Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Rice-and-Salt-Days: Joy and Sorrow Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Lily's first son turns five, Lily’s husband decides to hire a tutor for him. Lily is sad to see him go, especially since the upstairs chamber is very unpleasant. The Third Sister-in-law and Fourth-sister-in-law have married in recently, and both gave birth to girls and then two stillborn boys. Lily, pregnant again, is a source of jealousy and resentment for them, but Lily longs for a daughter to keep her company in the upstairs chamber.
After the way that Lily discussed Snow Flower's stillborn daughters, the reader is led to wonder what these in-laws possibly did to bring daughters and stillbirths upon themselves (in Lily’s traditional worldview). The fact that Lily can now hope for a daughter indicates the stability of her position in her married home. She doesn't fear scorn for giving birth to a girl.
Themes
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Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
For the Tasting Festival, Lily and Snow Flower (who's also pregnant) travel to Lily's natal home. Lily confides that she hopes they both have daughters that can then be laotong. Snow Flower resists this, reminding Lily that daughters are useless, but Lily insists. The following spring, they return to Puwei with daughters. When they compare the babies they don't match at all, but Lily and Snow Flower don't care. They mark the decision in their fan.
Lily has learned that women may be worthless, but there is room for advancement. Snow Flower hasn't had the privilege of Lily's good fortune and sees that the life of a woman can be absolutely terrible, which justifies her fear of having a daughter. Lily also willingly ignores what custom says regarding laotong matches, likely remembering her own past happiness despite her differences with Snow Flower.
Themes
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Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Chinese Culture and Tradition Theme Icon
Two years later, Snow Flower tells Lily she's had a second son. Nobody can truly celebrate, however, as the Emperor passes away three days later and the country enters the period of mourning. Lily knows that this can jeopardize her family's prosperity, and she hears talk of rebels. Sure enough, Uncle Lu loses his position and returns to Tongkou. When Lily and her family greet him, he looks them over and then turns to Lily's first son, asking him to lead him home.
When Lily finally meets the fabled Uncle Lu, she's reminded that men have freedom of movement that she'll never have as a woman. Lily is validated, however, when Uncle Lu chooses her son to lead him to the house. Having a male child who impresses the family patriarch strengthens Lily's position.
Themes
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Chinese Culture and Tradition Theme Icon
Over the next two years, Lily has another son and the rebellion begins to take its toll on the Lu household. Snow Flower's father-in-law dies, and Snow Flower's mother-in-law becomes more abusive. At Lily's natal home that year, Snow Flower tells her about the Taipings, but Lily doesn't understand. Lily asks her husband about it when she returns, and in response Lily’s husband threatens to not allow her to visit home again.
Despite the troubles in the outside world, Lily continues to receive rewards for adhering to tradition and customs in the form of a third son. Snow Flower, meanwhile, continues to spiral down, but shows that she knows more about the outside world of men than Lily ever will. This again genders thoughts, actions, and space.
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Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
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Get the entire Snow Flower LitChart as a printable PDF.
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That year, a drought means that everyone in Tongkou goes hungry. Uncle Lu, who now tutors Lily's first son, puts more pressure on the boy, as he has the potential to pull them out of hard times with education. One night, Lily's husband tells her that he is going to travel to faraway Guilin to buy salt to sell. He will pass through dangerous Taiping territory, and Lily is afraid. He tells her he'll be gone for a year.
Lily is becoming more powerless and worthless in comparison to the men in her family. The fate of the family lies in the hands of her son (if he becomes a scholar, the family will be prosperous again) and her husband's salt investment. It's unclear too if Lily has real feelings for her husband, or if she only fears for her fate if he doesn't return (or only has the feelings she thinks she’s supposed to have).
Themes
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Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
After her Lily’s husband leaves, Lily worries constantly. She starts to offer to fetch tea downstairs and takes the opportunity to listen in on Uncle Lu's lessons with her first son. She one day hears Uncle Lu warn of the dangerous rebels. Lily says that the terror came to them in other ways, though—but before the terror arrives, she learns that Snow Flower is again pregnant.
This passage creates a sense of dread for what's to come, as once more the outside world (which is now experiencing the incredibly devastating Taiping Rebellion) intrudes on the closeted world of the novel’s women. It's particularly poignant since Snow Flower is pregnant (and therefore possibly experiencing some success as a woman, wife, and mother) and possibly at risk.
Themes
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Language, Storytelling, and Communication Theme Icon
Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Chinese Culture and Tradition Theme Icon
The heat comes early that year, and the men offer to take the children to the river. Typhoid strikes a tenant farmer first and then sweeps through the village. The women of the Lu family gather upstairs together until Third-Sister-in-law's son takes ill. Lily takes her children to her sleeping chamber and only leaves the room twice per day to empty the chamber pot, boil water, and make congee (a type of rice pudding). She can smell the dead through her one window and worries about Snow Flower's family and her husband.
Lily is truly isolated in her married home, a situation reminiscent of Lily's wedding veil. In both cases she is unable to see, knows nothing of her new family, and is physically stuck. Now, however, this state of being stuck brings safety, as she hopefully shields herself and her children from the disease. The trapped nature of married life briefly becomes positive.
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Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
One day, Lily finds Third Sister-in-law in the kitchen dressed in mourning—her entire nuclear family is dead. Lady Lu enters and spits on Third Sister-in-law, accuses her of destroying the Lus, and leaves the room. Lily makes Third-Sister-in-law a cup of tea, which she knows is wrong, and listens to her lament her fate. The next morning, Yonggang and the other servants return and Yonggang says that Third Sister-in-law killed herself.
Lady Lu expresses a belief that a wife has the ability to dictate the fate of her family. Lily then rebels against this idea, and against tradition, by making her sister-in-law tea. Third Sister-in-law, however, cannot recover or move on from her sense of responsibility and guilt, and the brutal rejection of her mother. This mirrors the thought that it's better to be dead than, in this case, a widow.
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By midday, Lady Lu has come down with fever. It's Lily's responsibility to care for her, but she worries for her children until Yonggang promises to watch them. Lily spends the next five days caring for Lady Lu until she dies, and then prepares her for burial. With her death, Lily becomes the head woman of the Lu house. She vows that there will be no more concubines in her home.
Despite Lily's desire to care for her own children, as a filial woman she cannot abandon Lady Lu. Remember the story of the three brothers, which taught Lily how to care for the dead. Now it's her responsibility to care for Lady Lu's body, and this time she knows the right words.
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As the epidemic wanes, Lily learns that Mama and Baba have also died, as well as a number of her in-laws. The Lu family is lucky, however. Lily's husband returns with salt and the profits solve the family's financial problems. Lily's father-in-law dies when he is walking in the fields one day, which he does because he misses his wife. Lily and her husband mourn appropriately, and by the end of the mourning period, they are the new Master and Lady Lu.
The fact that Lily's father-in-law died essentially of loneliness alludes to the idea that there is the potential for true emotional connections within a marriage. This complicates Lily's insistence that only same-sex contracted friendships can provide that kind of companionship.
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