Ban Zhao (c. 45–c. 120 CE)

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Ban Zhao (c. 45–c. 120 ce)

Poet, historian, and writer whose classic work, Lessons for Women, made her the most noted Chinese woman of letters prior to the 20th century. Pronunciation: Bahn Jao, rhymes with "cow." Name variations:Pan Chao; also known in the Chinese literary world by the alternate name Ban Hui-ji and by the title Cao Dagu. Ban Zhao was born sometime between 45 and 51 ce; died sometime between 114 and 120 ce; daughter of Ban Biao (3–54 ce, a noted scholar and administrator of the powerful Chinese Ban family which included a number of famous literary figures), and a highly educated mother whose name is unknown; both her great-aunt and her mother were also literary figures; received a broad education with noted tutors and established a reputation as a poet and woman of letters; sister of Ban Gu and Ban Chao (Pan Ch'ao, 32–102 ce, a famous Chinese traveler and military official in the northern frontiers); married Cao Shishu; children: several sons.

When her brother Ban Gu died before finishing a noted dynastic history, that of the Han dynasty (the Han Shu), Ban Zhao finished the work and made a major contribution to the study of Chinese history; she was also a tutor to the Empress Deng (fl. 105 ce–121 ce) and a noted court memorialist and is most famous for her classic work the Lessons for Women which became the standard treatise prescribing the rules for the behavior of women within the Chinese family for almost 2,000 years; in addition, she wrote many volumes of poetry as well as a wide range of literary miscellany such as epitaphs and memorials, all recognized models within the world of Chinese traditional letters, and became the model for subsequent generations of Chinese female intellectuals well into the modern era.

Ban Zhao was born in China at a time of historic reforms. The old feudal system which had been controlled by powerful landed families was being replaced by the imperial system which was governed from the court, increasingly dominated by the Confucian system of values. This was a time of sweeping changes, and Ban Zhao was a full participant in defining them. In particular, her views of the proper place of women in Confucian society were to be central to the Chinese gender system well into the late 19th century.

The complex Chinese political system, within which Ban Zhao was to become a noted figure, had undergone several significant modifications prior to the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) in which she lived. Prior to the 3rd century bce, the territory now organized as modern China had been controlled by a series of warring feudal states. In this system, political and military power largely coincided, while great families—sometimes ruling as monarchs, other times as a collection of like-minded local powers—dominated. The short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 bce) had united these states under a totalitarian central government. While the megalomaniacal Qin rulers had begun the long process of unifying both the Chinese state and Chinese culture, they proved too heavy-handed, extracting a terrible price from the Chinese people for the advantages of a centralized government. In 206 bce, they were replaced by the Han dynasty. The first several generations of Han rulers proved capable men who were both great warriors and wise administrators. They evolved a system which recognized the need for unity as well as the need for strong local families who would resist a too-dominant central government.

The primary internal political problem facing the Han was how to incorporate the great families into the central government so as to avoid a resurgence of feudalism in which those families might simply carve out local kingdoms at the expense of the imperial throne. The final solution to this dilemma was not fully formed for many centuries, but the process began in the Han era, and Ban Zhao and her family were important figures in its evolution.

The ultimate solution to the central problem of Chinese politics was to be Confucianism. Named after Confucius (551–479 bce), a noted Chinese thinker of the pre-Qin era, the system became the central ethos of the Chinese people for almost 2,000 years, finally collapsing only in the early 20th century. In some respects, the Confucian value system continues to be an important aspect of such contemporary Chinese states as the Peoples' Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as being influential in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

The Confucian value system proceeds from a simple analogy: the central model for Chinese society should be a well-ordered family. The emperor was the all-powerful father within the system, and other relationships were based upon the other roles within the family, such as that between husband and wife, elder brothers and younger brothers, and so on. Within the orderly Confucian world, everybody has a place, and the rules for their behavior toward each other are quite clear.

As a political system, the Confucian world was equally hierarchical and orderly. The emperor appointed court officials and local administrators from among men who were learned in the study of the Confucian classic books, a collection of works said to be written by Confucius, and noted commentaries upon those works. The great merit of the system was that it ultimately provided a degree of social mobility which attracted the energies of capable Chinese for well over 1,000 years, ensuring that nearly all such people would support the system, both guaranteeing its stability and constantly refreshing it with new talent. The system proved an irresistible attraction to all those who had the leisure for study, including the sons of the great families. This was, then, the check on feudalism: ambitious leaders could rise within the system and usually had no need to carve out kingdoms or mini-empires of their own.

The system naturally gave great importance to the world of scholarship. It was mastery over the Confucian learning which bought advancement and power, and it was the content of those books which became the value structure of Chinese students well into the 20th century. Ban Zhao's family was present in several generations at the courts of the Han as the Confucian system was founded. Her father Ban Biao (3–54 ce) traced his lineage back well into the time of Confucius himself. Biao was a noted scholar, as well as an administrator. His family possessed classic works which had been given to them earlier, and this learning was an important part of their family tradition.

Ban Zhao's father passed his love of learning on to his twin sons, her brothers Ban Gu and Ban Chao. Ban Zhao was given a broad education in both the Confucian learning and in the other great tradition of Chinese thought, Daoism, which emphasizes the place of man not within society, as does Confucianism, but within nature. Daoism thus became the philosophy which animated Chinese artists and poets. Ban Zhao's grasp over both these traditions ensured that she would understand all of the important ideas of her age, and that she could contribute to further developing those ideas.

Ban Zhao was also fortunate that she lived at the beginnings of the Confucian tradition rather than after it had become more rigidly codified. Ultimately, the place of Chinese women was to become distinctly inferior to that of Chinese men, and later generations of Chinese women rarely had the opportunity to secure such a broad education as did Ban Zhao. In this regard, her age still reflected some of the usages of feudalism. In the feudal age, Chinese women had often been powerful political actors and sometimes rulers in their own right. But the Confucians felt that within the family there could be but one head, and that head was the father-husband.

But in Ban Zhao's time women were educated and their talents highly regarded, even in the increasingly rarified world of Chinese letters. Her great-aunt Ban Jieyu was a particularly noted literary figure, and her mother was also said to be highly educated. It was thus quite natural that Ban Zhao, like her father and brothers, should become a familiar figure at the court of the Han emperors.

In the long history of Chinese literature from the days of the ancient odes down to modern times the place occupied by women has been small…. The one woman, however, who unquestionably belongs in the foremost rank of Chinese learning is Ban Zhao Cao Dagu of the court of the Eastern Han emperor He (89-95 ce).

—Nancy Lee Swann

Like many Chinese women, Ban Zhao married young, at age 14, but she was to be a widow for the greater portion of her life. Her husband Cao Shishu died fairly early in their marriage and little is known of him, nor of their several sons. In later eras, Confucians would force widows into virtual seclusion, but Ban Zhao lived an active and public life at successive Han courts. The period during which she was to be most powerful was that of her maturity.

Ban Jieyu (c. 48–c. 6 bce)

Chinese poet and royal concubine to Emperor Cheng of the Han dynasty. Born around 48 bce; died around 6 bce; great-aunt ofBan Zhao .

Once a royal concubine to Emperor Cheng of the Han dynasty, Ban Jieyu lost favor and was relegated to serving the dowager empress. Ban Jieyu's indignation informed her poetry, including "Resentful Song," which was inscribed on a round fan.

Her twin brother Ban Gu became the historian of the Han court. This was a very powerful office as Confucians believed that the history of humankind revealed Heaven's judgments as to both good and bad behavior. Historians, with their ability to assign "praise and blame," became the primary arbiters of the Confucian tradition. But the Chinese court was always a dangerous place, characterized by bitter if polite struggles between ambitious men and women and their powerful families. Gu sided with a losing clique and died in prison. At his death, he had been writing the history of the earlier Han reigns, an important task. The court summoned his sister, Ban Zhao, to finish the work. The work to which she contributed, the Han Shu (History of the Han), is said to be the second most noted of the many dynastic histories of China. While her exact contributions to the work have been obscured by time and by the later Confucian disregard for women (her brother is said to be the official editor by later Confucian historians), some scholars have given her the credit as primary author.

Ban Zhao was not only China's most famous female historian, she was also a noted poet. While her poetry filled many volumes, not much of it has survived. But those existing works show her clear mastery of the difficult written Confucian language, and her ability to manipulate the complex styles of the classic literary form. One poem, "The Needle and Thread," translated by her biographer Nancy Lee Swann , reveals both her poetic ability and her unique perceptions as a Chinese woman:

Strong spirit of Pure Steel from autumn's metal cast.
Incarnate body of power, slight and subtle, straight and sharp!
To pierce, then to enter gradually in, that is your nature.
Things far apart all strung into one, that is your task.
Only your ordered footprints, you wonderful needle and thread, attest the quantity, the variety, the universality of your work.…
All, all together these are your memorials.
They are found in the village home, they ascend into the stately hall.

While many of her works are indistinguishable from those of noted Chinese male poets, this poem must have been a favorite of the myriad generations of Chinese women who worked diligently at the household tasks of sewing, repairing, and embroidering the very beautiful textiles of classical China. These fabrics have only recently been recognized as true works of art and mounted for exhibition in major museums.

The apogee of Ban Zhao's influence at court came in the reign of the Empress Deng , who both recognized Ban Zhao as her tutor and consulted with her on court matters. While we cannot be sure, it is probable that Ban Zhao's most famous work, the Lessons for Women, was written at about this time. One of the central domestic problems of the Confucian family was how to create an orderly home life. This was not an easy task, as the Chinese family sometimes included several wives and concubines, and women were increasingly forced into an isolated existence. The Confucian world had a pressing need for clear hierarchies and for easily learned rules of behavior, and it fell to Ban Zhao to codify the proper deportment of women. In the strictures of the Lessons for Women, in part a moral handbook and in part a book of etiquette, Ban Zhao counsels women to accept a subordinate role within the family. In Swann's translation, Ban Zhao states: "It can be said that the Way of respect and acquiescence is woman's most important principle of conduct." In addition, Ban Zhao rules that widows must not remarry; throughout, the Lessons for Women condones a rigid double standard which gives men markedly superior status in the marriage relationship.

Previous generations of Western women did not find Ban Zhao's code for Chinese women objectionable but often praised it as the first such work detailing the proper behavior of women in general. If we are to appreciate the true import of Ban Zhao's attitude toward the relationship between the genders we must understand the world in which she lived. She and her family had devoted themselves for generations to the creation and support of the Confucian world-view. The Ban family measured their notions of gender relations against the violent feudal age from which China had only recently emerged. In Ban Zhao's view, nothing was more important to Chinese women than social stability and political order. She, like Chinese women for a millennium, accepted the idea that the family was the model of all of society, and that a proper family had to be hierarchically ordered with one indisputable head: the husband.

In the Confucian view, woman's security is achieved by creating an orderly environment in which the Confucian scholar-administrator (or peasant) can do his demanding work. The wife creates a haven from which the man can sally forth to do battle with the stubborn rice fields or the clique-ridden court. In return, the husband should provide for the material needs of the family, and for its orderly progress as the daughters themselves make good marriages into other well-off families and the sons receive the education necessary to guarantee them and their own families further advancement in the Confucian world of letters.

Ban Zhao did include one lesson in her work for women which was to be largely ignored by later Confucian generations. She insisted that women, too, should receive a good education. In so doing, she perhaps hoped that education would serve to provide a channel of escape for other women, as it had for her.

Ban Zhao used her power at the Han court to see her sons advanced and secured the power of the Ban family for generations; her daughter-in-law was to edit later editions of her works. Ban Zhao died around 120 ce, at over 70 years of age. During a long lifetime, she had written more than 16 volumes of literary works, few of which survive today. But her reputation as Confucian China's foremost woman of letters has endured for almost 2,000 years.


Chu, T'ung-tsu. Han Social Structure. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972.

Loewe, Michael. Crisis and Conflict in Han China. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974.

Swann, Nancy Lee. Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China. NY: Russell & Russell, 1932.

suggested reading:

Loewe, Michael. Everyday Life in Early Imperial China during the Han Period, 202 BC–AD 220. NY: Dorset Press, 1968.

Watson, Burton, ed. Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han by Pan Ku. NY: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Jeffrey G. Barlow , Professor in the Department of Social Studies, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon