- China's American Daughter: Ida Pruitt (1888–1985)
Ida Pruitt's book Daughter of Han has been a bestseller for Stanford University Press since it was issued in paperback in 1967. Its first-person account of an ordinary Chinese woman's travails in late Qing and republican-era China has made it a favorite for instructors of survey-level classes, whose orders have kept the book continuously in print for forty years. Countless students suffered with Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai, the fiftyish domestic servant whose story is told in the book, when her "opium sot" of a husband sold their daughter—not once, but twice—to satisfy his drug addiction. This daughter, named Mantze, ends up married to another opium addict, who abandons her. Just as compelling is the story of Su Teh, Mantze's daughter, who rises above the poverty of her birth to study abroad in the United States, work as a college professor upon her return to China, and remain an unmarried, patriotic Chinese woman who strives to build a new China. Episodes such as these make the book a superb resource for a wide range of classes. Through the book, Pruitt thus remains one of the most important English-language interpreters of everyday life in China in the first half of the twentieth century.
Marjorie King's China's American Daughter: Ida Pruitt (1888-1985) makes the case that Pruitt's significance extends beyond her role as skillful raconteur of Ning's story. King places Pruitt's life in the context of China's twentieth-century history and the history of Sino-American relations as a mediator between cultures and governments. The book is organized chronologically into a dozen chapters and includes twenty-five black-and-white photographs that span the near-century of her life. Pruitt was born in Shandong to Southern Baptist missionary parents. She lived nearly fifty years in China and considered it her true home, her motherland. Chapters survey her role as a founder of medical social work in China, her work as a fiction and nonfiction author, her fundraising efforts on behalf of cooperatives in China, her collaboration with Lao She on the English translation [End Page 484] of Four Generations under One Roof (Si shi tong tang), and her deep bond with left-wing China friend and organizer Rewi Alley.
Overall, this accounting of Pruitt's life provides the most historical and narrative depth in the chapters on the late 1930s and 1940s. Paradoxically, Pruitt spent a good part of these years in the United States, a country in which she did not feel very much at home. In these chapters, one gets an insider's account of the organizational and political struggles of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative (CIC) movement. Pruitt's effort to build grassroots, nonpartisan support for light industrial cooperatives that produced things like steel tools, candles, and knitted textiles was thwarted by the interests and individuals of both the Guomindang and the U.S. governments. One way to make this story more compelling would be to situate it more firmly within the historiography of Sino-American relations during these years. The narrative of Pruitt's childhood in the late nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth century, including her twelve-year-old's perspective on the North China–centered Boxer Rebellion, is comparatively thin, which is due mainly to the author's careful reliance on archival sources. We learn more about Anna Pruitt in these decades, Ida's mother, and their complicated relationship.
The book is based on meticulous, decades-long study of Pruitt's personal papers, her publications, interviews with Pruitt herself, more than twenty other interviews with her acquaintances, materials from seven archives, and even her FBI dossier. It is, quite simply, a formidably researched book. King weaves this wide range of materials together in a way that makes for a somewhat idiosyncratic narrative at times. On a single page, for example, we read about Pruitt's professional...