Daughter of Han is a story about Ning Lao known as “old mistress Ning” or “granny Ning” who lives a completely difficult life in the China during the 19th century. We learn a lot about the Chinese society and gender system through her life story in the daughter of Han. She worked as a maidservant, begged for food and had to live with her son. Her drive was to ensure a living for her family all by herself after being married off to an opium-addicted husband. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, we witness a lot of social hierarchy, especially within the family setting, where women are oppressed both physically and socially. Women worked traditionally together with their relatives to produce rice and tea in the rural areas. In the urban setting women worked in factories, staying away from home and send their income home to cater for their relatives. Ning Lao in Daughter of Han had to work as a maidservant in order to give her family a living. Women had to leave their inner quarters because they had to feed their families (Pruitt 20).
Traditional Roles and Confucianism
Confucianism is the belief that one should give up their own life if need be, either actively or passively for the cause of observing cardinal moral values. It was the source of the male headed society in China. It clarified the differences between the sexes and defined the roles within the family. Girls were directed from a tender age to submit to their fathers, husbands and later on to their sons (Bossen 96). The patriarchal tradition came with more restrictions for the females, a major one being foot binding for young girls before nine years. Foot binding happens when the arch of a woman’s feet is forcefully broken. The toes are then tied up on to the foot to make them look smaller with a high arch. These was considered attractive by men and had to be done before marriage. In Daughter of Han, Lao’s feet were not bound until she was seven because she was an active child, and she fell ill during her childhood (Pruitt 22). This gave her the freedom to run and play which other girls were not privileged to have because of the practice of foot binding. At thirteen, Lao was taught how to clean and cook. This was normal for girls who followed the Confucius Gender Rules. The role of the woman was basic kinship roles: mother, sister, daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, and mother- in-law. In all these roles, women had to give in to the wishes and needs of men close to them. These included husbands when married, fathers when young, and sons when widowed.
This refers to intense respect that Chinese children are supposed to show their parents. It involved a number of things including burying parents properly after death, taking care of parents, bringing honor to the family and giving birth to male babies who were supposed to carry the family name. In Daughter of Han, Ning Lao displays filial piety in very many occasions. She took care of her mother when she was ill and was beside her just before she died. She is in charge of her father in law when he is struck with cholera (Pruitt 59). This she has to do alongside taking care of her own children. She has no choice of saying no because it is her duty to take care of her parent and in laws. After marriage, Lao has to go home every month as a sign that she honors filial piety. Lao even accepted her opium addicted husband as her destiny simply because he was chosen by her parents. She does not wish to go against her parents by saying that the man is not good for her. Ning Lao is pushed to invite her addicted husband back in order to try and get a son. This is because the worst unfilial act was failure to have a descendant. It was therefore a filial piety requirements is that you bear a son to carry the family name. Lao’s husband is also criticized because he does not honor his father when he dies, and even sells the burial land. This is viewed as the most dishonorable thing that a person can do and is seen as liable for a curse from the ancestors.
Traditional Chinese marriage was arranged by parents of the groom and the bride. In these marriages, the woman’s main role was to bear offspring especially a male child to carry the family name. Married women had to be obedient to her husband’s parents as like her own parents. Ning Lao’s marriage was arranged by her parents just as much as she also arranged her daughter’s marriage (Bossen 156).
Opium trade was very common during the late 19th century and early 20th century. This led to intense poverty and familial strain. It also clashed with the Confucian philosophy. For example Ning’s husband did not pay attention to his father’s death since he was busy smoking opium. This caused him to lose the respect of other families in the court. He also neglected his responsibilities as a father. Opium also caused Ning’s husband to sell the family burial plot which was a very dishonorable thing for her family and could even lead to a curse from the ancestors. Ning Lao states that this was the cause of her misfortune throughout the book. The good name of the family was lost, they were criticized and economic difficulties set in. This caused Ning to adopt a mother in an attempt to get a job. The first job she was able to do was begging for food and money because there was not much she could do (Pruitt 55). Later she managed to get a job as a maid servant. This is still a form of women oppression because Ning is forced to pay for her husband’s mistakes indirectly. Women were oppressed due to the opium trade. Lao’s daughters were sold in order to support this addiction (Pruitt 66). He also sold her kitchenware which only left her poorer. Ning’s son in law also ended up an addict which made her daughter only despise her. This led to Ning’s favorite quote where she quotes about her destiny not being bright. She claims that she was not born at a perfect time. She goes on to say how husband spoiled her youth; her son in law destroyed her middle years and now her daughter who makes her old age unhappy.
Late 19th century and early 20th century in china was a period of rapid decline and unhappiness. There was a lot of corruption, opium and rebellion during this time. This is the period when women in china were most oppressed. They were denied many freedoms including, freedom to be children, to choose their own husbands and even to give their children a complete family. During this time, the political structure was very uneven in that it did not aspire to equality. Maintaining a physical separation between the worlds of men and the worlds of women was very important during this time. Segregation of women was very important so that the yin (women) could not dominate the yang (men). During this time, women were not sent to school to be educated. The only teaching they received was on how to become wives after which they were married off at age fifteen. Ning often wondered whether her life would had been different had she received formal education. Through all her struggles however, we see that family comes first for Ning. She works hard to protect her children and grandchildren.
Daughter of Han brings out the life of the Chinese women in three generations. It shows Ning as a woman who accepts her destiny as from heaven and lives her life the way it is. It brings out her daughter however as bitter and with a useless husband and she blames her mother for her misfortune (Barlow 94). Her grand-daughter however refuses to marry and says that marriage is not a priority. We therefore see the Chinese society grow from one of oppression of women to freedom. This book therefore depicts a society that grows from segregation to acceptance and equality of everyone.