Ban Zhao was the first known Chinese woman historian and China’s best known female scholar.
Born in Shaanxi province, Ban Zhao already had a strong female role model in the form of her great aunt, Consort Ban, who had famously saved herself from persecution by using her education and gift for reasoning. Zhao’s father, Ban Biao, and her brother, Ban Gu were also well known historians – so the importance of education was instilled from a young age.
Like many women of this era, Ban Zhao married very young, at fourteen. This meant that she was still young when her husband died, leaving her a widow with two children. Rather than re-marry, Ban Zhao chose to devote the rest of her life to scholarly pursuits.
She loved history and poetry, but also took an interest in astronomy and mathematics. When her brother, Ban Gu, was executed for political reasons in 92, he left an unfinished book on the history of the Western Han, which Ban Zhao chose to complete. She finished the work, known as The Book of Han and added her own touches – a treatise on astronomy, as well as a genealogy of the emperor’s mother.
Ban Zhao’s next great work was Lessons for Women, a guide for women’s conduct heavily influenced by Confucian morality. While the book urged women to be obedient and subservient to their husbands and fathers, it also advocated education for women and was dedicated to the daughters of the Ban family. Lessons for Women remained popular in China for centuries.
The book quickly gained the attention of the Emperor, who requested that Ban Zhao be installed as the royal librarian, and that she teach his concubines and chief wife Empress Deng Sui – who was to become a lifelong friend.
Ban Zhao quickly became known as the gifted one by the women at court, and Deng Sui had such respect for her that she made her a Lady-in-waiting – a high status position.
Ban Zhao’s rise continued as her sons were given positions as court officials. Deng Sui often asked for Ban Zhou’s advice in political matters, particularly when the Empress became regent on behalf of her infant son.
It seems that Ban Zhou’s only aspiration for herself was scholarship. She threw herself into her role as a royal librarian, managing the library assistants who worked to copy out manuscripts onto bamboo, silk and paper (which was a recent invention). In addition, Ban Zhou worked on expanding and editing Biographies of Eminent Women by Liu Xiang.
Ban Zhao lived to a great age, dying around 116 CE. When the Empress Dowager Deng Sui heard about her friend’s death, she dressed all in white as a symbol of mourning.
After her death, Ban Zhao’s daughter-in-law, gathered her works in the three-volume Collected Works of Ban Zhao, most of which is unfortunately now lost.
The Ban Zhao crater on Venus is named after her.
Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century – Barbara Bennet Peterson
“Banzhao” by http://www.ancestryimages.com/proddetail.php?prod=g6393 – Mémoires concernant l’histoire, les sciences, les arts, les mœurs, les usages, etc., des Chinois, par les missionaires de Pé-kin.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
“Ming Dynasty wood carving books in Tian Yi Chamber colllection” by Gisling – Own work.
Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons