As we step back in time, we view life in China from 1668-1672. The stories that are shared have been drawn from historical sources and actual accounts of those who lived in T’an-ch’eng and the surrounding area.
The vignettes that are captured portray the life of the common man and woman who had no political connections. Their lives were more difficult, because they could not purchase influence and power. These people are the farmers, farm workers, and their wives.
Some of the basic life crises are examined such as tax burdens, how does a widow survive and thrive, violence between feuding families, and a woman’s place in society and the consequences of her rebellion.
T’an-ch’eng is a small county in northeastern China, in the province of Shantung. During this time, more than its share of catastrophes fell upon the people who lived there. In 1668, there was an earthquake that did great damage and resulted in the loss of 9000 lives. In turn, this had an impact on the region’s ability to pay its taxes to Peking. The people sought relief from the Board of Revenue, but it was eighteen months before any tax relief was granted.
The earthquake was followed by a famine. Actually, a series of famines occurred leaving the people hungry and distraught. Bandits closely followed, as the next disaster. Many committed suicide as life held no joy.
Taxes were apportioned per county based on taxes for their land and a tax on individual male adults. Since the taxes were high, and the workingman could not afford to pay a lump sum, the tax was broken into installments according to the seasons and crops.
Tax collectors were often from powerful landlord families and they brought pressure on those who were delinquent. It was an honorable position. By 1670, T’an-ch’eng county had been in arrears for thirteen years, because of the many catastrophes that had occurred.
Widows in Chinese society had to be resourceful to survive. The local history contains many biographies that illustrate how women with determination and high moral standards could raise her children and provide for them financially.
There was a struggle between discipline and compassion as she tried to raise her family alone. The laws provided for the distribution of a dead man’s wealth. In some cases, a woman was forced to re-marry. There are even stories of greed where a male heir was killed so that another might inherit.
Feuds between families could turn violent. The protection of the reputation and wealth of a family was of highest priority.
There is a story relayed of the Wang family who were gangsters as well as landlords. They had a feud with the Li family and it resulted in the death of the head of the Li family and three sons. Justice was pursued by the remaining Li family members. In the end, the senior Wang died. You would expect the widow Li would get the money that Wang had stolen. This was not the case, because upon inspection of the Wang home, no wealth was found. Wang had hidden the money elsewhere, and the widow received nothing.
The wife who ran away illustrates the high standards that were required of Chinese woman more so than men. Virtues of chastity, courage, tenacity, and unquestioning acceptance were required until death. Women committed suicide out of loyalty to their husbands or those betrothed to them. There were fewer women than men, because of female infanticide and other factors.
The story of Woman Wang illustrates the consequences of a wife’s disobedience. She was married for less than six months to a poor hired laborer. She ran away with another man, who abandoned her along the way. She returns to her home and takes refuge in the temple until her husband discovers she has returned.
He takes his wife back home and plots his revenge. One night he strangles her and attempts to frame his neighbor for the crime. The case goes to trial and eventually the husband is found guilty. The judge rules that the woman must be buriedd in a good coffin and a favorable location to silence the angry woman’s ghost. The wealthy neighbor must pay for her burial because he struck her husband. The husband was beaten and sentenced to wear the cangue around his neck as an act of humiliation.
These stories illustrate the hard life of those without political connections and the financial means to deal with a major crisis. In some instances, these deficits resulted in violence, suicide, huge financial losses, and humiliation. Life was hard in T’an-ch’eng in the 1600’s.