Snowflower and the Secret Fan takes place from roughly 1830 to 1880 in Hunan, China. Although it is a work of fiction, the author (Lisa See, a Chinese-American woman) did extensive research on women’s lives in China at this time. The book follows the friendship between two girls as they grow up and contend with the challenges they must face as women in a patriarchal society.
- mou of land — A mou is about 1/6 of an acre.
- jin of rice — A jin weighs slightly less than a pound
- Baba — The Chinese term for “dad.”
- chi — (sometimes spelled “qi”) Lifeforce or energy.
- feng shui — A system of spatial organization (often used in home decor) to enhance energy and fortune.
- li — One-half of a kilometer
(Terms in bold appear in the book.)
The story in this book is set in the Hunan province, which is located in the south of China. Lily and her family live in a village called Tongkou, part of the modern-day city of Yongzhou, right next to the Xiao River. Just south of where Lily lives is another important Chinese city – Guilin (formerly spelled Kweilin). Lily mentions this city briefly in the book, but please pay attention to it, as Kweilin will be an important setting in The Joy Luck Club, which we will read during the school year.
The Yao people are the ethnic group who lived in this area; they had a unique set of cultures and traditions that distinguished them from other groups in China.
The Daoguang Emperor ruled over China for 68 years, from 1782 until 1850 (the book begins in 1830 or so). During his time leading the country, China fought against the British in the First Opium War. The British had been selling opium (a highly addictive and dangerous drug similar to heroin) to the Chinese people because it was so profitable; this drained China of its wealth and destroyed the lives of many of its citizens. After China outlawed the use of opium, the British responded with military action and forced the Chinese to sign a trade agreement allowing them to sell opium.
The Daoguang Emperor was a weak ruler, and in 1850, a group called the Taiping fought to overthrow the government. In total, 20 to 30 million people, mostly civilians, died in the war, so what Lily and Snowflower experience when they are forced to flee their village was common to many real people.
The Daoguang Emperor’s son was able to defeat the Taiping and end the rebellion; he became known as the Xianfeng Emperor and continued the Qing Dynasty (a dynasty is a system of hereditary rule; the Tang Dynasty is also mentioned in the book, which lasted from 618 to 907 CE).
Culture, Customs, and Women’s Roles in Chinese Society
The society in which Lily and Snowflower live is structured based on Confucian philosophy, which advocated for separate “realms” for the different genders – nei, or the inner realm of the home, for women, and wai, or the outer realm of the public world, for men. (This division of men’s and women’s sphere is remarkably similar to the social structure that we will see in Victorian England when we read Dracula during the year.)
As a result of women’s separation and often subordinate status, a number of unique institutions arose:
Foot-binding was the process of breaking a young girl’s feet and reshaping them into “golden lilies” or “lotus flowers” to make them more attractive according to the standards of the era. According to legend, the practice of foot-binding began with dancers who would wrap their feet in clothes to be able to perform (much like ballerinas wearing ballet shoes). Foot-binding was a mark of status because women who underwent that kind of trauma would never be able to do significant manual labor; a family had to be of a certain economic class to afford that “luxury.” This practice also had the effect of limiting women’s mobility and keeping them within the domestic sphere, as Confucian thought prescribes.
However, women developed cultural practices to improve their lives in spite of their confinement and low position in the family hierarchy. Nu shu was a written language used for women to communicate. Because it was phonetic as opposed to logographic (meaning that words are written according to how they sound instead of using symbols), it was easier for women, who were denied access to the formal education systems, to learn.
Laotong was a special, formal relationship between two women that bonded them as lifelong friends. It arose out of the practice of arranged marriage; two families that wanted to create a connection but had only daughters could join them together as laotong. A woman was only allowed to have one laotong in her lifetime as the relationship was so sacred.
Both nu shu and laotong were unique to the Hunan region of China.
The Chinese zodiac is a system that assigns each year to one of twelve animals. People born within a certain year are thought to have the personality and characteristics of that animal.
In China at this time, marriages were arranged using an official matchmaker (as you might have seen in Mulan!). Parents wanted to ensure that their child found a compatible spouse who would bring some benefit to the family. Marriage contracts were often arranged years before a person was ready to be married, and perhaps even before he or she was born!
At her wedding, a woman would wear a beautiful red dress and an elaborate headdress.
And while a wife was expected to remain absolutely faithful to her husband to ensure to legitimacy of his sons and heirs, a husband could take multiple concubines or mistresses.
The Five Poisons were actually five poisonous or dangerous animals (which ones changes depending on the source, but usually some combination of snakes, lizards, toads, centipedes, spiders, and scorpions). We will see a reference to the Five Poisons in The Joy Luck Club when we read that book during the fall semester.