Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Snowflower and the Secret Fan

"Achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination", that's what Amy Tan had to say about this book as we can see on author Lisa See's website.

I fully concur with the first part of that statement, and I guess also with the second, though the research See has put into the book lifts the novel beyond the pure realm of imagination and depicts a presumably fairly realistic view of life and traditions in a remote part of Hunan province in China.

I was not all that impressed at the opening pages of the book, which gave me the feeling the author was going to present us a "popular" version of some scientific findings on mainly three topics:
  1. The "women's script" or nüshu (女书), possibly the only gender-defined script that may have ever existed in the world, as it was at the exclusive use of women in some part of China.
  2. Footbinding and it's related processes
  3. Different types of relations between girls that existed in China before marriage (e.g. jiebai zimei 结拜姊妹) or could even extend beyond the drastic change that represented marriage in a girl's life (laotong 老同).

  4. The information presented to the reader tends to get a little crowded at the beginning, it's like we have entered the museum of chinese folk customs and we're following the guide rushing us through the different halls.

    Lisa See in her afterword gracefully makes allowance for the research of those whose works she has drawn on, among which William W. Chiang, who studied the linguistic and social aspects of the women's script for his PhD dissertation, Japanese professor Orie Endo who has made several field research trips to the area and Anne E. McLaren, professor at the University of Melbourne and with special interest in the interaction between oral and literate culture in China. Readers somewhat familiar with their work will see their influence seeping through onto the pages.

    However, once the stage is set, and we have entered Snowflower's and Lily's (the two main characters of this novel) world through the trials and tribulations of their youth, the story that develops is indeed of such an aching beauty (and the word "aching" could not be used more accurate than in the context of this book), that for the first time since my childhood days, when I wept over a cartoon version of the "Illias" of Homer everytime I reached the page where the hero Achilles died, I shed some tears again over a book.

    I will not go into the details of the story, suffice it to say that it is one of the most gripping lovestories -whereby the word "love" here has to be understood in a very broad sense- I have read in the past years and I would recommend the book to anyone with the faintest interest in China and it's women.

    Once I had finished the book, I was thinking of director Xie Jin (whom I had the honour of working with during my student days in Shanghai on his "The last Aristocrats", though my part didn't survive the editor's cut :-)) as the director of choice to bring this story to the screen. Those among you who have seen his "Stage Sisters" (1964) and "Hibiscus Town" (1986), will know how he can mould these very complicated chinese interhuman relations into movies that stick to the memory of the audience. This story would be worthy of this great director's capabilities.

    What I think is remarkable about the story is the quite extraordinary perspective it throws on the role of the women in this microcosmic part of the vast multicolored Chinese society (the main characters are in fact not Han Chinese, but originally of Yao descent). Lisa See, when drawing up the story, understood perfectly well what Dorothy Ko had already pointed out in "Every Step a Lotus; Shoes for Bound Feet":

"Boys and girls were often equally loved, but forces larger than human emotions dictated that boys were valued more. .."

The women may have been subordinate to men, but the efforts the parents of Lily are bestowing on her laotong relationship with Snowflower are quite tremendous, in view of the fact that she is after all only a girl. And in fact See is describing a process that seriously runs counter the common belief that girls were / are (?) unwanted for economic reasons. That standard reality is further described by Dorothy Ko as follows:

The intent was not so much to discriminate against women, as it is often taken to be, but to prevent family assets from falling into the hands of the families of the sons' wives. Unlike our society in which individuals own their houses and cars, in traditional China, strictly speaking, it was the family as a whole--not the sons--that owned houses and land, if any. The wealthiest families thus functioned more as a corporation jealously guarding its assets from hostile takeovers by its marital relatives.
(Dorothy Ko, Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet [Toronto: The Bata Shoe Museum; distributed by the University of California Press, 2001], p. 50)

But in "Snowflower", it is not the male line (Lily's brothers) that brings the family of Lily to a certain standard of wealth, but the linking of Lily by way of her laotong relationship to the relative wealthy family of Snowflower (or so they assume, at least) and the fact that her almost perfect "three-inch golden lotus feet" allow to marry her out to a husband that is higher up on the societal ladder. Though I assume this kind of situation is not in any way to be taken as mainstream, it is an interesting reversal of the angle from which we are normally lead to look at Chinese society.

The last thing I want to mention is the beauty of the imagery of the fan. The nüshu women indeed used to incorporate their writings in their embroideries as well as on fans, among others. Lily and Snowflower's laotong relationship starts with one written verse on the first fold of a fan and through the years their relation lasts, all space gets filled up. So when the narrator (Lily, aged over eighty, a widow -a so-called weiwangren 未亡人, "one who hasn't died yet") ponders over her past, she sees from the fan her entire life, with all the happy and the painful memories, literally un-folding.

Don't hesitate, go and read the book. Even in Shanghai, I found it prominently available in bookstores in English and Chinese.


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