- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005


By Lisa See

Random House, $21.95, 272 pages


A mother takes her seven-year old daughter’s feet, washes them in alum to soften them,

then bends the four small toes under the sole of the foot and keeps them in place with tight bindings and tiny, tight slippers. She makes the child walk around the room. Every day she walks. Every two weeks she gets new tighter bindings and new tighter shoes. Blood and pus ooze from her feet. Eventually, if infection does not kill her, her bones in her toes break and fuse. Walking gets easier. But never really easy. Balanced on her big toe, the child grows up into a woman who can walk only short distances, so she must spend most of her time swaying around the house. On rare outdoor trips she is born in a palanquin or perhaps on the back of a “big-footed girl” — one too poor to have benefited from foot-binding.

Foot-binding is one of the literal and metaphorical nodes of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” “When I knew I couldn’t suffer another moment of pain, and tears fell on my bloody bindings, my mother spoke softly in my ear, encouraging me to go one more hour, one more day, one more week, reminding me of the rewards I would have if I carried on a little longer,” says Lily, the first-person narrator of this tale of life in 19th-century China. The reward dangled before her is an advantageous match: Perfectly bound feet no more than three inches long were called “golden lilies” and the cleft between the broken and fused toes and the sole was highly erotic. With the smallest feet in the region, Lily wins her good marriage, eventually becoming Lady Lu, the mother of the sons and grandsons of a much wealthier family than her own.

Looking back over her 80 years, though, she sees that she endured the agonies of foot-binding, the hours of working at her embroidery in an upstairs room and the constant obedience to parents, husband, and mother-in-law because she wanted love — a wild ambition for a girl in 19th-century China, where being born female was to be a family burden only partly redeemable by constant work and self-effacement. The endurance that got Lily through her foot-binding changed her from a yielding child to a determined matriarch, whose heart was as constricted as her feet. She parroted the strictest interpretation of China’s rules and customs.

This won her honor, but it also led to her failure to respond to the needs of her “old same:” Snow Flower, a girl born on the same day though to a richer family, and bound to Lily by formal oaths of eternal friendship. She and Snow Flower adore each other, enjoying the rare freedoms of their times together as children, sharing annual temple festivals and maintaining the connection until Snow Flower dies. Custom permits them only occasional meetings and even these are reduced by the Lu family’s refusal to let Lily stay in touch when Snow Flower marries a man considered to be polluted. But Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a fan on which each writes messages, often conventionally expressed yet rich with deeper meanings comprehensible only to themselves. They write in nu shu, a wispily delicate phonetic script adapted from Chinese ideographic characters — a script used only by women.

Nu shu is a second metaphorical node of Lisa See’s novel. Its flowing lines could be woven into cloth or embroidered onto slippers as well as written on fans. Women sang nu shu songs and wrote nu shu stories and poems. At first, Lily believes nu shu it is a female secret, but then she explains, “I saw that our secret women’s writing wasn’t much of a secret… men throughout the country knew about nu shu… . The men in the Lu household were proud of their wives’ fluency in nu shu and dexterity in embroidery, though these things had as much importance to survival as a pig’s fart.” For women, though, nu shu is a way of flying under the radar of tradition, linking them to other women who share their experiences and longings.

While foot-binding demanded endurance; nu shu offered camaraderie. Yet each remains somewhat mysterious. Lily tells us that bound feet excite male desire like nothing else, she never shows this in her marriage or in other sexual relationships, so it is not fully clear why the Lu family accepted the daughter of a lowly farmer as their eldest son’s bride. Similarly, the phonetic basis of nu shu and its limited range of characters means that context is vital to its understanding. Lily’s relationship with Snow Flower eventually founders on this rock of contextuality, yet the hazard is not illustrated in their many communications. As metaphors, too, foot-binding and nu shu have limits because they conceptualize Chinese experience into familiar western modes: male hegemony versus female solidarity. This familiarizes Chinese life and therefore distorts its nuances; delineation is the only way to grasp its reality.

Happily, history grounds this novel in practical detail about real lives. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” moves briskly, fuelled by Lily’s description of how she spends her days. She cooks, she cleans, she serves her husband, her son, her mother-in-law in every way and then she spends her remaining time in an upstairs chamber where she and the other women of the household embroider. At certain festivals, a palanquin takes her to her parents’ home. She never goes out alone. Imagine, then, the disaster of the Taiping rebellion in the 1850s, when Lily and Snow Flower have to flee their villages and climb into the mountains on their crippled feet. Their bound feet make them virtually helpless in this situation. Only the efforts of sworn female friends and the skills of Snow Flower’s “polluted” husband get them through.

The details and energy of these descriptions come from author Lisa See’s research into Chinese cultural history and her trips to China, including a visit to a nu shu museum that holds the few remaining nu shu texts. (Many were ritually burned when the women who wrote them died, and others were destroyed as subversive documents during the Cultural Revolution.) Ms. See generally works skillfully to blend information and imaginative reconstruction, so “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is never less than interesting. It is also often evocative, taking us into other lives, other experiences, and other times — the task in which fiction excels like nothing else.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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