Ban Zhao (班昭; 45 – c. 116 CE), was the first known female Chinese historian. She completed her brother Ban Gu’s work on the history of the Western Han, the Book of Han. She also wrote Lessons for Women, an influential work on women’s conduct. She also had great interest in astronomy and mathematics and wrote poems, commemorative writings, argumentations, commentaries, essays and several longer works, not all of which survive.
Ban Zhao was born in Anling, near modern Xianyang, Shaanxi province. At age fourteen, she married a local resident named Cao Shishu, and was called in the court by the name as Venerable Madame Cao (曹大家). Her husband died when she was still young. She never remarried, instead devoting her life to scholarship. She was the daughter of the famous historian Ban Biao and younger of 2 sisters of the general Ban Chao and of historian Ban Gu. She was also the grandniece of the notable scholar and poet Consort Ban.she was born in shaanxi china.
Ban Zhao contributed greatly to the completion and transmission of Hanshu (汉书 literally the “Book of the [Former] Han”), the official dynastic history of the Western Han. After Ban Gu was imprisoned and died in 92 because of his association with the family of Empress Dowager Dou, Ban Zhao helped finish the work by making up for the missing part of the Babiao (八表 Eight Tables). She added the genealogy of the mother of the emperor, providing much information which was not usually kept. Later, Ma Xu added a treatise on astronomy (天文志), making Hanshu a complete work.
Ban Zhao also wrote the Lessons for Women. This Confucian moralistic book generally advised women to be compliant and respectful towards the greater purpose of maintaining familial harmony, a highly regarded concept in historical China. The book also indicates women should be well-educated so they can better serve their husbands. 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 appropriate amount of respect to her brothers, brothers-in-law, father, father-in-law and other male relatives. According to her, “Nothing is better than obedience which sacrifices personal opinion”. A modern revisionist theory states that the book is a guide to teach women how to avoid scandal in youth so they can survive long enough to become a powerful dowager. This treatise on the education of women was dedicated to the daughters in Ban Zhao’s family but was circulated immediately at court. It was popular for centuries in China as a guide for women’s conduct.
She taught Empress Deng Sui and members of the court in the royal library, which gained her political influence. The Empress and concubines gave her the title Gifted one and the empress made her a Lady-in-waiting. As the Empress became regent for the infant Emperor Shang of Han, she often sought the advice of Ban Zhao. In gratitude, the Empress gave both Ban Zhao’s sons appointments as officials. Ban Zhao was also a librarian at court, supervising the editorial labors of a staff of assistants and training other scholars in her work. In this capacity, she rearranged and enlarged the Biographies of Eminent Women by Liu Xiang. It is possible that she supervised the copying of manuscripts from bamboo slips and silk onto a recently invented material, paper.
AMONG numerous influential women in ancient China, some are remembered for their beauty and virtues; some are applauded for their talents in art and literature. Ban Zhao stands out as the first female historian and esteemed scholar.
In AD 45, Ban Zhao was born into a scholars’ family in Anling, today’s Xianyang, Shaanxi Province. Daughter of Ban Biao, and younger sister of Ban Gu, both renowned scholars and historians at that time, Ban Zhao was a quick learner and read extensively.
She married a local resident Cao Shishu at age 14, and was later called into the royal court repeatedly by Emperor Liu Zhao (AD 79-105) to teach Empress Deng Sui and other concubines. As a consequence she was called Cao Da Gu, or Venerable Madame Cao in court. When the Empress became regent for her son Emperor Liu Long in AD 105, she often sought advice of Ban Zhao.
The multi-faceted female scholar is most remembered today as the co-author of the Book of Han, which records the history of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 8), with her father and brother. In AD 89, her brother Ban Gu was imprisoned and executed for association with Empress Dowager Dou’s brother, General Dou Xian, who was deemed a usurper, leaving behind the unfinished history book. Ban Zhao took over and also wrote the last eight volumes, all chronological tables of important figures, and a treaties on astronomy.
Nearly two decades after her brother died, Ban Zhao finished the Book of Han in her 40s with the help of Ma Xu, a student of her brother. The book traces the history of the dynasty, starting from its first emperor, Liu Bang, who created the kingdom in 206 BC, until the kingdom was tossed over. The whole book is divided into 100 volumes and includes annals of the emperors in a chronological order, tables of nobles and officials, biographies of noted historical figures, and essays on law, arts and literature.
Though written by four authors in succession, the book is coherent in style and consistent in structure. It is another significant historic writing after Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian, for its unique annals-biography form to cover a single dynasty. The format was carried on as the model for countless official historic writings.
Apart from Ban Zhao’s writings on history, she is also known for her essays on women’s conduct, compiled as Lessons for Women.
The feudal moralistic book mainly advises women to be obedient to their husbands, be well-educated so as to better serve them, and be respectful to her brothers, brothers-in-law, father, father-in-law and other male relatives, so as to achieve the purpose of maintaining harmony in family.
A guide for daughters in Ban Zhao’s family, the book was circulated in the royal court, and served as a guidebook for Chinese women for centuries to come.
In modern days, the book is to be blame for belittling women’s social status and suppressing their pursuit of freedom, self-confidence and individuality. There’s also another theory, though, stating that the book guides women by being enduring and avoiding scandals to survive in a patriarchal feudal society.
By Liu Xiaolin