Just received an inquiry through the China History Forum about the practice of laotong 老同, a uniquely Chinese kind of friendship between two girls that lasted all their lives, which was described recently by Lisa See in her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. We described laotong in Lisa’s novel briefly in our post on Historical Fiction About China; here’s more detail on the subject of laotong from a 2012 post at CHF.
Lisa’s painstaking research turned up much more detail than we find on Chinese websites like… Hutung or Baidu, which say laotong 老同 were/are young girls of the same age and temperament bound to each other for life: 老同是指的是同年出生，且长相脾气相近的女孩一生相互照顾，相互爱惜，能够推心置腹。Lisa writes that when a “woman had a daughter about to turn seven and begin her footbinding, she would meet with a matchmaker, not to find a suitable husband but to look for another girl in another village who could match eight characteristics with her daughter.
The two girls had to match birth dates, be in the same birth order in both families, have the same size foot, and the like. Obviously, this was much harder to find than just linking up with other girls in the same village. If a prospect could be found, the two girls would be brought together to sign a contract matching them for life as a pair of old-sames. At seventeen, the girls would marry out to other villages, have children, and follow the normal course of their lives, but they would also continue to keep in contact with their laotong through their writing and occasional meetings for their rest of their lives.”
Considering that many online sources now refer to Snow Flower when explaining laotong, Lisa should probably receive credit for bringing the old concept back out into the light, along with nu-shu 女书. Nu-shu, it turns out, is a merely a syllabary, not unlike the syllabary used in Taiwan to teach the language, our beloved bo-po-mo-fo, and not quite the mystererious secret writing it has been made out to be.
Lisa’s research took her into the back country where she says she learned much about this esoterica by talking to the country folk, just like any anthropological field investigator – a Margaret Mead of Hunan. She (Lisa) has described much of this (not likely to be found in books for a while, until some PhD candidates retrace her steps) in her article On Writing Snow Flower.