In 19th century China the women in a remote Hunan county practiced a secret form of writing known only to and for each other. This secret writing was called nu shu. It was shared between women related by love and family, and taught from one generation to the next. Author Lisa See traveled to remote villages in China and found but one woman who could read this secret language. After much research, visiting and storytelling, Ms. See returned to Los Angeles and wrote this wonderful novel based on the practice of nu shu and the traditions of the laotong or “old sames”. Old sames are girls who are selected by their mothers and matchmakers to be best friends for life. The depth of a laotong relationship far exceeds any other, even that of man and wife.
In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, two rather unlikely but perfectly matched girls are brought together as “old sames” in Hunan County shortly before the Taiping Rebellion. Lily, a poor farmer’s daughter, is matched with Snow Flower who descends from a wealthy and politically important family. Their laotong relationship begins when the two girls reach the age of seven and have their feet bound at the same time. Lily’s feet become the smallest of any girl in the county, making her extremely marriageable. Her socially prominent in-laws pay a handsome price and as they grow up, Lily learns from Snow Flower how to behave like the lady of a wealthy house.
Snow Flower’s fate is not as gilded and all that she learns from her rural laotong, Lily, is brought to bear in the ensuing years. The love they share is carefully written in nu shu on their secret fan through traditions of marriage, annual trips to the Temple of Gupo, childbearing, and the years of hair-pinning, rice-and-salt and sitting quietly.
Can a laotong relationship survive the fates, the Taiping uprising, months in the cold mountains, social injustice, life, death and betrayal? Find out by reading this charming, and at times heartbreaking, story of two simple girls living in a complicated time.