Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of Lily and Snow Flower, two girls born in the 19th century in China's Hunan province and bonded as a laotong pair. This relationship makes them closer than sisters or even husband and wife, but the pressures of the time and Lily's impetuous mindset tears them apart. The two experience wildly divergent lives before Lily returns to Snow Flower to nurse her through her final illness. The story is narrated by an old and regretful Lily.
In rural Hunan province, a county in China, Lily and her friend Snow Flower are a laotong pair whose sisterly relationship is far stronger and closer than a husband and wife's. Lily's aunt describes a laotong match this way: "'A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose— to have sons.
The two girls experience the painful process of foot binding at the same time. Foot-binding was the tradition of binding a young daughter's feet by wrapping cloth around their feet tightly and forcing them to walk until their bones broke and were easier to mold and change, then tightening the bindings as time progressed. The ideal foot (called Golden Lotus) was about 7 cm (approximately 3 inches) in length. To understand this, the book draws the parallel: "Men in China feel about women's feet as men in west do about a woman's legs."
They write letters to one another on a fan with Nü Shu, a secret phonetic form of 'women's writing which Lily's aunt taught them.' In addition to the language itself, the young women learn Nü Shu songs and stories.
Both friends are born under the sign of the Horse, but they are quite different. Lily is practical, her feet firmly set on the ground, while Snow Flower attempts to fly over the constrictions of women's lives in the 19th century in order to be free. Their lives differ as well. Although Lily comes from a family of relatively low station, her feet are considered beautiful and play a role in her marriage into the most powerful family in the region. Lily is later known as Lady Lu, the region's most influential woman and a mother to four healthy children (three sons and one daughter). Although Snow Flower comes from a formerly prosperous family, she is not so fortunate. She marries a butcher, culturally considered the lowest of professions, and has a miserable life filled with children dying and beatings at the hand of her husband.
The novel depicts human suffering in many ways: the physical and psychological pain of foot binding; the suffering of women of the time, who were treated as property; the terrible trek up the mountains to escape from the horrors of the Taiping Rebellion; the painful return down the mountain trail with dead bodies everywhere. Some estimate that the number of people killed during the rebellion was approximately twenty million.
The detailed treatment of the suffering which Lily and Snow Flower experience in their laotong relationship is a major aspect of the book. Lily's need for love and her inability to forgive what she considers to be acts of betrayal cause her to inflict harm on many people, Snow Flower most of all. Believing that Snow Flower has not been true to her, Lily betrays her by sharing all her private secrets to a group of women, virtually destroying Snow Flower's reputation. When Snow Flower is dying, Lily is called to her bedside and tends to her until the end.
As the book returns to the present (1903), Lily is an 80-year-old woman who has lived forty years after her dearest friend's death. Her own husband and children have since died, and she quietly watches the next generation in her home.