As a work of historical fiction, the culture, traditions, and actual historical events of the time (1823-1903) permeate every aspect of the novel, simply by virtue of the genre. However, Lily's engagement with culture and tradition doesn't just dictate how her life should be lived; rather, the way in which she internalizes and uses her culture and beliefs blinds her to a more holistic understanding of the individuals and events in her life.
One of the major ways this plays out is through Lily's interpretation of individuals' zodiac signs. Both she and Snow Flower were born in the year of the horse, meaning that their personalities are supposed to be free-spirited and independent, but also hardworking. As children, Lily is both enthralled and intimidated by Snow Flower's desire for independence. As they grow older, Lily attempts to use Snow Flower's horse nature to encourage Snow Flower to rise above the abuse from her husband and conform tightly to tradition. Lily's attempts to "help" Snow Flower in this way backfire, however, as Lily's insistence on viewing Snow Flower through the lens of her horse personality limits her ability and willingness to understand the trauma Snow Flower experiences. Along the same lines, when Lily discovers the truth of Snow Flower's childhood and family, Lily blames Mama's monkey nature for keeping the truth a secret. Later on, Lily despises Snow Flower's mother-in-law for actions she attributes to being born under the sign of the rat. In all these instances, Lily uses the personality traits set out by one's zodiac sign to justify and understand individuals' thoughts and actions. Simply put, Lily consistently flattens people into one-dimensional caricatures and uses these caricatures to attempt to control them, explain their behavior, and justify the righteousness of her own beliefs and actions.
Lily's ability to receive and understand love is often hindered by her habit of leaning heavily on tradition and what should or shouldn't be done in a given situation. This happens especially as she attempts to comfort Snow Flower after a number of stillborn daughters and miscarriages. Rather than empathize with Snow Flower about the loss of children, Lily consistently encourages Snow Flower both to try again for a boy, and to be happy that only one of her "useless" daughters survived. By meeting her friend's grief with broad conventional platitudes, Lily indicates a belief that it's possible to use the upholding of traditional values as a surrogate for personal emotional comfort, as in her mind, there's little reason to grieve the loss of a female child. As a result, Snow Flower, in her attempt to follow Lily's advice to try again to conceive sons, actually breaks tradition by having sex with her husband before the mandated 100 days after birth have passed. While Snow Flower saw this as a way to improve her situation by becoming pregnant again sooner, Lily uses it to justify Snow Flower's continued misfortune as something deserved for flouting tradition. Interestingly, Lily is aware of her habit of substituting tradition for empathy and at points recognizes that it's not particularly helpful, but she finds she simply doesn't have the skills to truly empathize with snow Flower.
Further, Lily's very traditional and prescribed actions later in life stand in stark contrast to how she behaves in her childhood, particularly during the early days of her relationship with Snow Flower. Their match was unconventional to begin with, and Lily put a great deal of thought into the unconventional decision to return Snow Flower's first message on the same fan rather than a different one, as is customary. However, while Lily sees this as a way to build the loving laotong that she dreams of, and Madame Wang deems Lily's choice evidence of a good match with Snow Flower, Lily is unable to truly internalize these early lessons that breaking tradition can bring great joy and love to her life. Thus, by considering Lily's whole life in terms of how and where she upholds or dismisses tradition and cultural conventions, particularly where she does so as a substitute for emotion, the novel begins to paint a picture of the dangers of viewing tradition as static and unyielding. Rather, the reader is asked to consider the possibility that tradition can be fluid and molded, and is capable of both providing comfort and inflicting great pain.
Chinese Culture and Tradition ThemeTracker
Chinese Culture and Tradition Quotes in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.
For us, the pain didn't lessen. How could it? But we learned the most important lesson for all women: that we must obey for our own good.
"A true lady lets no ugliness into her life," she repeated again and again, drilling the words into me. "Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind, but you will have the reward."
"I would rather keep her on this earth unmarried than lose her forever."
"Then she would have no purpose and no value," Aunt reasoned. "Your mother love tells you this is no future."
"My mother bound my feet—and me to the chair—even tighter the next time."
"You can't fight your fate," I said. "It is predestined."
"You married out," Mama said, in a way that seemed oddly detached. "You go to another village. Your mother-in-law is cruel. Your husband doesn't care for you. We wish you would never leave, but every daughter marries away. Everyone agrees. Everyone goes along with it. You can cry and beg to come home, we can grieve that you have gone, but you—and we—have no choice. The old saying makes this very clear: 'if a daughter doesn't marry out, she's not valuable; if fire doesn't raze the mountain, the land will not be fertile.'"
Anyone who tells you that the Yao people never care for their daughters is lying. We may be worthless. We may be raised for another family. But often we are loved and cherished, despite our natal families' best efforts not to have feelings for us. Why else in our secret writing do you see phrases like "I was a pearl in my father's palm" so frequently? Maybe as parents we try not to care. I tried not to care about my daughter, but what could I do? She nursed at my breast like my sons had, she cried her tears in my lap, and she honored me by becoming a good and talented woman fluent in nu shu. Uncle's pearl was gone from him forever.
And in our local dialect, the word for wife is the same as the word for guest. For the rest of my life I would be merely a guest in my husband's home—not the kind you treat with special meals, gifts of affection, or soft beds, but the kind who is forever viewed as a foreigner, alien and suspect.
All of it was women's work—the very work that men think is merely decorative—and it was being used to change the lives of the women themselves.
As I came to the end, I added a few new sentiments. "Don't express misery where others can see you. Don't let sobbing build. Don't give ill-mannered people a reason to make fun of you or your family. Follow the rules. Smooth your anxious brow. We will be old sames forever."
We could not write anything too negative about our circumstances. This was tricky, since the very form of a married woman's letter needed to include the usual complaints—that we were pathetic, powerless, worked to the bone, homesick, and sad. We were supposed to speak directly about our feelings without appearing ungrateful, no-account, or unfilial.
Sons are the foundation of a woman's self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value... sons are a woman's crowning glory.
I retreated to the safety of the formal lines appropriate for a married woman, hoping this would remind Snow Flower that our only real protection as women was the placid face we presented, even in those moments of great distress.
Certainly Snow Flower would say something on his behalf. He was the first son after all. But my old same did not love the boy the way she should have.
And then the strangest thing happened. An image of my mother came to my mind. I remembered that as a child I'd wanted her to love me. I'd thought if I did everything she asked during my footbinding, I would earn her affection.
I thought I would never forgive Snow Flower, but instead of dwelling on that my mind tumbled with the realization that my laotong's womb had betrayed her again and that the tumor inside her must have been growing for many years. I had a duty to care...
So much of what happened reminded me of the didactic story that Aunt used to chant about the girl who had three brothers. I now understand that we learned those songs and stories not just to teach us how to behave but because we would be living out variations of them over and over again throughout our lives.