This story is set in 19th century China, in a rural Hunan province, and tells the story of Snow Flower, and her laotong (friends for life, literally “old sames”), Lily. Lily’s aunt describes a laotong match this way: “A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose—to have sons.”
Lily narrates, looking back on her life and her friendship with Snow Flower.
The two girls, who become dear friends, go through many of life’s tribulations at the same time — such as the practice of foot binding. They write letters to one another on a fan with Nü Shu, a secret phonetic form of ‘women’s writing which Lily’s aunt taught them.
Lily comes from a relatively poor family, but her bound feet are considered beautiful, and this aids her in marrying into the most powerful family in the area. She becomes very influential, and a mother to 4 children. Snow Flower’s family was well-to-do, but marries a butcher (considered a low class profession), and has a miserable life – both with the loss of children, and an abusive husband.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan shows us human suffering through foot binding, the suffering of women of the time (women were seen as property — and treated as such), journeying up the mountains to escape the Taiping Rebellion, the return back to find so many dead. (It is estimated the number of people killed was approximately 20 million!)
A big part of this story is the laotong relationship shared between Snow Flower and Lily. It is a major aspect of the book. Lily has a strong need for love — and an inability to forgive anything she sees as betrayal leads her to hurt many, especially her closest friend.
Yet Snow Flower still calls Lily to her side, and Lily goes, when Snow Flower needs her late in life.
The book was adapted into a film in 2011. I haven’t seen it yet, but hope to soon.