Book Thoughts: A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman

A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman was a 1945 autobiography written and translated by Ida Pruitt, about the Chinese woman, Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai. I had to get this book for an Asian History class. Ida Pruitt was an American born in China. She learned both Chinese and English growing up. She got her higher education in America but spent most of her life in China, first simply living and later doing social work. One day she was curious about what life was like for women in ancient China. She had been brought up in missionary schools with an American family, so she didn’t know how the native women had lived. She asked a Chinese friend, but the friend had also grown up in the missionary setting. However, the friend knew of an old Chinese grandmother that had grown up the traditional way. That was Ms. Ning, who dictated to Ida the contents of this book.

A lot happened during Ms. Ning’s lifetime. The Taiping Rebellion took place just a few years before she was born. The Boxer Rebellion happened when she was young. Imperial China ended with the collapse of Qing dynasty, its replacement by the Republic of China, and a new currency system. As a child, the family business failed, forcing them into poverty. As a young adult, she went through many famine times. In one instance, as a show of force, Japanese gunboats traveled along the coast shelling cities in an attempt to scare the Chinese government into submission. Later, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan invaded and took much land from China.

There were three main parts in the book. The first part was about Ms. Ning’s child life and marriage. The second part was about her working as a maidservant for several wealthy families in Penglai where she lived. Her husband turned out to be not very responsible. She would have starved if she didn’t work herself. In the third part, the husband got older and a little more responsible, so they lived together again. Her daughter’s husband wasn’t very responsible either, so the daughter and her children also lived with them. She lived a hard life. Nothing was ever easy until she was in old age and her kids were successful. She was happy that her kids were in a better place than she had been at their ages.

She told stories about all the people she met in each part of her life. Some of them were good, but I found most of them to be negative. I guess negative things tend to be remembered more because they are out of the ordinary. Lots of people did drugs, especially opium. Many of them were addicted. It was a constant problem in Ms. Ning’s marriage. Her husband was so addicted he would sell everything just to get money for his opium. A lot of times he would be missing for a few days doing his drugs. Ms. Ning eventually had to move out with the kids and become a maidservant just to survive.

The other major sin was adultery. There were many, many stories of affairs, rapes, and unwanted pregnancies. In the wealthy families, the husbands usually had several wives. Sometimes they also had concubines purely for having more sons. Sons were always wanted because most of the work was restricted to men. The more sons a family had, the more wealthy they generally were. Even though their culture was against adultery, it still happened a lot in Ms. Ning’s stories.

Some of the stories Ms. Ning told were interesting, but towards the end, a lot of them felt similar. The same sins appeared and reappeared. Sometimes Ms. Ning would deviate and tell a story of some god she believed in. They were very much like mythology stories. The people had all these rituals to try to gain favor from various gods. She came in contact with Christian missionaries here and there, but they were never successful in converting her. She couldn’t see how the missionaries beliefs were better than hers. She would only believe if shown proof of Jesus’s godhood.

The book was a pretty fast read. Ms. Ning used plain words, which became plain English after the translation. However, at times I got tired of all the stories. Sometimes I just wanted to read what happened next in her life, but instead she went into a long tangent about some person she met. After that story, the person was many times never mentioned again. I generally don’t like writing that wanders like this. I think the text was just taken directly from Ms. Ning dictating the story to Ida Pruitt. When talking, people do tend to wander in their thoughts here and there.

I’m sure college researchers loved all the detail in this book about other people, but I found it boring at points. I like a driving story that doesn’t spend too long explaining the background before continuing the story. For me, the book never became a page-turner. Because it was a fast read though, I was able to read it in three days. If it were a slow read or much longer, I may have gotten bored enough to stop reading it.

I really liked the historical stuff. Whenever Ms. Ning mentioned a historical event, I later looked it up online to read more about Chinese history during that time. I was disappointed where the book ended because the Japanese had just invaded China. I wanted to know if Ms. Ning survived and how she survived. I hoped there would be a little paragraph that explained Ms. Ning’s final years, but there wasn’t one. I even looked her name up online and found nothing else except what was in the book.

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