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Intimate portrait of old China; Old Madam Yin, by Ida Pruitt. Stanford: Stanford University Press. $8.95.

This slender volume reflects its author's long and intimate knowledge of old China. Born of missionary parents in Shantung in 1888, Ida Pruitt grew up speaking the language, which in that fortunate province meant Mandarin (Kuo Yu). After being educated in America she returned to China, and between 1918 and 1938 was head of the Social Service Department of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, a vast Rockefeller complex. Here she had ample opportunities to meet and work with Chinese of all sorts, and this book is the result of her friendship with one remarkable Chinese woman -- Madame Yin.

Chinese women of the past, though severely limited in theory by tradition and custom, were sometimes pushed out of their narrow grooves by the pressure of events, and showed themselves to be energetic, commanding, resourceful, and intelligent. In many cases, family matriarchs controlled a clan (in all but name) with firmness, good sense, and cheerful flexibility. Madam Yin was such a person.

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Though her family was large, with many sons, daughters, and grandchildren, it seemed to Madame Yin that a certain courtyard of the establishment needed an infant son. To this end she came to the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, and there met Ida Pruitt. The workers at the hospital were always cautious in their choice of homes for the orphans in their care, and generally were not partial to rich families; they were inclined to the view that a child placed there might lack proper personal affection.

But it soon became evident to Ida Pruitt that there was no danger of this happening with Madame Yin in command, and the two women became fast friends; theirs was a relationship which endured for many years.

This book describes in careful detail and with transparent honesty the day-to-day events of the old multifamily household, its attitudes, amusements, and pleasures. Ida Pruitt joins the distinguished roster of those who have written about such Chinese times -- Lin Yutang, Lady Hosie, Norah Waln -- and she adds certain new dimensions and personal elements that bring us even closer to some of the dreams of that vanished era.

Those of us who loved "The Flight of an Empress," that escape from Peking by the old Empress Tzu Hsi, whom Ida Pruitt described as an amanuensis, will not find here the same tone of drama, simplicity, or wonderful understatement. This , instead, is a direct personal experience which leaves us with vivid portraits of two courageous and admirable women -- old Madame Yin and Ida Pruitt.


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