Snow Flower and the Secret Fan describes an extraordinary friendship between Lily and Snow Flower. The two girls share a laotong relationship, an emotional bond made by choice. As part of a custom prevalent in 19th century China, the girls have their feet tied in the hope that they will resemble lotus buds.
As the years pass by, Lily and Snow Flower send messages to each other on a silk fan. They create a language, nu shu, to communicate in a secret manner without the knowledge of men. Lily teaches Snow Flower cooking and cleaning, while Snow Flower teaches Lily the art of weaving and calligraphy. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, reflect upon their arranged marriages, and share the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The silk fan is a record of their hopes, dreams, fears, and failures. The silk fan provides a medium to the women, to express themselves in a society bound by rigid social conventions.