Saturday, November 19, 2005

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

OK, here's a puzzle for you, what am I describing here?

"...they should be small, narrow,straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of these requirements, length is most important. Seven centimeters - about the length of a thumb- is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect one should be shaped like the bud of a Lotus..."

Give up?

Well, this is how the feet of an upper-class Chinese woman in the early 19th-century were expected to be. Without Lily feet (as they were called) she could not expect to have a good marriage and would probably end up as someone's servant . Footbinding was an agonizingly painful process. Here is how Lisa See describes it in her book.

Caution: this is hard to read without wincing!

"...One day, as I made one of my trips across the room, I heard something crack. One of my toes had broken. I thought the sound was something internal to my own body, but it was so sharp that 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. The freshly created space where once there had been a joint was now a gelatinous infinity of torture. The freezing weather did not begin to numb the excruciating sensations that raged through my entire body. Still, Mama was not happy with my compliance. That night she told Elder Brother to bring back a reed cut from the riverbank. Over the next two days, she used this on the backs of my legs to keep me moving. On the day that my bindings were rewrapped, I soaked my feet as usual, but this time the massage to reshape the bones was beyond anything I had experienced so far. With her fingers Mama pulled my loose bones back and up against the soles of my feet. At no other time did I see Mama’s mother love so clearly...."

It's true, ironically, the only way for a for a Chinese mother to improve her daughter's lot in life was to transform , (some would call it maiming) her daughter's feet. The mother, by creating the perfect bound foot, could help marry her daugher into a "better" family. Footbinding was a status symbol too. Any man who could afford a lily-footed wife was telling his village that he was so wealthy he could maintain a wife who couldn't work. It has a sensuous component, too. For a man to hold a lily foot in his hand was the most erotic thing he could hope for; according to the author, a bound foot also had a peculiar odor which served as a very potent aphrodisiac for the man...

Lisa See's new book, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" explores the lives of Chinese women in the early 1800's through the lives of two main protagonists, Snow Flower and Lily.

Snow Flower and Lily met when they were 7 years old through the services of a matchmaker who, after comparing their horoscopes, declared that they were suitable to be "lautangs" or "old sames". The Chinese had a wonderful custom of a "sworn sisterhood" for the girls in their family. In a time when women were generally isolated, and were told over and over that they had no value (an oft-repeated Chinese phrase was, "it is better to have a dog than a daughter") these sworn sisters were to provide love, company, comfort and solace to each other, but it was dissolved at marriage.

A "lautang" was different. It involved only two girls and lasted their entire lives. It was essentially a kind of emotional marriage between women, a bond they signed with each other to remain true, faithful and loyal to each other no matter what. Although they were usually from different villages they would meet several times in the year and stay over at each other's homes for a week or so, doing chores, eating and sleeping together and even wearing the same clothes! During the day they would embroider and make their lily shoes or compose poetry in nu-shu and write secret notes. Not surprisingly, when the girls eventually married, they often enjoyed a stronger bond with their laotongs than they ever could with their husbands.

Nu-shu is a secret language exclusively employed by the women of the South-Western Hunan province of China. This script was invented as a code for women, by women. By writing it on paper or fans, embroidering it on handkerchiefs or weaving it into cloth, women could communicate with each other secretly. But since Nu-shu is a phonetic language it is very easy to misunderstand unless it is taken in context. You will see what I mean when you read the book!

This is a truly wonderful story about the beauty and necessity of female friendships and with Lisa See's powerful and gifted story-telling it has the potential to become a dearly-loved classic. This is a book you want to give all the women in your life - your best friend, your daughters, your mother, your sister, your favorite aunt, your most respected teacher...

Footnote (if you will excuse the pun): IMO the 19th century Chinese weren't the only race to be obsessed with feet. Of all the fashion accessories in a western woman's possession, aren't shoes the item we collect the most? And how often do we hear women complain about their big feet? As for surgical alterations, we may not shorten our feet but we do like breast implants, tummy tucks, rhinoplasty etc. Are we that different from the women that lived in the 18oo's on the opposite side of the world? I would say not and this why the story of Snow Flower and Lily resonates even today.


Ally Bean said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. I remember taking a course in Chinese Literature in college in which we learned about foot binding. It is so weird-- yet as you said, it was seen as a way to improve a girl's lot in life. Every society does some fairly odd things in search of idealized beauty.

Poodlerat said...

I've seen this book around a lot and been thinking about reading it, so it's nice to know that you enjoyed it.

Are we that different from the women that lived in the 18oo's on the opposite side of the world? I would say not and this why the story of Snow Flower and Lily resonates even today.

Not to mention that in the west in the 1800's, women wore corsets which progressively rearranged their insides to give them that fashionable hourglass shape. And you're right, we haven't advanced much in our thinking on this issue since then.

Parth said...

What a coincidence. I just heard her interview a couple of days back on NPR :-)

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AMY said...

Very interesting book. I can't imagine going through the foot-binding pain and then subjecting my own daughters to it.