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The Death of Woman Wang

3.46  ·  Rating Details  ·  523 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
Drawing on local Chinese histories, the memoirs of scholars, and other contemporary writings, Chinese historian Jonathan Spence reconstructs an extraordinary tale of rural tragedy in a remote corner of Shantung province in 17th-century China. Life in the county of T'an-ch'eng emerges as an endless cycle of floods, plagues, crop failures, banditry, and heavy taxation. Again ...more
Paperback, 192 pages
Published March 29th 1979 by Penguin Books (first published 1978)
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Dec 14, 2013 Hadrian rated it really liked it
In Chinese history (at least from my experience), it's very easy to trend towards the 'big' macrohistory. Big events, Big dynasties, Big biographies Big cyclical explanations of dynasties, Big economic explanations, and so on. Here, on the other hand, is a very small book about a very small part of China during only a few years in the 17th century.

Tancheng County, a little subdivision of Shandong Province, is a poor and miserable place in this time frame. We see internal rebellions in the 1620s,
This is another book I’ve had for years and not read. I have to say I was under the impression it was completely different than what it was. It was a very early micro-history of the T’an Ch’eng area of North-eastern China. I thought this book was a close look at the live and death of one woman in this area, but in fact it was a series of different tales and histories, from within the span of about 20 years within this area. Spence sets out by saying how this book does not focus on a position of ...more
Apr 30, 2016 Patrick rated it it was amazing
Shelves: china
I loved this book. Everything I have read by Spence reminds me why I love Chinese history and why I decided to get into this field in the first place. He is not just a superb historian but he is also a hell of a good writer. He writes with the passion and intensity of a journalist like Edgar Snow, yet his works are all thoroughly researched in historiography. This book was a great breath of fresh air. Don't get me wrong, I like a 400-page Mark Elliot tome just as much as the next aspiring sinolo ...more
Jul 19, 2014 Jeremy rated it liked it
Shelves: sociological
It's more of a historical reconstruction of 17th century Chinese life than a narrative strictly speaking, and Spence's erudition on the subject is frighteningly comprehensive. He does for rural Chinese peasant life what Umberto Eco does for the middle ages and Borges does for mazes and metafictions, though the results are always a bit more dry and detached, really just more academic, than what someone with a stronger fictional sensibility would develop. The little vignettes and characters he dev ...more
Nov 21, 2007 Jamie rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Only twenty-five pages into this but already loving it. A portrait of an unremarkable and overlooked county in rural China in the late 17th century, the details are just stunning. Cormac McCarthy may have taken shit for his depiction of cannibalism in a post-apocalyptic landscape in The Road, but the descriptions of cannibalism during a particularly bad famine here make it look almost timid by comparison.

"...groping for words to describe [the famine], the local farmers rationalized their despai
Melinda Seyler
Mar 12, 2013 Melinda Seyler rated it did not like it
Recommended to Melinda by:
The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan D. Spence
I've had this for a while and when I was on my way to China and knew I
would be reading and dropping books as we went, it seemed a good
choice. I like Jonathan Spence's other works about China and figured
this would be some sort of a historical tale about a murder in China.
Well, kind of... It is more of a treatise on life in ancient China in
various regions and a lot of different -and very brief- stories about
people who lived then. Some were taken from Ch
Madeleine McDonald
Jun 30, 2015 Madeleine McDonald rated it liked it

This book is packed with information garnered from Professor Spence’s painstaking research. The author clobbers readers with facts and cites Chinese chronicles at length. Lots of fascinating snippets about politics, banditry, taxes and poverty in rural China in the 17th century. However, it is not an easy read, since the stories of the named individuals do not stand out.
Aug 27, 2015 Melissa added it
Shelves: for-school
First book completed for a college class! Wasn't my favorite by any stretch of the imagination, but I always do like looking at the role women played in society. Overall, I'd recommend if you're interested in Chinese history, but I would not call this a pleasure read.
Jan 26, 2016 Lindsey rated it liked it
I read this book on recommendation. I moderately enjoyed it, although it read more as a textbook at times rather than a pleasurable read. It was intriguing, although at times overbearing in the information that was offered. I would only recommend it to readers who are already engrossed with the topic. Not really idle reading. My opinion might be skewed in concerns to this author's book because I was more in the mood for the idea of the book rather then the historically accurate one that it turne ...more
Missy J
Jul 17, 2014 Missy J rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2014-books
Warning! Adjust your expectations for this book.
This isn't a story about a Woman Wang and how she died. Instead, JDS chose to focus on two little towns in China (Pei and Tancheng) during the turbulent times when the Ming dynasty fell apart and the Manchus from the Qing gained power. These two towns hold historical chronicles of their citizens and JDS focuses on several themes, such as land taxation, widowhood, the law and how it "protects" women... Most of the time I couldn't follow what was goi
Jul 24, 2011 Laura rated it liked it
Shelves: history, women-gender
I find microhistories fascinating and have been meaning to read this book for a long time, with the idea that it is an early example of microhistory in a field of history that I have never studied before (17th-century China). I was disappointed in it after all that anticipation. The structure and the underlying theme (or argument? if Spence means to put one forward?) escaped me. Woman Wang is not at all central, despite the title, and I do not see how the earlier hundred-plus pages lead us to he ...more
A.K. Klemm
Jan 24, 2015 A.K. Klemm rated it really liked it
Enjoyed this and look forward to reading more of Spence's work:
Dec 20, 2009 Cole rated it liked it
Shelves: schoolassigned
I read this book for a class on Chinese civilization that is required for all Japanese and Chinese majors at my school. This is one of the best books I have read for a history class. The author combines many different types of texts to provide a varied view at the lives of peasants in China. For students, the variety helps make people with different learning styles understand the Chinese justice system, law regarding widows, and other topics in greater depth.

I would highly advise this book as r
Dec 04, 2011 Ensiform rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, china
A really masterful and detailed historical re-creation. Using the official records, memoirs, and the works of Pu Songling, Spence shows what life was like in 17th-century rural China in the northeast county of Tan-ch'eng. From the quality of life in prisons to women's plight, from the fruit and tilling of the land to the burdens of taxation and the ways the people schemed to evade them, Spence makes the time and place come alive. Famines, feuds, plots and murders abound. Only 140 pages, but a tr ...more
Mar 22, 2008 Ben rated it really liked it
Recommended to Ben by: Modern Asian History Professor
Surprisingly interesting. This was assigned for a history course I am currently taking and wasn't so enthusiastic about it at the start. But a combination of an interesting historical perspective combined with a keen interest in the subject matter, this book held my attention all the way through. My only problems arose at the form of the story telling which, to me at the time, seemed random. Looking back, overall, it was a very interesting read, and if you have an interest in China during the 18 ...more
Sean Mccarrey
Jun 29, 2012 Sean Mccarrey rated it liked it
The stories in this book were amazing. The author's organization, delivery, and description of them however, were lacking. The stories provide a vivid image of Central China during the early Ching dynasty especially when considering women and the poor. Spence's descriptions however lacked clarity and organization. With a better handle on where he was trying to take things, this would have probably been a really good book. As it was however, it was still a fun read.
Dec 08, 2008 Tina rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in history
Recommended to Tina by: Professor Thurlow
The back of this book told me that it was about a woman in 15th century China who ran away from her husband with a lover and when she returned, was killed by her husband. In reality the first 2/3 of the book is about a ppor region of 15th century China and the history of that region. The reader doesn't meet Woman Wang until the beginning of the last third of the book, and then she is only a small part of the ending.
Sep 05, 2013 Ben rated it really liked it
This book was overall decent. my favorite part was the stories because they were educational and interesting. I purposely read faster through the other parts to get to the stories. Although the other parts included many details about the government, fiscal and social side of T'an-Cheng, the stories really made the book and they are why I am giving this book 4 stars!
Nov 23, 2011 John rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I can see why this book is assigned in Chinese history classes. It gives an interesting and short (140 pp) overview of life in an obscure Chinese province in the 17th century. The title is misleading; I expected the book to be about a local murder case--the case itself took less than 20 pp of the book.
Lily Segal
Aug 24, 2013 Lily Segal rated it really liked it
Shelves: summer-reading
This book, although very short, is quite powerful. I loved it. I enjoyed Feng's stories but most of all I loved the story of Woman Wang at the end. I thought it was moving and it really showed you how woman were treated back then. A great, quick read!
Matt Brant
An excellent overview of 17th century, rural China. Spence is a graceful writer and chooses long quotations judiciously. Anybody interested in traditional China or those seeking a totally different world to learn about will enjoy this short, vivid history.
Sep 09, 2013 Aaron rated it liked it
Interesting short read. Captures Seventeenth Century Chinese ideals and values masterfully. Drawn from written histories that survived from a poor area between Beijing and Shanghai. Lots of interesting insight. Not a thrilling read though.
Aug 30, 2011 Peddycake rated it liked it
Interesting; It provides an intimate background to rural China's dark, unjust and male-dominated 17th century history. Seldom linear, the book consists of many stories intertwined to procreate a contextual infrastructure.
Jan 03, 2010 Mk100 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
A nice piece of historical writing, this was taught in my college senior honors course. I can see why. Spence has a fluid style that is faithful to his sources, but with a literary bent.
Jul 21, 2007 Patrick rated it it was amazing
Shelves: china
Probably Spence's best book. Almost a novel. I'd love to learn more about his efforts to research this true story of 17th century provincial China. This is GREAT history!
Dec 07, 2009 Tom marked it as to-read
I really liked Spence's The Question of Hu and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. He's a meticulous historian but writes with the narrative subtlety of a novelist.
Mar 27, 2009 Karl rated it really liked it
Noted scholar Jonathan Spence uses late Ming judicial documents to reconstruct real events. A good example of what a historian can do with the materials available.
May 24, 2009 Tamra rated it liked it
I learned a lot of Chinese history from this books. The laws were certainly slanted toward male dominance. Not many choices for Chinese women
Nicolas Garcia
May 20, 2008 Nicolas Garcia rated it really liked it
when a society is founded on inequality and sexism, justice is impossible and the innocent are the ones who suffer and perish.
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Jonathan D. Spence is a historian specializing in Chinese history. His self-selected Chinese name is Shǐ Jǐngqiān (simplified Chinese: 史景迁; traditional Chinese: 史景遷), which roughly translates to "A historian who admires Sima Qian."

He has been Sterling Professor of History at Yale University since 1993. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts
More about Jonathan D. Spence...

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