Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

A few major themes of this text have to do with the inequality of the sexes in China during Lao T’ai-t’ai’s life. Girls are kept uneducated and, as young women, are prepared for early marriages, often while they are still teenagers—still relative children themselves. Lao T’ai-t’ai, for example, is only thirteen when she is required to marry, and we are given to understand that, though they are very traditional, her parents are very loving (especially her mother). As a wife, when her husband does not provide for Lao T’ai-t’ai, she doesn’t honestly know what to do, especially after her mother dies. She says,

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We women knew nothing but to comb our hair and bind our feet and wait at home for our men. When my mother had been hungry she had sat at home and waited for my father to bring her food, so when I was hungry I waited at home for my husband to bring me food.

In this way, women are brought up to be helpless, to be unable to help themselves. They must wait and hope that their husbands will take care of them, and if those husbands do not, the wives are still expected to remain loyal. Further, though Lao T’ai-t’ai tries to make a better marriage for her daughter, Mantze, who marries at seventeen, that marriage is also a failure as a result of her son-in-law’s behavior and neglect. We see, then, that marriage traditions put women at a major disadvantage.

When she describes one particularly painful era of her life—one in which she was essentially starving—Lao T’ai-t’ai says, “The life of the beggar is not the hardest one. There is freedom.” For a wife, there is little freedom, if any. In Lao T'ai-t'ai's experience, it is better to be free than to be a wife. Her husband sells everything they own to buy opium, and she is powerless to stop him.

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Critical Essays

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Characters