Four years ago Jonathan Spence's Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi scored as a tour de force of creative scholarship and literary reconstruction; simply for reading, the present volume is less satisfying--a composite, not a sustained narrative--but it has the distinction of burrowing into the lives of ordinary people in one rural fastness of 17th-century China. ""T'an-ch'eng is only a tiny area, and it has long been destitute and ravaged,"" the magistrate Huang Liu-hung found in 1670. Corroborating evidence comes from the Local History of Feng K'o-ts'an who, Spence speculates, may have been influenced by his own ""melancholy experiences"" as a disgraced academic (the kind of sidelight, abundantly present, that is both an enhancement and a distraction). Comprising a third source are the sophisticated, oblique, often sardonic stories of P'u Sung-ling, which Spence employs to give events an inner dimension. One sequence focuses on the insoluble problems of tax collection, another on the rigors and devices of widowhood, a third on family feuding, while the fourth centers on the title story--an incident enlarged by supplying an abject runaway wife, the woman called Wang, with a macabre deathbed vision drawn from one of P'u Sung-ling's tales, a device that one can accept as literary license or decry as scholarly piracy. What is incontestable is the cruelty of a system that, allowing for neither repentance nor forgiveness, metes out lashes for each degree of infraction of the social code--and Spence's skill in summoning forth its victims.