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Author Study: Lisa See Curated by Emilie Zhang '20

This is a Libguide dedicated to Chinese-American author Lisa See, her works, and the intricate aspects of Chinese culture within them.


The following is an audio clip of me reading aloud an excerpt from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The excerpt functions as a prologue in the book, and I think it captures everything See is trying to tell about both Lily and the women of that time. Enjoy!



Laotong (in English: old sames; written: 老同 in Chinese) is a type of relationship within Chinese culture, which was practised in Hunan,[when?] that bonded two girls together for eternity as kindred sisters
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia



  • narrator of the novel 
  • Part of a Yao ethnic community
  • "lao tong" to Snow Flower, daughter to Mama and Baba, wife of Daolong
  • born in a small, rural town, her fate was changed when the local matchmaker realized the "potential" of her feet

Snow Flower

  • "lao tong to Lily"
  • born of a wealthy family, her father spent her dowry away on marijuana when she was a child
  • was forced to marry a butcher, the worst occupation possible in a Buddhist community


  • mother to Lily; name not revealed
  • born in the year of the monkey
  • calculating, shrewd
  • regards Lily coldly until she realizes her financial potential
  • shows her "motherly love" through foot binding
  • own feet were poorly bound
  • kept the secrets of Snow Flower's family away from Lily

Madame Wang

  • the matchmaker who bound Lily and Snow Flower together as "old-sames"
  • aunt of Snow Flower
  • disliked by Lily in the beginning
  • Lily eventually realized Madame Wang's love for Snow Flower was what propelled the relationship web between them
  • as an older woman, Lily regards Madame Wang as a shrewd businesswoman who did the best she could

Beautiful Moon

  • cousin to Lily, daughter to Aunt and Uncle
  • the same age as Lily
  • her feet are bound at the same time as Lily and Third Sister
  • described as beautiful, stoic and gentle
  • dies from a bee sting shortly before her wedding
  • symbolizes how life is dictated by fate


  • aunt to Lily, mother to Beautiful Moon, wife to Uncle, and sister-in-law to Mama
  • not particularly beautiful
  • very kind and logical in her reasoning 
  • raised in a learned family, she teaches Lily and Beautiful Moon nu shu
  • led a miserable life
  • suffered numerous miscarriages and stillbirths


This absorbing novel – with a storyline unlike anything Lisa See has written before – takes place in 19th century China when girls had their feet bound, then spent the rest of their lives in seclusion with only a single window from which to see. Illiterate and isolated, they were not expected to think, be creative, or have emotions. But in one remote county, women developed their own secret code, nu shu – “women’s writing” – the only gender-based written language to have been found in the world. Some girls were paired as “old-sames” in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their windows to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
Lisa See's Official Website



The main protagonist, Lily, is born on June 5, 1824 during the reign of Emperor Daoguang. The novel continues through her life and eventually ends in the year 1904. There are significant cultural ideas and traditions that was alive solely in this time period. This includes Confucian ideals, footbinding, and nu shu.


1. Confucian Ideals


Photos of Confucius in modern propaganda, ancient records, and statues


  • the most prominent religious/philosophical force that permeated throughout China's society
  • specifically for women, there were The Three Obediences and The Four Virtues


I also knew the difference between nei--the inner realm of the home--and wai--the outer real of men--lay at the very heaert of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men...I also understood that two Confucian ideals ruled our lives. The first was the Three Obediences...The second was the Four Virtues.
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


The Four Virtues:     

妇德: morality

妇言: proper speech

妇容: modest manner

妇功: diligent work

The Three Obediences:

未嫁从父: obey her father as a daughter

既嫁从夫: obey her husband as a wife

夫死从子: obey her sons in widowhood

  • permeates throughout the novel
    • Lily adheres to societal conventions strictly, obeying the patriarchal figures in the Three Obediences.
    • She strives to learn the Four Virtues and refine herself because as a girl living up in a small village, she had little exposure to the lifestyles and etiquette of the rich.



2. Foot Binding



The bound feet, to about 10 centimeters in size, were considered to be attractive in ancient times due to their small size. With bound feet, a woman's beauty was enhanced and her movement was daintier, which gained the support of both men and women for the practice.

Additionally, it showed a girl's status because the rich didn't usually need to work. However, foot binding restricted women from going out, leaving them at home to serve the family.

Gavin Van Hinsbergh, China Highlights


  • Lily was able to marry into a family with a high status because her feet were "beautifully" bound and smaller than any other pair in the county
  • it symbolized the pain and suffering Lily believed she must endure to gain love, respect, and happiness


When I knew I couldn’t suffer another moment of pain and tears fell on my bloody bindings, my mother spoke softly into my ear, encouraging me to go one more hour, one more day, one more week, reminding me of the rewards I would have if I carried on a little longer. In this way, she taught me how to endure—not just the physical trials of footbinding or childbearing, but the more torturous pain of the heart, mind, and soul. She was also pointing out my defects and teaching me how to use them to my benefit. In our county, we call this type of mother love teng ai . My son has told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain; the second means love. That is a mother’s love.
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan




3. Nu shu

Nushu is a writing system created and used exclusively by women in a remote part of China. Traditional Chinese culture is male-centered and forbids girls from any kind of formal education, so Nushu was developed in secrecy over hundred of years in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province.
Lawrence Lo



  • nu shu was invented by women and was in use since the 13th or 14th century
  • nu shu means “women’s writing” 
  • it was developed in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province. 
  • it was developed because of the male-centered culture in China that did not allow female education
  • most characters were derived from the traditional mandarin back then 
  • the characters look thinner and more "feminine" compared to traditional Chinese characters


The origins of nu shu are unclear, but local Chinese generally believe that in the Hunan Province, a young girl chosen to become a concubine of the emperor invented it. Legend has it that the girl imagined the remainder of her life to be bathed in royalty and privilege. However, the loneliness that accompanied the imperial life prompted her to invent nu shu as a sort of code, so she could write truthfully to her mother and sisters.


Photo of a girl in Hunnan Province the night before her marriage. Everybody around her is joyful at this happy event, but only the girl is melancholy, knowing her life is headed for sorrow and pain. A scene incorporated into one of Tan Dun's thirteen microfilms.


Video captures Tan Dun working on his 13 microfilms. Includes shots and scenes from his final production.

Nu shu
 is an integral part of the novel, symbolizing not only the silent rebellion of the oppressed female voice, but also the connection between Lily and Snow Flower as they communicate through this language. It is also a dying language--only five Chinese women are still currently learned in this language. Thus, it is not surprising that nu shu has also become a great treasure in the modern Chinese culture and heritage. In fact, one of the most famous Chinese contemporary composers and conductors Tan Dun captured the "musical life and spirit" of nu shu in a 13 movement micro film symphony.


“The slow disappearance of the Nu-Shu tradition and culture has troubled me for many years and each time I return to my home province in Hunan, I always want to passionately take action. I wanted to do the field research, anthromusicology study, collect the songs of Nu-Shu and eventually compose a new symphonic- concerto piece for the world and for my home village, to continue the tradition and to create a future from the past.”
Tan Dun

Tan Dun was invited onto a famous Chinese reality show to promote his compositions about nu shu. The first three microfilms are displayed in the clip above. The emotions portrayed can only be described as beautiful and raw, having undergone the test of time. Definitely worth watching if you have the time!