Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in rural nineteenth-century China, where women spend most of their lives confined to the four walls of upstairs women’s quarters. They are bound by customs and rules in silent subservience to fathers, husbands, and sons. They cannot travel, they cannot receive a formal education, they cannot make decisions for their family. They cannot even go on a walk around their village.
Even if they were not bound by custom, their feet are bound literally. From the age of six or seven, their feet are tightly wrapped until their bones break and reform into the ideal lotus shape, only a couple of inches long. After the two-year process is complete, they have difficulty walking more than a few meters at a time.
They find comfort and strength through the bonds of female friendship, a carefully structured arrangement that joins one girl with four others who share matching circumstances, ages, and families. These friendships are intimate and exclusive and are contracted to last until marriage. Some fortunate girls, however, are matched with only one other girl–an “old same”–who will be her friend for life. This laotong commitment is more intimate and treasured than even marriage.
The women do not have a formal education, and they cannot read men’s writing, but they communicate through a written language developed by women over centuries: nu shu. Hidden into embroidery and artwork, women’s messages are passed back and forth from village to village.