A Daughter of Han Analysis
by Ida Pruitt

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A Daughter of Han Analysis

Lao T’ai-t’ai is the youngest child born to a family without much money. Her mother is quite loving and her father quite strict, but they are a fairly traditional family and keep to the rules that will allow their daughters to grow up to be well-respected in the community. Lao T’ai-t’ai and her sister are kept indoors much of the time because their culture believes that well-bred women are never seen. Further, Lao T’ai-t’ai’s feet are bound very tightly so that they are incredibly small: another sign of an elegant lady in her culture. She is made to marry at the age of thirteen, and her “opium-sot” husband proves to be not only neglectful, but even downright abusive by today’s standards: he actually sells one of their daughters to a local family so that he can buy more drugs. Lao T’ai-t’ai’s narrative clearly demonstrates the incredibly deleterious effect that opium has on the culture and on families. When her husband brings home his cholera-stricken father, he expects Lao T’ai-t’ai to care for the dying man while he leaves again to indulge his addiction. He is not even there for his father’s death, and he shows no signs of love for him, other than dropping his father off with Lao T’ai-t’ai.

Further, Lao T’ai-t’ai’s marriage demonstrates how unequally her culture views men and women, especially husbands and wives, and at what a huge disadvantage this puts women. She is never educated, because there does not seem to be a point; she will be a wife, and she will do what is necessary to feed her family and keep house for her husband. Moreover, very young women are often married to men who are two or three times their age. Therefore, a husband typically has more power than his wife because he is educated and she is not and because he is so much older than she is. Finally, the cultural tradition is to view the husband as the most important person in a wife’s life. Lao T’ai-t’ai says, “The old people tell us that her husband is more important to a woman than her parents. A woman is with her parents only part of her life, they say, but she is with her husband forever. [The husband] also feels that he is the most important. If a wife not good to her husband, there is retribution in heaven.” In this sense, then, there seems to be a sort of divine mandate that a woman remain loyal to her husband, no matter how completely awful he is. Thus, in many ways, the cards are stacked against women—wives in particular. Lao T’ai-t’ai laments the fact that so many women in her family have disastrous marriages, but she still sees marriage as a fundamental way of life that women must embrace in order to fulfill their destiny.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman is the story of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai, known as “Old Mistress Ning” or “Granny Ning.” She lived from the late nineteenth century until the mid-1930’s, just before Japan attacked China in World War II. Mistress Ning tells about her life, from her childhood and youth in the village of P’englai on the Yellow Sea to her marriage and career as a housemaid working for an interesting variety of Chinese and foreign employers. At the end of her life, she was living in retirement in the old imperial capital of Peiping, also known as Peking or Beijing, where she met Ida Pruitt. Pruitt invited her to a series of visits in her home, during which Mistress Ning revealed her story and discussed her fate as a Chinese woman, or “daughter of Han.” (The Chinese often call themselves the “Han” people.)

Mistress Ning’s childhood was difficult but not atypical. Her family fell on hard times and her father, who had aspired to be a government official, regarded himself as a failure. He made cakes to support the family part of the time, and part of the time he smoked opium. Like most Chinese girls, Mistress Ning grew up without an education and was married off at the tender age of...

(The entire section is 1,071 words.)