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The Death of Woman Wang

The variations on the Chinese family that one comes across in Jonathan Spence's work The Death of Woman Wang is not the simple, patriarchal, Confucian social unit that one so often sees invoked in descriptions of pre-Revolutionary China. There is no litany here of draconian mothers-in-law, dutiful eldest sons and stern, distant fathers. This may result from the fact that Spence is attempting to give us a realistic view of the world of "small corner of northeastern China during the seventeenth century" rather describing unattained cultural ideals (p. xi). But one also senses from his work that there may have been if not precisely alternatives to the ideal Confucian family in pre-Revolutionary China than at least permissible variations on that ideal. This paper examines the way in which the social and biological unit of the family is presented to the reader in Spence's work, drawing on some additional sources to provide a context for Spence's portrait of the Chinese family.

Yang (1959) provides a description of the traditional family before the Communist revolution: "The relation between parents and children in general and between father and son in particular should be the closest, closer than any other type of kinship relation, including the relation between husband and wife, for this is the nucleus of all family relations and the seat of authority in the power structure of the family" (Yang, 1959, p. 10). Of somewhat lesser importance "is the relation between husband and wife, and here 'attention to separate functions' implies a division of labor as well as a stratification of status of all family members in both sexes on the basis of age and generational levels" (Yang, 1959, p. 10).

This is in many ways the type of family that the reader meets in Spence's work, but exceptions are numerous. These must result in part from the fact that reality is always more variable than ideal types. They also arise partly from the fact ...

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The Death of Woman Wang. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 21:08, May 24, 2020, from