Oh boy, the way in which I figure out the next novel I will read scares me, and is a testiment to how much of an Internet junkie I can be. I was listening to the podcast, M and MX Radio, the episode in which Hugh Jackman regales you (at the 4-minute mark) by singing a Chinese folk song. It’s hilarious! He learned this song because he is starring in the movie adaptation of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The movie, due out in 2011, also stars Vivian Wu (who?) and one of my favourite actors, Archie Kao. If I will probably watch this movie, then I should read the book first, right?
Lisa See has written several novels, most recently Shanghai Girls, with Snow Flower as one of her earliest novels, published in 2005. If I really like Lisa See or if others of her novels become Hollywood movies, I guess I will read those, too. ;)
I had no idea that a system of Chinese writing known only to women, 女書, had existed for centuries. It is relatively unknown because it was a knowledge base confined to the Yao people of Jiangyong County of Hunan province, not actively used now but remains of historical and preservation interest.
Besides incorporating the characteristically female writing system into the story, the novel also focused on the generally difficult relationships a 19th-century woman has with the other women she encounters in her life: mother, fellow female relatives in the household in which she grew up, her mother-in-law, the female relatives in her husband’s household, matchmakers, and a most special alliance with her laotong, 老同. A laotong, literally “old same”, is like your one sworn best friend and penpal in a time when women had little exposure to people outside of their family and spent the majority of their lives in an upstairs sewing room kind of women’s chamber.
When See was describing the characteristics of “nu shu” writing and weaving stories in of its original and history, I could almost barely believe it was a real writing system… except Wikipedia backs it up. One of the critics on the book jacket made a comparison with Memoirs of a Geisha and I could see why from the opening paragraphs: it is a faux autobiography as retold by the subject when she is at an old age, starting far back in her childhood. As a child, Lily has some wonder and a lot of naivete but older Lily tells the story with a clear memory, adding foreboding comments. Little village girls, Lily and her cousin, are taught “nu shu” by an aunt who wouldn’t normally be so accomplished to be literate. The excruciating process of their footbinding is described in some detail with memorable bawdy jokes and erotic mysticism, and the acceptance by the women of the now-ceased practice.
However, a lifetime of experiences is relayed in the novel so the later years are more rapidly covered and seem a little unrealistic. I had the same qualm with Xinran’s Miss Chopsticks and the three village sisters’ trials in the big city, but like it anyways. Nonetheless, reading between the lines, you can get an idea of what life was like back then for a Chinese woman, and paint an idea of a more realistic turn of events. Finally, the heavy foreboding of the rift between Lily and Snow Flower, her “old same”, turned out to be silly in my opinion and it saddened me in an unintended way.
I’ve already requested Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls from the library to give See another chance in a more modern setting. But in the mean time, I’m already onto the next novel and it promises to be a hard one….
Uhm, there is no Westerner in the Snow Flower novel for Hugh Jackman to play so some additions seem to have been made in creating the movie adaptation of the novel. I look forward to it anyhow.