See's targeted audience is the general masses of the Western world. Her books were not intended to be read by the native Chinese, due to language disparities. Nevertheless, the accuracy and depth of her research (cultural and historical) is indisputable; if Western readers treated her novels as textbooks, they would not be deceived.
Evidently, the audience concurs as none the ratings for See's novels on Goodreads are below 3 stars.
The most praises See receives are on the subjects of providing historical/cultural context, creating thoughtful themes, and her rhetoric.
Personally, I am continuously awestruck by the amount of research See put into her books. In Shanghai Girls, a book that opens up in the midst of busy, 1930s Shanghai, the detail is specific to the street names. While reading, I kept thinking to myself, "this author knows more about Shanghai's past than I do--and I've lived in Shanghai for 13 years!"
The critical reception given to Lisa See is generally positive. Both Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan received honorable mentions from the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature. Lisa See was awarded National Woman of the Year in 2001 by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She further received the 2003 History Makers Award that was presented by the Chinese American Museum.
Again, the praises can be generally categorized into how she provides extensive context...
...how she dives into profound themes...
...and how she writes stylistically.
All of this shows the immense influence of See's works on the perception of China in the United States, as well as other western countries.
NEGATIVE: THE AUDIENCE
However, because of the extensive research See conducts for each and every novel, she tends to incorporate an enormous amount of copious detail about culture and history into the novels. A large amount of readers feel "bogged down" by the overwhelming--and sometimes even boring--amount of information.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Having read several of See's books myself, I do agree that the historical development seems more compelling than the characters themselves. They are often passive to their circumstances, with the same descriptive adjectives throughout the book. For example, See brings in the Chinese zodiacs in Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. Pearl is a "dragon", Joy is a "tiger", etc. It eventually seems somewhat stuck on the surface, and I would have liked to see more layers to the characters.
Negative critics generally criticize the plot...
...and shallow emotional development.
Thus, it can be seen that the most respectable aspects of See's novels are the inspiring historical settings and research. In the end, whether one enjoys the characters or not, her books have become an important bridge between Chinese history and American literature. For that, we must thank her.