Ban Zhao Writes Behavior Guide for Young Women

Ban Zhao wrote a guide to proper behavior for women, in which, although upholding Confucian and classical ideals, she made a radical appeal for educating girls.

Summary of Event

Ban Zhao, the first known Chinese woman historian, was born into a scholarly Chinese family, in Fufeng (Fu-feng) in modern-day Shannxi (Shensi) Province. The family had often served the Imperial Court. Ban Zhao lived during the Eastern, or Later, Han Dynasty (25-220 c.e.), a time of peace and great cultural and literary development. Rulers emphasized government by moral and cultural ideals rather than politics. Ban Zhao

Her father, Ban Biao (Pan Piao), was a famous scholar and a popular magistrate. He had begun writing the authoritative history of the Western Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.) but died in 54 c.e., without finishing the history. At age fourteen, Ban Zhao married Cao Shou (Ts’ao Shou) from the same town, and they had several children. Her husband died early in the marriage, and Ban Zhao became a young widow, never remarrying.

She had two older twin brothers, Ban Gu (Pan Ku, 32-92 c.e.) and Ban Chao (Pan Ch’ao, 32-102 c.e.). By 76 c.e., Ban Chao had become a soldier, and Ban Gu, a poet and historian, served the Imperial Court. She and her mother also went to the capital. Ban Gu worked on the history begun by his father and titled it Han Shu (also known as Qian Han Shu, completed first century c.e.; The History of the Former Han Dynasty, 1938-1955). However, when in 92 c.e. the dowager empress Dou’s family was accused of treason, the family’s friends, including Ban Gu, were executed. Ban Gu’s brother had become a great general serving on China’s northwest frontier, so he was spared. Eventually, in 95 c.e., Ban Zhao’s son was assigned to a distant post, and she joined him in this perceived exile.

In approximately 97 c.e., Emperor Ho (89-105 c.e.) ordered Ban Zhao to return to the capital to complete the history begun by her father and brother. She was permitted access to the Imperial Library, became de facto imperial historian, and eventually finished The History of the Former Han Dynasty. In addition to working on the history, Ban Zhao was appointed tutor and teacher of the dowager empress and other women of the court. One of her students was a young girl named Deng (Teng, 80-120 c.e.), who had come to the court in 96 c.e. During this time, Ban Zhao wrote Nu jie (c. 99-105 c.e.; The Chinese Book of Etiquette and Conduct for Women and Girls, 1900; also known as Lessons for Women) to instruct young women. In 102 c.e., the emperor ousted his empress and made Deng the new empress. When the emperor died in 106 c.e., his 100-day-old son assumed the throne, and Dowager Empress Deng served as regent. The new emperor soon died and was succeeded by another child. Again, Dowager Empress Deng was the acting sovereign. By all accounts, the Dowager Empress continued to seek advice from Ban Zhao, who was very influential in the court. Ban Zhao died in her seventies, and the exact year of her death is unknown. However, it was before 120 c.e., the year the empress died, because the empress went into mourning when Ban Zhao died.

In the introduction to Lessons for Women, Ban Zhao explains the purpose of her treatise as training and advice for young women at the age of marriage. “More than forty years have passed since at the age of fourteen I took up the dustpan and the broom in the Ts’ao family. . . . Day and night I was distressed in heart. . . . I taught and trained (my children) without system.” She wrote this treatise to serve as a survival manual, something she never had.

In chapter 1, “Humility,” Ban Zhao analyzes the traditional symbolism in birth rituals for girls and explains the value of humility in the context of cheerful labor and deferring to the wishes of others. She suggests that adherence to these ideals of conduct will bring honor to a woman’s family.

In Chapter 2, “Husband and Wife,” she makes her radical plea for the equal education of girls up to age fifteen.

If a husband be unworthy then he possesses nothing by which to control his wife. If a wife be unworthy, then she possesses nothing with which to serve her husband. . . . If a wife does not serve her husband, then the proper relationship (between men and women) and the natural order of things are neglected and destroyed.

Yet only to teach men and not to teach women—is that not ignoring the essential relation between them? According to the “Rites” it is the rule to begin to teach children to read at the age of eight year, and by the age of fifteen years they ought then to be ready for cultural training. Only why should it not be [that girls’ education as well as boys’ be] according to this principle?

In chapter 3, “Respect and Caution,” Ban Zhao states that

As Yin and Yang are not of the same nature, so man and woman have different characteristics. The distinctive quality of the Yang is rigidity; the function of the Yin yielding. Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness.

Respect for others and caution in behavior and language are urged.

Chapter 4 explains the four “Womanly Qualifications”: womanly virtue, words, bearing, and work. Womanly virtue means chastity, circumspect behavior, and modesty. Womanly words involves speaking with care at appropriate times and avoiding vulgar or excessive conversation. Womanly bearing consists of cleanliness in personal hygiene and dress. Finally, womanly work means devotion to sewing and weaving, clean preparation of meals for guests, and the avoidance of “gossip and silly laughter.”

Chapter 5, “Wholehearted Devotion,” quotes from the Confucian “Rites”: “A husband may marry again, but there is no Canon that authorizes a woman to be married the second time.” Ban Zhao followed this principle in her own life by never remarrying. She quotes from an ancient book: “To obtain the love of one man is the crown of a woman’s life; to lose the love of one man is to miss the aim in woman’s life.” The best ways to keep the love of a husband are “wholehearted devotion and correct manners.”

Chapter 6, “Implicit Obedience,” describes how a daughter-in-law should “not lose the hearts” of her husband’s parents. The advice is to always obey and not disagree with the parents-in-law, even when they are wrong.

Similarly, Chapter 7, “Harmony with Younger Brothers- and Sisters-in-law” advises the daughter-in-law to be modest and agreeable with her husband’s younger siblings, in order to “win for herself the love of her parents-in-law.”


Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women served as a much-needed guide to conduct for the young women of her times and also influenced later generations. Her most quoted and most well-known work, it is the only such treatise on the education of women to come from that early period in history. Full of quotations from the classics and Confucius, it provided a theoretical system of feminine ethics and practical rules for the application of these principles in daily life. Although accepting the superiority of men, Ban Zhao made a logical, powerful appeal for equal education for girls. To do otherwise was to ignore the “essential relationship” between men and women. In this respect, she was radical and centuries ahead of her time.

Further Reading

  • Ayscough, Florence Wheeler. Chinese Women, Yesterday and Today. 1937. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975. Includes illustrations and a translation of Nu Jie.
  • Knapp, Bettina L. Images of Chinese Women: A Westerner’s View. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1992. Includes a chapter on Ban Zhao.
  • Raphals, Lisa Ann. Sharing the Light: Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Includes illustrations, bibliographical references, and index. There is a section on Ban Zhao and the Nu Jie.
  • Sharma, Arvind, ed. Women in World Religions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Includes Theresa Kelleher’s essay “Confucianism,” which discusses Ban Zhao, and a bibliography.
  • Swann, Nancy Lee. Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, First Century a.d.; Background, Ancestry, Life, and Writings of the Most Celebrated Chinese Woman of Letters. 1932. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968. A complete biography, written by the foremost authority on Ban Zhao. Illustrated, with bibliographies and very detailed notes with references to scholarly research.
  • Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Illustrated, maps, bibliographies. Includes a chapter on Ban Zhao.

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