Snow Flower and the Secret Fan book review. Author Lisa See weaves an intricate story of friendship and loyalty over the decades in the harsh reality and expectations of women in nineteenth-century China. A book that will move you until the end and a must read as you travel the world in books.

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I received this book for free from Library for review consideration, opinions expressed are 100% my own. This post contains affiliate links as indicated by an asterisk. Purchases from these links provides a small commission to me at no extra cost to you.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Published by Random House
Publication Date: June 28, 2005
Setting: Asia > China
Pages: 288
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a wonderful story about the friendship between two women, laotongs, who endure a lifetime of trials and tribulations enduring the pressures of their culture and traditions in 1800’s China.


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Book Review



Lily and Snow Flower are two young girls when they first meet and make a deep, contracted commitment to be forever friends, or laotongs.  While most women belong to a group of “sworn sisters” whose friendships dissolve when they marry, laotangs commit to love one another until they die.  Ms. See masterfully describes the love between these two friends that are tested under the most trying of circumstances and when appearances are not always as they seem.



Snow Flower and the Secret Fan* covers so many themes as it travels through these girls’ lives.  Living up to the steep expectations of their family during a time when women are considered inferior to the men of the family.  Women are seen as weak and a burden to their natal family.  “[Lily’s mother] looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters – as a temporary visitor.” Once married, they are expected to cater to their husbands and in-laws needs. Lily and Snow Flower send messages in ladies’ secret writing, called nu shu, on their secret fan.

Lily and Snow Flower’s paths diverge once they marry and have their own families. They go to the top and bottom of their class in the county.  While it is “beneath Lily” to visit Snow Flower, they must find ways to continue their friendship. Their friendship must endure the test of time, births, deaths, illnesses, war, and cultural expectations.


Setting & Culture

The book is set in the villages of China in the 1800’s. Lily grows up in Puwei which is described as a farming village in Yongming County, “the county of Everlasting Brightness”. They cultivate rice, cotton, taro and other crops. Around 6 years old, girls of the village endure the painful process of footbinding, where their feet are broken so they have small feet (“golden lillies”), the smaller and the more desirable to prospective husbands.

The story details the matchmaking process and the weddings that last for several days and are steeped in beautiful and simple traditions to show the young bride how she is loved by her friends and natal family before going to live with her in-laws. The story progresses through Tongkou, Shexia, the Temple of Gupo and the mountains nearby for retreat, and effectively portrays the stark contrasts between the lifestyles of people in each.

To have a good life, women want to have a good match for a husband who is not of her own choosing and have sons. “Sons are the foundation of a woman’s self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value.” Sons and fathers are esteemed, educated and allowed to live on the main floor or outer chamber of the house while daughters are raised in the top floor or inner chamber where they can’t be seen and taught to do housekeeping and embroidery so they can be good wives. Men even have a different written language than women. They live separate lives and come together only when women are needed to serve their husbands.

I learned so much from this book about early Chinese culture and lifestyle. I was entranced by the different time and world and it made me appreciative of how women are treated today in comparison.


Favorite Quotes

“For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me – as a girl and later as a woman – to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.”

“All I knew was that footbinding would make me more manageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life –a son.”

“You may be desperate, but never let anyone see you as anything less than a cultivated woman.”

“‘A museum is a temple of knowledge,” my father told me, “a lit lamp that sends its rays into the darkness, the proof of the infinite variety of life.”


Reading Challenges Satisfied

I LOVE participating in reading challenges and read this book as part of the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge and the Monthly Keyword Challenge for January.


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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan* is an amazing book and I love that we see Chinese culture throughout each phase of Lily’s entire life. It’s an emotional journey worth the trip. This would make a great book club book, so many issues and themes to discuss.


  1. My best friend made me watch the movie of this one, and somewhere halfway through the movie I fell asleep but I told her I did watch it from start to finish. The next day when she told me I’m her laotong and I asked her “what!?” she immediately knew I was lying 😉

    From what I saw, and what I am reading now it sounds like this is a good read! Afterall you gave it a 5 🙂 I’m also sure its already on my TBR list.

    1. I’ve heard the book and the movie are very different. In fact, one of my friends who has also read the book warned me not to watch the movie. Her mother did the same thing. So even though Hugh Jackman is in it (which is weird, since the characters in the book never leave China or come across Americans, as far as I can remember) and I love him, I’ve avoided seeing it.

      1. I had no idea Snow Flower was a movie…and Hugh Jackman? Now I’m all for seeing Hugh but I don’t see how he’d fit into the story either. What didn’t your friend and her mom like about the movie? If I’ve read the book, I don’t usually enjoy the movie and vice versa so I guess I won’t be watching the movie either.

    2. Aw, too bad you got busted but hopefully she’s still your best friend and “laotong”. So you gotta tell me what role Hugh Jackman played? or did you get that far? Maybe not if you didn’t know what “laotong” meant because that happened sorta early on 🙂 Ok I had to look it up, Hugh Jackman played Arthur in the movie but I don’t remember reading about Arthur. Of course I loved the book so I think you should read it. And the story comes full circle and has a conclusive ending, not one where you end up with more questions than when you started! 🙂

  2. This book, of all of Lisa See’s, was the most memorable to me because it was the first of hers I read. I remember all the buzz over it, and then we chose it to read in my book club. Then later that year, my second book club read Peony in Love. At the time I’d thought Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was her debut novel, and then found out she’d written other books before it. I admire her so much for exploring her heritage.

    1. It would make a wonderful book club discussion book, my friend had recommended it to me. I have to agree with you about admiring her for exploring her heritage. As an Indian-American, it’s hard to connect to my heritage some times being half a world away. I love being able to read about India and other cultures as a way to learn about them since I can’t visit. I am definitely a fan of Lisa See and will be reading more of her novels. Did you see my reading challenges page? I’ve been to 5 countries so far and really loved taking the trip 🙂

    1. Thanks Alysia for stopping by from the readathon twitter party. It was great meeting and chatting with you. I appreciate the follow. I wholeheartedly agree with you and can see that Ms. See will quickly become one of my favorite authors as well. Her writing was mesmerizing, which of her other books do you recommend I read next? Who are your other favorite authors? As you can see from the Around the World Challenge I’m doing, I love reading cultural/historical fiction and am always looking for recommendations of books to read. Thanks for following and hope to hear from you again soon!

  3. I loved this book 🙂 I love reading about other cultures, for one thing. Second, it’s so well written and fascinating! If you haven’t read See’s other works I highly recommend them

    1. Hi Jennifer, Snow Flower was devastating and beautiful. Such a unique book and I definitely will read Ms. See’s other books. I love reading about other cultures too. You should join the Around the World Challenge with me 🙂 Good thing about that challenge is it’s flexible, you can start anytime and the host is taking 5 years to complete, as am I. Takes the pressure off a little.

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