On my 13th birthday, I was furiously handed a copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette: The Guide to Gracious Living as my desperate cries for Madonna’s Erotica album were sternly dismissed. Phrases of “Learn to behave like a lady” and “Beauty comes from pain”, swayed alongside numerous sermons on feminine mannerisms that became a major part of my teenage life. The former was courteously bestowed advising as to how a bra was essentially an undergarment and not a lacy billboard (Hey! I say blame Madonna!), likewise when the resonance of my beer burps would put a bull horn to shame. The latter was peculiarly used by a genteel woman who tried waxing my legs for the first time and ended up being kicked out of her chair. I certainly showed her the “beauty of my pain”. Over the years, my grandma’s constant remarks(or ‘blessings’ as she would term it) on how it was important to be a dutiful wife to a husband and bear him a son was spitefully argued by me threatening dire consequences if she did not shut her mouth. Now, when I sometimes think of it, I regret of not giving a chance to understanding her frame of mind or the environment which she was raised in. My grandmother grew up humbly in the 1920s with disciplinary feminine etiquettes given a higher preference over academia, whereas I was nurturing on a steady diet of Beverly Hills 90210 & Co. Our worlds were separated through an entire generation and I could never comprehend her anxiety towards my adulthood.
Lisa See speaks of an earlier communal generation our evolved minds scorn or laugh away without giving a chance for a valid rationalization. It was a sisterhood sworn for life where happiness and sadness were shared through a secret language in an era, where ‘fate was predestined’ and ‘golden lilies’ were not flowers but an agonizing ordeal bound by austere customs. Lily who was born in the third year of the Emperor Daoguang’s sovereignty (1823) was the second daughter of a modest farmer.To brighten her prospects of finding a prosperous groom Lily’s first break from tradition came through a her laotong or same old– Snow Flower from Tongkou county. Snow Flower would now be Lily’s soul sister forming an undying bond of sisterhood sharing their life, desolations, joy and pledging loyalty to each other through nu-shu, a clandestine language exclusively learned to share their innermost grievances. From the tender age of seven, both these girls evenly obeyed customary rituals, right from bearing the treacherous process of foot-binding to a dedicated living after their marriages and heartbreaking miscarriages. As observed in the book, the story seems to be an outright semi-autobiographical sketch of Lily Lu. Contrary, this overwhelming portrayal is solely about Snow Flower and her altruistic allegiance to Lily as her laotong. The relation between these two women speaks volumes of a philosophical friendship formed through secret scriptures carved on a fan acting as link in a world where women were not allowed to love but comply with the concept of obligatory love that came with their designated roles of a daughter, wife, mother and finally as the matriarchal head of the family.
Lisa See manages to bring forth various staunch customs that were a stubborn part of a culture centuries ago. The inhumane(as I assert my belief) tradition of foot-binding that required fastening the feet of a young girl into a form of a lotus bud restricting the length to seven centimeters for the reason that the “golden lilies” (feet) were a mark of magnificence and its aptness was a standing for forthcoming prosperities. Debatably, inflexible rituals were a part of any culturally strong society prevailing over hundreds of years proclaiming the belief that women were meant to suffer as they were insignificant individuals to their natal families and at most times seen as a mere vessel to carry a male progeny. Several derogating customs imposed on women throughout centuries like child marriages, foot-binding, insulting display of conforming virginities, dowry regulations and many more have fortunately been banished from the current evolved civilization. The one I am extremely curious about is the Burmese Long Neck Women of the Kayan tribe abiding the tradition of compactly casing a brass coil around their necks to attain ‘Giraffe necks’ associated with beauty. Although most of them have been banished from the law of the land yet, a few have escaped the judicial eye occurring in many ethnic tribal regions of the global panorama. Female genital mutilation to speak of still thrives in the deep pockets of the African sub-continent whereas female infanticide resulting through pressure of birthing a male heir and concealed dowry deaths still see the daylight in rural Indian landscapes. Let alone vast cases of domestic abuse utilized to confirm the marital dominance. O boy! Before my inner feminist crosses the edge of civility, let me move further with this review.
The significant practice of nu shu as a communicative pathway disappeared with future generations and its traces can now only be found in the memories of elderly ladies. Reading this book made stop to reflect on the rearing of my grandmother wrapped up in customary obligations of compact arranged marriages, the responsibility of bearing a son and the preferences given to her several brothers over the girls. I can’t even imagine going beyond her mother’s generation and the suffrage women endured in the name of tradition.
Lisa See always manages to hit close to home with all her narrations, fortunately not intimately. The book is an absolute page-turner because it not only restrict you from putting it down but empathize a noble sisterhood defining the loyalty of a selfless love in an era where rigidity of foot-binding swallowed up one’s heart.