Women in nineteenth-century China suffered unimaginable torments. Each stage of their lives was marked by pain and desperation. A little girl endured footbinding at age six, arranged marriage by age fifteen, and once she was pregnant, this young woman moved into her husband’s home, where her mother-in-law worked her to the point of exhaustion, often withholding food and water for days at a time. She only saw her husband at night, so she could conceive sons.
A laotong relationship was a small exception to Confucius’ The Women’s Classic – the strict code of behavior Chinese women followed. Two girls sharing similar horoscopes in the Chinese astrological system were matched as lifelong companions. This relationship was rare and usually took place in upper class families. Women were not allowed to walk across the street without permission, but women in laotong relationships were allowed to write and see each other frequently.
Lisa See’s latest work of fiction, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, is set in a remote region of China’s Hunan province. In 1830, the local matchmaker and the county diviner match seven year old girls Snow Flower and Lily as laotongs. These “old sames” write a laotong contract together wherein they pledge “For ten thousand years we will be like two flowers in the same garden. Never a step apart, never a harsh word between us.” With the signing of their contract, Snow Flower and Lily enter into a monogamous, passionate, lifelong commitment – a laotong relationship.
When Snow Flower comes to stay with Lily overnight, the laotongs sleep in the same bed. This is the only time a married woman was allowed in bed without her husband. Indeed, in a life where all her choices have been made for her, a laotong relationship allows Lily to “make a choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity.” Unlike their marriages, in their laotong relationship, there are “no concubines allowed.”
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of their lives together. This is Lily’s autobiography in her own voice, written at the age of eighty. Having outlived anyone she could embarrass or offend, she sets out to tell the truth of her life.
On Lily’s seventh birthday, her mother binds her feet. See describes this brutal procedure from Lily’s first person perspective, rendering the footbinding passages the most memorable in the book. Women in China endured footbinding for 1000 years. It was the only way they could insure marriage into a good family. Three-inch long, perfectly reshaped golden lilies were more important than a pretty face or figure, and were considered the most erotic part of a woman’s body.
Lily’s mother rolls Lily’s four small toes underneath her foot, binds them in place with strips of cloth, then sews the bindings tightly closed. Lily’s mother makes her walk several times a day until: “One day, as I made one of my trips across the room, I heard something crack. One of my toes had broken…everyone in the women’s chamber heard it. My mother’s eyes zeroed in on me. ‘Move! Progress is finally being made!’ Walking, my whole body trembled. By nightfall the eight toes that needed to break had broken, but I was still made to walk. I felt my broken toes under the weight of every step I took, for they were loose in my shoes.”
Lily’s broken bones take a long time to mend into their new shape, and it is in fact the shape of her feet which dictates her future. Snow Flower, Lily’s first and only true love, is rebellious at every opportunity. Her fate, seen through Lily’s eyes, is an odd mixture of emotional fulfillment and tragedy. Lily, keeping her head down and her nose out of trouble in virtually every situation, strives to be a perfect wife and mother. Almost too late she learns to incorporate a bit of Snow Flower’s obstinacy. Lily’s new rule, “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want,” helps her envision the small ways she can make life better for herself and her family.
See is an exceptional writer, and the prose throughout the novel is consistent and first-rate. Her choice to tell the story entirely from Lily’s point of view is a brave one. While the reader enjoys an unprecedented level of access into the private life of a nineteenth-century Chinese woman, at the same time the view is highly limited. The majority of Lily’s life is spent upstairs in the Women’s Chamber. Thus, the men who control her life are all-powerful caricatures exterior to her female world. In addition, the reader never fully understands Snow Flower’s character, most likely because Lily does not comprehend the motivations of her lifelong friend. While the reader is impressed with See’s ability to speak so authentically in Lily’s voice, one finishes the book wishing the story of a relationship between two people would have included Snow Flower’s voice as well. Her constant rebellion, along with her heartbreaking fate, would have made for magnificent reading. Perhaps See will consider a sequel in the not too distant future.Ed. Note: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan just won the 2005 Southern California Booksellers Association Fiction Award.