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"Daughter of Han": A Historical Review

Updated on March 31, 2018

A Daughter of Han, an autobiography by Ning Lao T'ai-Tai, holds many important elements for study in of itself, and indeed these can fill a significant length of analysis, but the critical feature of the book is that many of its most important elements are left unstated. The book takes place in a period of tremendous social upheaval in China, at the end of the Qing Empire, the early Republic of China, and finally the invasion by the Japanese. And yet, there is much continuity throughout the novel, and the social fabric of China is largely maintained intact. Much focus can and does go to the active changes that happen in China during this period, but A Daughter of Han, by dint of so much that is not said, also reflects the stability and lack of change in China, although admittedly this is a pace that begins to accelerate greatly after the 1911 revolution.

An important part which should not necessarily be ignored for the creation of A Daughter of Han, is the authorship. A Daughter of Han was written by the story told by Ning Lao T'ai Tai to a foreigner - well, one admittedly raised in China, but Ida Pruitt is still bicultural, and takes the story of her Chinese friend Ning. This adds in several areas where bias might emerge. While Pruitt is probably not one who would purposefully write inaccurate depictions of the Chinese, given her bicultural status, she is still writing for an American audience, and thus her story might be adjusted for American ears. This might not be “negative” orientalism, but instead might be trying to do the opposite; to make the Chinese more like the Americans, more understandable to us, to reduce some strains that Americans might find barbaric or unwholesome. A similar effect would come from her friendship with Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai, the main character of A Daughter of Han. Memoirs are generally biased, and when that is then filtered through an additional layer of a friend, the distortion could become large indeed. However, I doubt it contains many instances of outright falsehood; there are not throughout it any incidences of which Ning Lao would feel ashamed, unless if they were omitted.

Ning Lao T'ai-tai spent much of her life under the Qing Dynasty, but its travails and even its institutions are largely absent from her life.
Ning Lao T'ai-tai spent much of her life under the Qing Dynasty, but its travails and even its institutions are largely absent from her life.

The great strength of the book is that it covers the average, everyday life and thoughts of a working Chinese woman. From this, there are many different perspectives that it is useful to. Social and feminist histories stand out, although there is also ideological and idea-history which could be applied. Social-wise, the book displays a large variety of insights into how the lives of working Chinese women played themselves out; to speak of some specific references from the
voluminous ones available, there is the transition from childhood to womanhood which occurs around age 13 1 , a first-hand look at the catastrophic effects of opium and especially those careers viewed as being particularly receptive to its influences, such as the husband’s fisherman job 2 - as with today, it is easy for stereotypes of who uses drugs to appear - the cut of the virtuous widow 3 ,Chinese views on religion, an exceedingly practical proposition more concerned with effects on
our world than on those afterwards 4 , and attitudes towards youth rebellion in the context of changing times. 5 The growing importance of education is also demonstrated with the grandaughter attending college - even to America! 6 , technical apprenticeships 7 , and attendance to missionary school. However, and here the vital aspect of what is unspoken comes to the fore, there is also a great deal of stability throughout. The 1911 Revolution, in the immediate time
after its happening, principally causes a change in currency denomination for Ning Lao 8 , although for others the cutting off of queues is significantly more eventful. So too, multi-wive arrangements still persist post-1911, when Ning Lao’s daughter married the son of the Lans 9 , although this could be seen as partially changing and partially preserving previous customs, since it seems to have been conducted by the daughter independently in stark difference to previous arranged marriages.

The main impact of the revolution to Ning is not its political upheavals, but rather a currency change. For many Chinese, the presence or absence of the state was of little import.
The main impact of the revolution to Ning is not its political upheavals, but rather a currency change. For many Chinese, the presence or absence of the state was of little import. | Source

Related to social history of course, gender history is also an area where the book can play a key role. Following as it does the story of a Chinese working woman, it reveals the role, and limitations, their lives in late 19th and early 20th century China. In addition to the transition to womanhood and the cult of the virtuous widow, the agency that women have available to them is displayed. In this case, the economic agency seems reasonably large; Ning Lao works as a beggar 10 (albeit this is a shameful job), a maid/servant 11 , and a peddler. 12 Of course, there are limitations also; she must stay with her opium-addicted husband or risk ruining her good name, while the limitations of women’s legal position places them in a poor position to annul poor marriages.“In those years it was not as it is now. There was no freedom then for women. I stayed with him” 13 .

The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 shows a stark generational difference in its response : indifference among the older generation, fiery national sentiments to resist among the younger.
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 shows a stark generational difference in its response : indifference among the older generation, fiery national sentiments to resist among the younger.

Most obvious in the section of ideas that the Chinese hold is the creation of Chinese consciousness and national imagining. Here, Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai falls into a pre-national context. When the Japanese invade - both in 1895 and in 1937 - her reactions are muted. In 1895, a less serious invasion, few others react with anything but the same simple hope to stay alive, with the great masses of people fleeing the Japanese bombardment rather than staying to fight or some similar enterprise of resistance 14 . In the 1930s, the situation is significantly more conflicted; Ning Lao speculates that perhaps the Mandate of Heaven has passed to the Japanese and that they should be obeyed 15 . By contrast, her daughter speaks of resistance against the Japanese, saying that the land must be governed by the people of it 16 - a clear statement of nationalist principles. There is ethnic pride, which had not been previously displayed - although possibly might have been present, simply without the need for it to be displayed - such as when the Chinese feel pride about one of their own killing eight Japanese soldiers - supposedly at least - with a sword, and feel that they themselves are stronger than the Japanese, but “the Japanese have guns and airplanes and we have only swords” 17 , thus placing them at a technological disadvantage. Other areas where the Chinese thoughts are revealed include insanity. Here, the view is distinctly pre- modern. Demons possess the mad, possibly giving them powers. Ning Lao’s sister’s demon is not strong, as “It enabled her to talk but never to foretell the future” 18 .

Political historians seem like they would have the most difficulty directly gaining insights although even here, reading through the lines produces benefits; the lack of focus on most political developments and the limited role of government both display the relationship and political structure of China. Furthermore, one can observe that the politicization and power of state authority increases towards the end of the period - no policemen exist in the 1870s 19 , yet by the 1920s they are in abundance and actively - and even aggressively - engage in the lives of the populace, such as by cutting off their queues 20 , while the legal system also seems to become more pervasive, with its appearance finally coming into effect when Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai had lent money to Kao, a washerman, and engaged in a lawsuit to get the money back. 21.

Although many similarities remain to the previous era, by the 1930s it is clear that things are changing in China.
Although many similarities remain to the previous era, by the 1930s it is clear that things are changing in China.

Thus, A Daughter of Han offers significant capacity for historical analysis, although this is I feel, best done in regards to social history. By offering a window into the lives of average Chinese people of the turn of the 20th century, it enables us to form a view of their thoughts and actions, when when they are not explicitly stated. It shows old traditions and ways of thought which were being dissolved, and it shows a China in a different era and time which is all too readily forgotten.

For these various reasons, it is a very useful primary source in history. It is also a very intriguing fiction book in of its own right, and for those interested in historical memoirs, historical fiction, and novels, it would be quite a good book. The author's writing style is an intriguing one, being very direct and matter of fact, and one gets a good feel for her as a person throughout. However, this is combined with her being very spartan in her descriptions, which in my opinion is the main aspect which stops it from being as excellent as I would have liked : it is frustrating when so much is hidden and not revealed. Of course, this is a style of narration, and perhaps dictated by the manner in which it was recorded, but in my opinion an unfortunate one. Overall, it makes for an enjoyable read, although sometimes the frustrating lack of details, shortness, and brevity make one desire more.

Footnotes

1 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 29.
2 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 46.
3 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 100.
4 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 192.
5 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 195.
6 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 234.
7 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 224.

8 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 2197
9 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 242.
10 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 62.
11 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 76.
12 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 165.
13 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 71.

14 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 91.
15 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 246
16 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 246.
17 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 242.
18 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945),32.

19 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 28.
20 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 200.
21 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 227.

Citation

Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1945)

4 stars for Daughter of Han

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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    • RyanCThomas profile imageAUTHOR

      Ryan Thomas 

      5 months ago from Eureka, California

      Unfortunately I don't think so. There's only the book.

    • right1 profile image

      right one 

      5 months ago from Pale Blue Dot

      Interesting write-up. So, is there any documentary or movie that features such characters?

      Would love to watch..

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