Confucian thought, in its most simplistic form, holds that the balance of the universe rests upon the upholding of relationships—the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, parents and children, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mother and daughter in-laws, and reverence of elders and the deceased. Each relationship has a dominant and a subservient half, and if one half begins to act outside of their role, then the order of the universe is disrupted, plunging the world into chaos. Within these roles, wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law functioned as the subservient halves.
This said women, were able to achieve great status and power even within their assigned roles. Ban Zhao (45-116 CE) is one of these women. She is the first known female Chinese historian, and was an influential advocate for the education of women and girls.
Born to Ban Biao, a successful official and respected intellectual, she married Cao Shishu at the age of fourteen. Though her husband died when she was very young, she was known at court as Venerable Madame Cao. She never remarried, devoting herself instead to a life of scholarship.
Her father died in 54 CE, leaving his life’s work, a history of the Western Han dynasty, unfinished. Ban Zhao’s older brother Ban Gu took over the project, but he too left it unfinished when he died in prison in 92 CE. The emperor then called on Ban Zhao to complete the work.
She not only completed it with distinction, but began to teach the palace women—one of whom was Empress Deng Sui—subjects such as the classics, history, astronomy, and mathematics. When Deng Sui became the regent of the empire in 106 CE, she often turned to Ban Zhao for advice on government policy.
Her experiences teaching the court ladies inspired Ban Zhao to begin her advocacy for female education and to write arguably her most influential work: Admonitions for Women. In this work, she objects to the fact that families teach their sons to read while neglecting the education of their daughters, while urging women to be submissive to her husband and male relatives. She emphasizes what she perceives to be the inherent differences between the natures of men and women, and advises her readers that nothing is more worthy than obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice, especially in marriage.
Her advocacy for female education, then, came from the view that an educated woman could serve her husband—and thus the realm, if we keep her Confucian socialization in mind—more effectively than an uneducated woman would be able to. Admonitions became one of the most commonly used texts in the education of girls, and remained popular for centuries as a guide for women’s conduct.
In addition to teaching, history writing, and educational advocacy, Ban Zhao also worked as a librarian at court. As such she supervised a staff of assistants, and trained younger scholars; she rearranged and edited Liu Hsiang’s Biographies of Eminent Women in the course of her library work. She maintained a lifelong interest in math and astronomy, and was also known for her varied writings.
Upon her death Empress Dowager Deng Sui dressed all in white to mourn her passing.