Ban Zhao

From New World Encyclopedia

Sketch of Ban Zhao by Shangguan Zhou (上官周, b. 1665).

Bān Zhāo (45 - 116 C.E.) (Chinese: 班昭; Wade-Giles: Pan Chao), courtesy name Huiban (惠班), was a poet and writer, and the first known female Chinese historian. Born into a family of imperial scholars around 45 C.E., she was educated by her mother. By the age of 14, she was married to a local resident, Cao Shishu, but following his death a few years later, she moved with her children to the capital to live with her brother, Ban Gu, who had taken over the authorship of the Book of Han after the death of their father, the famous historian Ban Biao. In 92, Ban Gu was executed because of his involvement in palace intrigues, and in 97, the Emperor called Bān Zhāo to take over his work and complete the Book of Han. She also tutored Deng Sui, who became regent when her infant son ascended to the throne in 106, and frequently relied on Zhao for guidance.

Ban Zhao is clearly known to have authored a long poem, Dongzheng fu (Traveling Eastward); fragments of three short poems including “Ode to the Sparrow;” two memorials, “Petition to Queen Deng” and “Petition to Find a Substitute for My Brother Ban Chao” (letters to the throne); and Nujie (Precepts for My Daughters), a manual of instructions for her daughters who were about to be married. Nujie remains an eloquent commentary on the situation of women in Confucian China.


Bān Zhāo, also known as Ban Ji or Ban Huiban, was born around 45 C.E. in Fufeng, Anling (east of present-day Xianyang, Shaanxi Province) during the reign of Emperor Guangwu. Her family had been scholars serving the Imperial court for three generations. Zhao had elder twin brothers, Ban Chao, who later became a famous general on China's northwest frontier, and Ban Gu, who became a poet and the major author of Han shu, a history of the first 200 years of Han dynasty China. She received an early education at home from her mother, who was literate, and her father.

Her father, Ban Biao, was a popular magistrate of Wangdu County (in present-day Hebei Province), and a scholar. The Historical Records (Shi Ji) of Sima Qian did not cover the years following 101 B.C.E., during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty. Ban Biao determined to record the history of this period, entitling it Hou Ji, or, “The Sequel” to the Historical Records. In 54 C.E., when Ban Zhao was eight years old, he died, leaving the work unfinished. His eldest son, Ban Gu, returned home to attend the funeral, and set began the task of organizing and completing his father's unfinished work. Dissatisfied with the title, he changed it to Han Shu. In 62 C.E., he was accused of altering the history and was imprisoned; upon imperial review of the manuscript, however, Ban Gu was set free. He was appointed an official editor at the Lantai Imperial Library, entrusted with the task of completing the Han Shu, and was given access to many rare books and archives. His younger brother, Ban Chao, though a general, also had participated in the preparation of the Han Shu while he was a librarian and editor at the Lantai Imperial Library before joining the army. Ban Gu continued to work on the manuscript for more than 20 years, and is credited with the book’s completion.

By the age of 14, Ban Zhao had married Cao Shou, a fellow townsman, who died some years later, leaving Ban Zhao with several children. (Two of her sons, Cao Cheng and Cao Gu, became famous Han scholars.) Ban Zhao never remarried, and devoted herself instead to literary pursuits. Her mother was in the capital with her brother, Ban Gu, who was employed by the imperial court as a historian and editor of the Han Shu; Ban Zhao joined them there and some scholars believe she was already contributing to the history at that time.

In 89, a new child emperor ascended the throne, and political power fell into the hands of his mother, Dowager Empress Dou, and her family. Ban Gu became closely associated with them. In 92, the Dou family was accused of treason; the empress lost her power, male members of the family committed suicide, and the family's friends, including Gu, were sentenced to execution. Ban Gu died in prison, leaving the "Eight Tables" and the section on astronomy unfinished. The rest of Ban Zhao’s family left the capital.

By 97, Zhao had been called back to the capital by the emperor to complete the history left unfinished at Ban Gu's death. According to a biography of Zhao written in the fifth century, "Emperor He summoned her to the Library at the Easter Hall so that she could continue [Ban Gu's] work and complete it"[1], and to teach other scholars how to read this new text. She was permitted access to all books and archives in the Dongguan Imperial Library.

Ban Zhao was not only a historian, but a teacher. She gave lectures in the Dongguan Library, on the language of the Han Shu, which was difficult for the average reader to understand. Later, the emperor made her the tutor of his queen, his concubines and the ladies-in-waiting, who addressed her as "Cao Dagu;" "Cao" was her husband’s family name, and "Dagu" was an honorific title for well-read and talented women. [2]

Among Ban Zhao’s students was a young girl, Deng Sui, who had first come to the court in 95 C.E., at the age of 15. Zhao taught Deng astronomy and mathematics as well as history and the classics. In 102, the emperor deposed the empress and replaced her with Deng. When the emperor died in 106, he left the throne to his 100-day-old son Liu Long, and Deng Sui became the acting sovereign. Lui Long soon died and was replaced with another child; Dowager Empress Deng remained regent. Only 26 when she first attained sovereignty, she often turned to Ban Zhao for advice. Ban Zhao apparently had considerable influence with the Empress Dowager; when there was a problem at court, a contemporary wrote, “At a word from mother Ban the whole family resigned" [3]. When the Empress died in 120, she was in mourning for Ban Zhao, who had predeceased her.

Ban Zhao crater on Venus is named after her.


After Zhao’s death, her daughter-in-law collected her written work in three volumes, "The Collected Works of Dagu,” which according to a biography of her written in the fifth century, included "Narrative Poems, Commemorative Writings, Inscriptions, Eulogies, Argumentations, Commentaries, Elegies, Essays, Treatises, Expositions, Memorials, and Final Instructions, in all (enough to fill) 16 books" [4]. Apparently, Zhao also commented on an earlier work, Lienu zhuan (Lives of eminent women, 79-8 B.C.E.). Most of “The Collected Works of Dagu” has been lost. The extant works which were clearly authored by Ban Zhao include one long poem, Dongzheng fu (Traveling Eastward); fragments of three short poems including “Ode to the Sparrow;” two memorials, “Petition to Queen Deng” and “Petition to Find a Substitute for My Brother Ban Chao” (letters to the throne); and Nujie (Precepts for my daughters), a manual of instructions for her daughters who were about to be married.

"Dongzheng fu" (Traveling Eastward)

Ban Zhao's earliest extant work is the poem "Dongzheng fu" (Traveling Eastward), written when she was nearly 50 years old. Just after her brother Ban Gu had died in prison, she accompanied her son, Cao Gu, to his minor post as magistrate of Chenliu County. Ban Gu’s twin, Ban Chao, was on the frontier, and she did not know if she would ever return to the capital. She recorded her impressions of the journey, and struggled to overcome her sadness by reflecting on Confucian teachings:

It is the seventh year of Yung-ch'u;
I follow my son in his journey eastward.
It is an auspicious day in Spring's first moon;
We choose this good hour, and are about to start.
Now I arise to my feet and ascend my carriage.
At eventide we lodge at Yen-shih:
Already we leave the old and start for the new.
I am uneasy in mind, and sad at heart.
Dawn's first light comes, and yet I sleep not;
My heart hesitates as though it would fail me.
I pour out a cup of wine to relax my thoughts.
Suppressing my feelings, I sigh and blame myself:
I shall not need to dwell in nests, nor (eat) worms from dead trees.
Then how can I not encourage myself to press forward?
And further, am I different from other people?
Let me but hear heaven's command and go its way.
In fact genuine virtue cannot die;
Though the body decay, the name lives on… .
I know that man's nature and destiny rests with Heaven,
But by effort we can go forward and draw near to love.
Stretched, head uplifted, we tread onward to the vision…. [5]

Han Shu

The Han Shu was written over a period of 30 to 40 years, by four authors: Ban Zhao’s father, Ban Biao; her brother Ban Gu with some assistance from Ban Chao; and Ban Zhao, who completed and edited the work. Chinese historians and scholars have debated the extent of Zhao’s contribution for 1,900 years. From internal evidence, the translator Nancy Lee Swann believes that Zhao is responsible for about one-fourth of the whole[6]

It is known that Ban Zhao completed the section on astronomy and the "Eight Tables,” a compilation of names essential to the larger work, including a complete list of the careers and lines of succession of aristocrats and high officials of the Western Han Dynasty and of those who rendered it meritorious service. As far as historians can verify them, the facts and lineages are accurate. The tables provide a useful index and supplement to the rest of the Han Shu. One of the tables, called “Ancient and Contemporary Figures,” lists several hundred historical notables, separated into nine classes. It does not include the names of any "contemporaries," perhaps Ban Zhao found it politically risky to classify the important figures of her time.


During the peirod after Ban Zhao’s death, she was best known for her contributions to Han Shu, her scholarly writing, and her poetry. In the ninth century, however, she became identified with Nujie, an instructional manual for Confucian wives, ostensibly written for her own daughters, but intended for a much larger audience. The book offered practical advice on how a woman should conduct herself in the home of her husband’s family. Ban Zhao generally advised women to be submissive, but advocated education for women. The book came to be used in China as an argument for why women should accept their lowly status in Chinese society. It remains an eloquent exposition of the situation of women in Confucian China.

-I, the unworthy writer, am unsophisticated, unenlightened, and by nature unintelligent, but I am fortunate both to have received not a little favor from my scholarly Father, and to have had a cultured mother and instructresses upon whom to rely for a literary education as well as for training in good manners. More than forty years have passed since at the age of fourteen I took up the dustpan and the broom in the Cao family [the family into which she married]. During this time with trembling heart I feared constantly that I might disgrace my parents, and that I might multiply difficulties for both the women and the men of my husband's family. Day and night I was distressed in heart, but I labored without confessing weariness. Now and hereafter, however, I know how to escape from such fears.

… now that he [my son] is a man and able to plan his own life, I need not again have concern for him. But I do grieve that you, my daughters, just now at the age for marriage, have not at this time had gradual training and advice; that you still have not learned the proper customs for married women. l fear that by failure in good manners in other families you will humiliate both your ancestors and your clan. I am now seriously ill, life is uncertain. As I have thought of you all in so untrained a state, I have been uneasy many a time for you. At hours of leisure I have composed… these instructions under the title, "Lessons for Women." In order that you may have something wherewith to benefit your persons, I wish every one of you, my daughters each to write out a copy for yourself.

Succeed in pleasing the one man
And you are forever settled.
Fail in pleasing the one man
And you are forever finished.

-As Yin and Yang are not of the same nature, so man and woman have different characteristics. The distintive quality of the Yang is rigidity; the function of the Yin is yielding. Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness. Hence there arose the common saying: "A man though born like a wolf may, it is feared, become a weak monstrosity; a woman though born like a mouse may, it is feared, become a tiger."

-A woman ought to have four qualifications: (1) womanly virtue; (2) womanly words; (3) womanly bearing; and (4) womanly work. Now what is called womanly virtue need not be brilliant ability, exceptionally different from others. Womanly words need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation. Womanly appearance requires neither a pretty nor a perfect face and form. Womanly work need not be work done more skillfully than that of others.

To guard carefully her chastity; to control circumspectly her behavior; in every motion to exhibit modesty; and to model each act on the best usage, this is womanly virtue.

To choose her words with care; to avoid vulgar language; to speak at appropriate times; and nor to weary others with much conversation, may be called the characteristics of womanly words.
To wash and scrub filth away; to keep clothes and ornaments fresh and clean; to wash the head and bathe the body regularly, and to keep the person free from disgraceful filth, may be called the characteristics of womanly bearing.
With whole-hearted devotion to sew and to weave; to love not gossip and silly laughter; in cleanliness and order to prepare the wine and food for serving guests, may be called the characteristics of womanly work.
These four qualifications characterize the greatest virtue of a woman. No woman can afford to be without them. In fact they are very easy to possess if a woman only treasure them in her heart. The ancients had a saying: "Is love afar off? If I desire love, then love is at hand!" So can it be said of these qualifications.

-Now for self-culture nothing equals respect for others. To counteract firmness nothing equals compliance. Consequently it can be said that the Way of respect and acquiescence is woman's most important principle of conduct. So respect may be defined as nothing other than holding on to that which is permanent; and acquiescence nothing other than being liberal and generous. Those who are steadfast in devotion know that they should stay in their proper places; those who are liberal and generous esteem others, and honor and serve them. [7]

-I have noticed that the gentlemen of today understand only that a wife must be governed and that one's dignity must be preserved, and for this reason they instruct their sons and test their reading ability. But they completely ignore the fact that a husband and master must be served and ritual duties must be performed.

Does not instructing only the sons and not the daughters betray a total ignorance of the different norms governing the one and the other? According to the Rites, children should be taught to read and write when they are eight years old, and at fifteen they should be sent to school. Cannot we simply make this the general rule? [8]


  1. Wilt Idema and Beata Grant, The red brush: writing women of imperial China. (Harvard East Asian monographs No. 231). (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004), 34)
  2. A Historian and Product of Her Time, "Women in History," March 28,2007. Retrieved September 16, 2007.
  3. Nancy Lee Swann. Pan Chao: foremost woman scholar of China (Michigan classics in Chinese studies, No. 5). (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2001), 236.
  4. Ibid., 41
  5. Ibid., "Dongzheng fu" (Traveling Eastward)
  6. Ibid., 65
  7. Ibid.
  8. Idema and Grant, 37-38

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goldin, Paul Rakita. After Confucius: studies in early Chinese philosophy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. ISBN 0824828429
  • Gulik, Robert Hans van. Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from Ca. 1500 B.C.E. Till 1644 A.D.. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974. ISBN 978-9004039179
  • Idema, Wilt and Beata Grant. The red brush: writing women of imperial China. (Harvard East Asian monographs; 231). Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004. ISBN 067401393X
  • Liu, Xiang, and Albert R. O'Hara. The Position of Woman in Early China According to the Lieh Nü Chuan, "The Biographies of Eminent Chinese Women". Westport, Conn: Hyperion Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0830501120
  • Pan, Ku. Courtier and commoner in ancient China; selections from the History of the former Han. Translated by Burton Watson. New York, Columbia University Press, 1974. ISBN 0231037651
  • Swann, Nancy Lee. Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China. Michigan classics in Chinese studies, No. 5. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2001. ISBN 978-0892641505
  • Tao, Jie, Bijun Zheng, and Shirley L. Mow. Holding Up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004. ISBN 978-1558614659


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