China's American Daughter: Ida Pruitt (1888-1985)

Article excerpt

China's American Daughter: Ida Pruitt (1888-1985), by Marjorie King. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2006. xiv + 287 pp. US$42.00 (hardcover), US$23.00 (paperback).

In this deeply personal biography of Ida Pruitt, an American woman born to missionary parents in Shandong at the end of the imperial era, Marjorie King portrays Pruitt as a "pilgrim", forever seeking to fill an "emotional void" through personal relationships and a cross-cultural identity that she crafted in China (p. 207). King's biography seeks to reveal the interior life of a complicated human being who always felt somewhat alienated from her "motherland" China and her "fatherland" America. Utilizing a cache of Pruitt's private writing (dream diaries, journals, travel narratives, letters to friends and lovers) as well as the significant body of professional writing (biographical memoirs, short stories and journal articles), King chronicles Pruitt's struggle for self-knowledge and human and cultural connection. More than an account of the last decades of imperial China when traditional patterns of life were devalued (and sometimes violently destroyed) by American political and cultural missionaries and Chinese revolutionaries alike, more than a history of China's IQP-century civil and international wars and political and cultural revolutions (although this history is here in truncated form), this biography aims at a psychological exploration of Pruitt's loneliness and search for a home. It describes the 20th-century cultural confrontation between the United States and China, as seen from the perspective of a woman whose deepest aspiration was to be a bridge between nations and peoples.

Within Ida Pruitt, as King's fully documented analysis argues, there was a touch of tum-of-the-20th-century American grandiosity, some pride, and a great deal of ambition learned from her missionary mother, Anna Seward Pruitt, as well as a respect for the prescribed social order ("right relationships"), higher learning, and pragmatism of traditional Chinese culture learned from her acculturated father, Cicero Washington (C. W.) Pruitt. During a childhood spent at a rural mission in Shandong Province, Pruitt felt loved and cared for by her father and her Chinese amah. Yet Pruitt forever doubted her mother's love and was critical of her mother's sense of cultural superiority to the Chinese people she sought to "civilize" and convert to Christianity. King suggests that Pruitt's troubled relationship with her mother was a source of a lifelong loneliness, but it also inspired Pruitt to develop a culturally-sensitive role for herself as the head of social welfare work at the Rockefeller Foundation's Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) from 1921 to 1938. Consciously rejecting her mother, who was ever the active, direct and sometimes dogmatic "American" missionary in her relations with Chinese villagers, Pruitt fashioned her professional social worker persona upon the model of the Chinese matriarch, the grandmother who worked through indirection and through personalized and informal relationships to serve her clients' needs.

During these seventeen years in Beijing, spanning China's Warlord Era in the 1920s and the first ten years of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party rule over China, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Ida Pruitt defined her adult and independent self. A failed love affair with a Canadian doctor at PUMC prompted her to undergo psychotherapy and to exorcise some of her inhibiting fears and timidity, and also gave her confidence to share her social work theory and to write creatively. She developed important teaching relationships with Chinese social work students and empathetic personal relationships with clients, whose life stories she sometimes fictionalized and other times recorded factually, and published in American journals and newspapers. …