This genre of novel is one of my favorites, Historical Fiction. Lisa See brings to life the scents, sounds, colors, and tastes of Imperial China in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Her luxurious descriptions of the countryside, the towns, the homes and clothing of China in that era are a treasure for anyone wanting to learn more about the culture of this area of the world in this time period including a generous cross section of socio-economic levels.
One aspect of this novel is the practice of "bound feet" in Chinese culture. The procedure is described in great detail including the softening, folding, binding and breaking of the bones of the feet over many months to create the highly prized Lotus Foot of the era. The practice included constant supervision by the older women of the house to create a feeling of community and passage into womanhood. The young girls are offered distractions from the pain of binding in the form of embroidery, poem reading, story telling, and special company.
The practice of foot binding is said to be similar to Western body altering practices such as binding the female torso into corsets from an early age to create the highly prized tiny waist of the Victorian Era. The difference is that the Western binding while it bends the rib inward did not involve removal of the rib, as is the urban myth, or the breaking of bones. While the Western practice may seem less painful and distasteful to Western sensibilities it is still a malformation of the female form in pursuit of some unnatural ideal.
The best part of the story is the relationships of women, with women and by women. The Chinese Empire of the time may have been patriarchal in government and administration, but was primarily matriarchal when it came to the running of the home. The roles of Wife, Mother, Mother in Law and Grandmother are where a woman gained her authority, power, and sometimes even some power over her own life.
Lisa See introduces the written language exclusively for women, Nu Shu, that is uniquely in the women's domain. Women share it with other women. The women are taught not only phonetic characters for the words, but how to interpret the words in context and setting. The writings between the main character, Lily, and her friend, Snow Flower, are reminiscent of the writings of Confucius as they are riddled with analogy, metaphor and subtle meaning to the time and place of its usage. Much consideration needs to go into the wording of a message to a friend. Much Pondering must go into the reading and interpreting of the message from the friend.
Nu Shu is said to be a way for women to secretly communicate with each other without the interception or interference of men. Just as modern day written digital communication can cause much confusion and misunderstanding, so it did with Nu Shu in this story. This tale is a reminder to slow down and read the words on the page to receive the information conveyed and then think about why that writer uses those words at that time to tell her story and share her feelings, dreams, and sorrows.