Footbinding and Other Horrors

snow flowerAs you must know by now, I am obsessed with the Far East. So obsessed that it’s only East by now and it doesn’t seem that Far. Mostly, my efforts have been concentrated on Japan, in forms of manga and an occasional Korean one, so I decided to read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, since I needed some conversation filler for China as well. It had some raving reviews, and I decided it was worth reading. 

Lily is this girl who lives in 19th century China, which was a time when women spent all their lives in a room with other women. A woman is ruled by the Confucian ideals. The Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.” A daughter is someone the natal family looks after until they are given to another family as a wife, and there they must obey their mother-in-law. They are worth an absolute nothing unless they give birth to a son. This is the world Lily is born in. She never feels motherly love, until a matchmaker shows up in her house and says that her feet are special and she’ll probably make a really good match in the future. She also says that she’s eligible for a “laotong” relationship, which is kind of a penpal, a friend the matchmaker makes for you in another village. Lily’s laotong is a girl named Snow Flower, and she becomes her best friend for life. She values that relationship even more than she’ll eventually value her marriage.

You might think that obeying someone all your life is unfortunate, but this is nothing when compared to the horrors women faced because of footbinding. That is a major part of the book. Whenever I told my friends this, they go: “Oh yeah, geishas do that, right?” But no, footbinding has nothing to do with Japan. That is purely Chinese. They bind girls’ feet at 6-7 years-old, and they are at their perfect 7 cm forms by age 12. So this is what Lily says about footbinding and its many good qualities:

“My small feet would be offered as proof to my prospective in-laws of my personal discipline and my ability to endure the pain of childbirth, as well as whatever misfortunes might lie ahead. My small feet would show the world my obedience to my  natal family, particularly to my mother, which would also make a good impression on my future mother-in-law. The shoes I embroidered would symbolize to my future in-laws my abilities at embroidery and thus other house learning. And, though I knew nothing of this at the time, my feet would be something that would hold my husbands’ fascination during the most private and intimate moments between a man and a woman.”

So you might think that flat abs and long legs will help you land a millionaire, but things were really different at that time. A woman didn’t even see her husband (and vice versa) until their wedding day. They didn’t even move in with their new family until they were pregnant. And personally, I believe, though I am not a man and do not have the desire of one, my sexual drive would shut down forever if I saw feet like that. I encourage you to see pictures of footbinding, which will make you appreciate your feet, which I don’t think we do enough.

The book is not actually about the horrors of footbinding and mother-in-laws, though they are huge parts. The main theme is the friendship between Lily and Snow Flower. They exchange letters and have sleepovers all their lives, until the are faced with some major obstacles. Laotong is a relationship matched by a matchmaker, just like a marriage, and it lasts your whole life, much like a marriage (in those times, at least). Some things happen to these girls as they grow up and get married, and those things will break your heart. It’s quite moving. When you finish, you’ll be sad, and happy at the same time. Today, we may be living in a polluted, materialistic world with almost no chance at finding your true love, but at least concubines are frowned upon.

Look at this here for the author’s site, and to see pictures of footbinding. At your own risk.



  1. Love her work! I read somewhere Lisa See is coming out with a new book???

  2. I really enjoyed this book too, wasn’t sure I would do before I started reading though.

    Thanks for your nice review, it inspired me to do my own.

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