The narrator, 80-year-old Lily, tells the reader that she's "one who has not yet died," or a widow. At this point in her life, she can finally say things that she couldn't when she was dependent on her natal (birth) family or her husband's family.
Lily makes it very clear that the story to follow is only being told now because Lily no longer experiences censorship like she used to. This sets up the understanding that Lily has been controlled by others throughout her life.
Lily says that for her entire life she longed for love. She knew she shouldn't expect it, as she's female, but this longing caused every problem in her life. She behaved obediently to try to win affection, but was too willing to obey. During her foot binding, Lily says, her mother encouraged her and reminded her of the rewards that would come with small feet, which taught Lily to endure physical and emotional pain. Lily calls this "mother love," which, according to men's writing, is composed of two characters that mean "pain" and "love." As a result, by the age of 40, Lily's heart was as rigid as the process of foot binding.
We now get the reason for the censorship that Lily experienced: her sex. Further, Lily was complicit and accepting of the censorship and control because she thought it gave her a better chance of receiving the love she truly wanted. However, we learn very early on that rather than receiving love because of her obedience, Lily instead became rigid and unyielding, qualities that make both giving and receiving love difficult.
Lily's only rebellion was her use of nu shu, which is women's secret writing. Lily broke tradition for the first time when Snow Flower, her laotong (contractual best friend), sent Lily the fan that now sits on the table in front of her. Lily understands now that she was blind for a long time. Lily tells the reader that she's spent her entire life in upstairs women's chambers, and while she's heard men talk about taxes and uprisings, what she knows is her family and women's work.
Lily identifies wholly with being a woman, and has structured her life around what's good and appropriate for a woman to do. Nu shu provides Lily the opportunity to both keep with that gendered structure and rebel, although it's not yet clear exactly how. The passage also introduces Snow Flower, the titular protagonist, as well as the important concept of the laotong.
Lily describes the fan for the reader, the text of which she has memorized. An elaborate design of flowers, birds, and messages cover the fan, telling a story of optimism and promises that give way to misunderstandings and broken trust. Lily says that she thought she understood love, but now, looking at the fan, she understands that she didn't value deep-heart love.
It's still somewhat unclear exactly how the fan functioned in Snow Flower and Lily's relationship, but here Lily sets the stage for the story that will follow. We know that Lily and Snow Flower began with optimism and ended with broken trust, and we know that Lily was in the wrong and didn't value the relationship.
Over the last few years, Lily has copied autobiographies for women who can't read or write nu shu, and has heard of every tragedy that can befall a woman. Conversely she knows little about men and their stories, but she understands that her own life is made up of both men's and women's stories. She's writing this story, which will be burned upon her death, so that she can explain her actions to her ancestors, her husband, and Snow Flower.
Chinese traditions are an integral part of the novel, particularly since Lily makes every effort to appropriately observe traditions. We see here that the story we're about to hear isn't just being told for Lily or the reader’s enjoyment. Lily feels as though she has to explain and justify herself to her loved ones, indicating again that she likely did questionable things that she now feels guilty about.