A Woman to Know: Ban Zhao

I, the unworthy writer, am unsophisticated, unenlightened, and by nature unintelligent. — Ban Zhao

I, the unworthy writer, am unsophisticated, unenlightened, and by nature unintelligent. — Ban Zhao

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In first century China, Ban Zhao worked as a historian, writer, mathematician, astronomer and teacher — all unusual occupations for a woman at the time. But as the sister of an imperial historian, Ban Zhao got away with a lot. She styled herself as an educator of women and girls, winning approval from higher-ups, and her Confucian guides for female readers pushed women to better serve their husbands, brothers and other “superior” male figures. Her first book, “Lessons for Women,” was a bestseller at the time. Soon, a copy appeared in every household.

But reading her book today — not so fun. She writes that women could benefit from an education (radical suggestion for the time) but then on the next page writes that ladies are beautiful only for gentleness and humility, and a good woman knows to “put herself last.” The book advises widows to remain forever single, lest a second marriage “shame” the memory of their dead husbands (but, of course, husbands are allowed to marry as many times as they like, per Ban Zhao’s own writing). When a baby girl was born, Ban Zhao recommended the family place the infant not in her own crib but on the floor beneath the bed, “to plainly indicate that she is lowly and weak, and should regard it as her primary duty to humble herself before others.”

But in her time, Ban Zhao took on a monumental task that didn’t feel so humble. She wrote a comprehensive history of the Han dynasty, and her book would act as a template for future Chinese historians. Her work endeared her to the Empress Deng, then a formidable figure in South Asian politics, and the ruler took Ban Zhao on as a lady-in-waiting. The Empress charged Ban Zhao with updating the imperial library. At the time of her death, she was supervising a massive renovation, transferring the archived writings from fragile bamboo to sturdier silk pages.

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