On the fourth day after her marriage, Lily packs to go to Snow Flower's house for her Sitting and Singing. Yonggang escorts her through Tongkou, carrying a basket of embroidery supplies. When they reach Snow Flower's house, Yonggang opens the door and leads Lily inside. It smells sweet, rotten, and very human. The room is large but with little furniture, and there's no fire in the hearth. Lily thinks she's in the wrong place.
Remember that Lily has spent the last ten years believing that Snow Flower is living in luxury, with servants and beautiful furnishings. The novel thus begins to draw a connection between nu shu—and the nuance required to understand it—and the nuance required to understand spoken conversation.
A woman in peasant clothes squats over a washbasin, and when she sees Lily, rises to greet her. She goes to fetch Snow Flower, and Lily notices her small lily feet, thinking it's unusual for servants to have bound feet. Lily is shocked to see Snow Flower at the top of the stairs. Yonggang doesn't want to leave Lily, but Lily sends her on her way. She remembers Mama's words from a few days ago (about being “united for life”) and realizes that Mama wasn't talking about bed business—she was talking about Snow Flower.
It dawns on Lily that Mama knew that Snow Flower lived like this and tried to warn her. Mama's warning, while not well received at the time, can be regarded as an act of love and an attempt to protect Lily. Lily, however, couldn't move outside of what she thought she knew and apply Mama's wisdom where she truly needed it.
When Lily gets to the top of the stairs, she tells Snow Flower that nothing has changed. Snow Flower introduces the poorly dressed woman from downstairs as her mother. After Lily greets Snow Flower’s mother, she goes downstairs and leaves Lily and Snow Flower to talk.
Lily attempts to use language to comfort Snow Flower. She reasserts the power of their contract (and tradition) by stating that she'll continue to fulfill their promises to each other.
Snow Flower cries with shame and embarrassment. She begins to explain that her family was once prosperous, but Snow Flower’s father was the only son amongst many, many daughters, and while some thought he would be headman of Tongkou, others saw that he was weak and cowardly. Two years after Snow Flower was born her grandparents died. Life remained prosperous, but her father had to care for her grandfather's concubines and marry out their daughters and his sisters. He began to sell land to pay bride prices, and finally discovered opium. Lily realizes that this is the "pipe" that Madame Gao had mentioned years ago.
Lily finally understands that she's spent much of her life misunderstanding Snow Flower and the spoken conversations she's heard about her. This again reinforces the lessons taught by nu shu: that words, events, and actions must be placed in context and carefully evaluated to discover their meaning. Lily has proven herself incapable of doing this, and will continue to struggle with this lesson throughout the rest of the novel.
Lily asks Snow Flower if Snow Flower’s father is alive and in the house, and she answers affirmatively. Snow Flower continues that when the famine came, her father wasn't prepared. He planned to sell Snow Flower as a “little daughter-in-law” (a concubine with unbound feet), but “Auntie Wang” saved her by binding her feet. Lily is aghast that Madame Wang is Snow Flower's aunt. Snow Flower says that Auntie Wang began searching for a laotong match to make Snow Flower more marriageable, and found Lily. She explains that Lily was supposed to teach her the practical homemaking skills that Snow Flower’s mother never taught her.
Snow Flower could have been a very different sort of commodity had her father sold her as a concubine, which continues to add layers to the idea of women's bodies as currency. To take that idea even further, we see too how Snow Flower's value increased when she was contracted to Lily. Thus, the laotong match, a match intended for love and companionship, seems to have been made in this case for more economic ones (although the girls couldn’t know this at the time, of course).
Lily thinks that Snow Flower and Snow Flower's mother are unable to escape the belief that a woman's realm is supposed to be nothing but beautiful. She thinks that they look on the past with nostalgia and are unable to accept that things won't go back to the way they were.
Lily continues to gender thoughts and spaces here. Notice the implication that Snow Flower and her mother simply can't accept that the world of women is often full of sorrow and horrors, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Lily realizes that Snow Flower must be marrying into a very low family if she needs these practical skills. Snow Flower admits that her husband's family are butchers. Lily remembers Madame Wang's story "The Tale of Wife Wang," and realizes it wasn't meant for her. Lily tells Snow Flower that she won't go hungry. Snow Flower sobs for a moment and then angrily tells Lily that she doesn't want pity. Lily thinks that she's only confused, and that Snow Flower's letter ruined Lily's enjoyment of her own wedding, and she's hurt Snow Flower didn't attend the reading of her third-day wedding books. Lily feels betrayed and wonders why Snow Flower never told the truth. She wonders if Snow Flower actually believes she can just fly away with the birds.
Lily is trying to make the best of a truly terrible situation here, although Snow Flower's later sufferings will go far beyond food scarcity. Note here how Lily begins to make the situation about herself. Rather than feel true sympathy or love for Snow Flower, when Snow Flower doesn't respond the way Lily wants her to, Lily starts to resent Snow Flower for not responding or performing "correctly." Lily believes she herself has a more realistic view on life, even though the troubles she's seen pale in comparison to Snow Flower's everyday life.
Lily the narrator explains that as a girl, she was too self-centered to see the truth of the situation. She spent her life surrounded by people who saw only her special future, and she blames Mama for choosing to not tell her about Snow Flower. She says she was a stupid 17-year-old girl and buried her feelings, but it was as though she'd eaten bad meat that then started spoiling inside her.
As a much older adult, Lily realizes that she made her life only about herself. Lily allowed herself to believe that she was special, and this blinded her to understanding the truth or trying to truly empathize with others.
Lily says that she had to pretend that she wasn't sick from the proverbial spoiled meat, so she tried to help. She helps Snow Flower and Snow Flower’s mother clean the house, but can't eliminate the smell. She sees that Snow Flower and her mother live in fear of Snow Flower's father, who is petulant, angry, and best left alone with his opium.
Notice here that Lily knows that she's harboring resentment towards Snow Flower. She feels betrayed, but she wraps herself tighter in customs and traditions to try to ignore her emotions. This places personal emotions in conflict with traditions.
Snow Flower lays out her dowry for Lily to see. Lily recognizes familiar fabrics and realizes that Snow Flower's dowry has been created from her own clothes. Snow Flower laughs and explains that they were originally Snow Flower’s mother's clothes. Lily and Snow Flower laugh and laugh. Lily thinks about how women are seen as useless and powerless, which makes it amazing that Snow Flower and her mother used their "useless" skills to change their lives.
When Madame Wang arrives, Lily sends her to her natal home to fetch food and cloth. She asks Madame Wang to bring Snow Flower's sister for the Sitting and Singing, but her elder sister isn't allowed in the house because of Snow Flower's father's bad reputation. Lily is shocked. She gives Madame Wang money and instructs her to find three girls and pay their fathers to allow them to come.
Lily uses her newfound power to its full potential here as she forces Madame Wang to help her create the facade of following tradition. She's putting her faith and her money into pretending that things are normal and as expected in the hopes that she can make it come true.
Madame Wang arrives the next day with three farmers' daughters. Lily leads them in writing third-day wedding books for Snow Flower and bullies them into making wedding quilts. The songs they sing are bleak and sad.
Despite following tradition, however, the party cannot escape or ignore the fact that Snow Flower's fate is terrible. Tradition here cannot provide any comfort.
As the weather grows colder, Lily moves the group downstairs so they can make use of the fire. Lily starts a new third-day wedding book for Snow Flower, as her original sentiments no longer pertain. On the Day of Sorrow and Worry, Lily and Snow Flower's mother sing of helping one's husband rise to a better place. Snow Flower doesn't cry. Two days later, when Snow Flower's palanquin arrives to take her to her new home, she still doesn't cry. Lily wonders at this lack of emotion.
The songs here draw from "The Tale of Wife Wang," using nu shu and stories as teaching tools to help encourage Snow Flower to behave a certain way. Notice too that it's supposed to be Snow Flower's responsibility to encourage her husband to live a better and more virtuous life—on top of the responsibility to bear virtuous sons. This implies that she's responsible for all the men in her married life.
Madame Wang and Lily watch Snow Flower disappear, and Lily asks if she (Lily) was truly a special child when Madame Wang first visited her. Madame Wang admits that she wanted someone from a better family, but says that Lily's feet were very special and would've changed her fate anyway. She continues, saying that she told lies to give Snow Flower a chance and won't apologize for that. Lily wants to hate her, but thinks that she helped the person that Lily cares about most.
Snow Flower's affection and kindness towards Madame Wang makes sense in light of what Lily learned about Snow Flower's family. Lily struggles here with the newfound knowledge that Madame Wang isn't just a greedy, “masculine” woman out to make a profit; she acted to give Snow Flower a chance for a better future. Discovering this nuance continues Lily's process of growing up.
Three days later, Lily delivers Snow Flower's third-day wedding books. There's no feast at Snow Flower's married home, and the women who greet Lily are coarse and unsavory. Inside the house, Lily meets Snow Flower's mother-in-law, who she describes as dreadful. Snow Flower's mother-in-law sneers that here in Jintian, women don't value nu shu in its written form and prefer to speak it, as everyone knows what everyone else thinks. She asks Lily to read the books. Lily takes it all as very insulting.
Lily is in a precarious position. She's just married into an immensely powerful family and thus has power she's never experienced before, but she still must respect Snow Flower's mother-in-law despite her low social standing. Lily also isn't received at this house like she expects to be. Not experiencing the customs and traditions she's used to knocks her off balance emotionally and makes her even more confused and sad.
Lily reads from Snow Flower's mother's book and then picks up her own. As she reads, Snow Flower's mother-in-law just stares suspiciously. Snow Flower and Lily aren't allowed to speak when the ceremony is over, and Lily returns to her natal family. When she arrives home, she opens the fan and, to mark Snow Flower’s marriage, writes about a phoenix soaring over a common rooster. Lily cries and paints a wilted, crying flower at the top of the fan.
Lily is beginning to learn that things she thought were the same everywhere (nu shu, for example) actually aren't. She struggles to connect with Snow Flower's mother-in-law, in part because the two simply don't speak the same proverbial language, even though nu shu is a part of both of their lives.
Hair-Pinning Days: The Flower-Sitting Chair
Hair-Pinning Days: The Flower-Sitting Chair