In Lisa See’s popular novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the narrator is eighty-year-old Lily, a Chinese woman looking back on her life.
In the movie version, the story is told by a young woman of a later generation, probably a descendant of Lily, living in modern-day Shanghai. The creators of the film must have decided that a contemporary setting with beautiful young actresses (Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun) would draw audiences into the story. I saw Li Bingbing, who plays Lily, interviewed on The View a while ago, and she was adorable-not only pretty but charming, with a sense of humor about herself.
I am very much looking forward to the movie version of Lisa See’s novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Directed by Wayne Wang, who brought Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to the screen, it looks lavishly Chinese and beautiful.
It is the story of two young women who become laotongs, friends forever, at the age of seven, and share their deepest feelings from then on by writing to each other in nu shu, women’s secret language, sometimes on a fan, sometimes embroidering it onto a handkerchief or weaving it into a cloth.
The two women, Lily and Snow Flower, live parallel, if not equal, lives. Lily makes a better marriage thanks to Snow Flower’s Aunt Wang (a somewhat outlandish businesswoman), but she still lives within the rigidly prescribed role of a Chinese woman. Though Snow Flower tells a story of long-ago China, with customs such as foot binding that have mercifully died out, there are still traditional attitudes about women and men and the family, vestiges of the old ways, overlaid on the modern culture.
Although it is hard for us today to understand this kind of life, there is actually much to relate to. We don’t have to undergo the pain of having our feet bound, but we still do painful things in order to be beautiful. Think of electrolysis, waxing, eyebrow plucking. Snow Flower’s mother said to her in the novel, “A lady lets no ugliness into her life. Only through pain will you have beauty.” (p. 30) Really, that sounds like something my aunt said to me as a child when she was braiding my hair.
And we in the present day aren’t confined to an upstairs room all day with the other women-but haven’t we spent most of our lives constrained by a patriarchal society that gives more power to men?
Maybe we don’t have a secret language, but sometimes a woman can say things to another woman that she can’t say to a man. And some of us use the medium of beautiful cards or stationery or a journal embellished with decorations to write special or secret things.
I would like to know more about the nu shu (women’s) language. How exactly was it different from the men’s language? I know from the book that the men’s conversations were about business and life outside the home (the realm called wai), the women’s about the home and the inner realm (nei in Confucian society). I know from Lisa See’s description that nu shu looked different from men’s writing, which was bold in character, while the women’s looked like “mosquito legs, or bird prints in dust.” (p. 24)
Did nu shu have a different structure, in addition to different vocabulary? Were women able to express things that it was impossible for men to say, or even think? This writing is at the heart of the book and I’m sure will be a focus of the movie. I hope to see the writing close up, and hear the women chanting it, as they do in the book. There are certain phrases that customarily begin certain types of poems or songs in nu shu. I don’t know if these will be highlighted in the movie, but I hope so.
Also at the heart of the story of Snow Flower is the close relationship between laotongs in long-ago China. The love between two women matched in childhood for life seems to have been deeper, in some ways, than that between men and women, emotionally. And, at least in the case of these two, Lily and Snow Flower, it was physical as well. Snow Flower and Lily enjoyed their closeness in bed. I wonder how this will be portrayed in the movie. (I imagine the “bed business,” as it is called in the book, will be conventional in the case of Lily and her husband, violent with Snow Flower and her husband.)
I look forward to seeing the film version of Snow Flower (in spite of the reviews, which aren’t good), to see how the characters and settings are portrayed. I want to see the room upstairs that Lisa See describes, where after a certain age the women are confined.
I want to witness the celebration of festivals such as Catching Cool Breezes and the Birds Festival.
I want to see the handwork described in the book-the fan with beautiful calligraphy and ornamental flowers and leaves passed between the two women; the embroidery, the handmade and embroidered clothes; the third-day wedding books, like scrapbooks carefully created and given to the bride by her friends; even the shoes Lily makes for herself-some for day, some for sleeping-though I almost couldn’t bear to read about the foot binding, so I don’t want to see the girls stumbling and crying in pain.
Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan gave me an insight into Chinese culture and a new understanding of my own culture as well. I hope that the movie version of this wonderful book will bring these women’s lives clearly and vividly into focus.
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. New York: Random House, 2005.