For the next three years, Snow Flower visits Lily's family every few months. Lily never questions why she never visits Snow Flower in Tongkou, until she's nine and overhears Mama ask Madame Wang about it. Madame Wang states that Snow Flower's family is suffering from Lily's low status, and if Lily were to visit Tongkou, her future husband might see her. Lily understands that Mama is ashamed, but thinks that she's not disturbed by finding out that Snow Flower's family feels Lily is unworthy, because she knows she's unworthy. As such, she works harder to make Snow Flower love her.
Lily has truly internalized the idea that she's worthless and undeserving of love, even from the one person (Snow Flower) who's supposed to love her unconditionally. This belief allows Lily to avoid questioning whether there may be other reasons she can't visit Snow Flower. It's becoming clear that Mama doesn't necessarily believe Madame Wang's reasoning, even though Mama has no power to change the outcome.
The matter is far from over, however, as Lily's laotong relationship means that the existing rivalry between Madame Wang and Madame Gao is heightened. Madame Gao offers her services to Snow Flower's family to slight Madame Wang and get revenge for Madame Wang "stealing" her business (in the form of Lily and Beautiful Moon). At one point when Madame Wang comes to Lily's house to pick up Snow Flower, Madame Gao is also visiting and the two quarrel in front of Snow Flower and Lily.
The rivalry between the two matchmakers continues to develop the idea that the girls are worth only as much as their families, and the matchmakers, can gain from their marriages. Remember that Madame Wang will profit when Lily and Beautiful Moon marry, while Madame Gao only has Lily's Elder and Second brothers and Elder Sister in Lily's family from which to profit.
When Snow Flower, Beautiful Moon, and Lily turn 11, their feet are healed. Lily's are smallest, Snow Flower's are slightly larger, and Beautiful Moon's are even bigger—but she's still marriageable. Madame Wang negotiates Contracting a Kin for the three girls. Lily is set to marry into the best family in Tongkou, where her husband is expected to be the future family headman. Beautiful Moon will marry into a Tongkou family of the same clan. Snow Flower's husband's family is in nearby Jintian. Madame Wang promises that Lily and Beautiful Moon will be able to see Jintian from their lattice windows, but says little else about Snow Flower's future family except that her husband was born in the year of the rooster. The girls find this disturbing, as a rooster and a horse aren't an ideal match.
Diviner Hu and Madame Wang were correct about Lily's feet. Because they're considered perfect and act as currency, Lily's value rises and she's able to marry up. Remember too that having perfect feet is supposed to indicate a woman's ability to bear sons, which in theory means that Lily is going nowhere but up. Take note of the girls' suspicion of Snow Flower's husband. The girls are young, innocent, and still believe that no real wrong can befall them, but the novel is building evidence to support that they're very wrong about that. For now, though, the girls are told simply to trust their elders.
Lily's family exchanges the first round of gifts with their future in-laws. Lily and Beautiful Moon are happy and optimistic, and continue to learn nu shu from Aunt and Snow Flower. Aunt impresses upon them that each word must be placed in context, and that tragedy can come from a wrong reading.
Aunt tells the girls the story of how nu shu was invented. A thousand years ago, a young and educated woman from Jintian was selected to be a concubine in the Emperor's court. While she was guaranteed a life of comforts, she was still sad about leaving her family. At the court, she couldn't keep the emperor entertained forever, and her talents were insignificant next to those of the other ladies. The woman silently practiced her writing as others snidely called it sloppy, but she wasn't trying to copy men's writing—she was inventing a secret code to write home with.
Regardless of whether this story is true or not, it functions as a tale that makes the idea of marrying out less of a scary proposition. It reinforces the fact that everyone is sad that girls marry out, but also reminds the girls themselves that while their in-laws may be cruel, the girls have power in the form of nu shu to communicate privately with their natal families.
Aunt explains how the woman's sisters may have figured out how to read the note, but says dwelling on the "how" is not a woman's concern. What matters is that nu shu exists for women to share the less-than-happy things that happen under the happy surface in life. She reminds the girls that all girls marry out, but nu shu exists to help them keep ties with their natal families. Aunt repeats the story the next day.
Aunt genders thought and inquiry here as she sternly tells the girls that focusing on the act of learning itself is a male concern. By repeating the story, as well as the purpose of nu shu, the novel continues to build tension and leaves clues that misunderstanding language can bring conflict.
When Snow Flower, Lily, and Beautiful Moon turn 13, their education picks up speed. Snow Flower's family had neglected to teach her domestic arts, so she shadows Lily in her chores. Mama and Aunt supervise the girls as they cook, clean, and sew. Lily thinks that Snow Flower will have servants one day and doesn't necessarily need to learn these tasks, but sees too that Snow Flower seems to float apart from life's practicalities.
Lily is still idolizing Snow Flower and using this idolization to avoid asking questions. For example, why does Snow Flower need to learn these skills if she's going to have servants in her married home anyway? Such a question would likely be deemed inappropriate for a woman to ask, though, given Aunt's previous speech.
The girls learn from Uncle and Baba too, as Snow Flower takes note of what foods they like and makes sure to serve those foods. Lily sees that when Snow Flower pays them these attentions, the men use better manners and talk to the women.
Here Lily is learning a slightly different aspect of love as duty. By paying attention to people in a particular way, she can cultivate the kind of attention she'd like to receive.
Snow Flower also tells Lily and Beautiful Moon about their future families. Lily's husband is kind and born in the year of the tiger, and his house is busy with lots of visitors. However, Master Lu (his father) has three concubines despite also having sons from his wife. Lily tells the reader that she should've been more worried at that, as a son is likely to take concubines if his father did.
The way that Lily talks about the concubines asserts again that a married couple's one duty is to have sons, and she implies that concubines are appropriate if a woman can't bear sons. Lily the narrator reminds the reader again of her youthful naïveté, as she still believes nothing bad can happen to her.
Snow Flower tells Beautiful Moon that she and her husband will also be a perfect match, and that her mother-in-law is kind—she visits Snow Flower's mother daily. Snow Flower's eyes suddenly fill with tears when she says this, and Lily and Beautiful Moon giggle uncomfortably. Snow Flower quickly recovers and then says that Lily's mother-in-law is traditional, and that Lily will have servants and be respected as the first daughter-in-law.
Snow Flower's strange reaction to talking about a woman who visits her mother again builds tension that things might not be what they seem. Remember that Lily has already said that her major life transformation happened when she became Lady Lu (the successor of her mother-in-law), and here we get a first glimpse of what that might look like—namely, being very traditional.
Lily and Snow Flower have now been to the Temple of Gupo five times. Each time they make offerings at the temple, purchase embroidery thread and paper, and eat at Old Man Zou's stall. They learn from these trips that while they will generally see no more than what they can from their upstairs windows, men have a great deal of freedom to travel along their country's many waterways.
Lily and Snow Flower are learning that being as confined as they are is a strictly female state of being in this society. The fact that men have freedom to travel by water specifically hearkens back to Lily's childhood experience of feeling freedom with her toes in the river.
Madame Gao and Madame Wang frequently visit Lily's family, and the battle between the two escalates. One day, Madame Gao complains that local families aren't paying her on time. She continues that a peasant uprising is making things difficult, as commerce is stalled and families don't have money for dowries. She says that even Snow Flower isn't safe. Though Madame Wang tries to defend Snow Flower's father, Madame Gao says that a weak man will take to the pipe. At that, Mama sharply tells Madame Gao that she may not speak that way in front of the children, and hastily shows her out.
This is the first mention that the outside world might have some effect on the closed, inside world of the women in the novel. While Lily would like to believe that the male and female worlds are sharply separated, the new political turmoil shows that the two are very much connected. Madame Gao’s mention of the pipe will also be important, as it's one of the points at which Lily fails to understand the nuance and context that women's writing teaches her is necessary to truly understand language.
Madame Wang is silent for a moment and then calls Lily to her, and tells her that she may never repeat what she just heard to Snow Flower. Lily promises, but tells the reader that she didn't understand what she heard anyway. She tells the reader too that from then on, Madame Gao conducted business with Lily's family outside on stools, which Lily attributes to her family's love for Snow Flower.
Here, language is being used to both protect someone (Snow Flower) and to keep secrets. While Lily is still engaging with language as though it's always clear, as the narrator she's beginning to indicate that she didn't understand the many layers of meaning inherent to language and conversation.
As Elder Sister's wedding approaches, the last round of gifts is delivered to Lily's family and Elder Sister's sworn sisters come for the Sitting and Singing, which lasts 28 days. They work on third-day wedding books (books to tell Elder Sister's new family about her) and help finish Elder Sister's dowry items.
In this situation, the women must choose their words carefully, as they want to help Elder Sister make a good impression on her in-laws. They have the opportunity to use language to shape Elder Sister's future.
On the day of Sorrow and Worry, three days before Elder Sister leaves home, Mama sits on the stairs and begins a lament at letting Elder Sister go. The women sing of their sadness at losing their sister. Snow Flower reads the couplet that she and Lily wrote on their fan to commemorate the occasion.
The simple existence of the Day of Sorrow and Worry indicates that while daughters may be told they're useless, they can still be loved and cherished by their families. Notice, though, that a daughter hears this sentiment only in a ceremonial, traditional setting.
When Elder Sister's new family arrives the next day, Lily's family throws bamboo and water on them for good luck. Her dowry is displayed and the next day, Elder Sister walks out to chants of "marrying a daughter is just like throwing out water." She goes to her new family in a palanquin. Four days later, Elder Brother picks up Elder Sister and brings her back home, as she'll only visit her husband monthly until the end of her first pregnancy.
While three days ago Elder Sister was told she was loved, on this day she's told that her family views her departure as being as inconsequential as throwing out water. The traditional sayings are sometimes meant to comfort, but in this case they emphasize just how valueless most women are in this society.
Lily says that she remembers best the day that Elder Sister returned from a visit the following spring. Elder Sister cried in Mama's lap about her abusive mother-in-law and her rough husband. Lily and Beautiful Moon comfort her, but believe this could never happen to them. Aunt begins to speak, and says that she's lived a miserable life—she cried when she married out, and then couldn't have sons. She finishes her speech by saying that this is how it is for women. Such a thing has never been spoken in the women's chamber before, and Lily considers how hard life must have been for Aunt despite her regular smiles and good cheer.
Lily continues to make it very clear that she and her peers are young and extremely naïve. They've never considered that their aunt, usually so happy and kind, could have lived such a miserable life. She too had to leave her family, and wasn't able to bear sons and accomplish a woman's ultimate goal. Aunt, however, accepts that there's nothing she can do to change her fate—she's bound by tradition and custom to this miserable life. This turns tradition into something restrictive and controlling. This brief scene is, tragically, one of the only times the women of the novel talk even relatively openly about the pain they’ve experienced and their desire for something better.
Mama speaks in a detached voice. She echoes Elder Sister's complaints, but says that as women they're powerless to resist. She recites the old saying, "if a daughter doesn't marry out, she's not valuable; if fire doesn't raze the mountain, the land will not be fertile."