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The Death of Woman Wang

3.46  ·  Rating details ·  708 ratings  ·  48 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. ...more
Paperback, 192 pages
Published March 29th 1979 by Penguin Books (first published 1978)
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Average rating 3.46  · 
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Mel
This is another book Ive 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 Tan Cheng 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
Patrick
May 29, 2015 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 ...more
Jeremy
Nov 16, 2013 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 ...more
Jamie
Oct 05, 2007 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
...more
Missy J
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
...more
Nina
Nov 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: china-nonfic
An interesting overview of a small county in Shandong Province in the mid-to-late 1600s. This feels like one of Spence's first works, and may have been a college thesis, but is still not a total waste of time to read. The first three of five chapters in the book feels like a non-fiction survey of the county, going through acreage, population, farming concerns and tax collection laws. The last two chapters are quotes and rifts on fiction written in the county at the time, and are the most ...more
Susan
Nov 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this book for my Ancient Greek class that was this year about the way history is recorded and retold. This book, by an esteemed Yale history professor, traces the micro history of a village in China during the 17th century. He uses three sources: two documentary and one lyrical. The last, stories by the short story writer of the time, P'u Sung-ing, were my favorite. Little fables with ironic endings that belied the harsh conditions of the times.
Cheyenne
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
I appreciate the attempt of crafting a micro-history of China, as opposed to a broad one, but there is such a thing as too much detail. Aside from the fun stories placed throughout the book, the entire work reads like a tax report combined with a census. Woman Wang is not even mentioned until the last twenty or so pages.
Krayfish1
Sep 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting look into mid-1600's Chinese society. It's a few stories from a poor province illustrated with contemporaneous fiction stories from Pu Songling. The author writes a dream sequence for a woman about to be murdered by her husband, which is weird, but the rest of the book is excellent. It's also short.
Henry
Sep 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Im confused, because his textbook on Modern China is fascinating, but this just isnt. Its a bad sign when the most interesting part of a nonfiction book is the part contributed by the fiction writer. ...more
Eric
Feb 29, 2020 rated it liked it
Absolutely crammed with the esoteric details of a particular and rather unremarkable corner of rural 17th Century China. And yet in the ordinary there are insights, and this book is quite effective at bringing to life an era that might otherwise have been subsumed by the centuries that followed...
Sydney
Oct 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Another short book. But a big story. Again, my knowledge of ancient China is too limited. Something I will be working on in future reading!

Am I going to live long enough to get all this reading done!?!?!? *sob*
Kathei
Aug 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting history of 1600s China. I'd recommend it.
Terry
Feb 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I must say that I enjoyed Jonathan Spence's course on Modern Chinese History rather more than I enjoyed this excursus into 17th century China.
Jason Hu
Jan 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Good. But a bit boring. A new perspective to history.
Alison Zoccola
Dec 18, 2019 rated it liked it
If you like microhistory, or history at all, and want to break out of your Eurocentric bubble, you could do worse than this book. It's got an earthquake in it!
Nicki
Mar 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
In the beginning this is almost like a text book, really only of interest to those studying Chinese language or culture in the 17th-18th century. But as you go forward, the focus narrows to the story of Woman Wang, one of the millions of women in China in the period who faces the extreme disadvantage of being female, and therefore, not a fully a person in the eyes of her society...there's an unexpected poetry to the fact of her existence that is somehow connected with you, through the act of ...more
Rita
Mar 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
Meh. Only the last chapter is about Woman Wang. Disappointing read about people living in a county in Northern China. Really crappy era for women.
James
Feb 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Chinese history, owing to its vast scope, easily falls into narratives that span dynasties and focus on the emperors, warlords, chairmen, and generals who cast long shadows over the Middle Kingdom; so, it is a rare book to focus on such a small scale, on such a personal level of history. Spence's The Death of Woman Wang is such a book, focusing on the small county of T'an-ch'eng in Shandong Province at the end of the Ming Dynasty.

T'an-ch'eng county is a poor and unlucky place, beset with
...more
Melinda
Mar 12, 2013 rated it did not like it
Recommended to Melinda by: newleaph@gmail.com
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
...more
Laura
Jul 09, 2009 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 ...more
Lindsey
Jan 26, 2012 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 ...more
Ensiform
Dec 04, 2011 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 ...more
Ben
Mar 22, 2008 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 ...more
Cole Jack
Dec 20, 2009 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
...more
Ari
Dec 08, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in history
Recommended to Ari 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.
Sean Mccarrey
Jun 29, 2012 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.
John
Oct 27, 2011 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.
Madeleine McDonald
Jun 30, 2015 rated it liked it

This book is packed with information garnered from Professor Spences 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.
...more
Ben
Sep 05, 2013 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!
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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

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