Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a 2005 novel by Lisa See
In rural Hunan province, Lily and her friend Snow Flower are kindred spirits or laotong. Laotong means that the two people in the relationship have emotional closeness and eternal friendship.
Both Lily and Snowflower experience the painful process of foot binding at the same time. The tradition of binding your daughter’s feet deforms their feet, making them stay small and attractive to men.
But for me the most exciting discovery of the Chinese culture was learning about of Nü Shu a secret phonetic form of ‘women’s writing, which Lily’s aunt taught them. They also learn Nü Shu songs and stories.
The language is fascinating for many reasons since it reveals a lot about the culture and lifestyle of China at that time. Society was sex-segregated for a start, girls and women did not have the same access to literacy as boys and men though and many people in fact were illiterate.
I couldn’t find out when or how Nü Shu came into being and I don’t actually think anyone knows, but, because it is clearly based in the standard Chinese script, hanzi, but when literacy spread, women stopped learning it and so it began to disappear. The Japanese apparently were wary of it when they invaded China as they thought it might be used to send secret messages!
I loved this as it took me back to a fascinating time albeit one where women were forced to be second class citizens. It fascinated me on many levels – particularly the use of language and how they managed to use this secret language to communicate and learn and to really advance as people. The power of language struck me and I found it a very beautiful and unique story – more so that the book itself to be honest.
Where I would like to travel to is to visit women who still use and speak this language and to find out more about how women lived or survived during this time. I have never heard of a language quite like it – its development and role in society but it made me want to travel into 19th century China and to learn more about it.
When I read up more about what the book was about, it turns out that a lot of the books written in this secret language were cloth bound booklets given to daughters upon their marriage. They wrote songs in Nüshu, which were performed on the third day after the wedding and they expressed hope and happiness for the bride as she left.
If anyone can tell me more about this forgotten language of the past I would love to know more.
If ever there was a time travel machine I would want to use it now.