Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Lisa See

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Establish the Context

This section will establish background, setting, themes, and motifs in order to help elaborate on the 19th century Chinese culture presented in the novel.

When and Where?

The novel begins in 19th Century China under Emperor Daoguang. Lisa See follows traditional Chinese style for providing dates. The protagonist, Lily, is born in 1823 but See delivers the date as “the fifth day of the six month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang's reign” (9). Lily lived through the Taiping rebellion, which started in 1851 and ended in 1864. By presenting the dates in this way, See creates a more authentic view of the culture in which the characters lived.

Lily is born in Puwei in Yongming County which is known as the county of everlasting brightness. Puwei is addressed as a place which has never been rich, but has rarely been so poor that women had to work in the field (9). The financial position of the village contributes vastly to the social and political context of the novel. As Lily grows up and enters the different stages of her life, she begins to realize that her family’s monetary stance greatly affects the outcomes of the marriages of the Yi children.

The novel ends at the main character’s astounding age of 80. Through her years, new emperors have taken place and rebellion has broken out. The setting provides better understanding of the internal and external conflicts portrayed in the story. The setting also provides tremendous interest. If one does not have an extensive background, or any background for that matter, on 19th century China, See does a great job of providing imagery and context to aid in that handicap.

Social Context

Just as women in western culture inject toxins into their face, women in 19th century China would break the bones in their feet. Each is done for the purpose of improving appearance. In the novel, Lily comments, “Footbinding would make me more marriageable” (26). See used the process of footbinding to demonstrate a cruel aspect of Chinese culture. Beyond that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, See makes a parallel between Western Culture today and the culture which she presents in the novel. This social comment is critical of the unnecessary pain which women are put through everyday, whether voluntary or not. The use of footbinding in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan demonstrates societal context because it establishes where the worth of the woman lies.

Beyond footbinding, the stance of the woman lied largely with her ability to birth sons. Lily remarks that “if [women] are lucky, we have sons and secure our positions in our husbands’ homes. If not, we are faced with the scorn of our mothers-in-law, the ridicule of our husbands’ concubines, and the disappointed faces of our daughters” (127). See uses Lily’s mother and aunt in order to elaborate on what a woman’s life without sons and what a woman’s life with sons looks like. While Lily’s mother does not hold a very high position in the Yi household, she was still able to birth two sons. These sons determined her authority over Lily’s aunt who was unable to produce any sons and is viewed as worthless.

Beyond the bounds of unspoken rules, society was guided by Confucianism. This philosophy dictated the lives of women, guidelining their attitudes to their obediences. This outline took form in the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son” (24) - and the Four Virtues - “Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery” (24). Ultimately, the goal of these guidelines was to shape women into becoming perfect daughters, wives, and mothers since they were unable to fulfill the roles of the powerful son, husband, and father. Throughout the novel, the characters emphasize that women are disappointments because they were not born sons. By doing so, the social stance of the woman is clearly defined: “whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men” (24). Metaphorically speaking, the women needed to be hidden and the men needed to be seen.

Political Context

During the 19th century in rural China, land ownership, ancestry, and connections determined a family’s social standing. For example, the Lu family that Lily marries into, is at the top of the political hierarchy of the Tongkou village. The brother of Master Lu is a jinshi scholar - the highest level scholar in all of China - and was granted land by the emperor for his position (68). Master Lu oversaw the land and rented it out to families to farm, making him the most powerful and respected man in the village. This family was seen as the leaders of the village, they were the Obamas of the village.

Within the hierarchies in the villages around Lily, the landowners and relatives of jinshi scholars were at the top, then there were farmers and merchants, then diviners and match-makers, and butchers were at the bottom - for their practice was viewed as “unclean” (124). Women were mainly the only members of a family who could move up or down in social standing, which is through marriage. Every woman hopes that through binding her feet - creating the smallest, most beautiful feet - she will marry into a family of higher or at least equal social standing.

Content Components

This section helps those interested in the novel understand its historical relevance while compelling them to pick it up and begin reading it as soon as possible.

Modern Context

The context of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan finds itself with distinct similarities and stark differences to modern culture. China can be associated with countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq for their lack of movement towards gender equality. See uses setting and context in order to portray the female characters as useless and only valuable for their womb. The oppressive nature of the novel allows for comparisons to be made not only between varying Eastern cultures, but also with Western culture as well. The biggest difference that occurs between the two cultures, is that in Eastern culture, the rules are spoken, written down by Confucian philosophy and passed on from mother to daughter. In Western culture though, rules are presented more through action as demonstrated by the rise of rape culture. While American girls are not having their mothers bind their feet, they are experiencing the influence of media or "the outer realm" as See would refer to it. Young girls grow up, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, on the ideals that, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man…We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments… but for the attention of men.” See parallels both modern Eastern and Western culture through Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. By doing this, she builds upon the message that girls all over the world suffer. She makes it clear that suffering is not objective and cannot be defined to limit the type of pain girls and women can feel.

Significance to Peers

Lisa See allows Lily and Snow Flower’s relationship to portray the human experience of a relationship. See utilizes Lily and Snow Flower’s argument to illustrate the challenges true love is able to overcome. When Lily hears Snow Flower is not coming to her wedding celebration, Lily explains,“I felt sick with confusion and sadness” (272). Lily questions why someone she had loved her entire life could not come; She had been “deeply wounded” under the impression that “Snow Flower had betrayed [her]” (272). Up until this point, the girls had been inseparable whether face-to-face or communicating through letters. Yet, obstacles are thrown their way which test the strength of their relationship.

When Lily discovers the truth behind Snow Flower’s marriage and the abuse Snow Flower has suffered, she feels betrayed once again by her best friend. She realizes the abuse “had been going on since the first year she had fallen permanently into the butcher’s house” and was upset that “[Snow Flower] had hidden [it] from [her] so well and for so long.” She also experiences deep feelings of guilt because she had “ignored the signs of [her] laotong’s unhappy life” for such a long time (450). Snow Flower’s deception shows the shame that can accompany an abusive relationship and how sometimes you can’t tell even the people you trust the most. Lily’s guilt and feelings of betrayal come from a selfish place, although she means well. These feelings are common to those who find out about loved ones being abused; they feel betrayed that they were not trusted with the information because they think they could have helped the victim and feel guilty for not realizing what was going on. It is not necessarily the fault of the person that they did not realize the signs; victims become good at hiding the abuse because of feelings of shame and misplaced loyalty to their abusers.

Miscommunication is not something new to society. Our culture now is filled with complications and conflicts caused by miscommunication and things said out of context in texts, emails, social media, letters, etc. Lily and Snow Flower experienced this with their writing; Lily believed Snow Flower had replaced her which caused a major falling out and Lily cut off contact with Snow Flower for years. Once Snow Flower dies, the women she was friends with confront Lily telling her she was wrong for believing the worst of Snow Flower: “‘No’, Lotus corrected. ‘She wrote that she didn’t want you to worry about her anymore, that she had friends here to console her’... ‘There is nothing here about her becoming our sworn sister’”(521). Lily did not consider the context or phrasing of the words Snow Flower was saying to her which causes the entire mess between them and she did not realize the error of her ways until it was too late. When reflecting on her fight with Snow Flower, Lily sadly proclaims, “I had made the greatest mistake for a woman literate in nu shu: I had not considered texture, context, and shades of meaning” (242). Too often these days, conflicts arise from this very same issue and that is the problem with having conversations that are not in person. It is very important to consider all possibilities of what the other person could have meant and if there is confusion, ask for clarification. Do not assume the worst and do/say things that could be regretted in the future because this ruins friendships and relationships. Lily spent the rest of her life trying to remedy the damage she had caused Snow Flower and the time she had lost with her dearest friend because of jumping to conclusions. See communicates to the reader the significance of understanding the context behind words; and if possible, speaking face to face. Failing to understand context can cause a harmless comment on social media to spiral out of control and be considered offensive to someone removed from the situation.

Despite all the hurt and damage between the two girls, they loved each other. Perhaps every hurt and so-called betrayal was worse because of this love. Lily spent years trying to convince herself she did not love Snow Flower anymore because that would make the pain of their separation and conflict much harder to deal with. When faced with the truth about their falling out, Lily experiences an epiphany: “The whole time I was hurt it was because I still loved Snow Flower. She was the only one ever who saw my weaknesses and loved me in spite of them. And I had loved her even when I hated her most” (509). Despite the betrayal, anger, and sadness throughout the course of their long and tumultuous friendship, the love was always present and influenced their actions, especially those of Lily, even when she tried her hardest to make the opposite true. Passionate love also inspires passionate hate and the two can be easily confused and turned on each other.

Humans needs love. We crave it and search for it all our lives. When we don’t receive the love we need as children, it affects our relationships for the rest of our lives. Lily does not receive the familial love she craves as a child but once she becomes matched with Snow Flower as laotong, she realizes she can get love from her instead: “I wondered how I could make her love me the way I longed to be loved” (137). And when we truly love another person, nothing can destroy that relationship; sure there are conflicts and issues that occur that can cause people not to speak for a while, but that love is always underlying our reactions, emotions, and behavior.

At first, when Lily hears Snow Flower is dying, she claims she will only visit her because of civic “duties as Lady Lu,” however, when Lily sees Snow Flower, an “aged crone dressed in rags,” Lily’s “thoughts and emotions” of anger “fell away” (235). Despite Lily’s perception that Snow Flower had betrayed her, Lily puts her anger aside to take care of her laotong, because she loves her. In this scene, See illustrates the power of true love. In the beginning of the novel, Lily explains all she wants in life is to find love. And, despite her fight with Snow Flower, she realizes in this scene that she had loved her all along. See emphasizes that true love lasts forever, no matter the obstacles that try and tear people apart.

Literary Value

This novel gives modern women in first-world countries a whole new appreciation of their lives. Women in free countries are not typically subjected to bound feet, the confines of the indoors, or arranged marriages. Most modern American women are detached from Lily’s lifestyle and the tribulations she experiences; however, this novel exposes women to these events in a thought-provoking way, increasing their awareness of the lives of people on different continents. Although most modern women are detached from Lily’s circumstances, they can relate to her and Snow Flower’s friendship on a personal level. Many women have developed friendships spanning their whole lives and many have also experienced the loss of a dear friend. Snow Flower and Lily's relationship allows for the reader to understand the novel better even if they may not have a strong background on the setting. This novel also gives men a look into the thought processes of women and causes them to think about how they treat the women around them - hopefully prompting them to treat the women better.

Reviews and Other Fun Things

Review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Community leader and novelist Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan explores the Chinese culture during the early 19th century while conveying the conflict between family ties and love and acceptance. See reveals to the reader the life of the Chinese woman whose obligations were to not only obtain the smallest feet possible, but to serve her family, parents-in-law, and siblings. Throughout the piece, See does an excellent job of portraying Lily and Snow Flower’s daily rituals as they say goodbye to their adolent days in preparation for becoming mature, marriageable Chinese women.


The book begins on the six month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign in Lily’s hometown village, Yongming County: also known as the county of Everlasting Brightness. Near the beginning of the novel, Lily, due to her beautiful feet, is granted a laotong, Snow Flower. Lily and Snow Flower undergo the process of foot-binding together as they learn “not just the physical trials,” but the “more torturous pain of the heart, mind, and soul,” (See 46) while they realize what it takes to become a marriageable woman. Throughout the novel, the girls endure many trials, such as poverty, intense training, and even starvation as they prepare for marriage. Because of her family’s low social status, Snow Flower does not end up with the family she had dreamed of. Lily is welcomed into a family of wealth and social status; however, she soon realizes that her life, despite its luxuries, is anything but paradise.


See portrays the tragic lifestyle of the typical Chinese woman. She includes vivid and often gruesome descriptions of the process of foot-binding, educating the reader on the high expectations Chinese women were required to uphold during the early 1800s. Snow Flower and Lily’s relationship represents a safe haven. Throughout the novel, Lily and Snow Flower stick together through their trials, reminding themselves that although their lives are not anything near perfect, they have each other, and sometimes that is all humans need. Even in the beginning of the novel Lily explains, “For my entire life I longed for love” (6). Lily, like most of mankind, wants nothing more than to be completely connected with another individual; she yearns for that inseparable bond that humans chase after their entire lives. The girls eventually have a fight; yet, See demonstrates that true love lasts forever. The girls never officially make up, but See still utilizes the last scene with Snow Flower and Lily together to illustrate the strength of such a deep connection. Though Lily makes a irrational judgment about Snow Flower, and although Snow Flower deceives Lily, their love is still stronger. Lily spends the entire novel reflecting back on her mistakes while knowing that although they had a breakthrough, Snow Flower forgives her. In crafting Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa see portrays the human need of love and commitment. Lily and Snow Flower undergo many trials throughout the book, but in the end, their hearts still remain connected, whether or not their minds and bodies agree.


Throughout Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See gives the reader an accurate representation of the duties of a Chinese woman. See does an excellent job with vivid word choice and imagery. The reader cringes during the explanation of foot-binding and empathizes with the women who were brutally beaten by their husbands for being unable to uphold civic duties as a wife. By using such vivid imagery, See evokes emotion and connections with the reader, making the book an easy, quick read. By utilizing Snow Flower and Lily’s friendship, Lisa See illustrates to the audience the significance of love, friendship, and commitment, as sometimes those are the only things available in the midst of trials and tribulations.


60 Second Recap: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Works Cited: Texts

See, Lisa. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Random House, New York: 2005. Print.

Works Cited: Images

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“Jiangyong County.” Digital Image. Trip Advisor. Trip Advisor LLC., 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.

“The Last Generation Of Chinese Women To Endure The Painful Tradition of Foot Binding.” Digital Image. Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.

“Literary Value.” Digital Image. Design Taxi. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2016.

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“Music in Ancient China: A Structure of Harmony.” Digital Image. Cultural China. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2016.

“On Beyonce.” Digital Image. Odyssey Online. Olympia Media Group, 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 3 May 2016.

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“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” Good Reads. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2016.

“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Movie.” NewCity Film. NewCity Communications, n.d. Web. 3 May 2016.

“Shanghai Girls.” Digital Image. BookBuffet.com. BookBuffet LLC, 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Digital Image. Simon&Schuster. Simon&Schuster Inc., 2016.

Created By:

Samantha Schipper

Kala Hughes

Maggie Duffin

Taylor Thompson