“Mainstream media” in the United States has come under increasing scrutiny for being disconnected from the lives of average Americans. The results of the 2016 election are commonly cited as evidence of this phenomenon. One publication, Politico, argued:
The ‘media bubble’ trope might feel overused by critics of journalism who want to sneer at reporters who live in Brooklyn or California and don’t get the “real America” of southern Ohio or rural Kansas. But these numbers suggest it’s no exaggeration: Not only is the bubble real, but it’s more extreme than you might realize.
China, too, has struggled with a similar phenomenon. An online fever erupted in 2012 when state news outlet China Central Television (CCTV) questioned random passersby, “Are you happy?” (Ni xingfu ma? 你幸福嗎?). Reporters assumed their interview subjects would note rising standards of living. According to the state-run China Daily, one encounter unfolded like this:
When asked, “Are you happy?,” a 73-year-old man collecting used plastic bottles in a street in Haining, Zhejiang province, said: “The bottles can be sold for 0.1 yuan each.” Asked again, he said: “I live on government subsidy of 650 yuan ($103) a month. The government is good.” The reporter pestered on: “My question is, ‘Are you happy?’ ” The senior citizen replied: “I am deaf.”
One reporter at the Beijing Evening News (Beijing wanbao 北京晚報) satirized the episode in front of her annual New Year’s gathering.
Each case shares a common thread of “elite bias,” a version of a problem that historians, too, have grappled with for several decades.
Imagine that you have been tasked by a news organization to capture “real Americans” or “real Chinese.” Take about 8-10 minutes to think through a proposal for what question you might ask (and why), who you might speak to, and what type of sources (beyond interviews) you might rely on to get a sense of the question. When we are done writing we will share our answers in pairs and report a handful back to the group.
Introduction to The Death of Woman Wang
For much of our time together, we have examined lives that have been overwhelmingly wealthy, well-educated, male, and situated in an urban context. We have focused on these stories for good reasons. After all, these were the emperors, warriors, poets, and philosophers who helped mold the course of Chinese civilization. Their stories have been recounted by generations of Chinese historians and are reflected in popular culture today.
Still, can a historian knowingly neglect the vast majority of people who were of modest means, unable to read and write beyond a rudimentary level, and who dwelled in rural contexts? What of the half of the population that lived their lives as female? What is to be learned from exploring these other stories? As Jonathan Spence notes in the preface of his book, “It is always hard to conjure up from the past the lives of the poor and the forgotten” (Spence, xii). Why should historians put in the effort to do so? This will be the first question we tackle together.
A few important notes from the Preface to orient you as a reader:
Questions for discussion:
Preparing for tonight’s reading
Note on spelling
When Spence originally published this text in 1976 he used the older Wade-Giles phonetic spelling for Chinese characters. I will use the initials “WG” to distinguish words that appear in this style from that of pinyin (“PY”), the newer phonetic system utilized by most scholars today and the spelling that has guided us throughout the semester.
Overview of tonight’s reading
Chapter 1 opens (pages 1-9) by recounting the difficult period from 1620s to 1660s, in which Tancheng suffered through political upheaval, social dislocation, and natural disaster. The details of these events are provided by Feng Kecan (WG: Feng K'o-ts'an 馮可參), who we learn is a disgraced former magistrate. One striking aspect of the local history is that it does not map entirely to the narrative of China as a whole. Take the date 1644, for example: Spence explains that the “Manchu conquest of China, with its promise of a restoration of order and prosperity and an end to the old corruption and inefficiency of the Ming, brought no sharp change of fortune to T’an-ch’eng” (Spence, 8).
The focus shifts (pages 9-19) to Huang Liuhong (WG: Huang Liu-hung 黃六鴻), who arrived as Feng’s replacement as magistrate in 1670. Huang will be familiar to us as a committed Confucian official, though provides fresh insight into how he—not to mention the common people under his charge—actually navigated balanced Confucian ideals with troubled realities of local life.
The last portion of the chapter (pages 19-32) introduces Pu Songling (WG: P’u Sung-ling 蒲松齡), the most well-known character discussed at length in the book. Spence recounts that his book, most recently translated into English as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (PW: Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異), was written “during this decade of the 1670s, while P’u waited at home for employment or worked grudgingly with local gentry families as a scribe or teacher” (Spence, 26). The book is an eclectic array of stories designed to entertain, imbued with Zhuangzi’s brand of playful Daoism, and—most importantly for Spence’s purpose—able to capture a sense of peasant life to complement the accounts of Feng and Huang.