Pruitt’s purpose in writing A Daughter of Han was to construct an honest impression of the Chinese people as decent and resourceful, despite the gritty reality of life in China. The information in the book comes from more than two years of conversations in the Pruitt home, to which Mistress Ning was invited many times for interviews over morning tea. Because Pruitt herself was born in P’englai and grew up speaking Chinese, the two women communicated easily, and Pruitt displays a knack for grasping meaning in what Mistress Ning tells her. The book therefore serves as a testimony about Chinese life and the drawbacks of being female in China: being discriminated against for being a daughter instead of a son, not getting an education, and being abused by one’s husband. Mistress Ning endured many heartaches as she spent her life trying to hold her family together in the face of war and the ravages of poverty.
Mistress Ning’s experiences in the different households where she was employed enabled her to tell about ordinary life at many different levels of Chinese society. Thus, as she describes her first job in the army officer’s home, the reader learns about official corruption in China. Through her experiences in other jobs, the reader also learns about upper-class weddings, the custom of Chinese men of openly keeping mistresses or concubines, and the stresses that disrupted family life when wives and concubines fought. The book reveals the cruel fate of widows, who...
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Of Pruitt’s several books about Chinese life, A Daughter of Han is generally thought to be her best. There have been many first-person accounts of life under Chinese Communist Party rule, including experiences of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. These are more modern narratives, however, and they say little about the daily circumstances of Chinese working people in the earlier part of the twentieth century. In comparison with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), a more famous book about ordinary Chinese people that describes them from the viewpoint of a sympathetic American, Pruitt’s account of Mistress Ning’s life is much more intimate.
In the half-century after Pruitt wrote A Daughter of Han, the Chinese government tried to change the way in which Chinese women lived, worked, and were treated before the law. The Marriage Law of 1950 guaranteed women the right to divorce abusive husbands and marry again if their husbands died. Other laws guaranteed their right to education, work, property, and to make decisions for themselves. One of the most difficult issues in contemporary life, however, was the gap between the spirit of these laws and the fact that Chinese women were still oppressed in many ways by custom and by the expectations of neighbors and relatives, the very people who loved them. A Daughter of Han, with its detailed discussion of what life was like for women in China before 1940, helps to explain why the reality of a woman’s life in China has continued to fall short of the goals of equality and justice.