Secret Fans and Social Construction: An Essay on Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the life story of a Chinese woman, Lily, and her best friend, a woman named Snow Flower. They are bound as best friends in a traditional ceremony for life, much in the same manner as a husband and wife are bound together. Similarly, the relationship that Lily has with Snow Flower is almost romantic in nature. The two women share a bed, express their deepest feelings for each other, and even exhibit jealousy towards other women that may impede their own relationship. In fact, the romantic relationship seems to have been almost encouraged by the ceremony and ritual that surround Lily and her darling Snow Flower. In fact, in one review of the book, the writer says that “The book has many romantic undercurrents; indeed, it’s clear that the girls’ true romantic relationship is with each other, not the men they marry” (Douglas 87). This novel not only supports the theory of homosexuality by social construction, but it also exhibits Adrienne Rich’s theory of the lesbian continuum.
Sexuality as a social construct is not to think about sexuality as simply biological, but to also look at sexuality through economic, political, familial, and social conditions (Plummer 1). In other words, ideas of hetero, homo, or bisexuality are created by social norms and regulated by social systems. This theory states that people are not autonomous in their behaviors, but instead influenced by the social networks they are embedded in (Namaste 222). One example of this is that homosexuals did not exist until the label “homosexual” was given to them, though homosexual practices did exist (Namaste 222). By giving a label to the practices of homosexuality, the homosexual became fundamentally different than the heterosexual. Thus, sexualities were constructed through social processes.
In addition, the theory idea of lesbian continuum, as stated by Adrienne Rich, is a range of women-identified experiences, throughout life and history (Rich, 19). She goes so far as to suggest that every relationship that a woman has with another woman can be considered “lesbian,” especially if the two women share experiences, emotions, and bonding against male tyranny (Rich, 20).
But what does this have to do with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? When the two theories are combined, it shows that the laotong relationship is not only an example of Rich’s lesbian continuum, but it also shows how social behaviors can influence, and construct, sexual desire.
The story of the novel is focused on the relationship that Lily has with her laotong, Snow Flower. The word laotong means “old same” or “perfect match” (Brickman). The purpose of the laotong was to act as soul mates throughout life and help one another through the sorrows and joys of life (Long). In fact, unlike other relationships a woman had in life, a laotong was not absolved at marriage. (See 315). The two women who were “old sames” would remain friends until death.
These relationships were quite rare. A laotong match required many different aspects of the girls’ lives to complement each other. The “eight characters” have to be a match, meaning economic status, placement in the family, birthdates, and other characteristics must be compatible (See 675). This was so important, that a laotong match required a matchmaker. If the eight characters were in alignment, and both families agreed on the match, the girls would go through rituals and eventually sign a contract, binding them for life. This match is executed with such care and precision that it becomes clear to the reader just how much importance society puts on the potential laotong relationship. In fact, the heroine’s aunt states, “A laotong match is as significant as a good marriage” (See 736). She goes on to say that an “old same” is important because it is “a match made by choice for the purpose of eternal companionship and emotional fidelity…” and not just to “have sons” (See 736). Right away, there are connections being made to the social construction of this nearly romantic bond, but also ideas of female relationships being stronger than those women have with men.
The social practices associated with the laotong match further support the idea of homosexuality as a social construct. On particular social practice that immediately sheds a light on how “romantic” the laotong relationship is intended to be if the process of becoming laotong. This process is strikingly similar to the engagement process and marriage ceremony. Instantly, the idea of laotong as a sort of socially desirable same sex marriage partner becomes clear to the reader. It is in this way that the lesbian undercurrents of the novel are socially constructed.
The first similarity between the laotong process and the engagement process is the use of the matchmaker. In See’s novel, the matchmaker that arranges the marriages for the family also arranges the laotong relationship between Snow Flower and Lily. Madame Wang has total control of both relationships, as girl will not meet her laotong or her future husband until the process has been finalized.
The second similarity between a laotong relationship and that of a husband and wife is the exchange of gifts. The families of both girls were to participate in a “constant exchange of gifts” which would become part of “what might be considered a ‘wedding gift’ exchange” (See 760-761). Lily and Snow Flower exchange a variety of gifts including shoes, silks, fans, even food to their laotong and her family. The same gifts are exchanged with the future husbands. A girl must make shoes for him and his family and send food in honor of her fertility and fidelity (See 1152).
The final major similarity between the laotong process and the marriage process is the use of contracts and promises of fidelity. Upon Lily and Snow Flower’s first meeting they are taken to the city to buy a piece of paper on which to write their laotong contract (See 850). In the same way, the matchmaker arranges a contract between betrothed and their families, or a “contract of kin” (See 595). Not only is the use of the contract present in both instances, but it is also imperative that both parties stick to the promises made in the contract. Lily and her husband often struggle with his desire for concubines and her need to be true. Similarly, Madame Wang jokes that in Lily and Snow Flower’s relationship there are “no…concubines allowed” (See 897-898).
Though there are very strong similarities between the rituals of a laotong and a marriage, this is not the only way that the other women in the novel socially construct the lesbian desire. A more prevalent way the homosexual undercurrents are constructed is simply through the behavior of the women.
The women in the novel are constantly comparing the relationship between Snow Flower and Lily to that of a marriage. The matchmaker, Madame Wang, says, “Like a marriage between a man and a woman kind ones go with kind ones…But, unlike marriage, this relationship will be exclusive…This is a joining of two hearts that cannot be torn apart…” (See 896-897).
The women in Lily’s family are constantly reminding Lily to be faithful to Snow Flower above all else. The respect that Lily is taught to have for Snow Flower is nearly as high as she is taught to have for her husband.
The relationship between the two women is further encouraged through ways sleeping arrangements and “bed business” are presented in the novel. When Snow Flower comes to stay with Lily and her family, the laotongs share a bed. This would be a normal occurrence, as sisters and family members often shared beds in 19th century China. However, what is particularly significant about the sleeping arrangements is that the other women in Lily’s family moved their beds to the opposite side of the room, giving the two girls space and privacy. This sets the relationship between the girls as different from that of a sisterly bond or that just between friends. By giving privacy to the girls on the other side of the room, the women in the family are encouraging a different relationship between the two girls. In See’s novel, sharing the bed leads to sexual experimentation between the two girls (See 1388-1456). Again, by making the sleeping situation between the laotongs an “other” compared to the sleeping arrangements between the other women in the household, it is socially encouraged that the relationship be different. The sexual experimentation between the girls was expected and influenced by social behaviors of the other members in the household.
In addition, after the girls are married, their husbands are asked to leave the room so the laotongs can sleep together. Not only does this put the laotong on the same level of importance as that of the relationship between a husband and wife, but it also removes the husband from engaging in sexual activity with his wife. This not only makes it impossible for the husband to impregnate his wife, which is the only purpose of being married, but it also effectively bonds that laotong against the “tyranny of patriarchy” which puts them inside Rich’s lesbian continuum. It also, once again, sets up the relationship between the two girls as “other.” They are something that is powerful enough to kick the husband out of the bedroom. In this way, the laotong is further separated in See’s novel, and is socially constructed as an “other.”
Interestingly, there is no mention that the girls have a relationship that is more than friends. However, as pointed out in a book review, China announced that homosexuality does not exist in their nation (DeCrescenzo 1). This, too, points in the direction of homosexuality as a social construct. Due to the fact that China claimed homosexuality did not exist, there was no “homosexuality,” though See makes it clear that there were homosexual practices. This could be why See avoided stating that there was a strong romantic bond between the two characters. She chooses to, instead, portray this to the reader through the use of “love letters” and the physical closeness between the girls (DeCrescenzo 1).
The novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliant and engaging work by Lisa See. It is a wonderful depiction of the strong bond of friendship two girls can have for each other. However, when read closely, it becomes clear that friendship is not the only thing the girls feel for each other. The relationship Lily and Snow Flower have for each other falls cleanly into Adrienne Rich’s theory of lesbian continuum. They have a strong bond with each other and support each other through the trials of a patriarchal society. In addition, the way the relationship is encouraged through the social practices and customs of the community constructs the lesbian undercurrents the heroine feels for her laotong. This also falls into the recent social construction theory of queer studies. Lisa See presents a strong an interesting bond between the two characters through her use of ritual, social customs, and beautiful language throughout her novel. It is clear that Lily and Snow Flower did share what See calls “deep-heart love” (See 71).
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