Chinese Female History through Fiction (with Evelina!)

snow flower and the secret fan cover

Random House, 2005. 288 pgs

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.

Woman with bound feet

Here’s an example of bound feet. Click to precede to the relevant Wikipedia page.

 

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.”

 

Example of Chinese Ethnic Embrodery

These women are wearing embroidery from the Yi Ethnic Minority in China. Source: China Daily

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.

 

8. Lisa See depicts the trapped life of a woman who can’t really change anything and all the circumstances working only in favor of making it worse, no matter what the woman chooses. This seemed to be the case for almost all women back in that day. Give me your thoughts on this subject.

 

Lily was the luckiest of all the characters. Her situation just kept improving, and she only seemed to suffer one major disappointment in her life.

 

Example of Nu Shu

An example of Nu Shu, the “secret” women’s writing discussed in the book.

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.

 

As I mentioned in question four, some of the structures were practical in nature: they were meant to ensure the best chance of survival for the families in the villages. Wounds are less likely to fester in the cold, so foot binding in the autumn/winter months was safer. The pollution taboos seemed to protect reproductive health. Animals carry all sorts of bacteria and viruses on and in their bodies; a wealthy person who marries into a butcher family is more likely to get sick (and die, especially before modern hygiene laws came in to play) than someone who is in or near the butcher class.

 

The worst part in all of this is that the women in the novel are treated like chattel. Even if many of the traditions protect them, the women have absolutely no say in anything else in their lives. Not being able to choose a husband is pretty much standard for the time period, but they also don’t even get to choose their friends (the old-same match was arranged!). I don’t really understand the logic behind that.

 

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?

 

I was so frustrated by the depiction of the Taiping Rebellion. I love modern Chinese history (the period after the Opium War) and was fully ready to nerd out on the historical bits of information.  Instead, we got a unimpressive and unnecessary discussion about the struggles of living in the mountains.

 

Although we learned so important information about the characters, the time spent fleeing the rebels didn’t do anything to advance the plot. Lisa See could have told us about bound feet and the relationship between Snow Flower and her husband in different ways. The time in the mountains forced Snow Flower and Lily to live together for an extended period of time, but the result would have been the same if Lily had just stayed in Snow Flower’s house for more than a few days at a time.

 

I hadn’t considered the episode as a way to show how remote the women were from the “outside realm,” but since they were quite literally forced outside, I feel the episode should have brought them into closer contact with reality. They spent months side-by-side with men, and somehow didn’t learn anything about the world they live in. I would have preferred to see the women struggle against the rebels, while realizing how little they knew about the motivations and potential consequences of the Rebellion.

 

It would have been doubly interesting to see whether they would still prefer the women’s chamber after having learned about it, or if they would have wanted to go out and explore.

 

On an unrelated note: the Taiping Rebellion episode showed me that Lily and her husband are goals. T_T
__________

 

Phew, that was a long post, and hopefully not too rambly, hah. Discussing the book really increased by enjoyment. After having discussed the book with Evelina, I realized Lisa See’s books are all related. She chooses similar themes for her novels, and the timelines appear to be chronological.

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005) covers events in the early nineteenth century and focuses on the relationship between two intimate friends while On Gold Mountain (1995) covers the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century and centers around family and immigration. Shanghai Girls covers the early to mid twentieth century and is mainly about two sisters within a family who eventually emigrate. Dreams of Joy (2011) goes until the late twentieth century and follows the same sisters from Shanghai Girls.  The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane  (2017) starts in the late twentieth century and brings Lisa See’s stories firmly into the twenty-first century, focusing on both mother-daughter and husband-wife relationships.

 

It seems her earlier novels were laying the foundation of understanding for her newer novels. I don’t know if it was intentional on the part of See, but it’s interesting nonetheless. There are more novels, but those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I can’t wait to read more.

 

I’m currently reading Beijing Smog by Ian Williams, so I guess my blog will feature China-centric books for a while.

 

Congrats to the readers who made it this far, you’re the real MVPs.

 

If you’d like to know more about Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, check it out on Goodreads, buy it on Amazon and of course, go read Evelina’s blog post! 😀 The book is also available on Thriftbooks and Abe Books, if that’s what you prefer.

 

I just started using Comment Luv, so drop a note below so I know whether or not the plug in works, hahah. Next week I’ll show you my recent tea haul.

7 Responses

  1. I’m finally reading your post! Busy busy.
    I feel like my answers were so emotional, compared to yours 😀 but it’s always that way with me, isn’t it.
    I wonder if your experience of being a woman in the 21st century is different than mine. I sometimes wonder how different it is in other countries. Cause yeah, there is discrimination here, definitely from the stuff I see on TV (especially with the #metoo movement lately), but maybe I’ve been lucky? About the only thing I’ve been discriminated about is driving (and it’s still why I don’t drive, in a large part). I studied with 99 guys in university (no more girls), only male teachers… And they never once discriminated against me. I worked in a male industry for 3 years (electronics engineering, there were maybe 2 women I even met in the industry in those years). Again, aside from maybe a few crass jokes, I don’t remember anything bad. Have I been lucky? Or just too forgiving? I always felt valued. Not worse than any man.
    There’s only that whole “married-unmarried” judgement thing. Appears to be really bad on a woman. Although I’ve been too young to really experience that, I’ve seen it in effect in the social circles.

    It makes sense about the arranged friendships though! Remember that they were being made when the child was very young. In a Confucian society, that child was barely a person yet – a child’s views and opinions are worth nothing to anyone – even their own future self, so it makes more sense if the elders pick a lifelong friend. It kind of makes sense if you think of it in those terms.

    I’m glad your blog will have more China-themed content 🙂 loved doing this buddy read! I really hope we can do another one sometime soon 🙂
    Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks recently posted…Read About Women’s Struggles And Relationships In Traditional China

    • Sarabi N. Eventide says:

      Haha, I understand about the busy part. I’m recovering from a bad cold and am trying to make up for lost time!

      I definitely think our experiences differ because of our locations and other factors. I feel like Europe is more ready to accept that women should be respected the same as men. There as still issues in some places, but overall whenever I hear Europeans talk about their experiences I get a little jealous, lol. It also depends on the crowd you’re around. Maybe those guys in your uni were genuinely nice guys xD I’d say the guys I ran into in uni weren’t bad, but it’s the random people on the street that are problematic. The “married-unmarried” thing is really strong here too, but it’s super weird cuz you’re too young to be married at 27 but at 28 you’re too old lol it makes no sense.

      The friend thing does make sense when you put it that way. I guess there’s wisdom in it because nowadays we make kids as friends and have basically forgotten about them by the time we’re adults. People naturally grow apart (not everyone, but some) so the girls being bound by tradition ensures they won’t be abandoned…. was going to include an SF spoiler in this comment but let me not do that lol

  2. I vaguely knew that foot binding had existed, but foolishly I had never considered the implications it would have for the women who went through it. I had never really thought about the fact it would limit their ability to move! That is terrifying.

    Interesting review – thanks!

    • Sarabi N. Eventide says:

      I always thought of foot binding like old-style corsets: women would have to change the way they move in order to make it work. I love that I can run and jump and twist and squat, haha.

      Glad you liked the post!

  3. Cam says:

    I love the questions and answer format of this review. I bought this book a few weeks but haven’t gotten around to it just yet.

    It really is quite depressing to read about the way women were treated back then and the whole torture beauty regime they had to go through. I come from a country where traditional ideals like these – women being subservient to the husband and his family – still persist but I’m not sure if the women have a “women’s circle” like the one you mentioned in this review. As a sociology student, that particular idea interests me & is something I will have to look into.

    Sharing this!

    • Sarabi N. Eventide says:

      Fight the patriarchy! T_T <3

      Def give it a read, or else it'll stay on your TBR forever (it took me years to get around to it lol). I find Chinese women's history interesting because even though there were commonalities across the country, there are also major differences. There were even some matriarchal societies. The Mosuo women still do all the housework, but they're given free choice in terms of sexual partners. The men help raise children where necessary and do some of the "dirty" chores but the women (esp eldest women) have the final say in most matters.

  1. February 13, 2018

    […] I LOVED Snow Flower and the Secret Fan! It was sad, yet fulfilling, true and honest, yet fictional. A truly moving story about the hardships of being a woman in nineteenth-century China. Yes, foot binding too. We’ll get there. By the way, this is going to be a buddy read review, so get ready to read a lot of questions and answers! I read this book along with Sarabi @ Swallow Song, who was an AMAZING buddy to read with because we had the best discussion ever <3 so read her review here! […]

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