About the Author
In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the strong bonds between women, romantic love, and love of country. …Ms. See has always been intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today. For Snow Flower, she traveled to a remote area of China—where she was told she was only the second foreigner ever to visit—to research the secret writing invented, used, and kept a secret by women for over a thousand years. Amy Tan called the novel “achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination.” Others agreed, and foreign-language rights for Snow Flower were sold to 39 countries. The novel also became a New York Times bestseller, a Booksense Number One Pick, has won numerous awards domestically and internationally, and was made into a feature film produced by Fox Searchlight.
Ms. See was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, but spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. The book traces the journey of Lisa’s great-grandfather, Fong See, who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family. [Read more].
About the Book
Lily is haunted by memories — of who she once was, and of a person, long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now, as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for forgiveness.
In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu (“women’s writing”). Some girls were paired with laotongs, “old sames,” in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become “old sames” at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.
Suffering for Beauty & Prestige
The barbaric practice of Chinese footbinding began in the 10th century sometime during theTang Dynasty (618-907) and ended over a thousand years later. Foot binding was practiced on young girls usually six years of age and younger.Feet were wrapped in tight bandages and broken so they couldn’t grow. Foot binding was generally practiced by wealthy families, as only wealthy families could afford to have the women of the house not at work. It was a sign of prestige, beauty and wealth.
Eventually, foot binding moved from wealthy city families to women in the countryside, where women realized they could marry into money by having these prized three inch feet. For centuries, women suffered terrible pain in the hopes of having a better future.
Zhou Guizhen, who is 86-years-old, shows one of her bound feet where the bones in the four small toes were broken and forced underneath the foot over a period of time, at her home in Liuyi village…[More]
Nüshu is a syllabic script created and used exclusively by women in Jiangyong Prefecture, Hunan Province, China. The women were forbidden formal education for many centuries and developed the Nüshu script in order to communicate with one another. They embroidered the script into cloth and wrote it in books and on paper fans. [More]
Book Group Ideas & Discussion Questions
Donna served a delicious meal in her beautiful yard and penned thoughtful questions about the book for us on several brightly colored fans. What a nice evening! We all enjoyed reading this book and will definitely recommend it to others.
Book Club Discussion Questions
- Lily endures excruciating pain in order to have her feet bound. What reasons are given for this dangerous practice?
- Did See’s descriptions of footbinding remind you of any Western traditions?
- If some men in 19th-century China knew about nu shu and “old same” friendships, why do you think they allowed these traditions to persist?
- Reflecting on her first few decades, Lily seems to think her friendship with Snow Flower brought her more good than harm. Do you agree?
- Lily’s adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us today. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. Why?
- Lily defies the wishes of her son in order to pair her grandson with Peony. Does she fully justify her behavior?
- Lily sometimes pulls us out of the present moment to reflect–as an old woman–on her youthful decisions. What does this device add to the story?
- How would you film these moments of reflection?
- If Lily is writing her story to Snow Flower in the afterworld, what do you think Snow Flower’s response would or should be?
- Did you recognize any aspects of your own friendships in the bond between Lily and Snow Flower?
1. In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?
2. Do you think the concept of “old sames” exists today? Do you have an “old same,” or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenth-century China?
3. Some men in nineteenth-century China apparently knew about nu shu, the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication?
4. Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently?
5. When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate — almost erotic — moment together Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship?
6. Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “little daughter-in-law”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet?
7. The Chinese character for “mother love” consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love?
8. The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well
9. In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value?
10. Although the story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives — we don’t have our feet bound, we’re free and mobile — do you think we’re still bound up in other ways; for instance, by career, family obligations, conventions of feminine beauty, or events beyond our control such as war, the economy, and natural disasters?
11. Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages has been misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a message that you misinterpreted and your feelings were hurt?
12. Madame Wang, the matchmaker, is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil?