Writer Lisa See examines the secluded world of women in 19th century China in her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The book looks into footbinding, arranged marriages, and a secret form of writing used by women.
Women developed the phonetic script called "nu shu," or "female writing," centuries ago in Jiangyong County, Hunan province. They used it to communicate with close friends, who were often sent to distant villages after their marriages. Ms. See, a Los Angeles-based author, visited the region for her research.
"I interviewed a lot of people there, including a woman, who, at that time, was the oldest living 'nu shu' writer. She was 96-years-old when I met her, very tiny, very frail," she said. "Her skin was like tissue paper. She had bound feet."
The bound feet were the legacy of another centuries-old practice. Many girls had their feet wrapped tightly to keep them small. As the girls grew, the bones of their feet would break, leaving them with tiny feet, which were attractive to men, but painful to walk on.
Footbinding, the secret code of "nu shu" writing and arranged marriages all shaped the world of women in Jiangyong County of the 19th century, when the novel is set. Ms. See says her visit to the region helped her understand the lives of women there.
"I really saw how the architecture of that particular area had affected the culture and the lives of women," she said. "For example, when girls had their feet bound at age six, they moved upstairs into their families' homes into what was called the 'women's chamber.' And they had one window to look out of. And in that room, they would do their embroidery, and they would work on their dowries, and they would learn the secret writing."
At 17, a woman would typically move to the home of her husband, where she would also spend her days in the women's chamber.
Women did household chores, and encoded their thoughts in their secret writing. Ms. See says, often, they placed the characters in their embroidery, or hid the writing in the folds of fans, as they told of their dreams, accomplishments and sorrows.
"And they used it to, in a sense, fly out of those single windows that they had to look out of, fly across the fields to other villages, where they could find other women, who would hear them, who would listen to their sorrows, who would understand the tragedies, and sometimes happiness, that happened in their life," explained Ms. See.
Chinese authorities discovered the secret language in the 1960s, and, at first, suppressed it, suspecting it was related to international espionage. Today, there are efforts to preserve the language, and novels like Ms. See's that celebrate it.
Lisa See deals with Chinese themes in all of her books. Three were mysteries, and her first, On Gold Mountain, examined her family's life in California. She says few would guess her heritage just by looking at her.
"The people who are listening cannot see me, but I have red hair and freckles," she said. "You know, I do not look Chinese, physically, at all, but, here in Los Angeles, I have about 400 relatives, of which there are about a dozen that look like me, and the rest are full Chinese. And, so, I grew up in a very traditional Chinese family."
That background informs her work. Ms. See is working on another historical novel, based on the lives of three women writers. All were wives of the same husband. They lived in 17th century China, and wrote a commentary on the Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion.