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Instead of watching an appropriately spooky flick for Halloween last night, I watched a Chinese film about females, foot binding (horrifying in its own right) and the fascinating friendship for life bond. The latter was formalized in a practice called laotong among a certain tribe in 19th century China. Before I explain to you the powerful beauty of laotong, I must first confess my fascination with Chinese history and culture—which I have to admit, I’ve mostly absorbed through the lens of historical fiction and film.

History Comes Alive with Personal Stories

I sincerely believe telling a compelling and emotional story about people you care about, fictional or otherwise, connects you to a time and place even more powerfully. Without sacrificing historical accuracy, context and the gravity of politics and economy on a nation or village or tribe at one point in time, the best storytellers emotionally bring you inside history. Amy Tan is a master at this, and so too is Lisa See, whose novel is the inspiration for last night’s film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.”

Both Tan and See share great respect for the bond between females, whether it is between mother and daughter or female contemporaries. In a culture where women were considered second-class to men—in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” character Lily is told not to worry essentially because only men have that privilege to think of the future and its implications on the family—this is a powerful way to bring light to the invisible women of Chinese history.

Females, Foot Binding and Friendship For Life in Chinese Film

The film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” begins in modern China, where two young women who became very close friends as children find their relationship splintered by time as their ambition, love lives and societal expectations pull them in different directions. As pre-teens, Nina and Sophia made a promise to be blood sisters, but their commitment wavers as they face adulthood. This mirrors the story of one of Sophia’s great-great-great ancestor—a female relative in 19th century China who made the commitment of laotong when she was just a little girl.

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In the Hunan Province, laotong (roughly translated as “old sames,” or “friends for life,” according to film producer Wendi Deng Murdoch) was a formalized relationship between women, even more sacred emotionally than the bond between man and wife, which was traditionally for economic and child-bearing reasons. Snow Flower and Lily had their foot binding at the same time as young girls. Astrologically matched, the highborn Snow Flower and the less-fortunate Lily had an arranged Laotong relationship. As children, together they reinforced the lessons they learned about being a proper woman and future wife, but more importantly, they provided emotional support to each other as they matured and waited for proper marriages to be arranged for them.

This tradition of breaking 6-year-old girl’s feet to make them tiny and aesthetically desirable gave even poor women the chance to marry well. Lily’s feet were particularly perfectly shaped after the binding, and she had the opportunity to transcend a low station in life to marry into very wealthy and respected family. Married off first, she and Snow Flower began writing messages on fans to convey messages to one another, even after they were forbidden to continue seeing each other. And yes, folks, that’s how we get the title of the movie.

True Friendship Rides the Ups and Downs of Time

The challenges Lily and Snow Flower face as individuals and friends mirrors the ones faced by their modern contemporaries, Nina and Sophia. Having the same actress play Lily and Nina, and another play both Snow Flower and Sophia is a beautiful film device to show how the past can hopefully do more than repeat the present, and instead, inform the present.

After having learned about Lily and Snow Flower through the book Sophia has written about her ancestors, her laotong Nina says, “The world is always changing. Every day it's changing. Everything in life is changing. We have to look inside ourselves to find what stays the same, such as loyalty, our shared history and love for each other. In them, the truth of the past lives on.”

Appropriately, producer Murdoch says In Huffington Post that it took the support and encouragement of her own family of lao tong—including my beloved Amy Tan—to overcome all the challenges of bring her first film to acclaimed fruition.

Why Else You Might Want to Watch This Film

  • Hugh Jackman, as Sophia’s boyfriend, sings a dinner theater song, in both English and Chinese.
  • The director is Wayne Wang, who also directed Joy Luck Club (one of my faves and a great book-to-film adaptation) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers…as well as Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday (we’ll try not to hold those against him).
  • The gorgeous scenery of the Chinese countryside!
  • The gorgeous Vivian Wu, of The Last Emperor and The Joy Luck Club stars as Sophia’s Aunt.
  • Because of this film, laotong became a trending topic on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, according to Wang. People across China have been inspired to renew their commitments with close friends. Wouldn’t it be great to see that movement across the U.S. too?

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