Seventeenth century China had become a “closed country”, in effect limiting how much of the “outside” world was allowed into China. In essence China had closed its doors to missionaries and all who would try to push western culture (Christianity, alcohol, opium, etc) onto the Chinese people. Tradition was very important to the Chinese. With the passage of the “unequal treaties” in the nineteenth century the doors were once again opened for missionaries-thus paving the way for an influx of western idealization. New (modern) ways of thinking emerged, greatly impacting the lives of traditional Chinese households, an example of this is the Yin family, written by Ida Pruitt, born to missionary parents in China but still having very close ties to the Chinese people.
Traditional ways of doing things and living were thought to be the best. With modernization came a cultural crisis during the Qing dynasty. What principles were to be taken from the West while holding to traditional Chinese values became the key question. The unanimous answer of the Chinese youth being: “East for essence, West for practical Use”. This is a resounding theme in Old Madam Yin. The Yin family was very much from a traditional background. The social ranking and male hierarchy was very much a prevalent factor in the life of Lao Tai-tai, “The Chinese family system was organized around the kinship of men” (vi). A family tree was not traced by the female, but rather by the male-the wife being the property of the husband. A woman in Chinese society was dependent upon a male: whether it is her father, husband, brother or son. Divorce was generally not tolerated, and remarriage was frowned upon. In spite of this, Lao Tai-tai remarried after her first husband died, and rose to great wealth with her second husband whom she loved more than the first.
A great homage and respect of ancestors was to be paid. “There were five generations that each man hoped to be able to venerate-his father and mother, his grandfather and grandmother, and the three generations preceding them”-though a family was merely required to “worship” three (34). Age was also an important factor within Chinese society.
Lao Tai-tai comes in contact with Ida Pruitt because of her wish to adopt a baby boy for her second son’s wife. They already had a girl, but it was expected that they should also have a son-for he would carry on the family line. Lao Tai-tai had four sons, described in-depth to some extent. Lao Tai-tai’s fourth son married a French woman, much to his mother’s distress. She was not Chinese, but more than that she refused to learn the customs of her husband’s people. The bride and groom were expected to kneel before the ancestors and before the (living) parent, Lao Tai-tai, her fourth son’s wife refused to do so. The marriage was seen as a disappointment to the family. The youth were changing, and intermarriage became more acceptable to certain renegade youths.
While modern ways began to take hold of Chinese society many still clung to their Eastern roots. Lao Tai-tai was a traditional Chinese woman, with a modern spirit-she took measures to ensure education for her granddaughter as well as her grandson, providing equally for each. Lao Tai-tai even had a modernized bedroom-a bathtub, mattress and bed, and other furniture from the west, though she cared for it little (44). The practicalities of western inventions (plumbing, bathtubs, beds, etc) were desired, but the cultural ramifications from adopting a completely Western worldview would have been far too great. For that reason it was best that China should stay, as it was during the time of Lao Tai-tai, “east for essence, and west for practical use”.