Magazine article Humanities

Editor's Note

Magazine article Humanities

Editor's Note

Article excerpt

I become uneasy whenever someone mentions the "lessons of history." Not that history doesn't offer lessons, it's just that many of the lessons, I find, are hardly the kind of rules for living that can be easily applied.

For instance, while reading The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence, I thought, now here's a lesson: Do not become a seventeenthcentury rural Chinese peasant. But I don't think it will actually come up.

Spence is this year's Jefferson Lecturer and his great writing takes you into some very dark and far corners of Chinese history. He is the author of many books, including The Search for Modern China, the standard textbook in Chinese history courses.

The Death of Woman Wang is a beautifully crafted, darkly riveting history of T'an-ch'eng County around the time of the Manchu invasion. One passage relates to the mass executions and mass graves of 1661 in Tzuch'uan, from a near contemporary account of artisans "making modest fortunes out of coffin building until the better qualifies of wood ran out," of gentry who "turned to lead bandit gangs in self-defense," of robbers "who claimed they only killed 'unrighteous men,'" of "a destitute married couple carefully discussing whether he should become a bandit or the woman a prostitute."

Spence's intensely prosaic chronicle is also a lesson in how historical records can speak clearly across centuries and cultures. Simple facts, in the hands of a master writer, can be more eloquent than any literary device. …

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