This is a Carnival of Aces submission by the same author as the previous post/submission.
I was around 15 or so, a sophomore in high school, when I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. It was an assigned book in the literature class. Something about the novel really clicked with me, so it’s one of the few high-school-required-readings-that-everyone-hates that I actually enjoyed, and have returned to sporadically since and have even read some of her other novels. I didn’t know I was aromantic and asexual then, and wouldn’t until I was 24. In hindsight, I think the asexual subtext of the novel drew me in, as an unknowingly aro ace teenager. This is a historical novel, meant to recreate a specific historical period for a 21st century readership, with no intention to show or explore queerness in any way. So I hope we all can appreciate the irony that Lisa See managed to write a novel that resonates with modern century aromanticism and asexuality anyway.
The novel chronicles the lives of two women in rural 19th century China. The protagonist Lily is matched to Snow Flower as a laotong, an old same, to serve as formal, lifelong emotional companions to each other. Their relationship grows through their education in nu shu, a writing system invented by the local women to communicate in secret. As they grow up, they confide in each other over the typical experiences of women of the time: foot binding, betrothal, marriage, and motherhood. But diverging life experiences, compounding tragedies, and misunderstandings drive a rift between then that threatens to tear their lifelong relationship apart. Expect spoilers.
The Limits of My Analysis
Obviously there is a fundamental limit on how well the laotong model and queerplatonic relationship model can be equated and how to interpret Lily’s sexuality. QPRs are a niche aromantic and asexual relationship model developed primarily for a Western, heavily white, 21st century queer community, and are meant to question the primacy and necessity of romance for committed relationships. Old sames were a relationship model used in rural, agrarian Imperial China, where marriage was a pre-arranged economic contract, sex was a reproductive duty rather than a pursuit for pleasure and attraction, and romance was never a factor. Further, there is an inescapable historical and racial component to the novel that complicates transposing modern sexualities onto any characters. And I’m a white, American aro ace. My analysis should not be treated as Gospel.
Is Lily Asexual?
Yes, probably. As much as our community beats the drum of “lack of attraction” over “disinterest in or repulsion to sex” as the definition of asexuality, the second is a common feature of asexuality and it is the primary piece of evidence the novel offers. Evidence of Lily’s complete disinterest in sex can be seen throughout her life. Lily’s participation in marital sex is chore-like—sex as chore being a common sentiment among aces who consent to it within their relationships. Lily’s dutiful but unenthusiastic participation in it contrasts with many of the other women in the novel. Snow Flower repeatedly describes sex with her husband as a pleasurable and desirable activity—a revelation that baffles Lily. Lily further recounts the number of times she has heard older women make risqué jokes or opining the expectation of chastity for widows. And once Lily enters her fifties and loses fertility, she has a plausible reason to opt out of sex and does so immediately. While part of her post-fertility chastity is for religious purification and contemplation, she is also clearly happy to be rid of sex as an expectation of her. For the sake of her husband, she even brings multiple concubines into the household for his enjoyment (remember, this was Imperial China and concubinage was an accepted practice for men of means). Our community may recognize this as asexual people being in polyamorous or open relationships for the sake of a sex-favorable partner. Lily is the odd one out among women in the novel for her total lack of interest in sex, and that says to me that Lily is asexual regardless of authorial intent (given this book was published in 2005, Lisa See knowing about asexuality is unlikely).
Laotong as a Queerplatonic Relationship
Even with my previous statement about the problems of trying to equate QPRs with historical, non-Western relationship models, Lily’s and Snow Flower’s partnership maps very well onto many of the conventions and aspirations of the queerplatonic partnership model. First, their laotong relationship has cultural recognition and support, on par with their upcoming betrothals. The matchmaker Madame Wang is the one who arranges the two girls to be old sames at a young age, right alongside negotiating their marriage contracts. Lily’s parents agree to the laotong union for the same familial alliance and economic advancement opportunities that her marriage will provide. Lily’s partnership actually enhances her value as a potential bride.
Rather than being treated as inferior to matrimony, their companionship even supersedes their marriages in a few ways. For example, it is customary for old-same to share a bed when visiting each other, taking precedent even over the husband’s right to access to his wife’s bed (for, you know, sex). For another, a good laotong partnership is repeatedly described as more intimate than and as socially valuable as a good marriage. And another, holidays and festivals are spent in the company of each other instead of their spouses, akin to how modern holidays are considered ideal time to spend with a lover. Further, a laotong is differentiated from a sworn-sisterhood. A sworn-sisterhood provides a friendship and support network for women but is dissolved upon matrimony, hence why sworn-sisterhood is for unwedded girls and elderly widows only. Being old sames, by contrast, is not subordinate to marriage because that relationship endures across a lifetime and retains the same social cachet regardless of marital status.
Second, the emotional and behavioral expectations of a laotong system mirror the norms of the queerplatonic model. Again, bed-sharing between old sames is commonplace and normalized, one of the many platonic-touch allowances that I frequently see on discussions of QPRs. Further, the very purpose of a laotong is to provide lifelong intimacy and companionship for women that their heterosexual marriages, by design, do not. Lily’s husband, for example, is cordial but emotionally distant from his wife, and he is praised as an ideal husband for it. The depth of their laotong relationship is such that the day Snow Flower dies, Lily considers herself a widow (even though her husband is still alive), and she becomes surrogate mother to Snow Flower’s surviving children. All of these things show the high level of emotional commitment that QPRs mean to decouple and expand from romance. Regardless of whether laotong should be considered a QPR or even a forerunner thereof, I consider it a useful modeling of one, a portrait of what committed relationships outside of romance can do and be.
Lily, Snow Flower, and Non-Normative Relationship Failure
As explained by Madame Wang when first telling Lily and Snow Flower about their new relationship, a laotong partnership requires absolute exclusivity and fidelity. No concubines allowed, as Madame Wang tartly puts it. Among other things, joining a sworn-sisterhood is forbidden for those with a laotong. That fidelity is even a concern—that one can cheat on an old same like one can cheat on a spouse—demonstrates the level of seriousness and investment being old sames represents. In the novel, Lily’s and Snow Flower’s companionship falls apart over the years for many reasons: dirty family secrets are revealed (Snow Flower’s father bankrupted her once noble family with his opium addiction), changes in their respective social standing create an ever-growing rift (the peasant-born Lily marries up into the local landed gentry, while the highborn Snow Flower marries down into the working class), and the different outcomes of their marriages set them on diverging paths for the rest of their lives (Lily lives a sheltered, privileged life with a good husband, while Snow Flower lives with an abusive husband in poverty, stigma, and misfortune).
What seals the doom of their relationship is that Snow Flower, realizing that Lily will not provide the emotional support she needs, starts mentoring—not joining—a trio of sworn sisters in nu shu. These sworn-sisters, having shared many of Snow Flower’s hardships, are better able to empathize with her miseries than the more fortunate Lily. Lily mistakes this for an infidelity to their laotong relationship and ruins what is left of Snow Flower’s reputation in retaliation until the truth is spoon-fed to her. Lily basically reacts like every modern “My girlfriend cheated on me and I’m spiteful about it” song.
I haven’t seen any discussion, anywhere, ever, of what infidelity means in the context of a QPR. Partly because QPR’s are often more theory than practice for the aromantic and asexual communities. Partly because we don’t like talking about failures in non-normative relationships. And partly because QPRs are designed to challenge the ingrained social mores and primacy of monogamous, romantic, sexual relationships. What does infidelity mean beyond the confines of alloromantic, allosexual monogamy? Regardless of relationship model, the heart of it is dishonesty. Relationships depend on honesty and good communication, something that QPRs require more of because they can’t rely on normative social expectations to fill it in.
Lily as a person is very normative, her asexuality aside. She fulfills the “good wife, good mother” archetype to a tee, often more by luck than personal agency, and is rewarded for it, to the point where she cannot see Snow Flower’s unjust, miserable life as anything more than the consequences of failure to conform. That Snow Flower would somehow regain happiness and basic human dignity by doing what she was supposed to do. Lily failed her laotong, her might-as-well-be queerplatonic partner, by repeating the sexist, normative demands of the society she was raised in, filling in over emotional honesty and communication at the expense of one of the only avenues that women in their time and place had available to validate their own humanity. Let that be a warning to us, I suppose, that as QPRs grow in the common consciousness of the queer community (we should be so lucky!), that we can’t let normativity lead to complacency.