Literature / Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a 2005 historical novel by Lisa See.

Lily, a young girl in 19th-century China, gets a sworn sister, or laotong, named Snow Flower. From a very young age, the two best friends write to each other and share many experiences over the years. From the anguish of footbinding, to the negotiations of married life, to the aftermath of a rebellion, they stand by and strengthen each other - until misunderstandings threaten to tear their friendship apart.

In addition to emphasizing footbinding, the book also talks extensively about nu shu, the secret phonetic alphabet only written and understood by women. A movie was released in July 2011, which included 21st-century China sections with Lily and Snow Flower's actresses playing their modern-day counterparts.

Tropes used:

  • Arranged Marriage: Daughters are basically born only to marry into other families and give them sons. Several arranged marriages are present within the story, both happy and not so.
  • Bee Afraid: Beautiful Moon dies from anaphylactic shock after being stung.
  • Big Fancy House: The Lu house.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Lily views her younger sister as this.
  • The Atoner: At the end of the book, Lily. The book and confession is her atonement.
  • Character Name and the Noun Phrase
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Seen in all of the characters' attitude towards footbinding.
    • Lily and Dalang may seem distant in modern reader's eyes, but she considers him a perfect husband, to the point when she arranges to him to take concubines to entertain him as she grew older.
  • Domestic Abuse: Snow Flower is the victim of it, as is Lily's sister.
  • Driven to Suicide: Third-Sister-in-Law kills herself after her husband and children die of typhoid, and Snow Flower's daughter Spring Moon throws herself into the village well on her wedding night.
  • Fatal Flaw: Lily desperately longs for love, but believes she doesn't deserve it and that her only way to gain worth is to follow the rules that everyone sets for her. She is also completely incapable of forgiving anyone she believes has wronged her, and this is what destroys her relationship with Snow Flower.
  • Floral Theme Naming: Snow Flower and Lily. And Snow Flower's granddaughter Peony.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: What a laotong match is supposed to be. Unlike sworn sisterhood, laotongs will be connected from early childhood until death, no matter what life hands them in the way of marriages, children, and crises. It's even arranged by a matchmaker!
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Taken even further — after her husband's death, Lily dedicates the rest of her life to becoming a scribe to tell the stories of all the women that she can. This particular book is just one of many; only special because it's her autobiography.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: An interesting case with Lily and Snow Flower. During a festival as teenagers, Lily and Snow Flower are spending a night together and end up writing poetry on each other’s naked bodies. It’s a very obviously erotic moment, but neither of them seems to view it as different or wrong. Lily mentions that at this point, they weren’t really educated in matters of sexuality and so didn’t entirely realize the implications of what they were doing. It doesn’t happen again after this one instance and neither of them ever displays romantic feelings for the other, but they also don’t seem bothered by it.
  • Imperial China
  • Impoverished Patrician: Snow Flower and her family spoke of being high ranking and well off but it turns out to be false. She is forced to marry a butcher (which is one of the lowest ranking professions culturally) and her parents disappear after she is married, their money long gone.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted, quite a lot.
    • Lily's younger sister dies in the course of footbinding.
    • Snow Flower suffers from several stillbirths and miscarriages during the course of the book.
    • While escaping from the revolution into the mountains Lily sees many children who were abandoned by their parents and most likely doomed.
    • The youngest son of Snow Flower dies during the time spend on the mountains.
  • Inherent in the System: Footbinding. Tiny feet are the sign of beauty, grace, and good breeding; the line of mothers crippling their daughters in a mutually agonizing tough-love scenario is never shown as having an ending in the course of the story, though in real life it died out within the next century.
  • Jerkass: The butcher (Snow Flower's husband). He gets better towards the end of book, showing guilt over how he treated his wife as she lays weak and dying.
  • Mama Bear: Lily.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: A lot of the children in this book are given this treatment, with almost none of them ever getting named beyond their place in the family.
  • Nobility Marries Money: A variant, with the laotong relationship serving the same purpose as a marriage between Lily's family — title-less farmers, moving up in the world — joining with Snow Flower's — a high-ranking and noble house that is also bankrupt. Snow Flower's refined manners prepare the family for moving into higher circles. In the meantime, spending time with the poorer family and learning to do housework helps Snow Flower adjust to her eventual descent into the working class.
  • No Name Given: And how. Beautiful Moon is the only member of Lily’s natal family to have a name given; everyone else is referred to by their place in the family, such as “Elder Sister” or “Second Brother.” No one in Snow Flower’s family is named apart from Auntie Wang. Lily mentions that she rarely addresses her husband by name, and he only gets named once in the novel. Ironically, the only ones of Lily’s and Snow Flower’s combined children to be given names are their so-called “worthless” daughters, Jade and Spring Moon, respectively.
  • Nice Guy: Lily's husband turns out to be a pretty nice guy.
  • Orphaned Etymology: When Lily's feet are being bound for the first time, and her bones break, it describes her mother's eyes "zeroing in" on her. Yes, the Chinese discovered the concept of zero, but the phrase is still distinctly modern and jarring.
  • Parental Favoritism: Lily pretty blatantly favors her first son over her other children. Perhaps justified in Chinese society.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Unlike Snow Flower, whose husband is mean, Lily's husband is a nice guy.
  • The Plot Reaper: Beautiful Moon dies... pretty much because there's nowhere else for her story to go. Sure, she could have a peaceful, uneventful marriage and keep in touch with Lily and Snow Flower, but that's boring.
  • Poor Communication Kills: If Lily had simply asked Snow Flower to explain her sudden affiliation with the "sworn sisters"...
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Lily gives one to Snow Flower towards the end of the book because she assumed that Snow Flower becoming friends with the "sworn sisters" meant she didn't want to be her friend anymore, even going so far as to reveal Snow Flower's secrets to every woman present in the room, which permanently destroys Snow Flower's reputation.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Lily and Snow Flower's friendship has overtones of this.
  • Secretly Dying: Near the end of the novel, Snow Flower.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Snow Flower's first and second sons, respectively. To elaborate, her first son prefers sitting with the women, while her second son shadows her husband.
  • Shown Their Work
  • Shrinking Violet: Spring Moon.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Women in 19th Century China are expected to be like this: quiet and chaste yet strong and motherly.
  • Stepford Smiler: Snow Flower.
  • The Unfavorite: Snow Flower's eldest son is this. Culturally he would be one if not the most important person in his family, but he is passed over for his younger brother.
    • Lily lampshades this while she and Snow Flower's family are hiding in the mountains. There is little food but what they have is rationed out between Snow Flower's husband, Mother in-law, Lily (due to her family connections), and the youngest son leaving Snow Flower and the eldest boy out. Lily notes that as the oldest male child the boy is entitled to more food then either the butcher or herself and tries to give him some of hers before the butcher intervenes. Ironically shortly after the younger son dies, but the older one survives to reach adulthood and ends up becoming the Lu family's rent collector.
  • Upbringing Makes the Hero: Lily's oldest son is well-educated as a child and ended up being a imperial scholar. Lily herself is largely influenced by the traditions she was raised under, most of which feed into her fatal flaws.
  • Villain Protagonist: Depending on your point of view. Lily admits she's not a very nice person and that being kind to others isn't something that comes naturally to her.
  • Women's Mysteries: Nu shu seems to be one of these. It's later subverted when Lily discovers that males in her family know about it, but simply don't care.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Both Snow Flower and Lily have their own Yamato Nadeshiko traits.

Tropes used in the movie: