Chinese Female History through Fiction (with Evelina!)
As my older readers may know, I’m a huge Lisa See fan. I read Shanghai Girls ages ago, and last year I reviewed The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. This time I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan with Evelina at Avalinah’s Books.
We discussed the book while reading, then gave each other some post-reading questions. The following are my answers; head over to her blog to see her answers to my questions. Evelina asked some pretty tough questions. I tried my best to give good answers, haha.
This is the first buddy read I’ve done, and I must say I quite enjoyed it. Our discussion was fantastic, and I considered plot points and ideas I may not have paid attention to on my own. I just might have to do more of these.
1. First of all, give me your general impression of the book. How enjoyable and engrossing was it? How many #feels did you suffer?
I actually had a hard time getting into Snow Flower and the Secret Fan at first. The style and content of the sentences seemed forced, and I didn’t think I was attached to any of the characters. For a while I felt like I was reading just to get through the book, then the plot started taking turns and I started freaking out. Somehow, I’d gotten invested in the characters’ lives so their fortunes and misfortunes killed me on the inside. By the time I realized what was happening, I’d passed the point of no return and I had to keep reading. If I had to rate the book, I’d give it four stars. I wasn’t as immediately into it like I was with other Lisa See novels, but in the end it was still a pretty good book.
2. The novel has a lot of info on the customs of foot binding. So, how much did it terrify you? And how much do you believe it meant the invisible chaining of a woman to a single room in the house? What would you say about the women who desired it even after it was out of practice?
See’s description left me cringing.
I was perplexed and fascinated when I searched up some pictures of bound feet. In general, I try to reserve judgement of these sort of things. Every culture has its own arbitrary beauty standard, and it’s not for me to decide whether a practice is right or wrong. I felt a little uncomfortable that some of the young girls were being forced to do it though.
Then again, in the US it isn’t uncommon for people to pierce their daughter’s ears before they even know how to speak, and that’s also an unnecessary body modification made in the name of beauty. Granted, ear piercing doesn’t usually affect someone’s ability to hear in the way foot binding affects someone’s ability to walk, but I wonder if that was the case before we had sterile needles.
I know some of the women chose to bind their feet to gain higher status, but I don’t understand why they’d willingly chose a practice that so severely limits their freedom and ease of movement (the descriptions of the womens’ feet while they were fleeing the rebels were strikingly vivid). I’d like to believe that some of the women bound their feet precisely because it prevented them from walking far and doing heavy lifting. That means they wouldn’t have to go outside and do the hard labor that they felt was beneath them. It could be a way to have the men serve the women.
Unfortunately, women were still expected to do all of the work inside the house, unless they were wealthy enough to afford servants, so that theory is unlikely.
Or perhaps we’re reading too much into it. Maybe the men really liked the look of the bound feet, and the immobilization of women is just a consequence no one paid much attention to. Still, I’d like to read more about it.
3-4. Let’s discuss the contrast between the western and the oriental way of things: for example, that a child’s funeral would be the bigger event in the west, and yet it’s inconsequential in the east, as opposed to an old person’s, which would be viewed as natural in the west? Elaborate on how the novel aims to show the contrast to the western reader.
The 21st century has its hangups when it comes to respecting women or minorities, but I found it incomparable to 18th century China. How did you feel when you finished the novel – do you value your freedom in society more now that you’ve read it? Or do you see much room for improvement still?
I combined these questions because my answers are thematically similar.
There is a strong Confucian influence on the novel. Lily mentions “filial piety” several times, and the funerals are a classic example of the familial hierarchy. If I remember correctly, the adult that died was a rather high ranking member of the family, especially compared to the child, so it makes sense that the adult’s funeral was bigger. The older person also carried more wisdom, and knowledge is cherished in Confucian tradition.
Nowadays, whenever there’s a tragic death of a child or of a group of children, the online community says, “smallest coffins are the heaviest.” I’ve started to notice both eastern and western communities expressing this sentiment.
I’m not sure whether Confucian tradition is still followed in the most rural areas of east Asia, but modernity seems to be shifting the world’s perception. I think now, the general perception is that while an older person’s death is still sad, the older person has lived a long, fulfilling live, whereas the child will never get the chance to experience “all of life’s joys.”
Besides status differences between family members, I found the ancient Chinese concept of dowry to be rather interesting. The bride winds up paying the groom’s family with skill, not money. The groom’s family provides fabric and material goods while the bride must turn these goods into useful items for herself and her future family, mainly in the form of clothing and bedding. I can’t imagine the speed at which brides must learn to sew and embroider in order to put together a lifetime’s worth of material in the months before their weddings.
While the status of women has improved overall in the global consciousness, I actually see direct parallels between the depiction of women in the novel and the reality of women today. I don’t know too many countries where women are still considered outright useless, but women still hold a lesser position than men.
Most people in the US no longer consider women subservient to men, so there’s that difference at least. We’ve gained a lot of rights, and for that I am thankful, but there’s still work to do in getting people to value us for something other than child-rearing and homemakers. Alright, let me get off my soapbox, haha.
5. Girl circles, girl relationships! I found them simply fascinating. That a society so restricting of women still encouraged strong feminine bonds that last a lifetime made me infinitely happy. What’s your take on it? Or do you believe that was just a way of keeping the half-slaves appeased?
I definitely viewed the circles as a way to keep the women docile. I imagine that if they were locked in the female chambers alone with just their children and in-laws they’d have staged a mutiny, especially since there doesn’t seem to be much interaction between husband and wife other than in the bedroom. Having an old-same or an after marriage sister group gives them someone to share their woes with, and also helps occupy their time since the women are constantly writing (or in some cases embroidering) letters to their friends.
Regardless of their purpose, I’m glad the women’s circles existed, and I’m doubly glad Lisa See included them in the novel. I always appreciate how she focuses on the womens’ side of the story, without making the women focus all of their attention on the men. While the women talk about the men when necessary, they also have conversations about their own matters. It’s still a surprisingly rare event in novels.
6. Divide and conquer. Sending women away to be married far, so they could form no relationships – that seems to be part of the customs in the novel. Do you see that as a way of control in a society?
When we first discussed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I thought dividing the women was a way to keep them separate. In general, they wouldn’t form as strong a bond with their in-laws as with their biological family.
The more I think about it, though, the more I see the practical nature of dividing the women. People didn’t have a lot of money, so marrying the women away was a way to lessen the number of mouths to feed in the household. In the spirit of fairness, the women more-or-less stayed with their parents for the first few years of marriage, then returned home regularly during times of food shortage.
7. Let’s talk about right and wrong, and the way society views people through the lens of material things. Would you agree that the novel was trying to say that no matter who is right, the poor will always be ‘in the wrong’, and ‘the rich in the right’? Do you think Lisa See was trying to portray that through Lily’s story?
Oooh, I didn’t think about this while reading. In short, yes, poor people are always “in the wrong” in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Wealthier people tend to control the narrative, so even if poor people are doing the right thing, it may not be immediately obvious to us.
In the novel, we are following the action through Lily’s point of view, and she is rich when she’s recounting the story. I will admit that I fully believed Lily was correct in her beliefs, even if I was annoyed by how frequently she played the victim. Too often, she cried about how Snow Flower lied to her without considering why Snow Flower may have lied. She never really thought about anyone’s intentions but her own, then got angry with people when she realized “the truth,” even if she was really wrong.
I’m saddened by how quickly Snow Flower accepted defeat, though. Even though she shouldn’t be required to justify herself to her clearly selfish friend, she could have argued her case, if not with the public then at least with Lily. I think even she knew that as a “lowly” poor person, there was no point in arguing with someone of much higher social standing.
Snow Flower was the one who kept trying to change her situation and kept making it worse, in my opinion. I do agree that the women really didn’t have much choice other than to accept their fate. They could have started a rebellion, but the change wouldn’t have happened overnight. It might not have even changed in their lifetime.
9. The Taiping rebellion. Do you feel like Lisa See should have written more about this historical episode? Or maybe she didn’t to symbolize how remote the woman’s life was from the “realm of men”, that even in danger, the woman’s life is by the hearth, even if it’s in a field?