_Nu-jie,_ translated as _Lessons for Women,_ by Ban Zhao is a famous Chinese literacy work about women, her virtues and her roles. Ban Zhao was the first known female Chinese historian and poet. She was a renowned scholar under the Han dynasty and also a major contributor to the creation of one of the best-known history book ever written called _Han Shu,_ which is translated to _Book of Han.
The Han dynasty is considered the most important time in the grand history of China. Many scholars have regarded the Han dynasty’s reign as the “Golden Age of Chinese history” but not only that, the Chinese empire under the Han dynasty rose to the forefront of the world along side with the Romans, Parthians and Khushans as the four great societies in ancient time. It was a time of transitioning in China as there were constant developments in many social and cultural departments such as literature, science, art and industry. The Han dynasty also followed the ideals of Confucianism, which were reflected through politics as the government not only appointed talented men but also already capable men who were determined to improve. Confucianism quickly became the official ideology of the great nation.
The Han dynasty’s reign also marked the transformation of China’s literacy and intellectual history. Confucianism had already had a big impact on the Chinese culture and on the lives of the Chinese as well. Its’ principles also benefited the intellectuals under the Han’s reign. The ancient Chinese had invented paper and also learned to how devise the lunar calendar. Literature and philosophies also reached new heights as education was being developed which was made possible by the evolution of a common language. It was also during this time that Ban Zhao’s father, Ban Biao, started his work on the book _Han Shu_ as he was determined to record the history of this time period.
Ban Zhao was born in 45 C.E. and she was a daughter in an elite family, who had connections to the imperial court, under the Han dynasty. She was educated and often tutored by her own mother. By the mere age of 14, Ban Zhao had married Cao Shou who was also from her town of birth. However, Cao Shou’s death in later years left Ban Zhao with the responsibilities of raising children on her own. She then devoted her life to literacy which led to the formation of the tradition of historical writings in China. Ban Zhao left her hometown for the capital with her mother and her brother, Ban Gu, as he became the designated historian and editor of _Han Shu_. Many scholars believe that Ban Zhao had already assisted her brother and contributed her efforts to the work of _Han Shu_ at that time. Due to the devotion in her own work and the Chinese tradition, Ban Zhao never remarried. However, that led to the significant rise in her career as a historian and a writer when her most famous work, _Lessons for Women_, symbolized her effort of applying the principles of Confucianism to the lives of women.
_Lessons for Women_ was originally Ban Zhao’s teachings for her daughters on how to be a proper women. She intended the book to serve not only as lessons but also as a guideline for her daughters. She wanted them to manage themselves accordingly and behave the way a proper woman would. Be that as it may, the book identified itself with a much larger audience as it later became the referenced instruction manual for women who were striving for the ideals of Confucianism and who were to be a wife. _Lessons for Women_ emphasized the importance of the women way of life.
“Let a woman modestly yield to others; let her respect others; let her put others first, her last… Let a woman retire late to bed, but rise early to duties; let her not dread tasks by day or by night… Let a woman be correct in manner and upright in character in order to serve her husband; let her love not gossip and silly laughter; let her cleanse and purify and arrange in order the wine and the food for the offerings to the ancestors.” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.).
_Lessons for Women_ also talked about the qualities of a proper woman, the qualifications of becoming one and advised women on their conducts in the home of the husband or the husband’s family. According to Ban Zhao, “a woman ought to have four qualifications: 1. Womanly virtue; 2. Womanly words; 3. Womanly bearing, and 4. Womanly work.” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.).
Ban Zhao also emphasized the importance of the roles husband and wife in the family. She said that the way of husband and wife is “intimately connected with Yin and Yang” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.) . She then explained that if either of the roles were to prove unworthy of one another, “then the proper relationship between men and women and the natural order of things are neglected and destroyed.” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.) Because of Ban Zhao’s strong beliefs in Confucianism and its principles, she often talked about how women must try to improve themselves, especially intellectually.
Ban Zhao encouraged the principle of wanting to educate oneself as she urged that women should improve themselves through education. She indicated that literacy was important for both the wife and the husband in order to accomplish their roles in the family effectively. The book also put emphasis on the importance of women behaving as submissive which symbolized the social roles of women in a Confucian society. Confucius himself said little about women which reflected the limited importance of women in ancient Chinese culture and society. But it was Confucianism’s principles that proved to be one of the driving forces that led to the belief that women could get educated, and eventually better themselves.
As stated prevously, Ban Zhao originally intended _Lessons of Women_ as lessons for her daughters. Because of that, the book focused on how young women should behave before, during and after marriage. Ban Zhao talked about how young girls should keep her virtues, follow the customs and respect the values in order to become a proper woman. She further expanded her definition of the way women should live their lives. When Ban Zhao mentioned, “Let a woman modestly yield to others…” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.), she also added that if a woman was to follow all those morals, she may humble herself before others.
Right after that, “Let a woman retire late to bed, but rise early to duties…” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.) talked about how a woman would become industrious if she follows all these practices. And finally, “Let a woman be correct in manner and upright in character…” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.) explained the principles of ancestral worshiping. Ban Zhao then demanded equality in education; she said that if a relationship in marriage is to exist in harmony, the relationship between wife and husband should be proper and they should know their places so they can function effectively. In order to achieve this, Ban Zhao was asking questions about why women were not getting the same education that the men were able to, “Yet only to teach men and not teach women – is that not ignoring the essential relation between them?… Only why should it not be that girls’ education as well as boys’…” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.).
Ban Zhao then added further explanations about her defined women qualifications. For womanly virtue, a woman has to “guard her chastity carefully… and to model each act on the best usage” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.). According to Ban Zhao, a woman does not have to have brilliant and exceptional compared to others to achieve womanly virtue, it is about the ways a woman takes care herself and how she conducts her actions that symbolize her virtues. For womanly words, a woman has to “choose her words with care; to avoid vulgar language… and nor to wear others with much conversation” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.). Ban Zhao thought that a woman does not have to engage in conversations all the time, should not use vulgar language and must choose an appropriate response to represent herself. For womanly bearing, a woman has to “…keep clothes and ornaments fresh and clean; and to keep the person free from disgraceful filth.” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.).
Ban Zhao was saying that a woman does not have to be pretty nor does not need a perfect face to present herself, it is about the ways how she keeps her clothes appropriate in terms of appearance and how she takes care herself to achieve womanly bearing. Finally, womanly work means “whole-hearted devotion…, to love not gossip or silly laughter; in cleanliness and order to prepare for the serving guests…” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.). Ban Zhao said that to achieve womanly work, a woman does not need to be skillfully better than everyone else but to learn her responsibilities and do them effectively. These four qualifications are what would make a proper woman, according to Ban Zhao. However being a woman, proper or not, did not hold a high regards in the culture of ancient China.
The primary aspect of a woman’s life in ancient China was to be a wife and continue the bloodline of the husband. They were viewed as “objects” which its purpose is to produce offspring, and in such a patriarchal culture male offspring was always preferred. A woman was expected to stick by her husband and conduct her actions in manners that would be deemed as appropriate by her husband or his family. Anything else would cause disharmony and thus brought embarrassment to not only herself but also to both families as well. Ban Zhao urged women to get an education so they can serve their families, especially their husband, more efficiently and in a better manner overall.
According to Ban Zhao, “Let a woman not act contrary to the wishes and the opinions of parents-in-law about right and wrong; let her not dispute with them what is straight and what is crooked. Such docility…called obedience.” (Ban Zhao, ca. 80-106 C.E.).
_Lesson for Women_ served as a guideline for women to learn the proper ways of being a woman in order to better themselves and their status in the social rankings. It, however, also emphasized the importance of women knowing their roles and duties in the family well and because of that, family must always be their priority which they must always give implicit obedience to. If they were to follow Ban Zhao’s idealized practices, they would not bring embarrassment nor disgrace to the families. This book presented practices that were idealized by an educated ancient Chinese woman. Despite the correct descriptions of the situation many women faced during ancient China, _Lessons for Women_ did not mention the fact that not many women had the opportunities to earn an education like Ban Zhao had and their chances in life were very limited compared to Ban Zhao.
Most of the women were not born in a privileged or prestigious family like Ban Zhao’s and the Confucian culture, practiced by the Han dynasty, forced women into the little and limited roles. According to the book, Ban Zhao wanted women to educate and better themselves for both their social ranking and their family matters. However, Ban Zhao also acknowledged their culture at the time and often urged women to be submissive to both the husband and his family. She also noted that the opinions of the women and what they thought was right or wrong may differ from their husband’s but they must sacrifice their personal opinions and not cause disharmony.
After analyzing the book, I have learned that there were certain ways that women could have improved themselves intellectually speaking but because of their culture, it did not improve their social rankings nor had any great influence on the society at the time. It also made me realize that women have had to come a long way to become respectable in the society. The book also emphasized the patriarchal society that ancient China and one can see the lasting impact it has had on the culture of China even to today’s day and age. China have always favored its sons more than its daughters and it has been this way since the ancient time of the Han dynasty. It was not until 2013 when the son-preferred tradition began to gradually decline as the great gender imbalance in China started to balance out.
One of the reason that the younger generations have attributed to the decline in the “gender-cide” is the opportunities at higher level education. As Ban Zhao had stated in _Lessons for Women,_ education is an important, if not the most important, factor for women to improve themselves. _Lessons for Women_ served as a great guideline for women who wanted to be a proper woman and eventually improve themselves as human beings. Ban Zhao talked about what a young girl needed to do and how she should behave to be considered as a woman. However, it should also be mentioned that Ban Zhao was born in a prestigious family during the Han dynasty and whose ties were connected with high ranking officials. Her family was wealthy enough to afford her an education which was a luxury that not many Chinese could have afforded at the time, let alone the Chinese women. Be that as it may, _Lessons for Women_ served its intended purpose and more as many women initiated the first steps of improving their statuses in both their household and their society.
Lee, Yuen T. (n.d.). Ban Zhao: Scholar of Han Dynasty China. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/9.1/lee.html
Hasall, P. (Ed.). (n.d.). Ban Zhao: Lessons for a Woman. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/banzhao.html
Nancy Lee Swann, trans., Pan Chao: Foremost Women Scholar of China (New York: Century, 1932), 82-90.
Strayer, R. (2013). Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources (2nd ed.). Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Larson, C. (2014, July 31). In China, More Girls Are on the Way. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-07-31/chinas-girl-births-ratio-improves-as-coun try-gets-more-educated
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