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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.

Themes and Motifs



The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Theme #1: When cultures and traditions of the old meet modernization, people of those cultures will either flow on or be dammed back.


Shenzhen, China

London, Britain

The controversies of modernization is by no means new--millions of people relax in the comfortable arms of electricity while condemning change, cultural eradication etc. Millions of people do the opposite. Whatever the case, the pros and cons of modernization is a common topic that I won't delve into. Instead, I will focus on how different people in Tea Girl reacted to change and modernization, because that's what See focused on.



1. A-ma

Although never spoken outright, A-ma dislikes the changes modernization has brought to her village because of the associated disrespect for culture and tradition. 

Everyone around her, including her husband, reverts to modern clothing. But she still wears Akha clothing.

[A-ba] wears plastic sandals and jungle fatigues, as though he's in a war movie, which is about as disconcerting as anything I've seen so far. Otherwise, he's still my a-ba--small and wiry. Then A-ma comes to his side. She wears her indigo tunic, skirt, and leggings, and her headdress is as magnificent, welcoming, and comforting as I could hope.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


She even demands Deh-ja, whom Li-yan saved from poverty and whom decided to repay her by "looking after her", to strictly follow her own instructions in caring for Li-yan when she was pregnant.


"My daughter will need to eat beneficial foods when her baby comes out," A-ma says, speaking to Deh-ja as though she's a servant. "Every new a-ma needs liver to replenish her lost blood, green papaya to help bring in the milk, and pig kidneys to alleviate her aches and pains. She needs food that will cause warming--ginger, chicken, and pumpkin. You will make sure the new a-ma eats this way for three cycles, thirty-six days and not one day less!"
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane



2. A-ba

A-ba, on the other hand, seems unaffected by the changes. In fact, he is pleased if anything of the financial relief that came with tea-picking.


"Everyone changes," A-ba says at last. "We still live in the forest, but the world has come to us. We continue to have the Swing Festival, build a new spirit gate each year, and consult with the ruma about when to plant our crops, pick leaves, and select propitious marriage dates, but we don't have time for all the cleansing ceremonies, sacrifices, or worrying about Dog Days and Buffalo Days when we have so much work to do. Tea growing is very lucrative, you know."
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane



3. Deh-ja

Deh-ja is altogether ignorant of the modern world, regarding their practices as foolish or even offensive. Unfortunately, the modern world reciprocates the feelings.

Picture to the right: Akha women at the nightmarket, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Asia


The hospital staff is patient with us, but how can anyone argue with Jin and win? "If my wife says she needs to drink hot water to help the baby come out," he tells the nurse, "then get her some hot water." "If after the birth my wife needs to have a shell rubbed on her abdomen," he tells the doctor, "then this is what will happen." But when Deh-ja lays out a piece of indigo cloth on the side table and places a knife, some string, and an egg on it, Jin pulls out his wallet and tries to palm money into the doctor's hand.

"I'm just trying to see to your wife, sir," the doctor says stiffly. "That kind of thing is not necessary."

The contractions become more intense...[Deh-ja] helps me into a squatting position. I feel very high on the bed. The doctor and nurses try to crowd in, but she elbows them out of the way.

"Remember what your a-ma said about the fish," Deh-ja reminds me. "Just let your son slip out."

One more push and wherp.

"Will you please let me see the baby?" the doctor begs. "I'd like to clear his airway."..."Will someone tell this woman to move?" the doctor demands. Deh-ja doesn't speak English, and Jin doesn't know what must happen next.

"In a minute. Please," I manage...


Through the three characters mentioned and many more, it can probably be inferred that See believes the main motivation for the acceptance of modernization is financial, and that the older one is and longer one has been immersed in a particular culture, the harder it is to accept change. 



Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Theme #2: When one searches too long and too hard for something in a society of dispossession, one may have said “something” and overlook, or even destroy the item in search.


Snow Flower and I turned fifteen. Our hair was pinned up int he style of phoenixes as symbols that we were soon to be married...We still had the freedom to visit when we wanted and spend hours in the upstairs chamber, our heads bent together as we whispered and embroidered. We loved each other in the way I had longed for as a little girl.
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


It is revealed in the first chapter, "Sitting Quietly" (the excerpt I chose to read in the audio recording), that "for my [Lily's] entire life I longed for love". Specifically, it is "deep-heart love" Lily yearns for, and she believes she found it in her laotong relationship with Snow Flower. 


Snow Flower took a quivering breath. "You once asked that I always tell you he truth, but when I tell it to you, you misunderstand or you don't like what you hear. I have found women in my village who do not look down on me. They do not criticize me. They do not expect me to be someone I am not."...."They do not pity me. They visit me when I have not been well....I am lonely and alone. I need women to comfort me every day, not just the times of your choosing. I need women who can hear me as I am and not how they remember me or wish me to be. I feel like a bird flying alone. I cannot find my mate...."
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


However, Lily went on to marry a family of jinshi, scholars who served the emperor, while Snow Flower married a butcher. This discrepancy in social status became a great divide, ultimately ending in a great misunderstanding. The greatest crescendo comes when Lily publicly accuses Snow Flower at a wedding, shaming her in such away that not only ruined Snow Flower's reputation, but also separated the two girls forever.


At that moment, an untapped spring of anger came bubbling to the surface, and not one woman in that room stopped me from expressing it. The words I used came from such a dark and bitter place that I felt as though I'd been sliced open with a knife. I knew everything about Snow Flower, and I proceeded to use it against her under the guise of social correctness and the strength of my being Lady Lu. I humiliated her in front of the other women, revealing every weakness. I held nothing back, because I had lost all control. Unbidden, a long-ago memory came to me of my younger sister's leg flailing and her loose bindings twirling around her. With each invective I threw out, I felt as though my bindings had come loose and I was finally free to say what I really thought. It took me many years to realize that my perceptions at this time were completely wrong. The bindings weren't flying through the air and slapping at my laotong. Rather, they were whirling tighter and tighter around me, trying to squeeze away the deep-heart love I've longed for my entire life.
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


They did not reconcile until Snow Flower's death, where Lily finally learns the truth from three women in Snow Flower's village.


Her heart had always been pure, but mine had been as shriveled, hard, and dry as an old walnut...I opened the fan, dipped my brush into the ink, and made what I thought would be my final entry.

You who always knew my heart now fly above the clouds int eh warmth of the sun. I hope one day we will soar together. I would hae many years to consider those lines and do what I could to change all the harm I had caused to the person I loved most in the world.
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


This demonstrates the impossibly depressing yet oddly beautiful truth: sometimes, when one has searched for something their whole lives, they may be the ones that destroy that treausure themselves.