In his book Death of Woman Wang, Johnathan D. Spence wrote about peasants because history rarely focuses on them and a lot of what happens with China’s history effects them greatly. Spence’s methods in showing this is by talking about the land of T’an-ch’eng in general in the beginning and then specific examples of events involving peasants like the widow Hsi’liu and the death of woman Wong.
Spence starts this book talking about the land of T’an-ch’eng. He starts this way because what affects the land will in turn affect the people who live there, which are the peasants. He talked about three major disasters that hit T’an-ch’eng. The first being the White lotus attacks in 1622, the earthquake of 1668, and the heavy snowfall of 1671. By first talking about this specific area of land he is already doing something different than most history books. While most history books give an over all generalization of the land then give a overview of what has happened during this time, he is setting up for his specific examples that he has chosen to talk about in this area.
His first example, the widow Hsi-liu, shows precisely, China’s influence on the morals of even the common people. The women knew that at this time, had she married another, society would look down on her and it would have prevented her children from achieving the highest possible honor that they could have, the chance at working in the government by passing the Imperial exam system. By doing what she felt was the right thing, being strict and harsh with her sons, even under the scorn of the community around her, she was able to raise two successful sons, the epitome of a womans job in China at this time. Spence’s accomplishments in discussing this shows historians specifically how Chinese morals were portrayed at this time without the difficulties in dealing with those of the highest class that might not exhibit the same understanding due to neglect and and unwillingness to cooperate. Peasants cannot change morals dictated by the mandate of heaven like the Emperor, instead they cope and incorporate it into their daily lives.
Another example he uses, the death of woman Wong, shows the conflict in the government in dealing with certain situations. While the Chinese government makes certain laws that they feel will make China a better country, sometimes it doesn’t always works out. Different measures could have been taken to prevent the death of woman Wong but because of laws regarding marriage and women, she was put in a tricky situation. For a woman to be “honorable and virtuous” she must stay with her husband under all circumstances, if she flees her husband can sell or keep her, two undesirable prospects. Because her husband decided to keep her she was put back into a bad situation with a now furious husband, it is surprise that he killed her. If she had perhaps been able to have a different outcome like living in exile or going back to her parents, she might have lived. As it stands, she paid the highest price for her transgressions (that she under the law was not required) because of laws that were made by people of a higher class that it did not affect. Higher up officials make these laws and then do not actually have to deal with the consequences like peasants do, if something doesn’t fit their agenda, they change it.
Spence approaches China in this way to explain how the peasant class is affected by Chinese life without actually saying it. By using these examples he is able to show history from a peasants view point, something history tends to gloss over. He did this because China isn’t only about high officials rebellions, and emperors. Majority of China is the peasant class and history rarely focuses on how they are affected by history. Spence is trying to shed some light on peasant class by writing this so that people can see how most of China was affected by things like morals and laws.