In his essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes argues that readers, or rather, critics should not include the biographical history of the author in interpreting the text and that interpretation should be based more on the text itself rather than things beyond what is read.
In his introduction, Barthes alludes to the work of Bazac and asks readers who is saying a particular line. Bathes argues that we will never know because writing destroys the voice and the point of origin of the text. “The author enters into his own death” (Bathes 1). Barthes says that once a work is narrated or published, it loses its attachment to the author, therefore making the work subject to different interpretations.
Past and current trends have seen the authors dominate literature. “The explanation of the work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it” (Barthes 1). Some authors though have tried to steer away from this popular trend. Authors like Proust, for instance, tried to limit the relation of the writer and the characters. Barthes claims that “language knows a subject, not a person” (2), and this subject is meaningless outside the statement in which it is uttered, but it is enough to hold meaning on its own.
Bathes also introduces the readers to the tem the scriptor. The scriptor is born at the same time as the text; it has neither past nor future. The statement has no other meaning than the way it is said. The main point of Bathes is that the author should be non-existent in interpretation of their works—it has no origin; language itself is the origin. The removal of the author makes claiming for a “true” interpretation worthless. To associate the author with the text is like giving the work a final interpretation; hence, it limits the work.
Lastly, Barthes says that “the reign of the authors is also the reign of the critics” (3). Critics are the ones that flourished more during this reign. Because of the trend in relating the author to his or her work, critics are entitled to interpret the work by “finding” the author in the text. When they do, then they explain or interpret the work, giving them credit with not much effort than researching the history of the author.
- Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author. 1968. 18 February 2009
Portrayal Of Qing China In Jonathan Spence’s The Death Of Woman Wang Short Summary
The people under the Qing Dynasty in China suffered a lot of hardships in a really extreme period of tribulation and crises during the seventeenth century. Many factors such as society, government, culture, and Confucianism greatly influenced the lives of countless Chinese. While considered ordinary for the time, life for the Chinese people in this period are much appalling compared to the country’s current standards. Despite the harrowing images of poverty and destitution, many contemporary authors and historians portray the seventeenth century rural China as a land characterized by harmonious and unproblematic society.
For example, in The Chinese Bell Murders (1958) by Robert Van Gulik, magistrate Judge Dee has this first words for the town of Poo-yang: “Heaven has conferred its blessings on this district”, “the land is fertile”, “the farmers prosper”, “profit from the busy traffic” since the district is located on the Grand Canal, “excellent harbor outside the western city gate”, “constant coming and going of travelers”, “merchant houses do a thriving business”, fish abound, providing “a living for the poor”, “there is a fairly large garrison”, “good custom for the small restaurants and shops”, the people…are prosperous and content”, and “taxes are paid on time” (p. 24).
But the image of a rural China described above is not the real picture. The Imperial China rarely ran so effortlessly; there were many pressing problems that the magistrate fails to see. One historical novel that tries to counter the “depersonalization” of the Chinese society in the seventeenth century, commonly seen in many other historical portrayals of China, Is Jonathan D. Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang (1978). In this book, Spence assumes the role of a social historian who portrays the colossal tumult during the transition to the Qing Dynasty. The story is told through a “small corner of northeastern China during the seventeenth century” (p. xi), the small town of T’an-ch’eng, through the lives of the people who were directly affected by the customs and morals of the time period.
In his previous works. Spence provides important information about the life on the court and of the literate elite during the Qing dynasty. In Woman Wang, Spence attempts to “conjure up from the past the lives of the poor and forgotten” (p. xii). Here, he concentrates on a thornier problem, the evocation of the lasting suffering, and momentary joys, of China’s common folk – the farmers, their wives, and other non educated people. The author weaves a dramatic tapestry of peasant life, with special focus on the predicament faced by women.
T’an-ch’eng’s portrait begins from its most miserable moments, the brigands of 1641, the invasion of the Manchus in 1643, the earthquake of 1668, and so forth (pp. 1-9). The earthquake brings great damage and results in the loss of about 9,000 lives. This has a huge impact on the region’s capacity to pay its taxes to Peking. A series of famine then hits T’an-ch’eng, leaving its people very hungry and distraught. The crops are not enough to pay the taxes and sometimes, people have to move just to escape the taxes. Bandits came as the next disaster.
The author then goes into complex detail about the tax system (pp. 36-48). Taxes are apportioned for each county based on a tax on individual male adults and taxes for their land. Since the taxes are so high, and the workingman cannot not afford to give a lump sum, the tax is divided into installments based on the crops and seasons. Tax collectors are often from the ranks of powerful landlord families and they pressure those who are delinquent. Being a tax collector is an honorable position. This system hounds the lives of peasants as well as magistrates month after month. To a large extent, the relationship between the State and the Society is characterized by the tax system. Many people commit suicide because they see their situation hopeless.
The vignettes captured in Spence’s work portray the life of people who have no political connections. They are living a more difficult life because they do not have the ways and means to buy power and influence. In addition to basic life crises like tax burdens, the novel also examines how widow survive and thrive, the violence between quarrelling families, and a woman’s place in the Chinese society and the cost of her rebellion. As portrayed in Woman Wang, widows in early Chinese society have to be very resourceful in order to survive. The local history has many biographies illustrating how women with high moral standards and determination can raise her children and support them financially.
The book also shows that the pictures of families in Qing China are not the ones portrayed in other historical books. Spence shows that the protection of the wealth and of a family is of highest priority and feuds between families can turn violent. He relays a story of the Wang family who are gangsters and landlords. They have a dispute with the Li family, which results in the killing of the head of the family and his three sons. Li family members pursue justice and eventually, the senior Wang dies. Readers would expect that the widow Li will get a hold of the wealth that Wang had stolen. But this is not the case. Upon checking the Wang home, no riches are found. Wang hides the money somewhere else, and the widow does not receive anything.
Misery and poverty can crack even the strongest of the family bonds. As the author notes, “Huang observed that this pervasive misery and sense of unworthiness coupled with the traditional obstinacy and bellicosity of T’an-ch’eng people, led to stormy family scenes and a rash of suicides” (p. 14). Because of this organization, “A father and a son in the same household could be transformed in a moment into violent antagonists; relatives and friends in the same village would get into fights at drinking parties; every day one would hear that someone had hanged himself from a beam and killed himself” (p. 14). In addition, poverty also corrupts the idealistic and traditional bonds between husbands and wives.
While the ideas of Confucianism are romanticized by many authors, Spence, on the other hand, challenges them. Woman Wang tackles the Confucian concepts of being subservient, filial piety, and suicide, but not in the same way as portrayed by many historians. Filial piety play, in particular, plays a vital role throughout the book, and is demonstrated in a number of consequences and interactions. Ts’ui Meng is a fine, but not idealistic, example of the presence of Confucian views in the county. At sixteen, Ts’ui Meng is known as an aggressive boy around the district, “Only to his mother did Ts’ui show respect, and he would calm down when she appeared: she would scold him for his conduct, and he would respond obediently to all her commands…” (79). Filial piety or simply respect and support for one’s family is shown in the book when Ts’ui’s conduct changes when a family member is around.
Along with the Confucian concept of filial piety surfaces the concept of moral suicide. Spence writes, “suicides were considered morally correct as they showed the depth of the woman’s reverence for her husband” (100). Confucianism holds that it s alright for a woman to commit suicide to show her loyalty and commitment for the memory of her spouse and the extended family they share. Committing endorsed suicide exhibits Confucian values and ideology within individual behavior. Suicidal behavior not within the parameters of marriage and loyalty is strictly forbidden and is considered harmful to the community because it is thought that women who take their own lives will haunt inner rooms and deserted alley.
Another Confucian idea Spence tackles in his book is a woman’s subservient behavior during the seventeenth century. The idea of wanting to follow the wishes and demands of one’s husband is related to the subservient behavior of killing oneself. Generally, the gap between men and women in the society stems from the thought of women not having equal status and being inferior to their husbands. In Woman Wang, women are considered of lesser value compared to men, but Spence shows that there is much more to be found in this belief. Women are not expected to commit adultery, and are severely punished when they become disloyal to their husbands. However, men are not rejected as women are. In many cases, if the husband dies, his family will push his widow to marry or “strip her home and family to the bones” (p. 70) so they could recover the deceased husband’s possessions.
A woman’s body is very sacred to her marriage; she is expected to use her intelligence to outsmart bandits and “voracious soldiers” (p. 104) from raping and taking her body. Cleverness and intellect are also part of being an honorable woman. There are some elements that make a woman honorable and virtuous, together with many other things that are expected from them. In order to be viewed successful in her feminine role, women will have to accomplish many things. The proper and acceptable female behavior includes such virtues as “chastity, courage, tenacity, and unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing hierarchy – unto death if necessary” (p. 100). If the woman is unable to beat such challenges, the customs and laws of Chinese society are enacted.
Even if a woman in not content in her marriage, she is expected to remain faithful and obedient to her husband and stay with him no matter what. Should she run away, like Woman Wang, she will automatically be judged as a criminal, “classified as a fugitive and subject to a punishment of one hundred blows” (120). A husband killing his adulteress wife if he catches them in the act is justified. If the woman runs away and returns, the man is entitled to keep her. But In Woman Wang’s case, her husband takes her back, but kills her brutally. Since the Chinese society in Spence’s book places much power in the hands of men at the expense of the women, tragedies such as the violent death of Woman Wang are inevitable.
Despite its title, Spence’s Woman Wang is not only about the story of one person or a single episode, but a portrait of a deprived rural county in China during the seventeenth century. The book depicts Confucian ideologies and values through the stories of poor society members. In telling these stories, Spence uses material on matters that were once considered too unpleasant and distasteful to be approved for “official” county history. Overall, what makes Woman Wang stand out is Spence’s more realistic view of Chinese life during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, particularly the struggles of the working class.
Spence, J. D. (1978). The Death of Woman Wang. New York: The Viking Press.
Van Gulik, R. (1958). Chinese Bell Murders. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Death Penalty Should Not Be Abolished
Capital punishment is not as immoral as how conservatives claim it to be. Heinous and amoral crimes have become undeniably rife in our materialistic and worldly society, and a punishment of death would only appear as a very significant and large sacrifice to take for granted before committing the most heinous and conscienceless acts. In assessing the morality of capital punishment, the society must also assess whether the lives lost and destroyed by such brutal crimes are less immoral for such kind of punishment. Thus, as conservatives wish for capital punishment’s abolishment, the continuous degradation of our society’s morality just gives people enough reason why it must be retained.
In evaluating the real underlying principle of every fair society, it must be known that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” shall always relate to equal rights (Cauthen). Alongside this statement comes the obligation of the members of the society to respect and honor other’s freedom to live a life in peace and order. However, the modern world opens doors to a lot of luxuries, materialism, and greed as the standard of living continues to ascend. More and more people are being conquered by such lavish, material possessions that abuse, harassment, and several crimes are ruthlessly committed just to go over other people and acquire unparalleled power and wealth. Lives, morality, and peace are being taken away everyday without the littlest piece of conscience as the heinous crimes are being committed. Such criminals never feel the struggle of each victim to fight for his or her life in the urge to fulfill an evil objective. The society nowadays is never blinded by these stories. The media has been able to expose how immorality tries to lead every greedy and selfish motive to heinous and conscienceless acts.
Hence, having such brutal stories where innocent lives are taken, people must evaluate the objective of the capital punishment. Each person, whether good or bad, whether God-fearing or, values his or her life above every possession he or she may have. Having the intention of such a heavy and significant retribution posts how well and how deep the society values life and morality. The society values life and morality well enough that it has to create a substantial and just punishment to counter the pitiless acts of killings and brutal crimes that the worldly and greedy man is prone to commit. No one who values his or her own life would take capital punishment for granted. Thus, anyone who fears the brutal pains of death shall also fear taking one’s innocent breath away. It will still take a long journey before the society can think of a better substitute and compromise aside from capital punishment. However, as long as people fear death, they will also fear killing others as death awaits the act. Thus, there will be no reason why capital punishment must be deterred in a death-fearing society.
Cauthen, Kenneth. “Capital Punishment.” Essays on Theology by Kenneth Cauthen. 12 June 2007. 16 January 2009 <http://www.frontiernet.net/~kenc/cappun.htm>.