Insiders and Outsiders are Different

Last week, as I was riding the train across Manchuria on my way to/from Changchun, I read a fantastic novel called “Snowflower and the Secret Fan.”  Set against the backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century, the story is about the ‘inner’ life of women in Jiangyong County, in southern Hunan Province.


At a young age, Lily and Snowflower become ‘sworn sisters’ a commited relationship whose bond is stronger than marriage. They communicate with each other using Nushu, a secret women’s language  unique to that particular area of the country.  In that era, the education of girls was confined to household tasks and virtues necessary to be a good wife to a future husband. Marriages were arranged by a matchmaker, and often when the girls were only 5 or 6.


Once Lily and Snowflower become sworn sisters, there lives are forever intertwined as they go through the traditional female seasons of life:  Daughter Days, Milk Years, Foot-binding, Hair-pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days, and Sitting Quietly.


Here is an excerpt:


“During the next year, my education in the upstairs women’s chamber bagan in earnest, but I already knew a lot. I knew that men rarely entered the women’s chamber; it was for us alone, where we could do our work and share our thoughts. I knew I would spend almost my entire life in a room like that. I also knew the difference between nei – the inner realm of the home — and wai — the outer realm of men– lay at the very heart of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions. 

I have long understood that Chinese culture is an ‘insider/outsider’ culture, where distinctions between ‘inside and outside,’ ‘us and them’ are very important. There is a common Chinese saying: nei wai you bie (“insiders and outsiders are different”) — which illustrates this. In  in the Chinese worldview there are only two kinds of people in the world — Chinese and foreigners (known as waigruoren – outside country people). Even within Chinese society there are deliniations between insiders and outsiders — local people vs. people from other places; those who are classmates and those who are not classmates;  people with whom one has a relationship and people with whom one doesn’t have a relationship.  The rules for interaction between those who are insiders and those who are outsiders are also different, with Confucian rituals of courtesy primarily extended to insiders, not outsiders (or strangers).


Until I read this book, I had not thought about the nei/wai (inside/outside) distinction in terms of gender roles in society. It was a fascinating new (yet ancient) twist on a familiar concept.


(image source:


NOTE: I am starting a new chapter in this blog — comments! Click on the comments link below and let me know if you’ve read the book and what you think.





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3 thoughts on “Insiders and Outsiders are Different

  1. I’ve read this book several times, and read it last year with my book club. Such a great book! Recently it was made into a movie – released in select locations, but coming to DVD in Novemeber. I can’t wait to see it. I’m glad you found it Joann and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves friendships.

  2. I did read the book also. Today I was pondering nei wai you bie when listening to the news story about the little girl run over and laying in the street, ignored. Do you think nei/wai had anything to do with this? (I personally don’t think great societal shifts have a lot to do with this [my personal world view mantra is there is nothing new under the sun].)

  3. You know I loved it. I’ve read it for two book groups. One was at a club that looked at different cultures each month and I was asked to share about China. I also recommended it to my friend Amy for a “girl’s weekend” she had with some friends. Finally I was at my mom’s book group when they talked about it. I think it’s Lisa See’s best books. The others are OK, but this is out of the ballpark.