In the beautifully written novel Snowflower and the Secret Fan, author Lisa See explores the life of Chinese women in the Hunan Province during the 19th century. Through the main character, Lily, we gain insight into the process of footbinding, arranged marriages, women’s relationships, and a secret women’s writing called nu shu. The novel itself creates an incredible sense of time and place, illustrating with detail the cultural atmosphere of that era. Lisa See transports you to rural China with ease and seduces you to stay awhile.
One of the most interesting and difficult passages of the book for me to read was Lily’s footbinding ordeal. At about age seven, Lily, her younger sister, and her cousin are confined to the women’s rooms and for two years endure the torture of having their feet crippled into lily feet. Lily’s binding was especially important because the village matchmaker believed her properly bound feet would make her an excellent marriage match.
The process of footbinding involved folding the toes under the feet and then binding the feet so that they were in line with the legs. The girls were forced to walk on these bound feet daily with the goal being to break the toes and arches. Once that goal was achieved, the feet were bound tighter and tighter. Muscle atrophy began and the feet started to shrink. This system continued until the desired effect was achieved – tiny lily feet, considered to be extremely beautiful and sexually appealing.
I cannot fathom the pain and suffering these little girls endured. And who was responsible for this torture? Their own mothers!!! They bound the girls’ feet, they made them walk on the broken bones, and punished them when they did not obey. It is true that footbinding was a way for these girls to marry well, to increase their status in society, and to bring honor to their families – lofty goals for women at that time in Chinese history. And certainly goals any mother would desire for her daughter. As repulsive as I found the ritual itself and the mothers’ behavior to be, the reality was that this was a completely acceptable and expected cultural practice.
Through Lily and her mother, Lisa See introduces a concept called mother love.
“In our country we call this type of mother love teng ai. My son has told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain, the second means love. That is a mother’s love.” Snowflower and the Secret Fan
I really, really wanted to reject this concept with my entire being. My modern mommy brain struggled (and is still struggling) to grasp this entire concept. That a mother would willingly inflict that level of pain and suffering on her own child for the possibility of a better life for her daughter and honor for herself was beyond me. I was certain I could never love my child in a way that would hurt them. But, as it turns out, I am a hypocrite. For two weeks I practiced my very own form of mother love, willfully hurting my own child for what I believe to be his greater, long term good.
My youngest son has a mouthful of teeth that requires a great deal of expensive orthodontic intervention. The beginning of this long process was the placement of a palate expander, a device placed in the roof of the mouth and attached to molars. With the turn of a small key, the expander pushes against the upper jaw, widening it and making space for the crowded teeth. I was the bearer and turner of the key, mostly because my hands are smaller than my husband’s and can fit more easily into the small space of my son’s mouth.
The first two turns were done at the orthodontist’s office. Looking into my son’s face, I knew the pain was instant and severe. Pain has to be pretty intense for this guy to complain. He once fell out of the tub, whacked his head on the toilet so hard that he chipped the tank and dented his forehead and he didn’t even whimper. Well, the palate expander did him in. He asked for Tylenol like it was candy and spent entire days dreading the evening key turning ordeal. For fourteen days, we both had to endure the trauma of cranking the palate expander.
I thought a lot about teng ai during those two weeks. I was willfully injuring my son because I believed that the outcome would improve his quality of life. It hurt my heart to do it, but it didn’t stop me. And if I had to do another two week stint (which was a possibility), I would have done that, too. His teeth needed work. They were affecting his ability to speak clearly and would ultimately affect his appearance. If I am going to be completely honest with myself, I believe what I have done will help my little boy be the best he can be in this life.
I am not really comparing a palate expander to footbinding. But I am comparing my motives to Lily’s mother’s, and we are not so very different. We both desire the best in life for our children. We want them to be better people than we are, to have a better life than we do. Those expectations mixed with our own pride and ambition are what create mother love. And it doesn’t have to be physical pain that we inflict. Sometimes, the emotional pain caused by pushing and prodding our children to be what we want them to be instead of who they are can be more damaging than any physical mark. I firmly believe mother love is universal – not just confined to China in the 19th century or my own experience.
I thank God that I don’t have to be a mother on my own. He tempers my mother love with a heavenly view of what real love looks like – forgiveness, compassion, grace, mercy, and unconditional acceptance with no strings attached. Instead of wanting worldly success for my children, He desires them to have a heart for Him. Today, I lay my mother love at His feet, knowing that he will take my imperfect efforts and turn them into something beautiful. Or into three beautiful someones – my daughter and two sons.