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Literature / Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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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 in this work:

  • 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, on the one day in years that she gets to sit outside and enjoy some fresh air.
  • Birthday Buddies: Snow Flower and Lily ending up being chosen as each other's laotong in part because they share the same birthday.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Lily, Snow Flower, and Beautiful Moon are supposed to do their embroidery inside, but the summer heat makes it unbearable. Lily's father and uncle take pity on the girls and allow them to do their work outside as long as they keep it a secret. That same day, Beautiful Moon is stung by a bee and dies from anaphylactic shock.
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  • Character Name and the Noun Phrase: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Snow Flower names her daughter Spring Moon in honor of Beautiful Moon, who died getting stung by bees.
  • 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 for him to take concubines to entertain him as she grows older.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: Played for Drama. Lily is furious with her family and matchmaker for keeping Snow Flower's Impoverished Patrician status a secret from her for years. They argue that if she had known, she would have treated Snow Flower differently. Lily argues that it's not true and it doesn't change how she feels about Snow Flower one bit—except it does, and she does view and treat her differently from then on.
  • 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 after seeing the abusive her mother endured at the hands of her father.
  • Exact Words: Madame Wang never outright lies, but is more than willing to invoke this trope when it suits her. For example, when proposing the laotong match, she states, "Snow Flower’s great-grandfather was a jinshi scholar, so social and economic standing are not matched." Both of these statements are true, but hides the fact that Lily is the higher-ranking girl, not Snow Flower.
  • 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.
  • Female Misogynist: All women in the story display this to some degree, it taking place in Imperial China and all. The butcher's mother takes the cake, though, since she openly reviles women, abuses her daughter-in-law every chance she gets, encourages her son to beat and ridicule her too, and actively encourages her son's delusion that all women (besides her) are weak, worthless, wicked, deceiving parasites, despite displaying these traits herself.
  • Floral Theme Naming: Snow Flower and Lily. And Snow Flower's granddaughter Peony.
  • Heel Realization: Neither Lily nor the butcher realize how horribly they treated Snow Flower until she was on her deathbed, and by then it was far too late to make amends.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Snow Flower's husband, the butcher. While Chinese society is supposed to hold women in contempt, he goes above and beyond. He refuses to let his wife sleep in the same bed as her laotong on visits since he wants to have sex with her, openly rejoices at his wife's miscarried daughters since it means he won't have to waste resources caring for "worthless daughters" later, and often loudly proclaims hateful things about women (like "there is nothing more wicked than the heart of a woman") that Lily secretly thinks everyone knows but you're not supposed to say. He also openly scorns his "weak" elder son who takes after his mother (sensitive, thoughtful, slender), in favor of his second son who is more manly like him.
  • 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!
  • Honorary Aunt: Snow Flower's last request to Lily is that she be this to her children. Lily agrees and goes about doing this by taking Snow Flower's place in her daughter's wedding (this does not end well) and by helping improve her son's station by giving him a job as a rent collector. She even arranges for his daughter to marry her eldest grandson.
  • 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: Set near the end of the Qing dynstasy, during one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese history. Due to the isolation of the narrator, the political situation of China isn't spoken of much. Only events that directly affect Lily and those around her such as the addiction of opium, the typhoid outbreak and the Taiping rebellion.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Snow Flower and her family spoke of being high ranking and well off but it turns out to be false. They were, but her dad's opium addiction bankrupted them. 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. They encounter the decaying remains of children on their way back down the mountain, confirming that at least some of them didn't make it.
    • 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. Without it, a girl can't find a good match and is doomed to servitude or informal prostitution in a richer family's house. 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, though this was long after Lily and Snow Flower were both dead.
  • Internalized Categorism: Snow Flower displays a bit of this with her eldest son. After being abused and ridiculed for years on end by her excessively misogynistic husband and mother-in-law for her feminine and thoughtful demeanor, by the time her eldest son who strongly takes after her grows to childhood, she becomes a bit cold to him because she's learned to loathe these traits in herself.
  • Irony:
    • Snow Flower has a miserably abusive marriage but genuinely enjoys sex with her husband. Lily has an ideal marriage with a perfect husband, but loathes sex and sees it as a duty she must endure to bear him sons.
    • Snow Flower's husband and mother-in-law refuse to give her eldest son his fair share of food while hiding up in the mountains since they scoff that he's so weak he won't survive anyway; not like their strong second son. The second son dies for seemingly no reason anyway, despite getting more than his fair share - while his slimmer, "weaker" brother lives to adulthood.
  • 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.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: While Snow Flowers finds she enjoys intimacy with her husband, Lily does not and simply sees it as a polluted act to produce children. Once she is older, she abstains from it.
  • 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. Between all of Lily's and Snow Flower's children, the only ones to be given names are their respective daughters, Jade and Spring Moon.
  • 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.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing:
    • Snow Flower's auntie tries to mitigate her fall from grace by arranging her to marry a butcher instead of a farmer. While the former is considered more polluted culturally, they make slightly better money than the latter, so she figures Snow Flower will at least live in relative comfort. Yeah, about that...
    • Bizarrely, Lily doesn't learn this lesson. When she arranges Snow Flower's daughter's marriage, she too simply arranges a materialistically advantageous match but does little to reassure the poor girl she will be treated nicely by her husband (as Lily is by hers). On her wedding night, the girl is so terrified that she'll end up trapped in an abusive marriage like her mother that she drowns herself in the village well.
  • 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.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: On her wedding night, Lily's husband takes time to undo her shoes and study her bare, golden lily feet. To Lily, this is far and away the most intimate event of the night.
  • Parental Favoritism:
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Unlike Snow Flower, whose husband is mean, Lily's husband is a nice guy. They especially realize this after they are reunited after 3 months hiding from the Taiping rebellion. He runs to her and kisses her profusely and they both realize they love each other.
  • 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"... Specifically, Lily misread the nushu characters in Snow Flower's letter which said she was being helped by three sworn sisters. She thought Snow Flower had become sworn sisters with these women.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Lily gives one to Snow Flower towards the end of the book because she assumed that Snow Flower had become "sworn sisters" with someone else, meaning she didn't want to be her laotong anymore. She even goes so far as to reveal Snow Flower's secrets to every woman present in the room, which permanently destroys Snow Flower's reputation.
    • Willow, Lotus, and Plum Blossom also do this towards the end of the book, to let Lily know just how badly she treated Snow Flower.
  • Rejected Apology: Once Lily feels she has been slighted, she will hold a grudge forever. No attempts at apology will sway her, as poor Snow Flower learns the hard way...
  • 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.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Women in 19th Century China are expected to be like this: quiet and chaste yet strong and motherly.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: Lily's Fatal Flaw. Once she feels she has been wronged, she will never forgive the person she feels has slighted her. After getting married, she pretty much cuts off all contact with her family for hiding Snow Flower's true situation from her, and later Snow Flower herself when she thinks she has joined a sworn sisterhood.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Lily thinks this of Beautiful Moon and Snow Flower.
  • Too Much Alike: Lily eventually realizes Snow Flower doesn't favor her eldest son because he reminds her too much of herself.
  • 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, her daughter and her 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 and his daughter marries into Lily's family.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Lily's older sister stays in touch with her family after marrying her abusive husband, but shortly after getting married herself Lily seems to forget she exists and we never learn what happened to her or her possible children. Perhaps Justified as Lily isn't very close to her sisters and Chinese women were considered no longer part of their birth family after marriage, but given their secret nushu you would think Lily would have at least tried to stay in touch, or at least find out what happened 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.

Tropes used in the movie:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The 21st century sections feature Lily/Nina (wait, what?) and her best friend Snow Flower/Sophia. Their discovery of the title fan helps them work through a rough patch in their friendship.


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