The death of woman Wang and the life of Jonathan Spence

Society & Culture

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary historian.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: January 1672

On an evening toward the end of January in 1672, the two of them sat at home…. Outside it was snowing. The neighbors could see the light of the lamp shining from their house, and later they heard the two of them quarreling. The neighbors could hear the anger in their voices, though they could not make out the words.

None of the neighbors heard a sound as woman Wang died.

The woman who lived in rural Shandong and died 350 years ago this week was known only by her surname. Still, her life story is familiar to many who may know little else of China’s history because of two events beyond her control. The first is that, on that snowy night in 1672, she was murdered. The second is that, three centuries later, on the opposite side of the world, an extraordinary historian made her the subject, and title, of a remarkable book.

Jonathan Spence let woman Wang’s life tell the world much about Chinese history and society. Professor Spence passed away a month ago, on Christmas Day, and so I would like to use woman Wang’s story again, this time to tell something about Jonathan Spence.

Though separated by centuries, the two events that propelled woman Wang into the historical record and the shelves of libraries and bookshelves are closely connected. Seventeenth-century China had records as robust as any society at the time, but its focus was overwhelmingly on the wealthy, powerful, educated, and male. There were few ways for a poor, marginalized, illiterate woman to be recorded.

Spence made finding those connections to the past the subject of one of his famous undergraduate lectures, one he titled “The Ruled.” In it, he wove together case studies — woman Wang was one of them — that would impress on students ways to access lives in the Chinese past that were not elite.

The first avenue he pointed students down was markets. A network of commerce — in goods and ideas — wove together the localities of imperial China. Peddlers, travelers, and entertainers gathered every few days — more or less frequently depending on the size of the town — so the community could gather to buy and sell, share news, take in an opera or other performance, and negotiate transactions between families and villages. The documentary record attached to those markets — in prices and contracts, but also in the observations of local officials who managed these markets and the people in them — was a window into daily life. Woman Wang’s Tancheng was one of these market towns.

Spence’s second approach to the lives of the lesser-known was famine. Feeding a large agrarian empire was a constant challenge, and the Chinese state had managed famine and its threat for centuries. In order to “nourish the people” (in the words of Pierre-Étienne Will’s book on the subject) and stave off unrest, the state kept meticulous records on the prices and availability of grain, and the severity of famine when they occurred. In his lectures, Spence described the imperial standards for evaluating famine using a rubric of symptoms, including what people in the affected area were eating: starting with grain, but proceeding to tree bark, acorns, roots, twigs, and finally, for the most desperate, the earth itself.

Famine afflicted woman Wang’s county a few decades before the events leading to her death, bringing the normally obscure region into the government’s focus. Although Wang’s individual activities are not recorded, imperial archives tell us what her life must have been like, detailing the hardship that was rural existence in a disastrous time.

The most specific, and most tragic, way that woman Wang entered our awareness was through encountering the legal system, the third of Spence’s suggested avenues for reaching the everyday. Woman Wang fled an unhappy marriage, running off with another man who, in turn, abandoned her a short time later. With few options, she had returned to Tancheng, though not to her husband, seeking refuge in a local Daoist temple. After some months, a neighbor spotted her at the temple and informed Wang’s estranged husband. As was his right under the law, he reclaimed her (and got into a fistfight with the priest who sheltered her).

At least three different criminal offenses could have triggered legal proceedings: running away with another man could have been both adultery and abandonment, and the beating that the priest inflicted on Ren was another offense. But no charges were filed.

For several months after Ren took his wife back, the couple resumed their life in a small cottage near the village market. In the cold of a Shandong winter, with little money and the festering resentment of a violent and once-spurned husband, it is hard to imagine how miserable Wang’s life must have been as 1671 (on the Western calendar) turned to 1672.

What brought Wang into the legal system was her murder, at her husband’s hand. The court proceedings revealed something of her life, and that, in turn, gave Professor Spence the means to weave her story into The Death of Woman Wang.

Ren reported his wife as missing to the authorities. He blamed the Daoist priest — accusing him of carrying on an affair with her while she was hidden in his temple — and suggested that he had abducted her. When Wang’s corpse was discovered a few days later, Ren accused the priest of murder, but his story didn’t add up. Under threat of torture, and presented with irrefutable evidence, Ren confessed.

Ren was sentenced to be beaten with the “heavy bamboo,” an implement resembling a 4×4. Such beatings often resulted in death, but this sentence was itself a show of leniency. It is telling that the greater crime under Qing law was not the murder of a wife, but falsely accusing another of a capital crime. The magistrate — who in Chinese law served as chief investigator, jury, and judge — spared Ren execution because of his wife’s adultery, but especially because, as an only child, he represented the end of his family line. By sparing his life, he could, theoretically, remarry and produce another generation. (We don’t know if that came to pass.)

The Death of Woman Wang is extraordinary for numerous reasons. It brings to light the life of a poor woman, a rarity among history books even today. To do that, it makes ingenious use of indirect sources, literary accounts, and deep context. The book is wide-ranging and thorough, but also concise — just 139 pages of text in its most recent edition. And just as remarkable — and to the consternation of many undergraduate readers, in my experience — the title character doesn’t appear until page 116!

The intersection of woman Wang’s death and Jonathan Spence’s life are for me most vivid in the book’s most controversial section. Just after the description I opened this column with, Spence shifts his narration from the setting of a Shandong January to the inner workings of woman Wang’s mind. For four pages, set off in the text by italics, Spence describes what Wang was dreaming as her husband bided his time, snuck up on, and killed her. Spence’s account is informed by his reading of what Wang would have experienced, the kinds of stories and legends she would have been exposed to, the violence and cruelty she received in her marriage, the wants and wishes of a person suffering. But while Spence meticulously footnotes his work, there are no notes for that passage. How could there be? What woman Wang dreamed, or if she dreamed at all that night, was never known to anyone.

The passage remains controversial. To some, it’s an irresponsible lark. To others, it’s a creative attempt to give voice to the voiceless. I’ll tip my hand by saying that while it is obviously impossible to know what went through Wang’s thoughts in her last mortal moments, an understanding of her world and a commitment to intellectual empathy gives a skilled author license to bring her story to life beyond the most clinical and empirical of facts.

It is creativity and empathy that define my memories of Jonathan Spence, with whom I was lucky enough to study. Many historians have an era or a method that defines their work. For Jonathan, it is without doubt the characters that he brought to life. Some were little-known lives, like woman Wang, or the Christian convert John Hu (the focus of my personal favorite, The Question of Hu). Others were the biggest personalities of China’s history — God’s Chinese Son (whom Spence wrote about in the present tense) or the Kangxi Emperor of China (whom he wrote about in the first person!) — but in every case, Spence’s books let us know about the lives of human beings, and in the process told us something about what it means to be human.

Writing this remembrance, of both Jonathan Spence and woman Wang, I was struck by the following passage in the acknowledgments of The Death of Woman Wang. In it, Spence reflects on the loss of one of his own teachers, Arthur Wright. (Arthur’s wife, Mary Wright, was Spence’s advisor at Yale, and had died very young several years earlier.)

“This time as always before, but this time for the last time, he had the patience to review countless paragraphs in conversation and to comment on an earlier draft with his critical shrewdness, affection, and vigor. I shall always treasure our last walk, debating woman Wang and Tancheng county, in the summer night above the sea at Sachem’s Head.”

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.