Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Daughter of Han

What a remarkable book ! -- and what a remarkable author , Ida Pruitt, who was uniquely situated to be the perfect cross-cultural interlocutor for old Ning Lao. As I later learned off the internet -- they were actually born in the same town, scenic Penglai, on the Shantung peninsula. There's no indication that they met in those early years, but Ning Lao worked as a servant in the homes of foreign missionaries -- just like the author's Baptist parents -- and certainly they would have been comfortable speaking about old time times together when they met in Beijing 40 years later.

Every "oral history" is a unique collaboration -- because it's not just one person who has stories to tell -- but it's also the other person drawing those stories out, putting them into her own words, and editing/arranging it all for publication.

It's clear that Ida Pruitt was very interested in the details of social customs and beliefs -- and her informant gives us a lot of detail concerning the rituals that accompany marriage, birth, death etc.

But as the story develops -- its the strong, unique personality of Ning Lao that takes over - as her life is propelled forward (or backward) by her sense of family, propriety and what she calls her bad temper.

She doesn't pull any punches in reference to the members of her family. Her husband was an opium addict who would sell his own daughter to get high. (and she would never
get to meet that daughter again) -- while her second daughter was a continuous cause of grief in her life. Her son in law also became an addict and that seems that daughter never forgave mother for arranging that marriage. Is it any wonder that her grandaughter refused to get married at all ? She went ahead to get educated by missionaries and become a college teacher in Beijing -- and later disappears into the countryside to join the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation in the thirties.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the story is the part we don't know: how it all turned it -- since these interviews are given in Japanese occupied Beijing -- and soon the Ms. Pruitt (who also must have decided to remain unmarried) had to leave the country -- and there's no further contact with any members of the family. Did any of them survive ? What about her son and his children ? Are there any grandchildren - or great grandchildren out there who can connect to the internet and finish the story for us ?

What really separates this book from all the others I've read -- is it's emphasis on family -- where people live as families, not individuals -- a notion completely foreign to myself -- as well as to the Chinese story-tellers born 100 years later.

I couldn't believe how mother Ning Lao was able to run the lives of her adult children -- or was bitterly disappointed when she couldn't.

She herself was spared such domination in her early days because her parents died young and she never had a mother-in-law. So she was pretty much on her own --which was not an easy thing since young women back then were completely unprepared for it. She nearly starved to death -- and had to begin a career as a beggar -- and then later as a house servant.

Some memorable details include:

*examples of semi-organized charity in the town where she lived - i.e. the rich people provided soup kitchens for the poor all through the winter -- and Ning Lao would have died if they hadn't.

*Ning Lao's response to Christianity. She worked in the homes of missionaries (just like Ms. Pruitt's parents) -- so she was always being pitched for conversion. But she
just couldn't see how people were any different after conversion -- except, of course, that converts were paid a healthy monthly stipend.

*the prevalence -- and destructiveness -- of opium addiction in her world.

*the illiteracy of the local high military officials in the late Qing dynasty. The ones she know had risen through the ranks -- but not because they could ever read anything.

*Ning Lao inviting her worthless, thieving husband back into her bed -- so that she could get pregnant and hopefully have a son.

*the story of the young women in a family for whom Ning Lao worked -- where they all got so involved in reading "Three Kingdoms" that one of them was possessed by the spirit of Lord Guan. the butt-kicker (who, conveniently, had a local shrine)

*Ning Lao adopting a mother -- as someone to advise her and help her get jobs around town - although that "mother" --- and the rest of her family - does not seem to figure in Ning Lao's decision to move away from the area. This is the kind of mother who offers the benefits of nurture -- without the problems of control.

*what an interesting woman that educated grand daughter must have been -- as she had to mediate between her mother and grandmother -- and help to support them both. She seems to have had some kind of social or national idealism -- which grandma does not understand well enough to describe -- and since she's fluent in English she could have told us about it -- if only she had survived the civil wars.

*Favorite quote:

"Truly, my destiny is not a good one. I was not born at an auspicious time. The eight words of my birth time are not good ones. My husband spoiled my youth, son-in-law my middle years, and now it is my daughter who makes my old age unhappy"

note: apparently this book is often assigned to college or high school students -- so explanatory essays are sold to worthless, lazy students by a company calledExampleEssays.com If you are one such worthless, lazy student, I can only warn you that the sample essay posted on their site contains a serious, factual error.


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