Who is Ban Zhao?

Ban Zhao

The first female Chinese historian, Ban Zhao (c. 45–120) wrote Nu Jie (Lessons for Women), a treatise on how women of the period should behave, which became central to the Chinese gender system for two millennia. The book made Ban one of the most re-spected female authors in China until social mores changed dramatically in the 20th Century.

Prominent Literary Parents

Ban Zhao was born in the town of An-ling, Ku-Fang Province, China, around the year 45. (The town is now the city of Hsien-yang, and the province has been renamed Shensi.) She had two brothers, Ban Gu and Ban Chao, both of whom were at least 13 years older than her and who would go on to become famous in different areas.Her father, Ban Biao, was a noted scholar and an administrator of the extensive and powerful Ban family, who traced their lineage back to the time of Confucius (551–479 B.C.). He spent much of his time working on the Han shu (History of the Han), a history of the first 200 years of the Han Dynasty. Her mother and great-aunt, Ban Jieyu, were highly educated women and literary figures.

Ban’s parents hired well-known tutors to educate their daughter, who at an early age demonstrated a love for reading. She was taught both Confucianism (the hierarchy-and order-based system that had recently come into favor and that would remain the dominant value system of China and its people for the next 2,000 years) and the more tradi-tional Chinese belief system of Taoism, which stresses man’s place within nature.Born at a time of great reform in China, Ban was witness to and participated in the early days of the replace-ment of the ancient feudal system with the imperial system. Powerful families with thousands of acres of land had ruled the country for many eras, but over several centuries they gradually yielded to government centered in the imperial court. The Han court had adopted Confucianism as its cen-tral value system. Ban was fortunate that the Han court’s interpretation of Confucianism was far more liberal during her lifetime than it was later,when it became more rigidly codified.

In Chinese feudal society, women had often been pow-erful influences in politics and sometimes even rulers. Later on, women became distinctly inferior to men in the eyes of Confucians, who believed the father or husband was the absolute authority in the family and the core of Chinese society. However, the new system was beneficial because, unlike feudalism, it provided a degree of social mobility. Those with ambition and sufficient leisure time to study, mainly men could rise through the system by proving their knowledge. Learning and scholarly accomplishment were handsomely rewarded under the Confucian system, so the incentive to become highly educated was strong.

Married, Widowed, Began Writing

Ban’s father died when she was eight years old. In about the year 76, the royal court of the Eastern Han em-peror summoned her brother, Ban Gu, to finish the monu-mental job of writing the Han shu, giving him Ban Biao’s post as royal historian. In the meantime, Ban married Cao Shishu at age 14 and went to live with her husband’s family. He died within a short time, and Ban remained a widow for the remainder of her long life. She reportedly had at least one child with her husband, although historical accounts greatly differ as to which gender and how many. There are also reports that Ban’s husband had been frustrated by his young wife’s desire to ‘‘write all day.’’

Although still living with her husband’s family as tradi-tion required, and presumably carrying out all the chores and rituals required of the lowest-positioned member of the household, Ban found time to continue her writing and studying. Unlike widows of later generations, who were required by more stringent Confucian social standards to remain virtually secluded, Ban becqme an active partici-pant in politics at several Han courts and an admired mem-ber of literary circles.

In about 92, Ban’s brother Ban Gu died in prison. He had chosen the wrong side among competing cliques at Dowager Empress Dou’s court. Ban’s son, who had become a soldier, was assigned to a faraway post, which may have been part of the court’s reprisal against his involvement in the royal feud, and she may have gone with him. However, the court eventually summoned her back to the capital and ordered her to continue her brother’s work as imperial histo-rian. The authorities apparently put her in charge of the royal Tuan Kuan Library and the other historians working on the important document. Some historians believe that Ban is responsible for about one-quarter of the final Han shu, which was completed 14 years after the court ordered her to finish it.

Close to Royal Family

In addition to her duties on the Han manuscript, Ban was appointed to be a teacher of the ladies of the court, including all the concubines. One of them, Deng, was an apt student to whom Ban taught mathematics, history, the Confucian classics and astronomy. When the emperor tired of his empress, he promoted Deng to that position in 102, and Ban became her lady-in-waiting and companion.

The emperor had two sons with Empress Deng. After his death in 106, the boys ruled briefly before they died at a very young age. Dowager Empress Deng served as acting leader during these short reigns, and Ban was said to have a powerful influence. She was known in the court as ‘‘Mother Ban.’’ Historian and translator Nancy Lee Swann wrote that, during a conflict at the court, ‘‘at a word from [Ban], the whole [royal] family resigned.’’ Ban was so important to the royal family that the Dowager reportedly mourned her death — and for a member of the Han court to mourn a commoner’s passing was highly unusual.

Ban’s work on the Han shu contributed to what histo-rians have called the second most famous of all of China’s many formal dynastic histories, after the works of Sima Qian. Although her efforts were not acknowledged for many years because later Confucian scholars refer to her brother as the official editor, some scholars deem Ban to be the primary author. Regardless of the amount of her authorship of the Han shu, she was the most famous female historian in her country’s history.Ban was also a respected poet and produced many volumes during her life. However, only a few poems, such as ‘‘The Needle and Thread’’ and ‘‘Traveling Eastward,’’ still exist.

Lessons for Women

The work for which Ban is most remembered was her Nu Jie (Lessons for Women), a treatise on how women of the period should behave. Part etiquette guide and part moral compass, the book became a key influence on the Chinese gender system for 2,000 years. Ban is believed to have begun writing it in about 106, during the period when she was tutoring and later consulting with Empress Dengt.Lessons for Women was published at a time when China’s Confucian society desperately needed a way to impose order on its often complex and unruly families. Expected to serve as models of decorum and order, the typical Chinese family often consisted of multiple wives and concubines and many children. Conflicts were common, and chaos was the norm in many households. The existing Confucian documents did not offer specific and practical information for women’s everyday lives.

Ban’s book served to codify easily learned rules of behavior, which centered on her advice to women to subju-gate themselves to the men in the family. With her husband at the top of the pyramid of authority (or her father if she was unmarried), a woman was supposed to accord the appropri-ate amount of respect to her brothers, brothers-in-law, fa-ther, father-in-law and other male relatives. Ban also declared that widows should never remarry, that women must ‘‘think of themselves last in all situations’’ and that in general, ‘‘the Way of respect and acquiescence is woman’s most important principle of conduct.’’Although many women began to scoff at Ban’s out-dated rules at the beginning of the 19th Century, it is important to recognize that in Ban’s time it was of para-mount importance to establish and support the Confucian way of life.

Indeed, her family had been working toward that goal for generations. In contrast to the often violent and volatile feudal times from which the country was still emerging, the political order and social stability of Confu-cianism was important for Chinese women to support. Ban also insisted that women receive a good education, al-though Confucian scholars of later generations would largely ignore that injunction.Ban lived into her 70s and died in about 120. Her literary works, which Ban’s daughter-in-law collected after her death, filled at least 16 volumes. It was not until the 800s that Ban came to be most famous for writing Lessons for Women. Her influence continued into the 21st Century in a new Kunqu opera titled Ban Zhao by the Shanghai-based writer Luo Huaizhen. The author explained, ‘‘I wanted to express my respect for the intellectuals in this society who work hard to realize their ideals without caring for material benefits.’’


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