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Lily, a young girl in 19th-century China, gets a sworn sister, or laotong, named Snow Flower. From a very young age, the two best friends write to each other and share many experiences over the years. From the anguish of footbinding, to the negotiations of married life, to the aftermath of a rebellion, they stand by and strengthen each other - until misunderstandings threaten to tear their friendship apart.
In addition to emphasizing footbinding, the book also talks extensively about nu shu, the secret phonetic alphabet only written and understood by women. A movie was released in July 2011, which included 21st-century China sections with Lily and Snow Flower's actresses playing their modern-day counterparts.
- The Atoner: At the end of the book, Lily. The book and confession is her atonement.
- Character Name and the Noun Phrase
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Seen in all of the characters' attitude towards footbinding.
- Domestic Abuse: Snow Flower is the victim of it, as is Lily's sister.
- Everything's Worse with Bees: Beautiful Moon dies from anaphylactic shock after being stung.
- I Should Write a Book About This: Taken even further -- after her husband's death, Lily dedicates the rest of her life to becoming a scribe to tell the stories of all the women that she can. This particular book is just one of many; only special because it's her autobiography.
- Imperial China
- Impoverished Patrician: Snow Flower and her family spoke of being high ranking and well off but it turns out to be false. She is forced to marry a butcher (which is one of lowest ranking professions culturally) and her parents disappear after she is married, their money long gone.
- However, this means that her laotong match with Lily is a shrewd one - a high-ranking but poor family is linked to a family that has no history but is rising in the world, and Snow Flower's refined manners prepare the family for moving into higher circles.
- Infant Immortality: Averted.
- Snow Flower suffers from several stillbirths and miscarriages during the course of the book.
- While escaping from the revolution into the mountains Lily sees many children who were abandoned by their parents and most likely doomed.
- The youngest son of Snow Flower dies during the time spend on the mountains.
- Inherent in the System: Footbinding. Tiny feet are the sign of beauty, grace, and good breeding; the line of mothers crippling their daughters in a mutually agonizing tough-love scenario is never shown as having an ending in the course of the story. It won't be done away with for hundreds of years.
- Jerkass: The butcher (Snow Flower's husband). He gets better towards the end of book, showing guilt over how he treated his wife as she lays weak and dying.
- Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Unlike Snow Flower, whose husband is mean, Lily's husband is a nice guy.
- The Plot Reaper: Beautiful Moon dies... pretty much because there's nowhere else for her story to go. Sure, she could have a peaceful, uneventful marriage and keep in touch with Lily and Snow Flower, but that's boring.
- Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Lily and Snow Flower's friendship has overtones of this.
- Shown Their Work
- The Unfavorite: Snow Flower's eldest son is this. Culturally he would be one if not the most important person in his family but it passed over for his younger brother.
- Lily lampshades this while she and Snow Flower's family are hiding in the mountains. There is little food but what they have is rationed out between Snow Flower's husband, Mother in-law, Lily (due to her family connections), and the youngest son leaving Snow Flower and the eldest boy out. Lily notes that as the oldest male child the boy is entitled to more food the either the butcher or herself and tries to give him some of her's before the butcher intervenes. Ironically shortly after the younger son dies but older one survives to reach adulthood
- Unlucky Childhood Friend: Snow Flower. And how!
Tropes used in the movie:
- Acting for Two / Adaptation Expansion: The 21st century sections feature Lily/Nina (wait, what?) and her best friend Snow Flower/Sophia. Their discovery of the title fan helps them work through a rough patch in their friendship.
- Gorgeous Period Dress