Snow Flower writes a message to Lily telling her of her newborn son. Lily is happy for Snow Flower's fortune, but explains to the reader that life is fragile and infants can easily die. She's worried for her own unborn baby, and she's received little practical advice from anyone. Her in-laws seem unconcerned that Lily might die during childbirth.
Lily appears entirely unprepared practically for having her baby. It comes out very clearly here that Lily is considered little more than a vessel by her in-laws.
Lily says that her relationship with Snow Flower seems stronger now that they're in their “rice-and-salt days.” Their letters to each other, however, follow the conventional format and use accepted phrases, as they don't know who might read them. They're supposed to write about their struggles in their new homes, but not seem too ungrateful or miserable. Lily says that this is why she waited until now to write this story.
Lily reminds the reader that women must walk a very fine line between accepting their worthlessness and blaming their miserable states on their families. This reasserts the purpose of the novel as well, which is to explain all these things to Lily's dead relatives and to Snow Flower in the afterworld.
At first, Lily didn't have anything bad to tell Snow Flower, as her family's wealth kept life pleasant and Lily’s mother-in-law doted on her once she gave birth to her first son. This secures Lily's place in her in-laws' home. Lily explains that these days are called "rice-and-salt" because they're filled with chores and worrying about the baby.
Assuming Lily's son lives, Lily's worth is confirmed and will now appreciate further. We also begin to see that Lady Lu can be kind—when the recipient of her kindness has done everything correctly. As with Mama, her kindness and affection comes at a price.
Lily's mother-in-law refuses to invite Snow Flower to Lily's first son's one-month party. Lily is crushed and confused, but has no say in the matter. At the party, the Lu family writes Lily's son's name on the wall of their ancestral temple and then serves a variety of poultry dishes. Snow Flower sends a beautiful jacket for Lily's son, but Lily's mother-in-law makes it clear that Lily is not to associate with Snow Flower. Lily decides to fight this.
This conflict between Lily and Lady Lu creates a strange paradox regarding tradition. Lady Lu wishes for Lily to break tradition via breaking her contract with Snow Flower, but Lily is also traditionally bound to obey her mother in law.
Snow Flower and Lily write each other daily and Yonggang carries their notes. Lily watches her run to Jintian, thinking that it's not so far and she herself could make it. Lily realizes too, now that she's in a home with learned men, that men certainly both know of and can read nu shu, but consider it beneath them and unimportant. Lily's husband doesn't pay attention to her letters, but Lily has to keep an eye on Lady Lu.
Lily is now feeling trapped in her married home, particularly now that she watches Yonggang easily cover the distance between the two villages. While Lily believes she could make this journey herself, she must keep to tradition for her own safety and to protect her value. She also learns that nu shu has value in part because those who might censor it believe it useless.
Snow Flower writes Lily to tell her of her abusive mother-in-law and shares that her own mother and father sold their belongings and became beggars. She closes by asking Lily if she's happy. Lily thinks that it's better to have dead parents that you can worship properly than disappeared parents. Lily also doesn't know how to answer if she's happy, as a second daughter-in-law just came to live with them and she cries all the time, and Master Lu's concubines bicker constantly. Lily also wonders how to answer when her primary conflict is regarding Snow Flower herself.
Lily's belief here reminds the reader of what was made clear when Third Sister fell sick: it's considered better to be dead than be crippled or a beggar (particularly for a woman). However, Lily refuses to acknowledge that Snow Flower can still mourn (and certainly is mourning) the loss of her parents, even though it isn't loss via death. Lily essentially can’t conceptualize how to handle such a situation when there's no convention to dictate what should happen.
Lady Lu makes many excuses why Lily can't see Snow Flower, but Lily knows that she simply doesn't want Lily associating with her. Lily declines an invitation to join a sworn sisterhood. Despite this, Lady Lu is kinder to Lily than Mama ever was, and teaches Lily a new axiom: "Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want." Lily vows that her in-laws can't make her stop loving Snow Flower.
Despite Lady Lu's lack of support for Lily's laotong, she makes everyday life far more pleasant for Lily than Mama ever did. While this kind of love certainly stems from Lady Lu's duty to her daughter-in-law, it provides Lily some of the attention she craves from her family, both natal and married.
One day, Madame Wang delivers a letter to Lily from Snow Flower. Snow Flower writes that her in-laws forced her to watch them slaughter a pig, and she's becoming more like Wife Wang (she's become a vegetarian). She doesn't want to worry Lily about her ugly life, and begs Lily to write or visit. Rereading the letter, Lily realizes that Snow Flower didn't use the conventional phrases or stylized lines, and realizes then that the true purpose of nu shu is to give women a candid voice, allowing their feet to carry them to each other and their thoughts to fly to each other. Lily composes a similarly constructed letter inviting Snow Flower to her natal home for the Expel Birds Festival.
Here Lily is reminded again that tradition can be broken, and that doing so at times can bring comfort. This recalls Lily's decision to return Snow Flower's first note on the same fan rather than a different one. In both situations, Lily found that breaking with tradition could provide significantly more emotional intimacy. The recurrence of the story of Wife Wang again reminds the reader that stories are intended to offer guidance, and asks us to consider how they interact with "real" life.
Lily is scared to deceive Lady Lu. The Expel Birds Festival marks the beginning of farming season, so women make sticky rice balls to offer to the birds to distract them from the fields. After they leave the rice balls, Lily gets in her palanquin and heads for Jintian. Snow Flower and Snow Flower's son enter the palanquin, and Lily notices that Snow Flower is still plump. They compare and compliment their sons. Lily sees that Snow Flower's son is thin and sickly.
Lily can only focus on what's "wrong" with Snow Flower here. Snow Flower's son isn't robust, and Lily's focus on Snow Flower's body mimics her fixation on Snow Flower's feet from years earlier. Lily still views Snow Flower with a critical, analytical eye rather than as a true friend or companion.
Snow Flower says she only feels joy when she's with her son. Lily tries to reassure her that winter makes her sad, but Snow Flower insists that her husband's family only wants things from her. Lily is aghast and allows herself to slip into convention. She offers, "number-one wives who are mothers of sons conquer in the end." Snow Flower then admits that she's pregnant again. Lily is again perplexed, as it seems as though Snow Flower didn't wait the prescribed 100 days after birth before having sex, but she congratulates her anyway. Snow Flower says that her husband the butcher tells her it's better to have a dog than a daughter.
Remember that married women are supposed to be unhappy, but it's implied here that Snow Flower is taking her unhappiness too far for Lily's comfort. This indicates that Lily is simply unable or unwilling to engage with these negative emotions when they don't match perfectly with what's expected. Consider too that Snow Flower is not getting comfort from Lily here, but she's not getting comfort from her husband either. She's becoming ever more isolated.
Lily is saved from having to respond to Snow Flower as they arrive at her natal home. Lily is happy to be home, and everyone enjoys the gaggle of children. At night, Lily and Snow Flower sleep with their sons between them. One night, Snow Flower asks Lily if she likes bed business. Snow Flower doesn't wait for an answer before referring to herself and her husband as two mandarin ducks that enjoy it. Lily is bewildered, especially when Snow Flower admits that Snow Flower's husband won't respect the rules about bed business after birth.
Snow Flower's use of "mandarin ducks" implies that she does find freedom and happiness through sex with her husband, even if the rest of her married life is wholly miserable. Lily's shock at Snow Flower's disregard for the rules about sex after birth is a pattern for Lily by this point. Snow Flower, then, is sharing her most intimate secrets with someone who believes that she is in the wrong.
Lily and Snow Flower continue to write each other after they return to their married homes. As their letters begin to express more of their intimate moments with their husbands, Lily continues to believe that breaking the "pollution laws" will be punished. Snow Flower writes that she had a stillborn daughter, and everyone blames her for it. Lily doesn't know how to comfort her, and again leans on convention, urging her to get pregnant again with a son. Over the next three years their sons learn to walk and talk, Lily's second son is born, and Snow Flower gives birth to another stillborn daughter. Lily recommends herbs, and Snow Flower reports that the herbs brought satisfaction to bed business.
Lily is fully embracing the idea that a woman can bring upon herself either fortune or failure by following tradition or not. While she expresses sorrow at Snow Flower's loss, she evidently feels that the stillbirth was deserved for breaking the rules. Lily then receives apparent proof of the positive results that come from following rules when she has a second son. She now feels that she has evidence to support her belief that this is something she brought upon herself and achieved, rather than a matter of simple luck.