Earthquakes, droughts, famine, cannibalism, bandits, a huge tax burden, and a social system which was strictly hierarchical and repressive; T'an Ch'eng was a Chinese county that suffered great hardships during the 17th century. Jonathon Spence, in his "The Death of Woman Wang" creates a snapshot of the difficulties and hardships endured by the Chinese peasants at that time. By using both historical and non-historical sources, Spence is able to allow the reader a glimpse into the lives of people long since dead, and a way of life that no longer exists. The author captures the extremely difficult life these people had to endure, their problems, threats, hardships, and social conventions which all led to a miserable existence. While the book is titled after the Woman Wang, a character that does not play a role of importance until well into the book, it really describes the everyday life and problems faced by these people. Most of the people of T'an Ch'eng county are doomed to a life without prospects and were condemned to a miserable existence.
Spence begins his story with a description of the 1668 earthquake which devastated the county of T'an Ch'eng, killing almost 9000 of it's inhabitants. This was a devastating event but as the author stated "By 1668 the people of T'an Ch'eng had been suffering for fifty years." (Spence, 4) The Earthquake had only been the latest disaster in a long period of death and destruction. Feng K'o-ts'an, a local magistrate who was dismissed for incompetence and later wrote the Local History of T'an-Ch'ing described the county's misfortune as something akin to fate "throwing rocks upon a man who had already fallen in a well." (Spence, 2)
Feng's book described the miserable existence of the people, their poverty, and the impotence of the local gentry to help. (Spence, 3) Comparing the present circumstance with that of just fifty years before, Feng estimated that where the county once boasted a population of 200,000 people and 3.75 million acres under cultivation, by the early 1670's, T'an Ch'eng had only 60,000 inhabitants and less than 1.5 million acres under cultivation. (Spence, 3) Nearly one in every seven people were killed in the 1668 earthquake.
But as Spence said, this was just the latest in a series of disasters which had plagued the county. In 1622 there was a popular uprising by a group called the "White Lotus" which ended in failure and death for many of those from T'an Ch'eng county. Later, in the 1630' and 40's, the county suffered from banditry, disease, starvation, and eventually swarms of locusts. Thing became so bad that the people resorted to cannibalism to survive, creating proverbs to rationalize their actions.
The next great disaster came with the invasion of the Manchus in 1643, when they "slaughtered the officials, and killed 70 or 80 per cent of the gentry, clerks, and common people…" (Spence, 7) But in the Local History, these events are described only in terms of the effect on the people of the county; and the effect was devastating. By 1670, T'an Ch'eng had a new magistrate named Huang Liu-hung, who described the situation he found upon his arrival: "many people held their lives to be of no value, for the area was so wasted and barren, the common people so poor and had suffered so much, that essentially they knew none of the joys of being alive." (Spence, 14)
Another major hardship place upon the people of T'an Cheng was the enormous tax burden imposed by the central government. These taxes were necessary to finance the operations of the county governmental system, the magistrates, courts, etc., as well as to meet a quota made by the central government. It did not matter how many people were in the county, the total amount had to be paid. Taxes were paid by two principal means: "One was a tax on the land, the other a tax on certain individual adult males." (Spence, 36) And since Chinese peasants rarely had all the money at once, there was a system of monthly payments by which the peasant was constantly reminded of his debt to the government and his inability to become financially independent. Those who could not make the payments were allowed to pay off their debt with physical labor, called "corvee labor," which they would perform for the state. In effect, if a person could not pay their taxes they were forced to work for the state until their debt was paid.
Confucian ideals were the basis of Chinese culture, society, and government. In fact, Confucian ideals were so ingrained in Chinese culture that the bureaucracy, magistrates, etc., were tested in Confucian ideals in order to be accepted into government service. Confucian teachings promoted a highly structured and hierarchical society. Men were superior to women, adults were superior to children, and within the government there was a highly structured system of rank and privileges. Ever single person in Chinese society was expected to follow this system, no matter how repressive it was to the individual. Huang, as the new magistrate was not only honor bound to follow the Confucian ideals of society, but, as they were ingrained into the legal system, he was legally bound to obey them. To make matters worse for the people of T'an Ch'eng, the new Manchu emperor issued, in 1670, his "Sixteen Moral Maxims," which were issued in order to maintain "correct relationships and the avoidance of strife in family and society." (Spence, 17)
While Confucian ideals of interpersonal relationships were designed to maintain an orderly society, applying these principals to individuals can be more problematic. Because Confucian principals are absolutes, and cannot have exceptions, blindly following these ideals can end up in suffering and misery for the individuals involved. Society as a whole is what is most important in Confucianism, the individual is unimportant in terms of the whole of society.
The suffering of the Woman Wang is a prime example of this type of repression of the individual. She was a woman who was unhappy in her marriage and ran away with another man. Because of the Confucian principal of family harmony's influence on society, "for the mere act of running away from her husband, woman Wang had become a criminal in the eyes of the law" (Spence, 120) Unless the woman was physically or sexually abused by her husband, it was illegal in China to leave him. Divorce was seen as causing disharmony within the family, and community in general.
If a woman did leave her husband, she was subject to a punishment of 100 blows with a bamboo stick. (Spence, 120) The aggrieved husband then had the right to sell his unfaithful wife, if he chose, but if he chose to sell her to the man with whom she had been cheating, then both the husband and the man received 80 blows. When a husband caught his wife in the act of adultery, then the law stated that he had the right to kill he and her lover if performed during his initial rage.
In the case of woman Wang, this was unnecessary, as she was abandoned on the road by her lover. She found herself in a very difficult and dangerous situation, all alone in a hostile world and on the run from the law. There were very few jobs available for women in T'an Ch'eng, some reputable women could earn a living as midwives, diviners, marriage brokers, or even caretakers for women's prisons, these were not the kinds of jobs woman Wang could perform. The only other thing she could do to support herself was to work as a nurse, children's caretaker, laundress, or prostitute. Instead of doing any of these things she returned to her village and took refuge in a temple. Eventually her husband discovered her whereabouts and came for her, but did not divorce her, sell her, or punish her in any way, he simply purchased a new mat for their bed. (Spence, 127)
It was months later that Jen, the woman Wang's husband, eventually got his revenge. One night, while she slept, he attacked her and strangled her to death in a most brutal and violent way. He had planned to implicate his neighbor, with whom he disliked, for both an affair with woman Wang and her subsequent murder.
The people of T'an Ch'eng had suffered decades of misery, famine, banditry, plague, and other disasters. The downfall of the Ming government and rise of the Manchu brought about even more suffering. Crushing taxes kept the individual peasant in a constant state of debt to the government. The population of this county had been so devastated by this period of devastation that, by 1670, barely 1/3 of the county's population remained alive. And besides these massive disasters, the common Chinese peasant was locked into a social system that was strictly hierarchical and repressive. The new moral laws put into place by the new Manchu emperor…