Ida Pruitt: Old Madame Yin
But this one is very, very different.
To begin with -- it's written 40 years later (published in 1979) - when Miss Pruitt was 91 years old -- so this is a very old woman -- digging way back into her memory.
And then -- though she didn't get to know this woman as well -- i.e. she didn't have her over for tea three times a week over two years (as she did with her first subject) -- this elegant woman did seem to have a more powerful effect on her -- as someone whom she admired and perhaps wished to emulate.
So this book is less a sociological study -- and more a self portrait of the kind of woman the author (or - a part of her) nostalgically regrets that she was not : aesthetic, maternal, harmonious, majestic. Not to say that this Baptist missionary's daughter regretted her life as a writer, single woman and pioneering social worker -- but I think that the Chinese girl in her saw Old Madame Yin as a resplendent role model.
Old Madame Yin had led an almost storybook life --- that began as the prettiest girl in her village, the daughter of a small shop keeper -- who caught the eye of a young soldier who had been adopted as a boy into the Taiping army -- and then as a man into Qing army.
Both the pretty young girl and the handsome young man had to marry other spouses -- but after both of those spouses had died --- they found each other, joined their families together, and made a love match. Completely Storybook !
And then to add to their good fortune -- Madame Yin's son by her previous marriage (so he should have remained a member of her ex-husband's family) turns out to be an effective businessman who makes a fortune in manufacturing and pays for the enormous family compound which Miss Pruitt is privileged to visit.
With all the other children -- and their spouses -- and concubines -- and grandchildren from both -- and the extended family of servants -- it's a complex setting that's worthy of another 'Dream of Red Chamber" -- which, regretfully, we can't get because our author only visited the place a few times -- and had to get most of the information from a servant that Madame Yin had pressured her to hire/adopt. One son marries a French woman whom he meets while attending school in Paris (that's a disaster) --- and another is a loser who lives in the world of sex and drugs (his concubine tries to kill herself). There's also the charming story of the attempted marriage arranged between two children from the parent's previous marriages -- but Madame Yin's daughter is too smart but ugly -- while her husband's son is too handsome but stupid -- and they spend their wedding night stubbornly sitting back to back on the wedding bed.
But mostly -- the book is a few long scenes of reminiscence -- like the first time -- and the last time --that the author met her subject -- so the book serves as something of a tribute to a friend that's been living in the author's memory for many, many years.
Something else to note here: though she's now rich, Madame Yin was born into the same urban small-merchant class as the poor working woman whom Pruitt interviewed for her first book -- and she has had just as little formal education. (she claims to be illiterate -- but apparently has no problem reading sub-titles on the movie screen) There's even the delightful moment when Pruitt introduces both older women to each other -- and they must determine relative status to make the proper seating arrangements (they're both from the same class - but the poor woman is a few years older, so she gets priority)
How I wish we could find out what happened to the family in the subsequent decades of war and revolution. The boy adopted to be the son of the second son's wife would be about 20 at the beginning of the People's Republic. I wonder what happened to him ? How I would love to hear his story.
Miss Pruitt was a distinguished woman in China -- invited back to visit even during the most revolutionary years -- so if anyone from that family wanted to contact her, it would not have been difficult to find her. But nothing is said about them in her 1979 book -- so I fear the worst.