What themes are found in Daughter of Han by Ida Pruitt?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Daughter of Han is a biography written by Ida Pruitt detailing the life of Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai as she told it. Pruitt was raised in China by missionary parents and was educated as a teacher and social worker. Ning's story is set in the early 1900s to the mid 1930s and spans the years prior to and during Japanese occupation of China during World War II.

One dominant theme in the biography concerns China's weakened society due to opium addiction.  Ning grew up in a troubled and financially insecure household due to her father's opium addiction. Aside from his costly addiction, Ning's father had trouble providing for his family because he worked only as a baker when he really wanted a job in the government. Since her father had a difficult time supporting his family, Ning was married at only the age of 13 to a man who was also an opium addict. Eventually, her husband's addiction drove himself and his family, including their two daughters, out on to the streets to live as beggars. When her husband sold their youngest daughter to feed his addiction, Ning ran away with their eldest daughter and began providing for both herself and her daughter by working as a housemaid.

A second dominant theme in the biography concerns the unjust treatment of women in China. Binding young girls' feet is one Chinese custom named to illustrate the unfair treatment of women in China. Ning describes the process of binding her feet to have been very painful. However, she understood her society's view that a woman's beauty was measured not by her face but by the size of her feet. As she explains, "Matchmakers wee not asked 'Is she beautiful?' but 'How small are her feet?'" (p. 22). Ning was very proud of her small feet.

In addition to the cultural process of binding girls' feet, like most women in China, Ning grew up being uneducated. As a result of lack of education, Ning at first struggles to provide for herself and her daughters when forced to due to her husband's addiction. In addition, she wants to divorce him but is warned against doing so by her society. It is not until after her husband sells their youngest daughter that she finally leaves him and finds employment as a maid.

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