It is important to realize that the treatment of women in China had its roots in the ancient Confucius philosophy. He introduced the Five Human Relationships to the world in his Analectics. By making these relationships, he brought order to society. These relationships ranged from that of a father to a son, ruler to subject, husband to wife, older brother to younger brother, and friend to a friend. In all of these, except the last one, the first person was the superior to the second, and was supposed to set a good example and take care of the inferior.
The second person, the inferior, owed respect and obedience to their superior. Friends were social equals who owed each other respect and courtesy. Confucian philosophy taught that society would be in harmony if everyone performed their proper duties. This was the type of mentality that led to the treatment endured by women in the seventeenth century China, as described in The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence. Because China was not modernized, by European standards, women in the seventeenth century were just as much confined to their husbands, as those of ancient China.
The old customs stayed the same, and women were offered into a marriage, much like the Woman Wang, as property. Marriage represented very little emotional commitment for the husband, yet the woman had to be faithful. The wife had no rights that would allow her to leave her husband, she could not ask for a divorce. Yet the husband could legitimately divorce his wife if she did not give birth to male children. Furthermore, the husband was allowed to have extramarital sexual affairs, while such an act by the women would have been punishable by death, and would have brought great dishonor to the whole family.
From this book we can clearly identify the main idea which the whole justice system in China stands behind. Chinese strongly believe that if the society does not punish the criminals is simply headed towards a complete deterioration. The society has got to have rules and regulations, which would serve as the standard for everyone living in this society, but according to Huang Liu-hund just having rules and regulations is not enough in building a civilized society, in fact this is just “one” of its steps. Chinese rulers in 17th century realized how important it was to have legal codes. The codes they created covered pretty much all the aspects of life at that time, including such issues as criminal codes for assault or murder, civil laws or even laws on such issues as rights of widows and inheritance after their husband’s death.
The situation in China in 17th century was absolutely horrendous, the country was filled with bandits, people died of hunger, there were diseases spreading around, people constantly rebelled. The life at that time was not worth much and for the most part people did not see much joy in their existence. Jonathan Spence does a very good job describing all these problems and their affect on people of one particular place in China called T’an-ch’eng. And if not for this very advanced justice system, who knows what it could have led to. Also, most women experience a difficult transition to widowhood, regardless of culture or the time period in which they live.
Not only do they miss the companionship of their spouse, but they miss the routine of married life, and society seems structured around the idea of couples rather than singles, which makes the suddenly-single a sort of social outcast. In the society described by Spence, a woman without a man literally had no social identity whatsoever. We can see this in one of the narratives called “Widow” it describes the story of a widow named P’eng. The legal code of T’an-ch’eng stated that if the husband dies, and there is no son in the family, all inheritance goes to the widow. The trick of this whole deal is if the widow decides to get remarried or dies the whole property of her husband goes to his family clan.
P’eng did have a son named Lien and her late husband’s family wanted her to remarry badly, but she kept on refusing, so the cousin of her son killed Lien to become her direct heirs. This is really amazing when we think about it. It’s pretty hard to think of something like that and it definitely shows how advanced the justice system was. This cousin turned himself in claiming that his act was the revenge for his fathers death from Lien father’s hands about 27 years ago and also he said that he should not be held responsible since he had a few too many drinks when he killed Lien. When I kept on reading the book I could not even imagine that the court did allow for mitigating circumstance or in this case a revenge only in case when the payback is immediate.
What that means is that Lien’s cousin retaliated right after his father’s death he would have probably been forgiven by court. But justice was served in this case since his retaliation occurred 27 years later. This once again proves the complexity and advancement of this legal system in T’an-ch’eng in 17th century. Another example of a woman being not much more than a common household object is of a woman named Kao, who lost her husband. Her husband’s relatives pressured her to remarry. But she remained faithful to her dead husband.
So they came up with a feeble plan to kill her son and get her property. However, the plan failed. Even though she was saved from major harm, there were plenty of loop halls in the law available to make such a skim possible. Today’s Chinese law prevents widows from being taken advantage of. Today, Chinese women have equality in their choice of marriage and in life choices.
A marriage can be dissolved upon both parties’ consents, in cases of complete alienation of mutual affection, and when everything else failed. This is a great leap for the right of Chinese women. In current Chinese society, women are moving up on the business ladder, and are slowly climbing up the political one as well. All over the country, women are getting in to high offices and being elected in to high position. This shows the great improvement in the life of Chinese women.
In order for women to move up the latter they would have to be educated. It is widely known that education is always the first step towards understanding. This in turn leads to eventual improvement. It is understood that missionaries did not stress women’s liberation in their studies. However, missionaries taught many women to read and write. Thus, they developed new ways to use their free time.
Women became less limited in things they could do. No one can really understand the power of literacy until they encounter this problem face to face. Currently, we see problems of this caliber in third world countries. The ability to read and write would open for these people vast doors of opportunity. This was the case with Chinese women. The ability to read and write put crack in the chains that bound them. Through education, women began to see that there is more to this world than just obedience.
Women gained new desires and began to develop a need for more freedom and better understanding. This was not only typical of the Chinese society. This is not a battle limited to the current generation and the current time. This is a war that took place all over the world. Women, throughout history, have always been dominated. Both, American and European societies have had patterns of abuse and subjugation directed at women.
However, the battle in China has not been won yet. There are still improvements in the lives of women that have to be made. I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading this book. I found it to be very intriguing. The way Jonathan Spence portrays the characters it seems that they come to life while you read this book.
The way he has described the characters but also the places that they are in, the cities, their family and their relationships with family and others. It also amazes me how much research he has done in order to write the story of Woman Wang. It makes us once again realize the importance of history and its laws and what affect it has on its future society, which is probably the main reason why we are at all called a “Society”, and what makes us a little different from the animals in this world. Laws make us feel save, they protect us from the bad, and they allow us to live a complete life in this world. Without them we would just be simply Barbarians.