Over two thousand years ago, the principles laid out by by Konfuzi (or Confucius as we know him in the West) clearly specified men’s authority over women. But there were also some Chinese women who were educated and wrote from a Confucian perspective. Ban Zhao (c45-116 CE) was the foremost early female voice in this tradition and an intriguing figure in any case.
Ban Zhao wrote a commentary to Lives of Admirable Women, a historical tract, as well as an original piece entitled Percepts for Women. Her life is quite interesting in its own right, but first it is important to consider her work on the proper conduct of women. While not a feminist treatise by today’s standards, as a potentially subversive piece of female advocacy it is worth considering today.
A First Century Guide for Women
Ban Zhao expanded on the concepts of the Four Virtues for women first articulated in the Book of Rites. Ban Zhao correctly pointed out that there was little in standard Confucian writings specifically directed towards women. She attempted to correct this shortcoming with her Lessons. As was typical for women writers of the era, Ban Zhao began with a statement denying any special knowledge.
“I, the unworthy writer,” Ban Zhao begins, “am unsophisticated, unenlightened, and by nature unintelligent, but…”
Was this her genuine sense of self or was she strategically denying any claims to authority? By doing so did she create the only acceptable space for her to speak? It’s possible her introduction had elements of both. In any case, Ban Zhao proceeded to detail five lessons she felt women could benefit from learning.
Ban Zhao’s Five Lessons
The first lesson focused on humility. Women were to yield to others, respect them, and put them first. Similarly, women were advised not to mention their good actions. At the same time, they were to admit their mistakes. In a final statement of seeming passivity, they were to say nothing when others spoke evil of them. In short, women were to lack ego or hubris.
The second lesson was on proper marriage. Ban Zhao underscored the Confucian notion that a husband was to control his wife and a wife was to serve her husband. But she argued that if a girl was not educated like a boy, how would she know how to properly serve? Ban Zhao appeared to be trying to empower women without challenging prevailing social norms.
The third lesson focused on respect and caution. She wrote that “respect and acquiescence is a woman’s most important principle of conduct.” Yet she went on to argue that “if wives don’t suppress contempt for husbands, then it follows that such wives rebuke and scold their husbands. If husbands don’t stop short of anger, then they are certain to beat their wives. The correct relationship between husband and wife is based upon harmony and intimacy, and conjugal love is grounded in proper union.”
The fourth lesson dealt with womanly qualifications: specifically womanly virtue, womanly words, bearing and work. Women were to choose their words with care, avoiding vulgarity. They should choose appropriate times to speak and not weary others with too much conversation.
The final lesson advised implicit obedience. A woman was to the direction of husband and mother-in-law, even if they were wrong. If a woman followed them like “an echo and shadow,” how could she not be praised?
From a modern perspective it is hard to know if Ban Zhao was trying to expand women’s freedoms or to teach them how to better acquiesce to a sometimes oppressive social structure. Whatever the case, she warrants our attention as the earliest female Confucian writer known to us.
Ban Zhao’s Accomplishments
Ban Zhao’s history gives us some clues as to her intentions. Highly intelligent, Ban Zhao was the daughter of a noted historian and the sister of another. Her father saw to her extensive education. Nonetheless she was married to an older man at the age of 14. Together they had at least one son, her husband dying not long after. Rather than remarry, Ban Zhao decided to devote her life to scholarship. In the ensuing years, she immersed herself in the study of history. When her brother was arrested while writing a history of the Western Han, an interesting thing happened. Ban Zhao’s scholarship was sufficiently well known that the Chinese emperor He summoned her to his court to finish the work. Ban Zhao did so admirably, adding information about one of the emperors’ mother. She soon earned her reputation as China’s preeminent female scholar.
Ban Zhao soon became indispensable at the imperial court. She was asked to tutor the Empress Deng Sui and the other women of the court. Soon enough, others affectionately referred to her as “gifted one.” The Empress saw to it that Ban Zhao’s son, now grown, was given an advantageous appointment. While employed at the court, Ban Zhao also oversaw the imperial library and expanded upon a work by Liu Xiang entitled Biographies of Eminent Women.
Special Recognition Upon Her Passing
Ban Zhao lived into her seventies. When the now elderly Empress Dowager heard of her old friend’s passing, she dressed entirely in white—an unusual gesture of honor for a commoner. And Ban Zhao’s daughter-in-law saw to it that her various writings were gathered into the Collected Works of Ban Zhao, a three volume affair. While that work has unfortunately been lost in its entirety, Ban Zhao’s treatise on the proper conduct of wives luckily remains. Overall, her life is a lovely story of mutual female empowerment.
That Ban Zhao wrote about the proper conduct of wives becomes all the more intriguing when one realizes she lived most of her life as an independent woman who didn’t need to answer to any husband.
Lee, Yuen Ting. (2012). Ban Zhao: Scholar of Han Dynasty China. At http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/9.1/lee.html
Swann, Nancy L. (1932/2001). Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.