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Bān Zhāo

The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography
Bret HinschBret HINSCH

Bān Zhāo 班昭 45–116 ce—First female scholar, educator, and author Alternate names: given name: Jī 姬; style name: Huìbān 惠班; title: Dàjiā 大家; married name: Cáo Dájiā 曹大家 

Bān Zhāo


Ban Zhao has traditionally been revered as China’s foremost female scholar and thinker. In addition to completing work on the first dynastic history, History of the Former Han, she is best known as the author of Admonitions for Women, the most influential Chinese text on female propriety. In the modern era, the attitude toward Ban Zhao and her canon of female ethics has been very critical, even hostile. Modernizers, revolutionaries, and feminists have dismissed her views as retrograde. More recent scholarship has tried to account for some of the seemingly misogynistic content of Admonitions for Women by viewing it through the gender relations of its era.


Ban Zhao was the product of an unusually erudite family that enjoyed exalted ancestry. Stimulated by this intellectual atmosphere, she took up the family tradition of learning and immersed herself in ancient texts. Her peers recognized her erudition and accomplishments, and she was sought out to serve as a teacher for ladies at court. She also publicly distinguished herself by mastering composition and rhetoric.

Who Was Ban Zhao?

Her scholar brother Bān Gù 班固‎ (32–92 ce) labored on the massive History of the Former Han ([Qián] Hànshū [前] 汉书‎), a groundbreaking history of the Former (Western) Han 前(西)汉‎ dynasty (206 bce–9 ce), a task begun by their father. Gu died before completing this massive work, however, and Ban Zhao wrote some of the final portions and finalized the editing. As a result, she had a hand in the creation of the first dynastic history, an historic publication imitated numerous times that had a deep impact on Chinese historiography and politics.

Today Ban Zhao may best be remembered primarily for her book Admonitions for Women (Nǚjiè 女诫‎). Although not a lengthy work, it exerted enormous influence on standard Chinese views of ideal gender relations and female virtue throughout imperial history. Ban Zhao wrote that women were to behave modestly and sacrifice their own interests for those of husbands and in-laws. Although these beliefs earned her acclaim as a wise moral paragon in the imperial era, in recent years reformers and feminists criticized and blamed her beliefs for reducing women’s autonomy and status. Late Qīng 清‎ (1644–1911/1912) and twentieth-century debates about gender relations were largely discussions about the value of Ban Zhao’s ideas and how they might be replaced (Xia 2004). Other critics now see the text as a pragmatic strategy that may have helped women thrive in the patriarchal family environment of the time (Chen 1996).

The influence of Ban Zhao’s writings on the development of Chinese gender discourse cannot be overestimated. None of her contemporaries wielded as much impact on traditional views of ideal female behavior. Ban’s writings became so important because she filled a major lacuna in early moral discourse. The ancient classics and moral philosophers of the Eastern Zhōu 周‎ dynasty (720–221 bce) had been largely silent about the particular duties and virtues of women. By applying the general principles of Confucian ethics to female concerns, Ban Zhao provided generations of readers with a clear statement on how women ought to pursue virtue. Subsequent works about female ethics from every era of imperial history were heavily indebted to her views. As female education increased over time, the number of women directly exposed to Ban’s ethical framework thus increased. Her influence took a very different form in the early twentieth century, when reformers and revolutionaries directly rejected her system of female ethics, creating new gender norms that could replace Ban’s standards. Even those whose ideas differed widely from hers were challenged to create a similarly clear and compelling vision of gender relations to replace them.


The surname Ban was thought to have originated in the state of Chǔ 楚‎, and Ban Zhao’s family believed that they had roots in what was then considered south China. During the chaos accompanying the breakdown of the Zhou dynasty, the destruction of Chu, and unification of China by Qín 秦‎, the Ban moved north. The breakdown of the Zhou feudal order permitted new possibilities for the talented and ambitious to rise in station, and the Ban family benefited from this unprecedented social mobility. One savvy ancestor made a fortune raising livestock, marking the beginning of the family’s rise.

Eventually the Ban developed a tradition of scholarship, and during the final years of the Former Han era, Ban Zhao’s great-great grandfather Bān Zhì 班穉‎ served in a local post. In the age before standardized examinations, the ranks of the bureaucracy were usually filled by the sons and relations of serving officials. This custom allowed Zhi’s talented son Bān Kuàng 班況‎ to secure a post in the central government. He and his family moved to the capital at Chang’an, present-day Xi’an, where he assumed a military command.

Kuang’s daughter also was honored by being selected to enter the palace as a consort of Emperor Chéng 成‎. She was perhaps the ancestor whose example exerted the most influence on Ban Zhao, as her life served as an admonitory tale on the dangers facing a talented woman. As her personal name was not recorded, Kuang’s daughter is known to posterity by her court title Bān Jiéyú 班婕妤‎. Coming from an educated family, she showed a talent for poetry and composed odes ( 赋‎) that gained critical acclaim. The emperor enjoyed the company of this unusually accomplished courtesan, and for a time they were extremely close.

Ban Jieyu became famous for an incident in which Emperor Cheng invited her to ride with him in his sedan chair. Ban Jieyu understood, however, that for a woman to ride together with the monarch would have violated ritual norms in a highly visible manner. She thus prudently demurred, saying that only during times of dynastic decline was it common for favored women to ride together with the ruler. Her gentle reprimand to the emperor, reminding him of the importance of propriety and the custom of keeping women at a discreet distance from the center of power, earned her a reputation for wisdom and virtue (Swann 2001, 26).

In later times this vignette often was used to exemplify proper female humility. Nevertheless, Ban Jieyu may have been motivated by pragmatic concerns rather than morality. Accepting such an extravagant imperial favor would doubtless have earned the ire of jealous ladies in the palace, who could be expected to exact revenge should the ruler’s attentions wane. Indeed, as Ban Jieyu aged, the emperor’s eye turned elsewhere, so she retired to the palace of the empress dowager where she was safe from the vengeance of any rivals. Whatever her true motivations for declining to ride together with the emperor, Ban Jieyu gained lasting fame for wisdom by advocating female humility, a precedent that Ban Zhao later would elaborate into an explicit theory of female virtue.

All three of Ban Jieyu’s brothers distinguished themselves as accomplished scholars and served in official posts, further bolstering Ban Zhao’s intellectual heritage. Most importantly, Bān Yóu 班斿‎ worked on Liú Xiàng’s 刘向‎ (79–8 bce) famous editorial project at the imperial library, helping to collate standard editions of important books. His selection for such a difficult and important task attests to the depth of his learning. Ban Kuang’s youngest son, Bān Zhì 班稚‎, initially enjoyed good relations with the Wáng 王‎ clique, the increasingly powerful consort kin who dominated the government during the twilight of the dynasty. But, as he did not support the usurpation of the Former Han by the scholar Wáng Mǎng’s 王莽‎ (45 bce–23 bce) short-lived Xīn 新‎ dynasty (9–23 ce), Ban Zhi quietly retired from public life.


Zhao’s father was Ban Zhi’s son Bān Biāo 班彪‎ (3–54 ce). In his youth, Biao was close to his cousin Bān Sì 班嗣‎, who was known for his expertise in Daoism (Taoism). Nevertheless, Biao preferred the Confucian path, and his own steadfast adherence to the moral classics had a profound impact on his daughter’s intellectual development. Ban Si possessed a library containing many rare books, some of which had been presented to his father by Emperor Cheng, and Ban Biao’s access to this rare private library facilitated his own studies.

During the uprisings and civil wars accompanying the collapse of the Xin dynasty, Biao served as an advisor to a military leader fighting for the man who would eventually triumph and assume the throne as Emperor Guāngwǔ 光武‎. After the restoration of the Han dynasty in 25 ce, the young Ban Biao was rewarded for his family’s loyalty to the Han dynasty with an official position. Although he served in a number of posts, Biao lacked passion for public life and resigned from each position after a short time.

Ban Biao preferred scholarship and writing to bureaucracy. Because he was unwilling to accept lucrative employment, the family declined financially. By the time Ban Biao passed away at the age of fifty-two, however, he had amassed a considerable oeuvre in a range of genres that encompassed poetry, historical records, memorials, and treatises. Most importantly, he began work on a history of the Former Han dynasty in imitation of the style and format used by Sīmǎ Qiān 司马迁‎ (c. 145–86 bce) in his pioneering Records of the Grand Historian (Shǐjì 史记‎). The previous work covered events just up to the reign of Emperor Wǔ 武‎ (157–87 bce) in the middle of the Former Han. Ban Biao initially conceived his own work merely as a continuation of Sima Qian’s magnum opus, and so it was initially humbly titled Later Biographies or Latter Commentaries (Hòuzhuǎn 后传‎).

Ban Biao was blessed with three unusually talented progeny. Besides his famous daughter Zhao, he had two successful twin sons, Bān Chāo 班超‎ (32–102 ce) and Bān Gù 班固‎ (32–92 ce). Their lives and accomplishments had an undeniable impact on their sister. Ban Chao entered military service and was sent to Central Asia to subdue the region and prevent foreign invaders from entering China from the west. He worked his way up the ranks, beginning as a minor officer and eventually being promoted to general. He dedicated his life to pacifying and administering this troublesome area. Chao served in Central Asia for more than thirty years, returning home only when old age and sickness had made it impossible for him to continue.

Ban Gu took after his father and devoted himself to scholarship and writing. He read voraciously and imbibed ideas from a wide range of sources. Gu was highly skilled at poetic composition and became something of a court poet. He offered poems commemorating events in the ruler’s life and lauded the lifestyle of the court in extravagant language. During his own lifetime he was famous for his “Rhapsody on the Two Capitals” (“Liǎng dù fù” 两都赋‎).

Ban Gu also participated in serious academic pursuits. He wrote an account of a major debate over orthodox interpretations of the classics, Discussions at the White Tiger Hall (Báihǔ tōng 白虎通‎ or Báihǔtōng délún 白虎通德论‎). A similar commitment to the ideals expressed in the ancient Confucian classics comes through in his sister’s writings. Most importantly, Ban Gu continued with his father’s historical researches, developing Ban Biao’s relatively modest continuation of Sima Qian’s history into a comprehensive and independent account of the Former Han dynasty known as the History of the Former Han. Although primarily a scholar, Ban Gu foolishly became embroiled in court intrigue and was sent to prison, where he died.


Ban Zhao had the style name Huìbān 惠班‎ and the given name Jī 姬‎. Later in life, in recognition of her learning, the emperor granted her the title Dàjiā 大家‎. She married Cáo Shìshū 曹世叔‎ and is also known to posterity by her married name Cáo Dájiā 曹大家‎. Little is known about her husband, except that he also came from Fufeng, the same district as the Ban family. This would have been a common arrangement, as local gentry families often intermarried. He died fairly young before he had a chance to distinguish himself. Zhao is known to have had two daughters. Of her other children, two sons, Cáo Gǔ 曹谷‎ served as a provincial official, and Cáo Chéng 曹成‎ was enfeoffed as a marquis (i.e, he was given land in exchange for a vow of service).

It is significant that in an age when a widow commonly sought a new husband, and remarriage generally carried no stigma, Ban Zhao preferred to maintain her widowhood. As she seems to have been widowed at a fairly young age, this was a major sacrifice. Her decision to remain chaste provides an insight into her unusually strict values of female propriety, showing, perhaps, that she considered loyalty to her husband and his family more important than her own desires. At the end of the Former Han dynasty, the scholar Liu Xiang had lauded widow chastity in his Biographies of Women (Liènǚ zhuàn 列女传‎). Although this book was well received, its initial impact was minimal. It appears that Ban Zhao was familiar with Liu Xiang’s exacting view of female ethics and thus was determined to adhere to these high standards in her own life. Her unusually stringent values were to permeate her own writings on women’s virtue.

Her scholarly father, Ban Biao, had given his daughter a comprehensive education rare for women at the time. As a result, Zhao wrote with fluency and displayed an easy familiarity with history, poetry, and the classics. This rare exemplar of female erudition came to the emperor’s attention, and she was repeatedly summoned to court to teach the palace ladies. As a woman, Ban Zhao would have had no problem entering the women’s quarters of the palace, unlike a male teacher, making her a valuable addition to the court. She instructed the ladies in poetry, history, and several other types of literature. Despite Zhao’s lower position, these high-ranking ladies addressed her in respectful terms due to her role as teacher, a mark of considerable esteem in this status-conscious society.

The ruler also valued her skill at poetic composition. Poetry was routinely used at court to commemorate important events and elevate the ruler’s prestige by nurturing an imageof opulence and refinement. Althoughher poems are today considered minor works, at the time they would have been read with interest and enjoyment, and their composition was considered a significant task with political overtones. Moreover, she was given free access to the imperial library, China’s premier center of scholarship, where she could interact freely with the greatest minds of the age. A woman’s acceptance into this elite intellectual circle was extremely unusual, a sure measure of her erudition.

With the death of Emperor Hé 和‎, his wife the Empress Dèng 邓‎ became regent in 106 ce, managing the government machinery on behalf of her immature sons, first the Emperor Shāng 殇‎, and, after his untimely death, the young Emperor Ān 安‎. This regency presented Ban Zhao with an opportunity to translate her connections in the women’s quarters into real power. A female scholar was a rarity, and as a woman she could interact more informally with the empress dowager and provide her with guidance and intelligence. Ban Zhao was not shy in offering her opinions on affairs of state, and the dowager clearly valued this learned advice.

One example of Ban Zhao’s advice to the dowager has survived in detail. After the death of the dowager’s mother, her brother General Dèng Zhì 邓骘‎ sent in a request to retire from office. This appeal placed the dowager in a quandary. At the time, it was common for elite men to resign from office upon the death of a parent and dedicate themselves to mourning for up to three years. Those scrupulous about ritual matters saw this elaborate mourning as a moral duty. But it was also an opportunity to present oneself to the world as a filial son, a model social role at the time, thereby earning acclaim and status. Because Empress Dowager Deng was a woman, there were many aspects of government that she could not handle herself. She relied upon male family members to control key aspects of the state, such as the army. So allowing Deng Zhi to retire would reduce her own power.

Faced with this dilemma, Empress Dowager Deng sought her teacher’s advice. Ban Zhao presented her reply in an official memorial. Given Ban Zhao’s commitment to Confucian propriety, there could be no question that she would value filial piety over realpolitik. She counseled the dowager to allow her brother to retire so that he could undertake proper mourning. To do otherwise would have tainted the upper reaches of the government with charges of immorality. Empress Deng agreed with Ban Zhao’s arguments, and the general was allowed to retire for the length of the mourning period.

Although Ban Zhao offered advice on other matters as well, most counsels would have been conducted privately, so it is unclear exactly what other recommendations Ban Zhao gave to the dowager. Given her immersion in the classics and a personal adherence to high standards of propriety, however, Zhao doubtless counseled the regent to reign according to Confucian standards of righteousness and benevolence.

Unlike the latter part of the Later (Eastern) Han 后(东)汉‎ dynasty (27–220 ce), when regents were mostly brutal and rapacious, this was a time of relatively good government. Empress Dowager Deng was a competent administrator who handled a number of wars and natural disasters adroitly. She also displayed a concern for justice, trying to ensure that criminal cases were decided fairly. The dowager clearly appreciated Ban Zhao’s input in the many challenges she faced. To express her gratitude, she enfeoffed Zhao’s son Cao Cheng as a marquis, and he served as a senior minister at the court of the feudal king of Qí 齐‎. Although it never will be certain exactly what role Ban Zhao may have played in these administrative successes, at the very least her close association with this conscientious and virtuous regent was a mark of honor.

Ban Zhao lived to an advanced age, and enjoyed a respected place at court until the end. Upon her passing, the Empress Dowager herself went into mourning, a sign of unusual veneration for a woman outside the imperial clan. The dowager also ordered court functionaries to help arrange for the funeral and to act as her representatives at the final rites. This unusually high-profile funeral for a female scholar is the most eloquent possible testimony to Ban Zhao’s reputation and influence at the time of her death.

History of the Former Han

When Zhao’s brother Ban Gu died, he left behind the incomplete manuscript for History of the Former Han. The extent of Ban Zhao’s contribution to finishing the work has been a source of contention. Some scholars have given her credit just for composing one section. Others, however, have contended that the manuscript had been scattered about during Gu’s imprisonment and Ban Zhao subsequently recompiled and significantly reedited it, giving her a major hand in creating the final version.

In addition to the final editing, History of the Former Han also lacked a treatise on astronomy and a large number of chronological tables. The highly technical astronomy treatise was written by Mǎ Xùzhǒng 马续踵‎, a disciple of Ban Gu. Ban Zhao took charge of the detailed chronological work, adding eight chapters of these charts to the final version of the work. The completed book finally was disseminated in 111 ce, nineteen years after Ban Gu’s imprisonment. The amount of time that Ban Zhao had to devote to these chronological tables explains why her brother had left them to the end, and attests to the difficulty of their compilation. Because of her key role in the completion of this work, Ban Zhao deserves credit as a co-author of History of the Former Han.

When History of the Former Han was finished, it as yet lacked any annotations or commentaries. Because this was considered an extremely difficult work, readers required a teacher’s guidance to understand many passages. None less than the famed scholar Mǎ Róng 马融‎ (79–166 ce), author of the first known commentaries to all of the standard Five Classics, sought Ban Zhao’s tuition. Ma Rong also was a native of Fufeng and shared the same network of social links, thus it probably would have been natural for him to seek out this important woman as a teacher. She guided him through the work and explained unclear portions. He passed down her teachings to his own students, helping to establish the commentarial tradition to History of the Former Han. The fact that a major scholar sought out Ban Zhao as a teacher, in spite of her gender, is proof that male peers considered her a first-rate mind.

Admonitions for Women

Despite her various accomplishments and her contributions to the completion of History of the Former Han, today Ban Zhao is remembered as author of Admonitions for Women. This short book provides a unified vision of female ethics that the author expresses with clarity and confidence. Previous works on moral questions primarily had been aimed at male readers. According to norms and customs prevalent in early China, however, the basic nature of women and men is fundamentally distinct on a metaphysical level. Hence in some respects female ethics are necessarily different from those of men. Admonitions for Women was intended to provide moral guidance on matters pertaining specifically to women. As the earliest treatise on female virtue in China, this work became accepted as an orthodox statement of normative behavior for women and exerted immense influence on the development of gender discourse.

The inspiration for this book has been a subject of controversy. In the introduction Ban Zhao states that she wrote it to provide guidance to her daughters as they prepared for marriage. The fact that the work was widely circulated, however, leads scholars to suspect that it was in fact intended for a larger audience, and addressing it to her daughters was simply an appealing rhetorical device. The exact date of composition is unknown.

Bān ZhāoClick to view larger

Scene from a fifth or sixth century ce copy of The Admonitions Scroll, depicting several generations of a family sitting together. It illustrates the couplet “Let your hearts be as locusts / And your race shall multiply.” Original painting by Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–406 ce).

The British Museum.

Although Admonitions is considered a book, it is fewer than nine pages in English translation, making it more akin to a didactic essay. There are seven sections, each devoted to a different aspect of female morals: humility, spouses, respect and prudence, wifely conduct, devotion, obedience, and harmony with in-laws. Upon marriage, a woman left her birth family and entered her husband’s home, spending most of her life among in-laws. Accordingly, Admonitions focuses on a woman’s correct behavior in relation to married life. Ban sets out visions of the exemplary wife and daughter-in-law while downplaying or ignoring most other potential aspects of a woman’s social relations. This emphasis on married life highlights the centrality of interactions with a husband’s family to women at the time.

Readers coming to this work expecting a proto-feminist tract will be surprised, even shocked. Ban Zhao consistently argues that a woman should exercise modesty and voluntarily defer to her husband and senior in-laws. Her reasoning stems from a belief in the general inferiority of women to men. As men partake of yáng 阳‎ and women of yīn 阴‎, women have from birth a lower status than men, and so the woman ought to be yielding. It is imperative for a good woman to abide by the strictures of the rites and suppress personal desires. Ban Zhao interprets female self-sacrifice as a sign of respect for others. She also makes a somewhat incongruous appeal for female education, arguing that reading is as useful to women as to men.

Most importantly, a woman must be chaste. Ban specifically argues against the remarriage of widows, a minority view at the time. To guard her chastity a woman should always exercise modesty and behave properly, avoiding vulgar language, gossip, and silly laughter. The wise woman does not talk too much lest her listeners tire of her chatter. She does not draw attention to herself. She is clean and neat.

The ideal marriage is an unequal institution, as it is the husband’s right and duty to control his wife. A wife fears her husband’s disapproval, which she takes as a frightful rebuke. Spouses should not spend too much time together, lest their relationship devolve into licentiousness. The wife should work hard at household tasks, take charge of preparing food and serving guests, and clean the home. A man’s wife is not a servant, however, and thus she should be treated with basic respect. Ban criticizes domestic violence and the use of harsh language between spouses.

Ban also urges women to defer to their parents-in-law. A woman should obey her husband’s parents absolutely and should never dare to argue with them. It is also vital for the success of her marriage that a wife get along with her brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. She should therefore strive to make herself amenable to them. Modesty and deference are prudent strategies for gaining the affection of in-laws.

Unexpectedly for such an accomplished person, Ban Zhao declares that it is not important for a woman to be eloquent or have exceptional talents. Her female paragon is quite different from the intelligent, independent, powerful example she set with her own life. Instead, she sets forth a vision of the ideal woman as a humble spouse, chaste widow, diligent housewife, and obedient daughter-in-law.

The obsession with ritual propriety expressed in the work accords with the overall intellectual tone of her age. As the effectiveness of government declined and society fell into increasing chaos, the elite turned to the rites as a way of maintaining a modicum of order. Some gentry families, such as the Ban, took pride in distinguishing themselves from the hoi polloi by flaunting their strict devotion to ritual. Admonitions for Women can be understood as an expression of this much larger intellectual trend.

Admonitions for Women does not describe average female behavior at the time. It is a utopian vision of ideal gender relations. During the imperial era, elite men were delighted by this conservative view of female propriety and lauded Ban Zhao as the pinnacle of female wisdom. Her work inspired numerous imitations in later centuries, spawning a copious genre of didactic moral literature aimed at woman. For example, the Táng 唐‎ dynasty (618–907 ce) work Analects for Women (Nǚ lúnyǔ 女论语‎) clearly was inspired by Ban Zhao’s example.

In the modern era, the attitude toward Ban Zhao and her canon of female ethics has been very critical, even hostile. Modernizers, revolutionaries, and feminists have dismissed this work as retrograde. More recent scholarship has tried to account for some of the seemingly misogynistic content by viewing it through the gender relations of its era. Upon marriage, a woman left her family behind and entered a house full of potentially hostile strangers. Counseling humility and obedience can be seen as a prudent and pragmatic strategy for surviving under adverse conditions. Once she had won over her husband and in-laws with humility, a woman could then use her increasing seniority and the prestige of motherhood to accrue power within the family and thrive as a respected member of society.

Minor Works

Although it seems that Ban Zhao composed a significant oeuvre, most of it has been lost. The few surviving examples indicate that her writings were of high quality, and they attracted sincere praise. Two memorials addressed to Empress Dowager Deng are written in the difficult style standard for documents addressing the throne. They not only show a confident facility with the highest reaches of composition, but also a mastery of rhetoric. Ban Zhao employs a range of sophisticated persuasive techniques that distinguish these memorials as models of style, which probably accounts for their preservation.

Four poems written in the fu style, popular at the time, also survive. “Large Bird” (“Dàquè” 大雀‎) is an occasional poem written at imperial command to commemorate the gift of a rare bird to Emperor He. It was customary to mark important events in court life with poetry. The bird was a present from Ban Zhao’s brother Ban Chao, then an administrator overseeing the western regions; thus it was appropriate for his talented sister to write a poem lauding this unusual gift.

It is unclear what kind of bird the poem describes, as the word que can refer to a number of species. Given this creature’s reception at court, it clearly was viewed as something strange and beautiful. The poem is conventional in both style and content. The poet praises the bird by comparing it to the imperial phoenix and ascribing it a mystical birthplace. As was customary for court poetry, the poem goes on to praise the ruler as well, claiming that this remarkable creature had traveled so far in search of a righteous monarch. In this respect the bird symbolizes the virtuous courtiers who gather to serve their virtuous lord.

“Traveling Eastward” (“Dōngzhēng” 东征‎) describes a journey that Ban Zhao took with her son Gǔ 谷‎ as he traveled to take up an official post in the provinces. The poem depicts the trip as fraught with hardship, and the poet urges herself forward. As she passes famous places mentioned in the histories, she contemplates the lessons regarding virtue that come to mind from events that occurred in each location. In this way Ban Zhao transforms a mundane landscape into a profound moral topography laden with moral and historical significance.

“Needle and Thread” (“Zhēnlǚ” 鍼缕‎) lauds these two simple objects of stereotypical female labor. The needle is personified as strong, subtle, straight, and sharp, while the thread is pure and mends flaws. Since antiquity it was commonplace to portray textile work as not just normative female labor but a virtuous pursuit. An ode to the humble implements of sewing, therefore, would have been interpreted by readers as a backhanded reference to female virtue.

Source: Swann, Nancy Lee. (2001). Pan Chao: Foremost woman scholar of China. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, pp. 102–103.

“The Cicada” (“Chán” 蟬‎) presents a metaphysical meditation on nature and life, expressing a Daoist worldview (see sidebar). The poem opens by declaring the cicada the lowliest of insects. Nevertheless, like us it receives life from the supernatural union of Heaven and Earth, and as such it represents the basic conditions of human life. As with each person, the cicada spends its life roaming and enjoying the world’s pleasures. In the end, however, it is destined to die with the autumn frost, and nothing remains but a sense of sadness at the shortness of its life. The cicada’s ephemerality reminds readers of the shortness of all life, including our own.

This being courtly poetry, the cicada also represents the loyal subject. Although insignificant, even an insect basks in the luminous presence of the emperor, even though extolling the ruler does not lend it immortality. The cicada’s obeisance to the virtuous ruler is part of the natural order of things. If even an insect sees fit to marvel in the ruler’s presence, of course people should do likewise.

Historical Impact

The metaphysical content of Ban’s poems reflects the increasingly otherworldly atmosphere of the Later Han. As people became increasingly disappointed with failing worldly institutions and ideas, transcendental metaphysics were on the rise. During the era of division following the fall of the Han, this type of metaphysical poetry would become quite common. Ban Zhao’s embrace of these ideas shows her to have been fully immersed in the intellectual currents of her time, and even on the forefront of cultural trends. Her impact on gender relations and female propriety was pioneering, as was the breadth of her scholarly knowledge and sophistication. Ban’s co-authorship with her brother Ban Gu of the comprehensive History of the Former Han ensures her prominence among Chinese scholars and historians.


Fo Guang University, Taiwan


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