As women, Lily and Snow Flower are forbidden from learning "men's writing" and instead learn nu shu, a form of writing created by and for women to communicate secretly with each other. Nu shu, however, isn't just writing in the conventional sense; it encompasses an entire cultural system that is specifically female, comprised of songs and stories meant to be performed for other women, embroidery and other textile work, and more conventional correspondence, like written prayers, stories, and autobiographies. While men's writing is logographic (each character represents a whole or part of a word), nu shu is a phonetic script, making the understanding of its written form dependent entirely on context. This idea that language can be slippery and confusing drives many of the conflicts of the novel, but the fact that language, and women's language in particular, is powerful also offers a sense of purpose to women who otherwise are considered useless.
Lily as the narrator peppers her story with asides that explain some of the intricacies of how her region's dialect informs certain cultural ideals, such as the words for "shoe" and "child" being the same, and the word for "wife" being the same as the word for "guest." Through these asides, the reader is reminded that language doesn't just describe something; through its very structure it can actually create and reinforce meaning. Lily states that as the language implies, a wife is merely a guest in her husband's home, and a guest in terms of an alien foreigner rather than someone to be respected. This builds on the idea that language is powerful and can be used to exert control, as so many of the women in the novel are treated as aliens in their husbands' homes.
In an opposite way, this concept extends to the practice of nu shu, as the language is constructed and described as one of the only ways women are able to express themselves and obtain some degree of control and power over their own lives. It allows women to communicate secretly with each other and express thoughts and desires not considered appropriate to express in any other format. Most importantly, Lily comes to realize that while nu shu is supposed to be secret from men, men certainly know of its existence and can likely read it. She realizes then that the power of nu shu comes from the fact that the female lives and struggles the script is intended to express are deemed worthless, and therefore not worth a man's time to censor.
While language at times works to control and assert power, the novel also places a great deal of emphasis on instances where language is ambiguous or misunderstood. While language is used by Lily and Snow Flower to build their relationship, it also works to tear it apart when Lily misunderstands, for example, Madame Gao's use of the word "pipe" (mistakenly understanding that Snow Flower's father uses the pipe for tobacco, rather than opium) or misreads nu shu and believes that Snow Flower has violated their laotong relationship. At Snow Flower's death, then, Lily must come to terms with the fact that she spent much of her life misunderstanding the language that was supposed to provide her with both power and emotional intimacy. This recalls the idea that language contains multiple levels of meaning and requires a great deal of nuance to understand. As Lily accepts her lack of knowledge in that realm, she learns too late that the nuance required to understand nu shu is something she should have applied to all aspects of her life.
Lily ends her life as a powerful woman, and spends her final years transcribing the stories of women who cannot read or write nu shu. During these last years especially, her lifelong education in language is completed, as she finally has the freedom and power to turn her own life into nu shu songs and stories to teach Snow Flower's granddaughter, thereby giving value to her own life and experiences through language.
Language, Storytelling, and Communication ThemeTracker
Language, Storytelling, and Communication Quotes in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
"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."
"Each word must be placed in context," she reminded us each day at the end of our lesson. "Much tragedy could result from a wrong reading."
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.
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.
... Now that I lived in the Lu household, where all the men knew men's writing, I saw that our secret women's writing wasn't much of a secret. Then it dawned on me that men throughout the county had to know about nu shu. How could they not? ... Men just considered our writing beneath them.
With her bold act, I realized the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands' families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written.
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.
The butcher's brokenhearted question was one that appeared in many nu shu stories and songs. I glanced at the faces of the other women around the fire and saw their unspoken question: Could a man—this butcher—feel the same despair and sadness that we women feel when we lose a child?
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.