Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: a Novel

Adult/High School Lily at 80 reflects on her life, beginning with her daughter days in 19th-century rural China. Foot-binding was practiced by all but the poorest families, and the graphic descriptions of it are not for the fainthearted. Yet women had nu shu, their own secret language. At the instigation of a matchmaker, Lily and Snow Flower, a girl from a larger town and supposedly from a well-connected, wealthy family, become laotong, bound together for life. Even after Lily learns that Snow Flower is not from a better family, even when Lily marries above her and Snow Flower beneath her, they remain close, exchanging nu shu written on a fan. When war comes, Lily is separated from her husband and children. She survives the winter helped by Snow Flower’s husband, a lowly butcher, until she is reunited with her family. As the years pass, the women’s relationship changes; Lily grows more powerful in her community, bitter, and harder, until at last she breaks her bond with Snow Flower. They are not reunited until Lily tries to make the dying Snow Flower’s last days comfortable. Their friendship, and this tale, illustrates the most profound of human emotions: love and hate, self-absorption and devotion, pride and humility, to name just a few. Even though the women’s culture and upbringing may be vastly different from readers’ own, the life lessons are much the same, and they will be remembered long after the details of this fascinating story are forgotten.-Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
Random House Paperbacks
ISSN Number
Average: 4.3 (4 votes)


Please login to review this resource

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Field of Interest/Specialty: World Cultures
Posted On: 11/09/2015

I teach a homogeneous 10th grade World Cultures course at Mt. Lebanon High School. Students spend about 9 weeks learning about China, Korea and Japan covering elements from geography to early history and modern history and popular systems of belief. I think that this book was a great read and was a very entertaining story that gave significant background to life in early China under the rule of the emperor.
The story focuses around two girls: Snow Flower and Lily and their relationship. It spans their life time from small children, young wives, mothers to grown women. The challenges and trials of friendship and life are very tangible at a basic human level, however life for women in ancient China was abysmal. Women were the slaves of first their fathers, then their husbands, then their grown sons. This is a prominent theme throughout the book and reading it would certainly help to teach the social standing of women in China. The author uses many Chinese terms to carry this theme throughout the book and one that I found most interesting was how she describes a 'mother's love'. The characters for this are matched to "tragic pain" and she explains through many of the characters in the book that a mother faces pain bringing children into the world and then has to raise daughters to give away and sons that she must answer to later in life.
The story begins with Snow Flower and Lily meeting a a matchmaker who sets them as laotongs or 'old sames'. Snow Flower does not know that the match is done for Lily, who is born to a lower social standing and the matchmaker is her aunt. They are destined to be friends forever with a bond that should never be broken. They communicate in a secret women's language called nushu.
I do not think that I would use this book as required reading in class. It is a novel and the characters are developed for entertainment. At a literature level I do not think that it would be up to par for a high school English class. With that being said, it has some wonderful descriptive parts about foot binding. This particular part could be used as an except to describe exactly what was done to young children and more importantly, why it was done. I would use this excerpt for the purpose of showcasing cultural distinctions during this time period.
The story ends with a change of heart by Snow Flower. She has for years thought that she was always so kind and thoughtful, a powerful Lady with sincere kindness of heart. She realizes that at the death of her latong Lily, that she has not been any of these things. The ending was a nice wrap up to a lifelong story.

Possible applications of the text Snow Flower & the Secret Fan

Field of Interest/Specialty: Studio Art & Art History
Posted On: 11/05/2014

Reviewed by Kachina Martin, Studio Art & Art History instructor at Muhlenberg High School; grades 10-12
The previous reviewers both offer an excellent synopsis of the novel. To avoid redundancy, my review focuses on how I have utilized the text in a studio setting as well as in a team-taught course of which I am a part called Global Studies. In Global, students study works of art from various cultures versus creating works of art. Because of the nature of both the courses in which I have included this text, I was unable to have students read the entire text, but instead, focused on descriptive passages that suited the aims of the courses.
For my Multicultural Art course, which is studio based, I used small sections of the text that spoke about the beautiful embroidery created by Lily and Snow Flower and showed images representative of the objects and style of embroidery from this time period. I used this as a way to introduce a unit on embroidery as well as integrate reading into my course. Students were ultimately able to work in a more contemporary manner with their projects, but this was a valuable way to show the universality of women and the needle arts. Significantly, NuShu is derived from Chinese script, but was simplified and adapted for ornamental uses, like embroidery (Marine Cahalane, “NuShu: The Poetic Diary of a Subdued Sex,” 2012). Studio instructors could also reference author Lisa See’s many poetic descriptions of writing and use this as an innovative way to introduce the study of calligraphy to students.
My Global students read sections of the text that illustrated the hardships of women’s lives in rural China in the 19th century to complement our study of the art of China. While the students were interested in this topic overall, especially the idea of a “hidden” language, I think it especially spoke to female students as the story centers on the lives of women. A number of female students asked to borrow the text; some purchased it on their own. One student commented to me about how little things have changed in terms of the complex nature of female friendship.
This text is best suited to mature high school students given its tone and subject.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A book about the lives of Cinese women in the 19th century

Field of Interest/Specialty: Gifted Education
Posted On: 05/24/2011

Review by Janice Kuhn, Trinity Area High School, Gifted Support Teacher, grades 9-12
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a wonderfully written novel. The setting is 19th century China where the reader is introduced to a culture that is quite different than the one experienced in here in the United States or in modern China. From the very first words, the reader is drawn in by the voice of 80-year-old Lily, one of the two main characters in the book, who begins to tell the story of her life. It is a poignant story about the friendship between Lily and Snow Flower which began when they were young girls. The matchmaker, an older woman who was acquainted with the family, arranged this relationship. Great care was taken by the matchmaker to find a “laotong” or “old same”, in order to form this special type of relationship that bound Snow Flower and Lily together for life. Other girls in the story have “sworn sister” friendships which kept a group of friends together until it was broken by marriage. As the story unfolds, the reader enjoys the delightful adventures of the young girls who grow into young women and then progress through their married lives and old age.
However as in real life, not all is beautiful. The detailed description of the practice of foot-binding is particularly painful to read as one tries to imagine the physical and emotional pain that Lily and her sister endured. As the story continues, the reader is given a more complete picture of the difficulties of being a woman in the Chinese culture of that time period. The conduct of women in society and the roles within their families of origin as well as within the families of their in-laws were strictly controlled. Confucian beliefs also dictated life on a daily basis as well. Most days were spent in a room with other women who only ventured out on special festival occasions. Lily’s life changed dramatically when she married the man who had been chosen for her. Her life as a daughter-in-law included enduring the insults from her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Bearing children, especially a male child, was one of the most important duties of a woman. Lily’s status in her husband’s family was improved with the birth of her son.
Amidst all of the difficulties, the women in this story show great resilience as they communicate through “nu shu”, a secret written language which is shared on fans and handkerchiefs. Once again Lisa See gives her readers a detailed look into this language which was developed by women and passed down from generation to generation. There are other instances in the book which show that Lily, Snow Flower and other women demonstrate strength of character despite very grueling circumstances. The book contains many surprises and is a must-read to the very end. A quote from the foot-binding section appropriately sums up the book: “Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace.”
This book is not to be read by the faint of heart, as there are so many difficult circumstances that are endured by the characters. One of my male high school students who lived in China for 5 years chose to read this book for a paper in his senior English class. He found that it was difficult for him to keep his interest long enough to finish his assignment. This book is predominantly about women, their lives in 19th century China, and their friendships. There are a few passages that are sexually explicit, but most of the intimate details of Lily’s relationship with her husband are described with the words “bed business.” This book could be enjoyed by mature high school girls, especially ones who enjoy reading historical fiction or stories about other cultures.

19th centaury Chinese women

Field of Interest/Specialty: Chinese language
Posted On: 05/11/2011

I selected “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” for the book review assignment.
I teach Chinese language courses in Oakland Catholic High School, grade 9-12. Sometimes, I also give cultural background information for students to discuss the differences in culture. Since it is an all-girls school, students are often interested in women topics.
The novel started with an eighty year old woman, Lily, looking back on her life. She started told her fascinating stories of a typical women’s life in nineteenth century China. She told the stories of her foot binding, learning how to behave, getting married, having children, growing old...etc. The descriptions of each part of her life give readers vivid images, especially the foot binding process. I could feel her painful experience. Lily talked about her relationships with her natal family and husband’s family, the purpose in life, and how a woman gained power in a family. The story also involved with “Laotong (old same)” women's friendships selected by matchmaker, very much like a marriage. The friendship was beautiful but heartbreaking. The two girls communicated through "Nu Shu", the women's secret writing, which would be worth mentioning for language courses.
The story is pretty true to how the rural Chinese society was. I do think the teacher can reference many parts of the story for Chinese women in 19th century from this book. It would be clear for students to compare the differences of women now and then. This review is done before the movie comes out. Some people had concerns about how the movie is going to handle the two female’s life long relationship. It would not be a concern for high school reading at all. It was purely friendship. It is appropriate for high school level reading.