Snowflower and the Secret fan is a book about a girl named Lily. Lily goes through many hardships in both her childhood and adult life. The book has a very heavy focus on the hardships that women faced in ancient China, such as arranged marriage, abuse, foot binding, and lack of power. I greatly enjoyed the book even though reading it caused much distress from the connections I saw to modern day China. Anyways, here is a quick summary of the book:
An 80-year-old woman named Lily is reflecting on her life, by writing her memoirs. Lily is a widow, and hints that she is somewhat isolated from the villagers she lives with: “I am what the villagers call ‘One Who Has Not Died Yet’”. The story starts with Lily being born into a peasant family in rural China. She says later on in the book that they weren't hungry all the time, that they mostly had something to eat, which she says is normal for peasants. Aside from this introduction, she says that she spent her life seeking love and affirmation, despite being a woman. This is a very powerful part of the book within the first few pages: the line implies, without explicitly stating that women were innately undeserving of love, and had to earn being loved through service to their superiors. Lily says that her biggest regret was taking obedience too far in her quest for validation. Through the entire introduction, she hints that as a girl she was blinded by her worldview, and made mistakes because she thought things were perfectly fine, and that love was just a fairytale told to children. She thought that because her father abused her mother, domestic abuse was normal in all families. In spite of her misgivings, she does not regret her greatest rebellion: nu shu, or women's writings. The book has a secondary focus on these writings.
Lily is born in Yongming province, China, in the year 1823. Around the age of five, her mother sends Lily with her cousin, Beautiful Moon, to a shaman to select a celestial day to begin foot binding. The shaman tells Lily' s mother to consult a matchmaker, which her mother does promptly. After the matchmaker has inspected Lily's feet, she says to wait one year to begin the footbinding, to make her feet perfect, which the mother does without question. The matchmaker also tells Lily that she may marry a man from Tongkou, a richer town in the area. That night, Lily’s mother hits Lily, and Lily takes it as a sign that her mother cares (starting the cycle of abuse) soon, Lily's aunt starts to teach beautiful moon and Lily the practice of nu shu, which translates to women's writings.
These women’s writings must be kept secret because they are illegal. Women were not allowed to be communicating in a “women’s code”, so these are a very heinous crime. Throughout the book, these writings become a larger and larger part of the story.
Moving on, later when Lily, her sister, and beautiful moon are getting their feet bound. The pain is awful for all of them and Lily’s sister puts up a fight. Soon the third sister dies of necrosis and blood poisoning from rotting feet Lily’s grandmother also dies shortly after.
Later Madam wang says she has found a laotong match with a girl named Snow Flower. A laotong match is like a godsister relationship, for counseling and friendship between the two. Madam Wang takes Lily and Snow Flower to the Temple of Gupo Fair to sign their laotong contract. Once Snow Flower returns home, the girls pass notes to each other often through Madame Wang. Snow Flower's messages are all about birds and flying away, which scares Lily.
As Lily and Snow flower grow up, all of the female characters die or are taken away. After Beautiful moon dies from a bee sting, Lily finds respite in conversing with Snow flower and writing nu shu to each other.
Lily and Snow flower are married and pregnant by age 15,but there are some issues where Snow flower does not attend Lily's wedding, and Lily is very hurt and becomes distrustful of Snow flower. This is where Lily starts to make her other greatest regret.
Soon, Snow flower gives birth to a sickly child who can barely breath, while Lily gives birth to a healthy one. In a second round of pregnancies, Snow flower gives birth to another sickly child, while Lily gives birth to another healthy child. Snow Flowers mother in law tries to starve the first sickly child, but Lily prevents this. Meanwhile, snow flowers husband is constantly demanding sex from Snow flower and threatening to harm her. Snow Flowers second child dies in an illness out of left field, and Snow Flower’s husband beats his grief out on the pregnant Snowflower, who miscarries. Snowflower has two more stillborn children in the book.
Soon, a typhoid epidemic hits, and Lily barricades herself and her three kids in her house and only leaves for food. Shortly after this, the Taiping rebellion arrives to Tongkou, and Lily and family must retreat into the mountains for safety. After 36 hours of hard march in the freezing cold, they reach safety. Lily finds Snow flower standing at the edge of a cliff, and Lily learns about how Snow flower had wanted to die for a while, and that Lily never understood the grief that comes with miscarriage. Lily talks Snow flower down from the cliff, and the villagers return home.
Soon, Snow flower gives Lily a secret fan, covered in illegal nushu writing, and some other notes through a servant. On the fan it says that Snow flower has found women who care and that Lily will no longer have to suffer by talking to Snow flower. Lily is filled with rage at this and proceeds to veto a laotong match between their children. Snow flower apologizes, but Lily will not accept.
Lily then starts to turn on Snowflower, saying that she violated the laotong relationship, and proceeds to tell the entire village all of Snow flower’s misdeeds. She is elevated to high status by exposing the truth about Snow flower. Lily then burns all of the notes that Snow flower gave her, but does not find the fan and a few other things.
Many years later, a poor girl shows up at Lily's house. The girl, Spring moon, says that Snow Flower is dying and is asking for Lily. When Lily arrives, Snow Flower is surrounded by Lotus, Plum Blossom, and Willow, the women from the mountain. Snow Flower apologizes and Lily sees that Snow Flower has a tumor on her stomach the size of a baby. Lily tries to help Snow Flower with diviners, doctors, and special foods, but Snow Flower only gets worse. She dies two weeks later, asking Lily to be an aunt to her two remaining children. After Snow Flower's burial, Plum Blossom, Lotus, and Willow explain to Lily how badly she'd behaved towards Snow Flower. Lily vows to make right through Snow Flower's children. Spring Moon kills herself to avoid marriage, but Lily arranges for Snow Flower's granddaughter, Peony, to marry her own firstborn grandson.
At the end of the memoirs, Lily says that she treated Snowflower like a wretch, and begs forgiveness.
The final note in the book is a request to burn the memoir when she dies.