I promised you we’d “travel,” didn’t I, Bookworms? Let’s got to China! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See takes us on an adventure though 19th Century China. More historical fiction, I know, but this is in CHINA, y’all! Totally new perspective.
Our heroine Lily is paired up in an “old sames” relationship with another young girl named Snow Flower. Because women were kept in near total seclusion at this point in history (at least women with any social standing) they didn’t exactly get to go out and meet people. Being in “old sames” was sort of like having a matchmaker find you a BFF. Then you and your BFF would exchange notes via your matchmaker on a fan using a secret phonetic form of women’s writing. (You remember having code names in your middle school notebooks for the boys you liked? It’s kind of like that, but it allowed you to actually communicate with other women without censorship, which is pretty cool.) Being “old sames” Lily and Snow Flower were destined to begin their foot binding at the same time.
Oh yeah. Foot binding. In graphic detail. Before I read this book, I really had no idea what foot binding entailed. I imagined ace-bandages wrapped tightly around the foot in an attempt to keep it small. There was no “attempting” in foot binding. They would essentially force young girls’ feet to fold over on themselves. Then the bones would break and they’d heal in a grotesque distorted version of a foot. Assuming you didn’t die of blood poisoning before the healing could take place, of course. The women were then doomed to wobble around on these “golden lilies” for the rest of their lives. Learning the truth about foot binding is reason enough to read this book.
The problem was, the foot binding was culturally NECESSARY. If your feet weren’t bound, you had virtually no prospects for marriage, and marriage was by FAR the most appealing life option for a Chinese woman at this point in time. It was like, all the dudes in China had a foot fetish. For real. Only the men would only see the feet while perfumed and wrapped in slippers, because naked deformed feet are stinky and unattractive. (Since we’re on the subject of feet, I think it’s worthwhile to mention that my feet are quite lovely. My toes go in perfect descending order, and although I’ve heard that having a long second toe is a sign of intelligence, I’m content to embrace my toes for their esthetics.)
Lily and Snow Flowers’ childhoods are spent preparing for their marriages. They spent their time embroidering slippers for their newly deformed feet, making clothes, creating gifts for their future mothers-in-law, and writing each other letters via the fan. When their marriages do occur, the girls are separated- Lily to a life with a respectable family, and Snow Flower to a life with an abusive butcher. (Being a butcher was NOT a well respected occupation. It was seen as one of the lowliest ways to earn a living, but when your father is an opium addict who has squandered his fortune on drugs, you don’t exactly have the reputation or dowry to “marry up.”)
Anyway, the poor girls suffer a misunderstanding at the hands of the secret fan, they have a falling out, then they have a dramatic deathbed reunion. It’s all very touching, I promise.
I recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to anyone who is interested in Chinese history, women’s history, or the gruesome spectacle that is foot binding. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn something!
I realize that as a modern American woman the idea of foot binding disgusts me, but it was the utmost form of beauty in China until a little over 100 years ago. What sort of beauty rituals do you Bookworms indulge in that may be considered barbaric by other cultures?