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Secret garden

Girls rise above oppression in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Lisa See's engrossing novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan brings to life the insular community of women in rural 19th-century China, when 6-year-old girls had their feet bound and were assigned to an upstairs chamber in their home, where they awaited arranged marriages at 17. Their sole purpose as daughters was to marry well and hopefully give birth to sons.

But even the worst oppression can be transcended with help from the written word, as See demonstrates.

Composed as a memoir in the voice of 80-year-old Lily, the book explores her unique friendship with Snow Flower, arranged by her mother and Snow Flower's aunt. As lao-tang or "old-sames," friends for life, the two communicate their innermost thoughts and feelings through the secret code language of nu shu.

Dating back 1,000 years in the remote southwestern Hunan province of Jiangyong, nu shu is thought to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women for their exclusive use.

"I had reviewed a book on footbinding for the LA Times, and in it there was a very short mention of nu shu," says See. "I guess I became obsessed. I wondered how this could exist and we didn't know about it. I was fascinated that these women were writing interesting things, in the most interesting way, under such difficult circumstances."

The daughter of a well-known Caucasian author, Carolyn See, and a Chinese-American father, See grew up in close contact with her Chinese family members in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Her family memoir, On Gold Mountain, was a best seller, and See wrote the libretto for the opera based on the book.

To learn firsthand about nu shu, See took her advance from Random House and traveled to Jiangyong, where villagers told her she was only the second Caucasian foreigner ever to visit.

"I met the oldest living nu shu writer, who was 96 years old," says See. "She was this tiny, tiny person, very shrunken, with skin like tissue paper. She still had bound feet but couldn't buy bound foot shoes any more, so she wore child-size kung fu slippers with tissues stuffed in the toes."

The woman, who had been part of a "sworn sisterhood," a group of friends who remained together only until their marriages at age 17, explained to See what the writing had meant to her nearly 80 years back. See borrowed some of the scenarios and details in the book about footbinding and arranged marriage directly from those interviews.

Early in the book, the reader comes to understand that footbinding was not only horribly brutal and painful, but dangerous as well.

"About one out of 10 girls died as a result of their footbinding," she says. "And many were crippled and hobbled."

But the pain of footbinding pales in comparison to the psychic pain of isolation these women endured. See says that she read much about isolation in the translated nu shu texts she studied, but she knew it would become the central theme of the book when she saw the architecture of Jiangyong. Each of the two-story houses had only a single upstairs window, indicating the chamber where girls were relegated during footbinding and where women were isolated after marriage.

"Many of [the window frames] were intricately carved with dragons and other traditional symbols," she says, "but most of them just had three wooden bars coming down. That sent such a message of jail."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

capsule

Lisa See signs Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Tattered Cover Cherry Creek, 1st Avenue at Milwaukee Street, Denver

Friday, Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m.

Call 303/322-7727 for more.

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