'Snow Flower' bridges women's experiences

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'Snow Flower' bridges women's experiences

by Lily Bixler on Monday, December 12, 2011 - 10:18am

Snow Flower and the Secret FanIn 1970s Shanghai, Sophia and Nina are digging through a box of family heirlooms when they come across tiny shoes. “What are these?” Sophia says. “They are so tiny.” These are for women with tiny bound feet, Sophia's aunt explains to the girls. “Three-inch golden lilies,” she says.

“She's talking about my mother's, mother's, mother's mother,” Sophia clarifies to her friend. As the story of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” progresses, the girls come to realize how their lives are intricately linked — and vastly different — from their 19th century foremothers.

This contrast is the premise of Director Wayne Wang's adaptation of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. While See's book is entirely set in the old days, Wang complicates the laotong, the ancient contract among female friends. His film adaptation shows how this contract operates with a 19th century set of friends and contrasts their relationship with another duo in contemporary China.

An intergenerational conversation

“(The story) is so interesting but it would be more interesting if we could bring contemporary Shanghai into this so we could see the paradoxes, so we could see how time has changed,” Wang said during a panel discussion at Stanford University. Such paradoxes in women's experiences across time are the catalyst for a conversation swelling up at Stanford University about intergenerational feminism. To facilitate this dialog, Stanford invited the driving forces behind the new film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” to campus for a screening and panel discussion with Wang, Director of Photography Richard Wong, Producer Wendi Murdoch and Amy Tan, the renowned author of The Joy Luck Club.

The movie highlights how female leadership — and perseverance through hardship — are transferred between generations. Viewers are invited into the lives of two sets of friends. 

Flash back to 1830s Hunan province: Snow Flower and Lily were from different social classes. A matchmaker set them up as life-long friends during their early years while their feet were bound.

Within this world, a woman's worth was based on her ability to bear sons. Her beauty was linked to her miniature “lily flower” feet, a complicated beauty construct, occurring until the 1940s, that required deforming foot binding among an estimated two billion women. 

The laotang, then and now

While arranged marriages may not have provided companionship for these women, they found friendship through the female contract, or laotang. Women often formed deep emotional connections with their laotong. “Men dominated the relationship and women had to kind of form these bonds together to have a real emotional life,” Wang explained.

Fast-forward to 1970s Shanghai to the other set of friends: Sophia and Nina. Coming from different socio-economic backgrounds, they go against their parents’ wishes and become friends. They sign their laotong on the back of their favorite album cover.

Both friendships face cultural limitations that test their laotong.

Often those limitations come from other women upholding patriarchal norms. In 19th century China, one of the young women married into a wealthy family and her mother-in law “Lady Lu” disapproved of her cross-class friendship with her laotong, who married into poverty. Lady Lu forbade the girls from visiting each other.

Similarly, in the more contemporary story thread, an archetypal well-to-do stepmother doesn't want her stepdaughter hanging out with her working-class laotong. At one point, the stepmother finds the girls dancing to rock-and-roll in her living room so she abruptly turns off the music and puts on a more becoming song to shape her daughter into a sophisticated, eligible woman.

In both cases, the young women buck their culture's expectations to be together.

The film helps to weave a thread between 19th century and contemporary China. Now modern women are tugging on that thread in an attempt to unravel the experiences of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. That exercise brings into focus unlikely comparisons between then and now. In fact, Murdoch explained that after the film release, the word laotong reemerged as a trendy colloquialism. The trend brings to bear current day experiences of close female friends compared to how women in the old days relied on the laotong.

During the panel discussion, Murdoch chimed in to share the experiences of the women in her family: her maternal grandmother died in childbirth; her other grandmother was illiterate; her mother was an engineer and a “tiger mom” who broke the one-child rule with three daughters and a son. Now, Murdoch is developing her own style of motherhood; instead of focusing on straight A’s, Murdoch asks her own 8-year-old whether she did her best.

“Things have changed,” she said.

“I think it's amazing that we have more choice but again, we torture ourselves with high heels,” said Murdoch, indicating to a pair of three-inch heels adorning her feet. “Also we feel insecure, and we have trouble with career and love life. That's why women friendships are important for all of us, to help us cope with life’s challenges and hardship and sharing and secrets.”


The panel discussion was organized by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society in collaboration with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, CDDRL Program on Social Entrepreneurship and Development, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS), Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) and SparkSF.

This conversation will continue Jan. 26 when feminist activist and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem comes to campus with leading editors, journalists and bloggers to discuss the future of feminism.

Lily Bixler is a Bay Area journalist and media specialist.  At the Clayman Institute, Lily works as a public relations consultant.