In the 1930s Ida Pruitt, an American living in Peking, recorded the oral life history of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai, the elderly mother of a man working for her husband.
Ning lived in the city of Penglai in Shedong Province of China in second half of the 1800s and the early 1900s. Married to a man who was an opium addict, Ning struggled to provide for her children by begging. Twice her husband sold her daughter, the first time she was able to retrieve her. The second time she had to leave her daughter with the family that had bought her. This was when she left her husband at last and struck out on her own. Pruitt published Ning’s story in A Daughter of Han in 1948.
The following excerpt from Ning’s life in 1889.
The life of the beggar is not the hardest one. There is freedom. Today, perhaps, there is not enough to eat, but tomorrow there will be more. There is no face to keep up. Each day is eaten what has been begged that day. The sights of the city are free for beggars. The temple fairs with their merrymaking crowds, the candy sticks with their fluttering pennants, the whirligigs spreading noise and the colors of the rainbow in the air, women dressed in gay colors, the incense burning before the shrines and piling up in the iron pots, the flames leaping high, are harvest time for beggars. There is drama on the open-air stage. No lady can get as close as a beggar. The ladies have their dignity to maintain and must sit in a closed cart or on the edge of the throng in tea booths. No woman but a beggar woman could see the magistrate in his embroidered ceremonial robes ride to the temples to offer sacrifice at the alters of the city in the times of festival.
At noon the beggars come to the gruel kitchen where all the other beggars have gathered and find human companionship. There is warm food, pleasantry, and the close feel of people around. There is no future, but there is no worry. An old proverb says, “Two years of begging and one will not change places with the district magistrate.” All this if a beggar is not sick.
Have you ever collected oral histories?
What place in literature do they fill?
Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman by Ida Pruitt from the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T’ai t’ai, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945, repr. Stanford CA; Stanford University Press, 1967)