Tuesday, May 13

Good stuff

I stayed up 'til almost 2:00 am last night finishing a really good book. It's been a long time since I've been so obsessed with a book that I dismissed a decent bedtime to find out how it would end.

What book had me so wrapped up? It's called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. My boss finished it while on the plane last week, handed it to me and promised I'd love it. I picked it up Sunday night and absolutely loved it.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of two girls growing up in 19th century China. They survive the nightmare of foot binding and virtual imprisonment only to be married off to pray for the birth of a son to prove their worth. I'm not a fan of the way women were treated in 19th century China but this book tells a well-researched story in a lovely and thoughtful way. I wanted the main characters to just have those stupid sons and live happily ever after. Of course, that's not exactly what happens but it's a beautiful and unforgettable story nonetheless.

As I explained to Shandon, earlier this evening, I enjoy my historical fiction with a little freak in it (the Tudors, the Romanovs and so on). That's where the foot binding comes in. I won't go into the gory details of the practice (they are readily available online) but I can say that I really had NO idea how those tiny feet were forced into being. I will tell you that the desired foot length was 7 centimeters. That's about the length of a woman's thumb. I know. Once binding began, all of the girl's weight would fall on her big toe for the rest of her life. Nightmare! (Man, and I thought Steve Madden hated women!)

The foot binding is the topic everyone gets hung up on when I mention this book. It's too bad because, while it's certainly a part of the story, there is so much more to it. A perfectly bound foot was one way a girl's family could hope to match her with a good husband/provider. Of course, once a girl grew up and married she was then pretty much a slave to her husband's family. A slave who could never run away. This book, however, focuses on the culture women cultivated to support each other and survive. That's where the real story lies.

Part of the culture I knew nothing about was that of a secret women's script called nu shu. Women were, of course, not educated but they learned to read and write nu shu and passed the knowledge on to future generations. Men paid little attention to the characters believing anything an uneducated woman scribbled was not worthy of their attention. Women took advantage of this attitude and used nu shu to communicate with each other and share their stories. They would write letters, embroider messages on fabric and, in the case of the book, write to each other on fans to communicate. Nu shu was not known outside of this women's culture until the mid 20th century when authorities arrested a women and found letters written in the unknown script on her. The authorities suspected the writing on her strange documents to be a secret code outlining an espionage plot. (That poor woman!) Nu shu remained unknown to outsiders, in large part, because it was customary to burn a woman's letters and embroidery upon her death so her stories and words would float up and greet her in the afterlife. It's one of the few nice customs I heard of in the book. The downside is that, because of that practice, authentic Nu shu writings are extremely rare.

When I think of nu shu I can't help but imagine all of the wonderful stories that might have survived had women been able to blog anonymously about their lives hundreds of years ago. *sigh* Can you imagine? What a thought.

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