Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
IN THIS NOVEL, I HAVE FOLLOWED THE TRADITIONAL CHINESE
style for rendering dates. The third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign, when Lily was born, is 1823. The Taiping Rebellion started in 1851 and ended in 1864.
It is believed that nu shu—the secret-code writing used by women in a remote area of southern Hunan Province—developed a thousand years ago. It appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use.
I AM WHAT THEY CALL IN OUR VILLAGE
“ONE WHO HAS NOT
yet died”—a widow, eighty years old. Without my husband, the days are long. I no longer care for the special foods that Peony and the others prepare for me. I no longer look forward to the happy events that settle under our roof so easily. Only the past interests me now. After all this time, I can finally say the things I couldn’t when I had to depend on my natal family to raise me or rely on my husband’s family to feed me. I have a whole life to tell; I have nothing left to lose and few to offend.
I am old enough to know only too well my good and bad qualities, which were often one and the same. For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life. I dreamed that my mother would notice me and that she and the rest of my family would grow to love me. To win their affection, I was obedient—the ideal characteristic for someone of my sex—but I was too willing to do what they told me to do. Hoping they would show me even the most simple kindness, I tried to fulfill their expectations for me—to attain the smallest bound feet in the county—so I let my bones be broken and molded into a better shape.
When I knew I couldn’t suffer another moment of pain, and tears fell on my bloody bindings, my mother spoke softly into my ear, encouraging me to go one more hour, one more day, one more week, reminding me of the rewards I would have if I carried on a little longer. In this way, she taught me how to endure—not just the physical trials of footbinding and childbearing but the more torturous pain of the heart, mind, and soul. She was also pointing out my defects and teaching me how to use them to my benefit. In our country, we call this type of mother love teng ai. My son has told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain; the second means love. That is a mother’s love.
The binding altered not only my feet but my whole character, and in a strange way I feel as though that process continued throughout my life, changing me from a yielding child to a determined girl, then from a young woman who would follow without question whatever her in-laws demanded of her to the highest-ranked woman in the county who enforced strict village rules and customs. By the time I was forty, the rigidity of my footbinding had moved from my golden lilies to my heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly that I could no longer forgive those I loved and who loved me.
My only rebellion came in the form of nu shu, our women’s secret writing. My first break with tradition came when Snow Flower—my laotong, my “old same,” my secret-writing partner—sent me the fan that sits here on my table, and then again after I met her. But apart from who I was with Snow Flower, I was resolved to be an honorable wife, a praiseworthy daughter-in-law, and a scrupulous mother. In bad times my heart was as strong as jade. I had the hidden might to withstand tragedies and sorrows. But here I am—a widow, sitting quietly as tradition dictates—and I understand that I was blind for too many years.
Except for three terrible months in the fifth year of Emperor Xianfeng’s reign, I have spent my life in upstairs women’s rooms. Yes, I have gone to the temple, traveled back to my natal home, even visited with Snow Flower, but I know little about the outer realm. I have heard men speak of taxes, drought,