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Daniel Plaat

Modern China
Paper 2 Topic B

Nations across the last two centuries became modern in varying

ways. The content, attitudes and relationships of modern life follow a pattern
of pluralism, equality, and organized labor, increased ease of travel,
transport and communication. How this pattern is followed depends on the
culture of the people involved. How the economy will be structured; what
rights and freedoms will be assigned to whom and the speeds of which these
transitions will take are some of the issues concerned. China is an excellent
case in how a preindustrial culture made for a clearly different path of
modernization then say Latin America or Europe. Change came much faster
and in urban areas was so massive it is similar to the term future-shock;
describing cultural and physical stress caused by too much change in too
short a time. Such a condition could be seen in an ethic Han woman named
Ning Lao Tai Tai. Her story, told by herself is represented in A Daughter of
Han by Ida Pruitt. As a collection of stories spanning her life she relates a
picture of traditional China and how over the course of her one lifetime
everything is turned upside-down.
Ning Lao endures many hardships across her life, many of which spring
from the very traditions meant to keep thing stable and pleasant for those in
control. Such traditions might always have been negative for lower class

women like Ning Lao, her position in life was greatly affected by pressures
and conflicts both from within traditional China from the modern world
outside her small city home. In the early part of her life in the 1880s life in
China is still pre-modern and this is seen in how Ning Lao and her sister is
married. In finding a husband basic economic questions are asked like if the
potential husband knows a trade or has a job; then age is considered; and
thats the extent of it. These types of arrangements led to misery for her
sister as she is described as being too young to leave the house. Later Ning
Lao tells of how she was found a husband: the man who carted away night
soil made the match for me. He was a professional matchmaker. He did not
care how the marriage turned out. (Pruitt, 33) She explains how he hid the
true age from her family for the money they paid him. She was a child bride
of 15; exemplarily of such a system which treats women as property more
than spouses. Much later in her life, Ning Laos daughter Mantze finds herself
also in such a terrible marriage which leads her to make poor mistakes,
perhaps only possible due to the shifting social attitudes of others as she
elopes with a already married man as a mistress. Other results include
suicides and abuse; such occurrences are often mentioned in her stories.
Such are these traditions which even today linger in some parts of the world.
Included in such narratives is Ning Laoss marriage which failed as well
with causes and results which have equal value worth mentioning. Her
husband, rather quickly, became an opium addict. The drug, and import and
sign of the outside worlds pressure regarding trade and the vulnerabilities of

Chinese society. The use of it is everywhere as every other person Ning Lao
knows uses it to some small extent. From the notables she works for, to
those who rob her of what little she has. The addiction of her husband drives
him to sell all of their things and then finally her one of their daughters. This
event is a clash of the honorable, the modern and the opium habit of her
husband; an entirely new condition thrust into the traditional household of
Ning Lao, upending it completely.
Her life is then forced t take a turn for the non-traditional as she
speeds most of her life working out of the home to support herself; either as
a maid, taking care of others children and even peddling. This could be a
sign of a societal shift of women working out of the home, but even her doing
this is not too important in the face of the myriad rules women needed to
follow to be proper. There were rules as well as the business of foot binding
which restricted women to the home, but during her time there was a new
custom of gate standing and talking to anyone who passed by rather than
staying inside.. Ning Lao discusses this and other rules when talking about
her neighbors: A woman could not visit on the first or fifthteenth of the
month. When visiting she could not lean on any door framemust not stand
or sit on the doorstepto do these things might give her power over the
family and ruin them. Women were not considered clean.(Pruitt, 179).
Superstitions like these are woven into most of her stories and everything
she does. A mind set such as this is the epitome of pre-modern, a mindset
held her whole life.

Another important set of traditions which appears often is the power of

words; containing magical effects even as Ning Lao explains. In another story
of a neighbor she tells of a newlywed couple who found a knife in their bed.
The witty wife picks it up and says Upward and across I cut, and cut the
tendons of poverty!(Pruitt, 181). Afterwords they are prosperous and while
another couple tries the same thing the husband jokes about a murder, and
there was one says Ning Lao. This was a sign in her eyes of not forcing fate.
Words held meaning in more poignant ways. In her later life she works for a
nasty woman who fights with a cook because he used the informal you
when responding to a question. Now well into the 20th century, Ning Lao had
this to say to her: We are not bond servants, such as then used to be in
China and were bought with money. We are hired people. We are free to
come and go. But she always spoke of us as her bond servants.(Pruitt, 210)
Despite her working as a free agent her whole life, she was constantly
asserting herself as such. This could be a sign of shifts in how ones labor
could be viewed as monthly salaries were the first measure of a job for her.
But why spend such effort to understand this womans life; this life,
one which has the mind of a traditional Chinese woman behind it draws such
a complete contrast with the China growing in around her. The vast changes
can only be made clear when she talks of her granddaughter, an individual of
the modern China which has developed during Ning Laos life. Su Teh is a
successful woman. But she is not married. I tell (her) she should marry. She
says that marriage is not necessary to working for the country. That is new

talk. This here is the culmination of my point. That China became modern,
or rather changed so much, so fast, that her granddaughter may as well be
living on the moon. As the Japanese take Beijing, Ning Lao, ever thinking in
pre-modern terms considers that the Japanese might now have the mandate
of Heaven as the Qing did before and it would be better to keep the family
together and accept what comes. The Difference between her and her
grandchild who leaves to fight for the nation are an entire age apart. Such
change can only leave Ning Lao and anyone else like her in the dust. The
transformations, the pain and suffering she has witnessed attest to the
bitter transition China made into being a modern country. (Mitter, 40)
The coming of the modern experience to China was a shock to the
system. Traditions were thrown into crisis and have yet to find balance with
the ways of the 20th century. Perhaps they will adjust better with the 21st.
Having a life spanning two completely different centuries as well; maybe
Ning Lao Tai Tai would have something to say about that.

Pruitt Ida, A Daughter of Han; Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre,

CT, 2011
Mitter Rana; A Bitter Revolution; Oxford University Press In, NY, 2004