Death of Woman Wang: Life in 17th Century China

The title of the Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan D. Spence specifically refers to a rural Chinese wife who ran away from her husband and was subsequently returned to him, only to be killed by his own, bare hands. According to the law, she was classified as a fugitive from justice and her husband could subject her to a punishment of one hundred blows -- or worse, according to accepted custom (Spence 120). The Woman Wang committed infidelity in her loveless marriage, and left with her lover, who abandoned her by the side of the road. This made her a kind of non-person in Chinese society, possessing neither a husband nor existing as a concubine. Even the relatively patriarchical authorities who chronicled her tale expressed sympathy for her sorrows during the era when she lived. Women had no ability to choose whom they married, and the Woman Wang's husband was cruel and quarrelsome.

The magistrate investigating the case noted how when the woman's husband was convicted of his crime after trying to create a ruse to attribute her brutal strangulation to another man, a neighbor with whom he was having a feud, his sentence was relatively lenient, and little worse than the punishment a woman might receive for adultery -- namely a beating. In social retribution, the Woman Wang's family demanded an elaborate, expensive, and honorable funeral, as a kind of payment for her death. The magistrate who investigated the crime saw this as only fitting, in a rare show of compassion in a brutal era where women often bore the brunt of the difficulties inflicted upon the peasantry. Although ideologically significant as images in Confucian doctrine, wives, mothers, and daughters had little political power.

Spence uses the Woman Wang's death as emblematic of the place of Chinese women in 17th century society and the destabilization of society as a whole during this tumultuous era. Individual women were used more as pawns in family quarrels over land, property, and honor rather than treated as sympathetic or feeling human beings. Most of the voices that remain from this era are male so the picture that emerges of women tends to pit images of virtuous and good women against evil, sexual woman. Spence attempts to read between the lines to find a more accurate and balanced point-of-view. Women were figures on which the anxieties of the age were projected -- anxieties about morality, change, a lack of power in the face of a cruel government bureaucracy, and the vulnerability of individuals before the elements. However some women, perhaps representing the downtrodden Chinese peasantry in the cultural imagination, managed to rise, educate sons, set sons up in business, and exercise some autonomy over their sexual lives, if only to refuse a new husband because they were 'virtuous' women. The Woman Wang even contains images of some very powerful women, who acted as fortune-tellers or mediums.

Thus real scope of the book extends far beyond the life of the title woman, and instead encompasses all of the various shifting identities of all of the rural peasants living in T'an-ch'eng during the 1600s. Spence examines what constitutes virtue in a woman, and the complex ties of kinship and custom that circumscribed female lives, to better understand the values of rural Chinese life. Family and kinship were particularly important issues for a woman during this place and time, although they were significant for all Chinese in neo-Confucian society, even those living far away from the court of the Emperor.

For example, before a woman could marry, she had to live with her husband's mother, to ensure that she was a suitable match. The prospective husband's family would carefully screen her, to determine if she was virtuous and chaste. A woman passed entirely into the new family home, and left her own family, so the issue of her morality was of grave and vital concern, as her honor (or lack thereof) must not spoil that of her husband's family. Chastity and virtue was of such central significance to the culture that women were supposed to give up their lives for the sake of chastity, and blamed if they did not give up their lives rather than see themselves raped. Chastity, courage, and intelligence, was required of the ideal female -- at least if that intelligence was needed to defend their honor, sons, or husband. All this was demanded of women, for although women were seen as lower beings than men on the Confucian scale of value, more was often expected of them in terms of demonstrations of honor.

This ideal of female perfection was based in real, political circumstance -- the threat of rape was constant, given the presence of many bandits and other marauders in the countryside and family ties were also all-important, given that they were all that many individuals had to sustain them in brutal times. But this emphasis on family often came at a heavy price. Women were emotionally as well as physically brutalized within their own homes. They were often bullied by their in-laws -- yet they were always supposed to remain obedient. However, many women did not reap the fruits of their labor, and saw their inheritances picked apart by greedy relatives of their husband's family.

Additionally, if their husband died, they would often be forced to remarry by their in-laws, so that their goods would pass back to the husband's family. Some of the greatest conflicts ensued between the alternate and often competing family loyalties women owed to their in-laws, children, and original families. Stories abound of women disfiguring themselves to avoid remarrying and giving up their inheritance and dishonoring their first husband, devoting their lives to their children after their husband's demise, and in one instance, returning home and leaving their in-laws to raise their brothers.

One of the reasons that Spence uses T'an-ch'eng was a case study is because it exemplifies the events that were all too common in remote rural villages in China, including droughts and famines. Spence suggests that the constant thread of invaders and natural disasters such as earthquakes, and disease made the people unnaturally cruel, cling hard to their traditions and what little wealth they possessed. This was why such strict standards were applied to the morality of women and there was so much anxiety about the divisions of a man's estate. Women, because they were defenseless, often living far away from their birth families, and were considered lesser beings, suffered more than men, especially if they were widowed. The more traditions were questioned, the more people clung to traditions and land, often brutally -- men as well as women. Take for example, the Chen brothers who killed a man to avenge a father's death and thought they could do so with impunity. They later discovered that this was not the case, as they had waited twenty-seven years to avenge do so -- and they killed not the man, the son of the murderer (Spence 60).

The government made the sharp sense of anger and want in the populace even worse, offering no aid, and establishing an onerous system of taxation, which left the population doubly taxed -- taxed upon their land, and also taxed as adult males. When there was a massive earthquake, instead of lessening the taxes on the families who were struggling to survive and deal with the catastrophe, the government raised taxes to make up for the loss in revenue of the people who had died and no longer paid taxes. Distrust for the government and the law was at its low ebb during this era.

The brutality of everyday life caused a mix of an 'every person for themselves' mentality with a fierce family loyalty. Many people believed that…