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The Place in History for “A Daughter of Han”, Essay Example

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Essay

In the book A Daughter of Han, the author Ida Pruitt tells the life story of a woman she calls Lao T’ai t’ai, (also known as Lao Ning) which means “The Old Mistress.” Lao was an old woman when she met the author, and she spent a great amount of time telling Pruitt stories about her life growing up in China, getting married, and raising children. During her lifetime, Lao saw the Japanese come to China and occupy the country. This was a difficult period both for Lao and for the people of China, as the Japanese Made virtual slaves out of many of them. This was not the only challenge Lao faced, however. Throughout her life she had to overcome nay challenges, including a marriage to a husband who did not treat her or her children well. Despite these challenges, Lao managed to raise her children successfully and seemed to be fairly content with her life by the time she was an old woman. Because she lived through these experiences, and told them directly to Pruitt, the stories told in A Daughter of Han serve as a primary source of information about life in China from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.

In the late 1880s Lao went to the city to look for work. She heard that a military official in the city was looking for a maidservant, and she took the job. Lao had brought her six-year old daughter Mantze with her after her husband had sold another of their children. At some point after arriving in the city, Mantze developed smallpox. This disease was not uncommon at the time, and by the 19th century the use of vaccinations against smallpox had already been invented. Lao explains that that the military official she worked for had three children, and that those children had already been vaccinated against smallpox. Mantze had not been vaccinated, however, and she became very ill. The mistress of the household, who was the stepmother of the official’s children and his second wife, called for a doctor, a runner was sent out to fetch the doctor, who eventually came to see Mantze. He prescribed a soup made of carp, which was poured down Mantze’s throat. It is doubtful that this actually had any effect on the disease, but Mantze did eventually get better. The story Lao tells about her daughter getting smallpox, and about the children of the official being vaccinated before they could get the disease, is most likely accurate. The disease spread in several epidemics over the 18th century, even though vaccination methods had been available for quite some time (Kohn, p51). People who lived in rural areas, such as Lao did before moving to the city, were more likely to be affected by the disease because they either did not have access to the vaccine or were opposed to the idea of “interference” (Kohn, p51) from public officials and doctors. People who lived in the cities at the time were more likely to have access to the vaccine and to understand that it was something that should be used to prevent disease.

The war between China and Japan in the late 19th century officially began in 1894, although there had been several smaller battles at sea and on Korean soil before then (Xiaobing, p439). When the war really began, the Japanese entered the harbors of several Chinese cities with their warships. The Chinese government at the time was weakened by corruption, and in many ways represented an empire that was in decline. Japan, by contrast, was a nation that was going through a period of technological improvement and advancement. The Japanese government had invested in military and naval forces for several decades, and by the 1880s and 1890s the Japanese had a navy that was far more powerful than the Chinese navy (Xiaobing, p440). The Chinese also had a number of problems with its naval officers and sailors. There was a general lack of training and discipline among many members of the Chinese navy, and the problem of opium use and opium addiction affected many sailors and naval officers (Xiaobing, p440). The Japanese naval forces overpowered the Chinese forces fairly easily.

Lao describes what the Japanese invasion was like from her perspective. The city was on the water, and she saw the Japanese ships sail into the harbor as they fired their weapons at the Chinese ships. Although the war officially began in August of 1894, Lao describes the weather as being cold when she first heard the guns of the Japanese ships, and she says that there was snow on the ground at the time. Because the war lasted for some time, it is possible that the situation she describes in the book actually did happen the way she described it, and took place when it was cold and snowing. It is also possible that her memory is unclear, and that she is confusing different events and times as she tries to recall them many decades later. Despite these possible differences between historical facts and her memories, however, the significant part of the story, meaning the actual invasion by the Japanese, is something she seemed to recall fairly well.

Lao lived long enough to witness two different Japanese invasions of her homeland. Four decades after living through the first invasion, Lao watched as the Japanese again declared war on China. Lao describes being told by her son and her granddaughter that the Japanese were growing powerful, and that they were preparing again to attack China. Lao did not understand this, and believed that the Japanese people would not choose “the way of robbers” and “take land that is not theirs” (Pruitt, p240). It is clear that she saw the world differently than the Japanese did, as they were certainly preparing for another effort to conquer China. Lao kept hearing stories about how the Japanese were taking more and more of China, but she was not sure whether to believe it. Then one day she “heard the guns roar” (Pruitt, p242) as Japanese troops entered the city.

Although Lao did not understand the true nature of what was happening, there was actually a great war raging at the time. Japan had taken Hon Kong, which the British had controlled, and the British government did not want to “pick a fight” (Tsang, p120) with the Japanese at the time as they tried to deal with their war in Europe. Eventually the war would involve the United States and many other countries. It is interesting to read about World War II from the viewpoint of someone who experienced it at the time, and who only understood it from her limited perspective. Just as she described the first Japanese invasion in the 1890s, Lao’s story of the invasion of 1937 makes it possible to truly understand what it was like to see her homeland taken by another country. Lao’s life story was full of difficulties and hard times, but she managed to survive all of them and live into old age. It is to the benefit of all readers that Ida Pruitt met Lao and was able to record Lao’s stories for future generations.

Works Cited

Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2001. Print.

Ning, Lao T, and Ida Pruitt. A Daughter of Han; the Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1967. Print.

Tsang, Steve Y.-S. A Modern History of Hong Kong. London, U.K.: I.B. Tauris, 2004. Print.

Xiaobing , Li, ed. China at War: An Encyclopedia. San Clemente, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012. Print.

 

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