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 note, and that no one famous comes from it. This however, I would disagree with. The area seems to have suffered immense hardship in the period leading up to the time of the stories. It suffered thousands of its residents being killed by the Manchu, famine, the White Lotus uprising and an earthquake! Its population at the start of the book was only a third of what it was 60 years earlier. It was also very close to the location of my favourite Chinese author, Pu Songling’s hometown. Spence also said that he would not focus on the elite class, however many of the people in his stories had servants or could read and write. Sure signs they were not a part of the populace at large. However, despite not exactly coinciding with Spence’s stated purpose this was a VERY enjoyable book, easy to read, and very insightful. Without a doubt it is one that I would recommend to anyone who was interested in learning more about Imperial Chinese history it is easily accessible, well researched and well written.
For his sources Spence used the local history, a memoir of the local magistrate, and the stories of Pu Songling. The later are fictional stories, frequently involving fox spirits, ghosts and magic that make for a startling contrast beside the tales of famine, hardship and banditry that exist in the non-fictionalised accounts. However, even the stories represent real life and Spence frequently gives the fictional account and then a matching historical episode. As such this gives an insight into life and culture of the time that is quite remarkable.
As someone who is particularly interested in the supernatural tales of China and the belief in magic, it was interesting to see these tales put into their social, rather than religious, context. It also inspired me to keep studying my Chinese as Pu Songling’s tales are at the top of my list of things I want to be able to read in the original Chinese!
There is also much than can be learned about the lives of women from this book. Spence tells the stories of women who are considered virtuous and those who are not and end up being killed for their immoral ways. The restrictions, and also the opportunities, for these women were quite interesting. He looked at the lives of widows who had to raise children on their own, and the interference of their husband’s family. He also looked at the options of women who wished to escape marriages, which were virtually non-existent. Because he focused on such a small area the detail was dramatic and there were lots of specific examples given instead of wide generalisations. He also included a rather telling list of the prices for visiting prostitutes versus the prices for buying a wife, or the wife of another.
The book also covered the economic hardships of life. There were two proverbs quoted about cannibalism which I found most interesting they were, “To have the bodies of ones close relations eaten by someone else is not as good as eating them oneself, so as to prolong one’s own life for a few days” and “It makes more sense to eat one’s father, elder brother or husband so as to preserve one’s own life, rather than have the whole family die”.
It was a rather morbid book, apart from a few of Pu Songling’s tales most of the people’s lives were very hard and short. But despite this it was a fascinating read....Continua