Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289
Lao T’ai-t’ai is the youngest child of her family, and she is doted on by her mother. Her father is quite strict. The family is not well off, and she is made to marry somewhat young (for the time period). Lao T’ai-t’ai’s husband is addicted to opium and does not provide her with food to eat. As a result, she ends up spending about half of each month in her childhood home with her parents and half the month in the home she shares with her husband. Even when some of her husband’s family members leave her some property, he “smoked [that] away” too. Lao T’ai-t’ai is even afraid to hang laundry out to dry after washing because he might steal it and sell it for opium.
After the birth of her first daughter, while pregnant with the second, Lao T’ai-t’ai leaves her husband for the first time. He’d sold all her possessions, and they’ve fought for three days. She plans to beg; however, she returns after her second daughter’s birth because she doesn’t know how to beg. After a failed business attempt, her father dies, and her mother dies one month later. As the baby of the family, Lao T’ai-t’ai’s mother had always cared for her, but now she “suffered hunger and all the other troubles.” Then, her brother gets the same illness that had taken their mother, and it weakens him a great deal. Nonetheless, he continues to help feed and support Lao T’ai-t’ai and her children, though their sister “did not have a good heart.” This sister eventually convinces their brother to stop aiding Lao T’ai-t’ai and her kids. Lao T’ai-t’ai is twenty-one at the time.
Now, Lao T’ai-t’ai starves. She actually eats a crumbled brick one day because she is so hungry. One year after her mother’s death, she finally starts to beg. She is given some food and a coat for her child by a group of missionaries. Then, Lao T’ai-t’ai hears from a man on the street that her husband has been inquiring about selling a child, but she doesn’t actually believe that he would do it. However, he does do it, and then he uses the money for more opium. Lao T’ai-t’ai finds her daughter and brings her back home.
Even though neighbors encourage her to leave her husband, Lao T’ai-t’ai will not. She feels that all she has left from her parents is their good name, and she doesn’t want to soil it by becoming a prostitute or following another man. Her husband, again, sells their daughter. Lao T’ai-t’ai threatens to hang herself and their other child if he doesn’t get the girl back, and he takes her to the family to whom he sold their youngest. The woman who bought the girl promises that she’ll live a better life than she would with her good-for-nothing father and a begging mother. Lao T’ai-t’ai knows it’s true, and so she leaves the girl there. She visits and sees that the girl is treated well, until the family moves away. Lao T’ai-t’ai leaves her husband then and becomes a servant. She moves to several serving positions over the next several years, until such time as her daughter, Mantze, turns fifteen. Lao T’ai-t’ai also finds that her husband has become “more dependable in his later years.”
A fortune-teller tells Lao T’ai-t’ai that she will marry another man and another who is worse than her current husband, and so she decides to just stay with her “opium sot” since the others will be even worse than him. Lao T’ai-t’ai goes to work for one of the missionaries, an experience which proves to be not very satisfying because of how difficult and different the expectations of foreigners are. After two years go by, she wants Mantze to marry. Lao T’ai-t’ai tries to make her a good match, but her husband turns out to be totally useless too, and Lao T’ai-t’ai takes her back in. Right about now, she finds that she’s pregnant with her third daughter. Mantze’s husband continues to be awful and, one day, he even tries to sell Mantze. Mantze learns, about three months into the marriage, that she’s expecting. Lao T’ai-t’ai hopes that fatherhood will improve her son-in-law, but it does not. He continues to steal and cause problems for the family. Eventually, Lao T’ai-t’ai and her husband send the man back to his own family, away from their daughter. By this time, Lao T’ai-t’ai is a peddler of goods for women. She finds that she’s pregnant again, and, this time, she gives birth to a son. Shortly after this, her husband dies.
With her own house established by the birth of her son, Lao T’ai-t’ai longs for her daughter to have the same satisfaction. She sends for her son-in-law, but Mantze has another girl. Soon, Mantze’s husband wants to sell their daughters and then Mantze herself again. Eventually, he goes back to Manchuria and they never see him again. Lao T’ai-t’ai repeats the idea that “Truly there seemed to be an evil destiny for the women of [her] family.” Her marriage was bad; her sister’s was bad; her daughter, Mantze’s, was bad, and other female relatives have suffered similarly.
Lao T’ai-t’ai says that Mantze is a good girl until she turns twenty-eight. At this point, she begins to reproach her mother for her difficult life. Mantze declares that she no longer has to obey her mother. She even begins to steal money from Lao T’ai-t’ai. Lao T’ai-t’ai finds work for herself and Mantze in Chefoo, and things begin to get better again, now that Lao T’ai-t’ai has gotten the girl away from the bad influence of a neighbor. Lao T’ai-t’ai hears good tidings of her daughter who’d been sold all those years ago, but then, soon after, she receives news that the girl has died of cholera. Mantze moves out one day while Lao T’ai-t’ai is out, taking up with another man; Lao T’ai-t’ai is enraged, but a friend assures her that Mantze’s behavior no longer reflects upon her. Mother and daughter are estranged for two more years.
Eventually, it is time for her son to marry. He does so, and he begins to make his way in the world. Her daughter returns to her, but she remains bitter about what her life has been and continues to blame Lao T’ai-t’ai for it. Lao T’ai-t’ai and Mantze have a few heated exchanges, and they settle into something like a routine. Finally, it sounds as though Lao T’ai-t’ai has a stroke: she describes how one side of her face and body stop working, though she blames it on all the anger she’s felt in her life. Her son, daughter, and a granddaughter come to take care of her, and she begins to recover. She feels “happy and contented, and settled in Peiping.” She declares that her home is “happy” and her “health is good.”
Finally, the Japanese invade. Lao T’ai-t’ai reflects that she had no peace in her personal youth, but has found some peace in her old age; her country, on the other hand, was peaceful when she was young and has become violent in her age.