The Problem of Social Status and Gender Inequality in A Daughter of Han by Ida Pruitt

Among many biographies and autobiographies, Ida Pruitt’s A Daughter of Han has a special place. The book reveals so many details and concealed meanings of mysterious Asia that it becomes a breathtaking piece of writing. Describing the life of her heroine, Pruitt touches upon such interesting and sometimes controversial topics that provoke the reader to ask many questions and seek the answers inside and outside the book. In A Daughter of Han, one can find a fascinating life journey of a human being and draw the parallels with different periods of the history, building connections between the generations and studying a great diversity of people, their traditions, beliefs, and customs. Moreover, the story of Mistress Ning illuminates the history of the whole class of Chinese working people. The sociological aspect of the book motivates the researchers to build the strong foundation for more thorough study of the Chinese society at the beginning of the 20th century. This paper will focus on sociological themes in the book such as gender inequality, social status, and the importance of family and traditions in Chinese culture in order to demonstrate the way these issues assisted in shaping the Chinese society.


A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman is a story of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai also known as Mistress Ning. The woman describes her life before the attack of Japanese armed forces on China in the mid-1930s before the World War II. Ning worked as a housemaid when she met Pruitt who asked her to tell her life story, as the writer saw something very interesting in Ning. Pruitt was not mistaking. The old woman indeed had a very interesting and full life that she kindly shared with the author of the book.

Ning told her life story from the beginning to the end, namely from her childhood and youth spent in the village of P’englai to her marriage and life of a working Chinese woman when she met different people performing her duties. Ning’s employers were from China and other countries which gave her an opportunity to explore the way people live, work, and behave themselves with others relying on their background. Being a housemaid, Ning saw the social life from within since she had access to those parts of it that were usually hidden from the public. Some of her clients had extraordinary personalities while others were common people as she was. Nevertheless, each story told by Ning to Pruitt was a fascinating observation of human life illustrating a wide range of social issues not always visible to the detached observer.

Similar to the majority of Chinese girls, Ning’s childhood was difficult. Her father aspired to work for the governmental office but did not manage to reach his professional goals and, considering himself as a failure, started to smoke opium. Ning’s mother never tended to provide her daughter with education and relied mostly on the beneficial marriage. For this reason, Ning was married off at the age of fifteen. Her husband of twenty eight years old was ruthless with Ning. He also had addiction to opium, and this habit soon impaired their life significantly. He started to sell their possessions and, consequently, the couple became very poor and unhappy. Ning even had to beg in order to feed herself and her daughter, Mantze. It was humiliating though she had no other choice since her husband could not earn enough money. He even sold his daughter twice in order to get the drugs, and each time Ning brought her back home. Finally, when she had enough of her husband, Ning left him and decided to start a new life with her daughter becoming a working Chinese woman.

Ning used to work for different people, and she learned a lot from them. Social stratification became obvious for Ning as she worked from house to house, from family to family. Her clients had different levels of education, income, social circle, attitudes, and habits. Watching the behavioral patterns of the citizens, Ning gained understanding of human psychology, the nature of their problems, and the ways they sought to cope with them. She obtained faith and hope as she realized the way the destiny and fortune turned their face to those who worked hard to find their place under the sun.

The issues of faith and spiritual search play an important role in Ning’s stories. The woman recovered her faith in humanity through the communication with the families remaining close even in hardest times. Ning always sought to have such a loving family, and she decided that her duty is to help her daughter avoid the mistakes Ning was forced to do in her youth. She wanted a better life for her daughter and worked hard to stay close with Mantze anyhow. In Chinese culture, a family is an essential aspect, and Ning made efforts to follow the tradition of dedicating herself to the life in the family circle. She helped Mantze to raise her daughter, despite the fact that she was experiencing hardship most of her life. Nevertheless, Ning found her sacred duty in making her family happy.

When reading the book, one cannot be detached from the destiny of Ning and her stories. It is fascinating that she remained compassionate, honest, and empathetic despite the hardness of her life. Even though the society she lived in was not condolatory towards her, Ning managed to get along with many socially diverse families. Being a stubborn woman who decided to leave her cruel husband, Ning remained dedicated to the Chinese traditions and put her family and the family of her daughter above all. This might help her to find peace and harmony inside of herself and cope with the bitter feelings she had as the life was hard on her.

Concerning the topic of family, it is important to touch upon the issue of gender inequality in China at that period. From Ning’s stories, it is apparent that women had significantly lower social position than men did. From their early childhood, girls were considered living merchandise that could be traded or exchanged for anything, from money and job position to drugs and foodstuffs. Furthermore, the girls who came from poor families were very unlikely to receive any education and thus were often raised in ignorance as well as with no skills or knowledge required for an independent living. This led to significant gender inequality in China. Being the citizens of the second sort, women could rarely obtain the same level of income as men. Most of the well-paid jobs were closed for them that made women completely dependent on their husbands. In turn, they could treat their wives as they wanted. Cruelty and total disrespect towards women was a common behavior in the families of working class people. From Ning’s experience, it is obvious that such a situation was devastating to women and their daughters. It was hard to make aspirations and dream about the bright future when the choice was so poor. The majority of women simply resigned themselves to their fates and feared to make attempts at changing something.

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A Daughter of Han gives the reader a many-sided view on the Chinese society at the beginning of the 20th century. The book reveals important issues common for China at that time. Moreover, it gives a notion of the life of common people and their day-to-day struggles. Through the eyes of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai, or the Old Mistress Ning, one can explore the major issues such as social and gender inequality, poverty, addiction to drugs, lack of access to proper healthcare and education, and others. Pruitt produced a serious book of great sociological and historical value. She illustrates the most controversial topics from the standpoint of the woman who was personally involved into them and had a direct interaction with the issues portrayed in the story. Though some parts of Ning’s story may appear extremely overwhelming to the readers due to their harsh realism, other chapters of her life demonstrate the way a strong person can overcome even the hardest times and keep the faith in humanity in his/her heart. The destiny of Ning Lao is a powerful example of how compassion, devotion, and determination can help fulfill the most daring aspirations and face the toughest challenges with the head held high.

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