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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The SBRC (South Bay Readers Circle), or better known as my book club, met yesterday. Our book for that meeting was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Having read the book on my own a few days ago, I found the story fascinating and the style of writing quite captivating. I was intrigued with the characters’ lives and found myself imagining what it must have been like going thru their turmoil, their joy, their hopes, and their heartaches. Being part of this book club and having a chance to talk about the nuances of the book has allowed me to look at things from several different perspectives and has allowed me to even take a step back and consider things I would have never even thought of on my own. Yay! That’s the power of several minds thinking and exactly why I formed this club in the first place.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of women’s lives in early 19th century China. It is told thru the eyes of Lily, a poor farmer’s daughter born as a middle child, who because of tradition and circumstance was regarded as a useless member of the family. However Lily’s destiny, as manifested in her perfectly arched feet, was for greater things. In those days, a woman’s worth and beauty was primarily judged by her feet. This was at an era where foot binding, now considered a barbaric torture, was the norm. Lily’s story revolves around her relationship with Snow Flower, who was her lao-tong or old same (her friend for life), her struggle as a woman, her difficult relationship with her mother, her marriage into the powerful Lu clan, and her own trials and tribulations with her own children.

The story also allowed the voices of many women to be heard. It was a fascinating unraveling and interconnecting of lives. The women’s medium was their poetry, songs, letters, chants, and nu-shu (a style of women’s writing that was developed by women as a secret correspondence). Through these mediums it allowed the readers a peek into a private inner world.

Several things jumped out at me while reading this book.

First. I am intrigued by the allure of reading about a culture that sounds both so foreign and yet so familiar. The women in the story were second class citizens forced into subjugation by their bound feet. Their lives were controlled by the men (first their fathers, then their husbands, then their sons). They had no voice other than to each other and they lived their lives with the sole purpose of placating the men in their households. At first blush, tragic and horrifying! But on closer examination, the question really is, how far have we come from that type of society? Yes, we have come a long way and are no longer are bound by such unyielding norms as they were back then. But when we think about it, women today, no matter how far we’ve come, still have our roles to play, still have our bindings that hold us back, and we still have to fight harder to get the same benefits.

And yes, we are no longer obligated to bind our feet and mutilate ourselves to be considered beautiful. But our society has taken its own standard of beauty and has continually rammed this standard down our throats. And so there’s plastic surgery, and eating disorders, and fashion makeovers, and the constant lingering thoughts that “I’m not good enough”. The argument to that is now we have a choice. Now we can decide for ourselves whether we want to go thru whatever process we think we need. But think about it, do we all really have that choice? Do we really in our minds believe 100% that our decisions are not in some way determined by the people around us?

Second. It was easy to blame the men and to lump them into the unfeeling, uncaring, dominant group. And yes, maybe it was some men that created that kind of subjugated society. But looking at it closely, it also created roles for men. Roles that maybe they didn’t want thrust on them either. In the story, Snow Flower’s father could not handle being primary breadwinner and took to the opium pipe. While Snow Flower’s first born son was weak and frail and considered useless since he was not fit to one day oversee the family. Men also went thru dealing with pressure and having to live up to standards whether they wanted to or not.

Third. Foot binding was a painful and debilitating process that mothers did to their daughters in the hopes it would better their lives and find them suitable marriage matches. When asked if I found myself living in those times but knowing what I know now, would I subject my own daughter to that, my answer was a quick and resounding “no way”. But after careful thought, I had to consider that if I did not bind my daughter’s feet, she would never have a chance to marry and would be a servant all her life. Would hurting her now, spare her more hurt in her future? The question then is much harder to answer and was undoubtedly faced by the mothers during those times. Today, there are still countless ways mothers and daughters (or parents and children for that matter) clash over what parents think is right for the child and over what the child wants for him/herself.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a beautiful and powerful story that I think most women (and even men) can relate to. It is not merely a story of oppression nor is it of women’s liberation. In my opinion, it is simply an account of how life back then, in that part of the world. And thru it we can choose to see how far is it that we have come, and at the same time, how far we still have to go.

1 comment:

jol said...

Every one has a role to play in society and interaction with the people around is a must. How one is able to act with the continuing changing circumstance of opportunity and crisis will give rise to happiness or success.