The Death of Woman Wang: History Or Fantasy?

In his work The Death of Woman Wang, Jonathan Spence floats between the realms of reality and fantasy to supply the reader with an insight of the role common individuals played within late, imperial China. Spence weaves together a series of diverse sources to compile an untraditional yet well-defined image of a seventeenth century poor, rural county in Eastern China. This province in known as T’an-ch’eng and it is located in the province of Shantung. The unconventional manner in which Spence constructs his narrative begs pertinent questions regarding the legitimacy of the historical mindedness, accuracy and truth of his tale. However, despite his usage of fantastical elements, Jonathan Spence is able to create a truthful window into the world of the inhabitants of T’an-ch’eng from the years of 1668 to 1672 and also make thematic commentary regarding the everyday plight of the common person.

Jonathan Spence utilized three distinct sources to construct his picture of life in the T’an-ch’eng county in the late seventeenth century. Two of these sources are historically standard, while the third adds a dramatic and personalized perspective. The first text is the Local History of T’an-ch’eng, which was compiled in the year 1673. This project was fronted and edited by Feng K’o-ts’an, a failed magistrate. As described by Spence, the Local History of T’an-ch’eng abided by the conventional pattern of similar texts: [C]ompiled by members of the educated gentry elite, they treated in ordered sequence such topics of the county’s history as its geographical location and typography, its cities and walls, the bureaus and yamens of the local government, temples, the land and tax systems, the biographies of local worthies and incumbent officials … and the presence of armies, bandits, or natural catastrophes when these directly affected the county (xii). This source was extremely beneficial as it was compiled directly after multiple harsh decades making the text, “graphic, sometimes vivid, about the county’s travails” (xii). However, the image painted by Feng K’o-ts’an was bleak, therefore it did not merit the role of the backbone for an entire book. As a result of the bleak portrayal of the county in the Local History of T’an-ch’eng, James Spence saw a need to continue his search for sources. Spence discovered that Feng’s successor, Huang Liu-hung, had constructed a “personal memoir and handbook on the office of the magistrate compiled in the 1690s” (xiii). Huang was a outstanding man who served as the magistrate of T’an-ch’eng from 1670 to 1672. His writings added missing aspects of Feng’s text. To begin: [H]e was an unusually acute observer, with an eye for detail and an obsession for accuracy: when he wrote his handbook he often gave the precise hour or day on which a given event had occurred and the exact sum of money or number and ranks of people engaged in a given transaction or confrontation. (xiv) While his keen detail added immensely to the historical understanding of the county, the most significant contribution made from Huang’s works were his explorations of topics too distasteful for Feng’s official documents. Huang “did not content himself with generalizations; in his handbook he illustrated his views on administration and law with individual examples” (xiv). This delving into the realm of the unsavory added life to Feng’s bleak yet informative writings. Spence felt that these sources amassed enough information to construct a book, however he still felt he was missing something. Feng K’o-ts’an’s Local History of T’an-ch’eng and Huang Liu-hung’s memoirs gave Spence the proper structure to compile a depiction of life within the county. Feng’s history provided basic facts as well as profiles and Huang’s works gave personal dramatic experiences. However, the text still needed more life. Therefore, Spence’s final textual source came from the works of essayist P’u Sung-ling. P’u was a renowned Chinese writer who lived north of T’an-ch’eng in the Tzu-ch’uan county during the 1670s. As explained by Spence, he: [Decided] to use the angle of vision to supplement the more conventional historical and administrative writings of [Feng] and [Huang]. For though Feng and Huang take us surprisingly far into the zones of private anger and misery that were so much a part of their community, they were not concerned with penetrating into the realms of loneliness, sensuality and dreams that were also a part of T’an-ch’eng. (xiv) The usage of P’u Sung-ling’s fictional work brings with it many questions of the historical mindedness and truth behind The Death of Woman Wang. However, what the reader must realize is that in his work Jonathan Spence is aiming to perform a task seldom done in historical accounts: tell the story of the majority. While late imperial China was full of great scholars, emperors and figures, Spence aims to recount the lives of the common folk. Therefore, in doing so he must be creative with his sources. While he is entirely historically minded in his work and use of texts, local histories and personal memories were products of the upper class. Written history itself tended to turn a blind eye to the plights of women and the poor. As is such, to obtain the truth of the majority, Spence needed to go beyond the realm of classical historical texts. The Local History of T’an-ch’eng and Huang Liu-hung’s personal memoirs play pertinent roles in establishing the historical context, physical location and background details as they pertain to the county at hand. These texts set the scene, however they need supplementation. Therefore, P’u Sung-ling’s works are perfect for intermittent incorporation after the exposition has been set using the histories and memories.

As an essayist and dramatist, P’u is able to tap into the raw emotion of the masses and present a personal truth that is otherwise hidden in history. While his stories have fantastical and unrealistic aspects, they are rooted in truth. P’u has a greater insight into the pain and struggle that was very much so a reality within T’an-ch’eng during the given time period. In the context of Feng and Huang’s accounts, P’u is able to display the everyday reality of the widow and the starving. The usage of fiction and fantasies is merely a lens into the everyday struggle of the common man, woman and child. And in the end, through this lens Jonathan Spence is able to tap a deeper truth: the reality of the masses.