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The Death of Woman Wang, by Jonathan Spence

The Death of Woman Wang, by Jonathan Spence is an educational historical novel of northeastern China during the seventeenth century. The author’s focus was to enlighten a reader on the Chinese people, culture, and traditions. Spence’s use of the provoking stories of the Chinese county T’an-ch’eng, in the province of Shantung, brings the reader directly into the course of Chinese history. The use of the sources available to Spence, such as the Local History of T’an-ch’eng, the scholar-official Huang Liu-hung’s handbook and stories of the writer P’u Sung-Ling convey the reader directly into the lives of poor farmers, their workers and wives.

The intriguing structure of The Death of Woman Wang consists on observing these people working on the land, their family structure, and their local conflicts. Chapter one, The Observers, in the Death of Woman Wang demonstrates the accuracy of the local historian; Feng K’o-ts’an, who compiled The Local History of T’an-ch’eng in 1673. The descriptive context of the Local History helps the reader to understand and literally penetrate into people’s lives. The use of records of the earthquake of 1668, the White Lotus rising of 1622 and rebels rising vividly described by Feng the extent of suffering the people of T’an-ch’eng went through.

Jonathan Spence stresses on how miserable the two-quarter of the seventeen-century were to the diminishing population of the county. The earthquake claimed the lives of nine thousand people, many others died in the White lotus rising, hunger, sickness and banditry. P’u Sung-ling’s stories convey that after the loss of the wheat crops there were cases of cannibalism. On top of all of this came the slaughtering of the entire family lines by the bandits. The incredible records of women like Yao and Sun in the Local History present the reader the magnitude of savagery the bandits possessed. All of these factors led to the rise of suicides.

The clarity of events Spence given to the reader is overwhelming. On the other hand, Spence losses his reader as he introduces the spread of Confucius and other superstitious believes through out the county. He states that the Local History states that people became unusually superstitious in parts of T’an-ch’eng. Later on he presents the Confucianism and it influence. Confusion especially occurs then he quotes from many different sources and chapters. For instance during the exams of 1669, students were presented with quotes from different chapters, which were supposed to be placed in correct context.

An entire paragraph mentions chapters, books and names without any logical order. Of course this may have occurred because of the limited knowledge I have about these chapters. Spence gives a reader a clear insight in T’an-ch’eng’s economy and it’s economic policies in chapter two, The Land. T’an-ch’eng government had a rather simple philosophy, the more you made the more you paid. The taxes were paid based on percentage of what you made or volunteer to work for the government. The government did take interest in its taxpayers only then people were unable to pay at all.

Local History showed that there was a schedule of nine tax payments. People paid more during the harvest seasons and less during the hottest midsummer months. Structured Chinese government devised a responsible and supervisory system, which insured that the taxes were collected at full without any spillovers. Theft and cheating was a common occurrence at city’s market, thus government officials created collecting points for the farmers to avoid direct contact with middlemen. All of the factors presented by Spence give the reader a closer look on the financial struggle of an ordinary seventeenth century farmer.

Furthermore, in part tree, The Widow, Spence urges the reader of woman’s values and her characteristics in T’an-ch’eng county. Through the Local History Spence defines the meaning of property in the seventeen century China. Women like any other piece of property belonged to their alive husbands. Unfortunately, because of the levels of disasters in the county, population of males dropped from 40,002 to 9881 males, leaving a lot of helpless widows. Because of the Legal Code in the county, widows alone had a little chance to inherit deceased husband’s property.

Spence’s vivid use of P’eng’s story opens the readers eyes on the degree of cruelty deceased husband’s relatives possessed. The tree brothers of the deceased killed the only son, Lien, after unsuccessful attempt to get woman P’eng married. The law would have allowed the tree brothers to inherit the property if woman P’eng would have remarried or if there was no son to receive the property. Further, the trial of the murder, Ch’en Kuo-hsiang, describes the punishment one could receive in T’an-ch’eng county to restore justice.

The use of the Legal Code by Spence only draws in the reader’s attention in this chapter. Apparently, Chinese people are ill tempered as we learn in chapter four, The Feud. Ts’ui and the Wang family according to P’u Sung-ling’s testimony created among the most unreasonable violence in the community. Vigilance on the behave of Ts’ui helped the community to get rid off the Wang gang later on in the history of T’an-ch’eng. The battle that Spence only mentions in the beginning of The Death of Woman Wang is finally revealed in this chapter, with much of my personal delight.

The strategic description of the battle by Spence would intrigue most readers. In the final chapter, The Woman Who Ran Away, the reader is confronted with a dilemma. Chinese culture ” demanded and claimed the highest standards for woman than for men” (p. 99). Women were expected to possess “charity, courage, tenancy, and unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing hierarchy – unto death if necessary” (p. 100). Wife’s loyalty was especially of most importance to the husband. Yet the reader is presented with woman Wang, who ran away with another man from her husband, Jen.

Some of the reasons of her departure could have been neglect from her husband, that she had bound feet and that she had no children. Her actions contradicted any moral wife at that time. After relentless pursuit of happiness woman Wang returned home, there she met her death. The Legal Code justified certain parameters of vengeance on behave of the husband toward his adulterous wife. Nevertheless, Jen was not allowed by the law to simply slaughter his wife. Moreover Jen accused an innocent Kao, for which Jen could have been sentenced to death.

Were woman Wang’s actions right is for the reader to decide. Ultimately, The Death of Woman Wang, by Jonathan Spence is a timeless, educational, historical novel. Spence purpose to enlighten the reader of the Chinese culture, tradition and its land were met through the use of sources, like the Local History of T’an-ch’eng, the scholar-official Huang Liu-hung’s handbook and stories of the writer P’u Sung-Ling. The intriguing structure of The Death of Woman Wang will captivate any reader’s attention.

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