The history of ancient China has always been a widespread subject to be portrayed within various directions of art. Sculpture, literature, painting, poetry, architecture, and many other arts employed this topic in different shapes and forms. However literature remains the best tool able to deeply and vividly portray ancient Chinese history considering all the aspects of that time and that place. Hence success of the authors that wrote books about life in ancient china. Jonathan Spence, well-known English writer, is one of the best authors who wrote historical books on China. Spence’s works won numerous prizes and awards. The reason for it was his degree in Chinese history. Being both a professor of history and a talented writer Jonathan Spence provided the in-depth description of the subject using beautiful aesthetic forms. One of Spence’s most popular books “The Death of Woman Wang” that was written in the year 1979 vividly depicts the author’s vision of life within the Chinese empire.
In “The Death of Woman Wang” Jonathan Spence described historical facts and scenes that are not widely known to the mass audience. Such details as the way women were oppressed in seventeenth century China are not provided in the regular history courses. Hence this book is very valuable for those readers who seek for vivid and realistic description of life in rural China in that period. Of no doubt the most impressive about this book is the portrayal of place of women in Chinese society. There are numerous examples in the world history when gender suppress was a cornerstone of society. However Chinese scenery from “The Death of Woman Wang” strikes reader’s imagination soundly. Within the cultural and legal conditions depicted here only strong and intelligent women could survive.
Of course people of any gender needed to be strong and smart in the scenery portrayed in the book. In seventeenth century in rural Chinese county T’an-Ch’eng it was not easy to live for common peasants, both men and women, due to numerous factors, such as environmental disasters and tax system. Legal and governmental abuse of common people aggravated their position in society. All of the people depicted by the author in this book were treated wrongly by wealthy and governing classes. Of no doubt this is an issue worth describing and analyzing. However there is another abuse inside this peasants’ society that is even more flagrant. I mean the treatment of women described by Spence in his book. Legal and social principles of Chinese society in 1600s manifested drastically crying injustice towards lower-class people, but first of all towards women. Women had almost no rights at all, excluding right to “inherit husband’s business when he dies if having a son from him” (72). All other legal aspects of position of women in society are hard to be called rights. Most of the women’s rights sound far more like obligations, like possessing such virtues as “chastity, courage, tenacity, and… death if necessary” (100). In his book Spence shows few women and their everyday lives in unbelievable conditions of rural Chinese civilization that hardly seems to be civilized. Thus being strong and smart for them are essential qualities.
Strength and the meaning of this term oftentimes suffer from being stereotyped. This word is mostly used to describe either physical state or an ability of human spirit to fight against hardships. Intelligence is another term that is often misunderstood. Most of us by calling a person intelligent imply that the individual knows much of various data and facts, is well-educated, has major experience or talent in some certain area of life. However the book by Jonathan Spence “The Death of Woman Wang” puts a different meaning into understanding of both strength and intelligence.
The society depicted by the author in “The Death of Woman Wang” demands women to be strong and intelligent. Otherwise they will not survive. Strength in this case implies not simply overcoming hardships but also an ability to accept the conditions that you can not change and try to live in these conditions not losing your dignity. For example, the girl Tou finally died because she tried to convince her father that she was pregnant with Nan’s child. If she realized futility of this persuasion and was stronger to struggle alone without help of father she would not be beaten, kicked out of home, and then left to die with her baby outside Nan’s house (108).
Intelligence as I already mentioned above may easily be a quality of common uneducated peasant’s wife. The society described in the book would only benefit from giving more rights to women, as for women in this book are often smarter than their husbands.
Although “the smart woman does not match a stupid man” (63) the power belongs to men in this society. The only way for smart woman to survive on these conditions was surrender the rules and be very careful when breaking them. Woman Wang was caught with her lover by her husband Jen hence she could not avoid punishment. Thus Jen had to kill her according to local customs (120). However this case does not mean that Woman Wang was not intelligent. To my mind she was simply tired of complying with the ridiculous laws of Chinese society and of being strong for fighting crying injustice.
The author portrays the scenery very vividly using various forms of narration, as a historian, memoirist, and short story writer. The book therefore is sometimes little harder to read than any other common book. However interesting plot grabs the reader’s imagination with realistic scenes and vivid characters. If I had to express the sense of “The Death of Woman Wang” in couple of words I would say that the author describes lives of strong and smart women within weak and foolish system. Among numerous outstanding works of Jonathan Spence “The Death of Woman Wang” remains favorite to most of the audience for vividly depicted characters of strong women in rural Chinese society of seventeenth century.
Spence, Jonathan. The Death of Woman Wang. Penguin, 1998.
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