial scholar. She can teach Lily the social rituals of important families. Lily can teach her the humble arts of cooking and cleaning.

Rural, 19th-century China was a culture in which education and scholarship was limited to the male elite. Secluded from age seven until death, "married out" into a husband's family, where they remained abject in stature and subservient to their husband's mother unless they had sons, women were isolated from anyone who cared about them personally. What they said and how they communicated was rigidly formalized, learning the calligraphy of men was prohibited, so they developed a secret writing called 'nu shu' (女书). Only in 'nu shu' (女书) and only to each other could they write or speak from the heart.

The first communication between Snow Flower and Lily was inscribed on a fan in the code of 'nu shu'      (女书). The secret fan became the journal of their lives.

That fan guides Lily as she records her memoirs. Because she is old and times have changed, she filters her memories through the late-life awareness of what mattered and what didn't. 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.

I enjoyed every minute of reading this story and I highly recommend it. I think it would make an excellent selection for book clubs, given the vast number of elements to spark topics of conversation: Chinese culture--past and present; Mother-daughter relationships; Foot-binding; Arranged marriage; Female relationships;  etc.

Overall, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a sad beautiful book.
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