Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Summary

Lisa See


Lisa See’s novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes place in China during the 1800s. Lily is the main character and first-person narrator of her life story. As the novel opens, she is eighty years old, reflecting about a fan that she received from her friend Snow Flower many years ago. Along the fan's many folds, the two women have recorded their lives' significant events in Nü Shu, a secret written language used and understood only by women.

Daughter Days
The story begins in the home of a family in rural China. Lily is five years old and longs for affection from her mother. Lily understands that as a daughter in Chinese culture of the 1800s, her life is considered essentially useless. She spends time with her siblings doing chores and vying for the attention of their mother.

When Lily turns six, a village diviner advises Lily’s parents to meet with a well-known matchmaker. Both of these people see something special in Lily and recommend that great care be taken in her foot binding. The matchmaker, Madam Wang, also suggests that Lily be allowed to form a "laotong" relationship with a girl from Tongkou. A laotong is a life-long friendship formed with a girl from another village. The matchmaker promises Lily’s parents that these recommendations will bring fortune to the family.

The process of foot binding is intended to make women’s feet appear to be much smaller and have the appearance of “golden lilies.” Lily believes that if she can endure the pain of foot binding stoically, she will be able to endure the arduous demands of being a daughter-in-law in her husband’s family home.

When she is about ten years old, Lily receives a fan from Madame Wang that has a message from her future laotong, Snow Flower. Lily is concerned that her family is poor compared with Snow Flower’s and that she is not worthy of this friendship, but she accepts the invitation and begins the relationship in spite of her doubts. When Snow Flower comes to visit for the first time, the family’s fears of being looked down upon disappear because Snow Flower is very kind and generous.

Over the next few years, the girls continue to learn about their duties as wives and visit each other every few months. Lily teaches Snow Flower about doing chores, while Snow Flower instructs Lily about the more refined Chinese cultural activities. Lily’s marriage is soon arranged by Madam Wang; she is to wed the eldest son of the wealthiest Lu family in Tongkou.

Hair Pinning Days
As teenagers, the girls spend their time preparing their marriage dowries. During a festival season, the girls are allowed to do some of their work outdoors because of the stifling summer heat. Lily’s cousin, Beautiful Moon, is stung by a bee and dies.

Two years later, Lily is married. Snow...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)