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Updated 03-25-05

Ban Zhao /Pan Chao /Cao Dagu (c. 45/48-bef. 120 CE)


Ban Zhao (old spelling: Pan Chao) was born in the provinces to a family of scholars that had been involved for three generations with the Chinese emperor's court. Zhao had two elder brothers, twins at least 13 years older than she: Ban Gu, who would become a courtier poet and the major author of Han shu, a history of the first 200 years of Han dynasty China; and Ban Chou, who would become a general, winning important battles on China's northwest frontier.

Zhao's father, a well-known scholar who had begun the Han shu, died when she was about eight years old. She was married when she was 14, had at least one child, was widowed "early," and never remarried.

By 76 CE, Zhao's brother Chou had become a soldier, and her mother and her brother Gu were in the capital, where Gu was attached to the emperor's court as a historian and editor. Zhao, nearly 30, apparently soon joined them (it was unusual that a widow would leave her husband's family). Gu was working on the Han shu; scholars see it as "likely that she [Zhao] was already an active contributor to the project in the 70s & 80s" (Wills, p.94).

In 89, there was a new emperor, a child, so rule fell to his mother, Dowager Empress Dou, and to her family; Ban Gu became closely associated with them. In 92, the Dou family was accused of treason: the men of the family committed suicide; the empress lost her power; and the family's friends, including Gu, were executed. But no action was taken against the other Bans: Chou was a victorious general (and safely far away), Zhao was a mere woman (though her son's assignment to a distant post in about 95 has been seen by some as an exile which she shared).

By 97, however, Zhao had been called back to the capital to complete the history left unfinished at Ban Gu's death. According to a biography of Zhao written in the 400s: "[T]he emperor Ho commanded Ban Zhao to come to the Tuan Kuan Library in order to continue and complete the work..." (cited by Swann, p.40), and to supervise the work of other scholars working at the library. Because the Han shu is an important work to historians of China, the question of how much Zhao contributed to it (substantial writing? editing and polishing?) has been debated---sometimes hotly---for 1900 years. From internal evidence, the translator Nancy Lee Swann believes that Zhao is responsible for about one-fourth of the whole.

Besides working on the Han shu and administrating the imperial library, Zhao also became a teacher to the leading women of the court, particularly a 17-year-old girl, Deng, who had come to court in 96. Zhao taught Deng astronomy and mathematics as well as history and the classics. In 102, the emperor dismissed his current empress and promoted Deng to that role. When he died in 106, he was succeeded by a child who soon died and was followed by another child; through these reigns Dowager Empress Deng was regent. Ban Zhao's influence with the empress was apparently great; a contemporary wrote about one court problem, "At a word from mother Ban the whole family resigned" (cited by Swann, p. 236). We don't know the year of Zhao's death but we know that it was before 120, for the Empress, who died in that year, had gone into mourning for her (rare treatment for a commoner).

After her death, her daughter-in-law collected Zhao's written work, which the biographer of the 400s described as including "Narrative Poems, Commemorative Writings, Inscriptions, Eulogies, Argumentations, Commentaries, Elegies, Essays, Treatises, Expositions, Memorials, and Final Instructions, in all (enough to fill) 16 books" (cited by Swann, p.41). Apparently, Zhao also "annotated" an earlier work, Lienu zhuan [Lives of eminent women, 79-8 BCE]. The extant works whose attribution is sure include one long poem, "Traveling Eastward"; three short poems; two letters to the throne; and the much quoted survival manual, Nujie [Lessons for women]. In the first centuries after Zhao's death, it was her contributions to Han shu, her scholarly writing, and her poetry that were most praised. It wasn't until the 800s that Nujie became the work with which she was identified.

One passage from Zhao's biography is intriguing: "Zhao's younger sister-in-law, Cao Feng-sheng, likewise talented and cultured, wrote essays which are worth reading, in which she took issue with Ban Zhao" (cited in Swann, p.41). What did Zhao's sister-in-law take issue with? Did it have to do with Nujie? Was that too narrow-minded? too broad-minded? Or was the disagreement with one of Zhao's other writings? The sister-in-law's essays are lost.

On this page you'll find:

Links to helpful sites online.

Excerpts from translations in print.

Information about:
Works attributed in part to Ban Zhao.
Other helpful primary sources.
Secondary sources.



1. Translations:

(a) After a brief essay, the final lines of "Traveling Eastward," on Ban Zhao's trip to join her son in a distant province. The translation is by Nancy Swann; the "Gongchao" of the last line is the sage Confucius. For earlier lines from the poem, see below, under "In print."
(b) The second item in this collection is Ban Zhao's poem, "Needle and Thread," (with two lines omitted); the translation is by Richard Mather and Rob Swigart.
(c) Part of Nujie, Lessons for a Woman, written when Ban Zhao was in her late 50s, translated by Swann. Caution: although no indication is given, this online version is seriously incomplete: of the work's seven chapters, the online version omits all of Chapters 5 and 7 and most of Chapter 6. Also, it uses but does not identify Swann's interpolated clarifications, and it omits Swann's indispensable notes. For an alternate translation of excerpts from the sections missing here, see below, under "In print."

2. Essays, etc:

(a) "Pan Chao, Woman Historian" (2000), by Heather Davenport, a brief introductory essay, with translations by Swann.
(b) An article on Ban Zhao's family; and from the same site, a two-page article on the life of women during the Han Dynasty.
(c) A review by Michael McKenny of the 2001 edition of Nancy Lee Swann's Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, the only translation of Ban Zhao's complete works. The review gives a detailed description of the book's contents.
(d) Zhang Mingqi's 1985 essay, "The Four Books for Women: Ancient Chinese Texts for the Education of Women," translated by Gary Arbuckle and Rosemary Haddon, which shows how later Chinese writers used (and misused?) Ban Zhao's Nujie (here called "Admonitions for women").
(e) An essay on Lienu zhuan (the work which Ban Zhao apparently "annotated" and updated), by Anne Behnke Kinney. From the same site, a woodblock-printed edition, with picture and text, of the last section of Lienu zhuan, to which Ban Zhao is believed to have contributed. (One of the 20 women described, "Ban, Favorite Beauty," was her great-aunt.)

3. A 1700s painting by Chin T'ingpiao of Ban Zhao writing, with women looking on.

4. For historical background:

(a) An essay on Han period thought, by Richard Hooker, useful on Ban Zhao's times.
(b) Links to clear translations, by Charles Muller, of Confucius' works; look especially at Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean to help understand Ban Zhao's view of life.
(c) For the Chinese view of women in the centuries before Ban Zhao, brief books from the classic, Li ki, translated by James Legge (1885): Book 10, "Pattern of the Family," and Book 41, "Meaning of the Marriage Ceremony."

In print

[Nancy Lee Swann's 1932 study gives translations (and some originals) of all of Ban Zhao's extant works. The study shows impressive scholarship, and it gives helpful notes---which most who quote Swann's translations ignore. The notes explain conventional phrases and give literal translations, which frequently suggest alternative meanings. Susan Mann's brief preface to this reprint describes the history of Nujie in China:]

Swann, Nancy Lee. Pan Chao: foremost woman scholar of China (Michigan classics in Chinese studies; no. 5). Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, c2001. (xxi, 179 p.: ill., maps).
LC#: DS748.16.B35 S93 2001;   ISBN: 0892641509
Originally published: New York : The Century Co, 1932. Includes bibliographical references and index.

"But by effort we can go forward...."

[Throughout the excerpts, parentheses indicate Swann's clarifications; also, Ban family names have been changed from old to new spelling. First, from "Dungzheng Fu" (Traveling Eastward), Ban Zhao's earliest extant work. Nearly 50 years old, Ban Zhao went with her son to his minor post in the provinces; one brother had been executed, another was on the frontier, and she had no way of knowing if she would ever see the capital again. She worked to overcome her depression by thinking of Confucius and his teachings. See online for the end of this poem:]

It is the seventh year of Yung-ch'u;
I follow my son in his journey eastward.
It is an auspicious day in Spring's first moon;
We choose this good hour, and are about to start.

Now I arise to my feet and ascend my carriage.
At eventide we lodge at Yen-shih:
Already we leave the old and start for the new.
I am uneasy in mind, and sad at heart.

Dawn's first light comes, and yet I sleep not;
My heart hesitates as though it would fail me.
I pour out a cup of wine to relax my thoughts.

Suppressing my feelings, I sigh and blame myself:
I shall not need to dwell in nests, nor (eat) worms from dead trees.
Then how can I not encourage myself to press forward?

And further, am I different from other people?
Let me but hear heaven's command and go its way.

Throughout the journey we follow the great highway.
If we seek short cuts, whom shall we follow?
Pressing forward, we travel on and on;
In abandonment our eyes wander, and our spirits roam....

Secretly I sigh for the Capital City I love, (but)
To cling to one's native place characterizes a small nature,
As the histories have taught us....

When we enter K'uang City I recall far distant events.
I am reminded of Confucius' straitened activities
In that decadent, chaotic age which knew not the Way,
And which bound and awed even him, that Holy Man!

In fact genuine virtue cannot die;
Though the body decay, the name lives on....

I know that man's nature and destiny rests with Heaven,
But by effort we can go forward and draw near to love.
Stretched, head uplifted, we tread onward to the vision....       [pp.113-16]

"From the point of view of the dynasty...of the people...."

[Back in the capital, working on the Han shu and teaching at court, in 101 Ban Zhao wrote a letter to Emperor Ho asking that her surviving brother, Chou, be permitted to return home from central Asia, where he had served since 73. She had apparently tried to get help from "the great ministers at court"; now she goes to the top. Her argument, based on the safety of the state, was successful. This is part of the letter:]

When Chou first went (beyond the frontier), he dedicated himself, body and life (to his work), in the hope of accomplishing a small service in order to demonstrate his devotion.... Often wounded by metal weapons, he did not flee from death itself. Relying upon the divine power of the Throne, he has attained a prolonged life in the sandy desert until now there have accumulated thirty years.

.... He is now seventy; decrepit, old, and ill; head without a single black hair; both hands powerless; ears and eyes no longer keen; and able to walk only by leaning upon a staff....

Now the barbarian tribes are stubborn by nature, and rude to the old. Chou, moreover, from morning to evening expects death. If it is a long time before he is relieved, (your handmaiden) fears that there will be a springing up of conspiracies to incite a spirit of rebellion and disorder.

Now all the great ministers at court care only for things of the moment, but no one of them is willing to plan for the future. Should trouble arise among the barbarian soldiers, Chou's physical strength would not be able to follow the wishes of his heart. And it may happen that from the point of view of the dynasty the work of several generations would be injured; and from the point of view of the people the strenuous labors of a faithful official would be lost....

In behalf of Chou (your unworthy subject) dares face death in order to beg commiseration for him. She pleads for his release during the remaining years of his life, that he may return alive and see again the Imperial Court. Thus the state will never have disturbances on the frontiers, and the Western Regions will not have troublesome revolts.       [pp.74-75]

"They may never again gain the name and fame."

[From a 110 letter written to Empress Deng (de facto ruler since the death of her husband, Ho). Deng's brothers were unpopular at court, and they had offered to leave. They may not have really wanted to "yield place," but Ban Zhao urged the empress to take them up on their offer by speaking of their future reputation---and by extension, Deng's. The brothers left the court:]

(Your Majesty) opens the gates to the four quarters of the empire, takes knowledge of all events in the four directions.... Your handmaiden Zhao is both stupid and old, (but she is fortunate) to happen (to live in this) prosperous and brilliant age, and dares not but reveal her inmost self, if only to render (the minutest service--a proportion of) one to ten-thousand.

Your handmaid has heard it said that there is no virtue greater than the custom of yielding place (to others)....

[Ban Zhao lists examples from Chinese history of those who have, for good reason, given up or declined high positions and, in doing so, earned fame; then:]

At this time (Your Majesty's brothers), the Four Uncles, maintaining their loyalty and filial piety, seek to retire (from office), but because the frontiers are not yet peaceful, (Your Majesty) is opposed and will not grant permission. (If the Four Uncles be not allowed to retire, ...then your unworthy subject) sincerely fears that they may never again gain the name and fame for yielding place....

Because (your handmaiden) has come to this conclusion, she ventures at the risk of her life (to write this opinion to Your Majesty).      [pp.76-77]

"Why should it not be?

[It is for Nujie that Ban Zhao has long been honored in China, used as an argument for women's knowing their place; the one passage that is unconventional was ignored. The belief that boys should be taught to read the classics (no easy task, since the language in which they were written was now unfamiliar) was becoming widespread. In her short treatise, written after 106, Ban Zhao argues that if the family (and therefore the state) were to live according to the precepts taught in the classics, girls need to know then as well. From Chapter 5 (you can see the whole chapter online):]

The Way of husband and wife is intimately connected with Yin and Yang, and relates the individual to gods and ancestors. Truly it is the great principle of Heaven and Earth, and the great basis of human relationships....

Now examine the gentlemen on the present age. They only know that wives must be controlled, and that the husband's rule of conduct manifesting his authority must be established. They therefore teach their boys to read books and histories....

Yet only to teach men and not to teach women,---is that not ignoring the essential relation between them? According to the "Rites" [Li ki, one of the classics], it is the rule to begin to teach children to read at the age of eight years, and by the age of fifteen 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?        [pp.84-85]


[Florence Ayscough's book contains an almost literal translation of Nujie (pp.237-49), although without the aids given by Swann:]

Ayscough, Florence Wheeler. Chinese women, yesterday & today (China in the 20th century). New York : Da Capo Press, 1975, c1937. (324 p.: ill.)
LC#: HQ1737 .A97 1975;   ISBN: 0306707004
Reprint of ed. published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston. Bibliography: p.[317] -319.
Includes index.

"How can a woman not desire her husband's heart?

[Here are a few excerpts from the chapters that are missing in the online Swann version. First, from Chapter 5; the "Rites" refer to the Li ki, an older work which described the proper organization of society:]

[T]he book Nu Hsien [not extant] states: "To obtain the heart's purpose of one man is called eternal fulfillment. To lose the heart's purpose of one man is called eternal ending."

In accordance with this saying how can a woman not desire her husband's heart? She who thus desires, however, need not utter flattering, specious words, nor indulge in passionate glances and lustful intimacy. Assuredly such would not be in accordance with fixed purpose in the heart, with calm and self-control, with the Rites and the rule of dignity and self-respect, nor with living in pure restraint.       [p.245]

" times duty causes destruction of self."

[From the opening of Chapter 6:]

At times people must separate themselves from their desires, also at times duty causes destruction of self. Even if a husband say he loves his wife deeply, while father-in-law and mother-in-law say they do not like her, husband and wife must part.... Then how safely to gain the hearts of father-in-law and mother-in-law?       [p.246]

"These are the respective roots of glory and disgrace."

[From Chapter 7:]

....To secure love of father-in-law and mother-in-law she must have approval of husband's younger brothers, sisters. Hence the appreciation of a wife's virtues and faults, her fame or defamation, depends directly on the hearts of husband's younger brothers, sisters. These hearts she must not fail to gain....

....Not many are enlightened. Few are without fault. The nobility of Yen Tzu lay in his power to correct himself. Chung Ni (Confucius) praised him for not repeating a fault.... Although a woman act in a virtuous manner, although her understanding be penetrating, perspicacious, is she able to be perfect? Hence, if people of the household live in harmony, then slander is obviated.....

"Two people of like heart-thought
With united effort can sever gold.
Two people of like words:
Fragrance of their achievement rivals that of the spear-orchid."

This quotation makes clear the sense of harmony....

Her virtue clear as water, a modest yielding person, she can establish peace in fostering love for kinsfolk of the husband, to whom she is bound by silken cord of union. Such behavior will result in setting forth her goodness.... Light will extend: its rays will irradiate her own father, mother.

If a frivolous-hearted person, with but a monkey's wit, presume on her position to exalt herself in her relations with her husband's younger brothers and because of her husband's infatuation permit herself to overflow with arrogance in her relations with husband's younger sisters, how can she live in harmony? Love of husband, and rule of dignity and self-respect, will run at cross-purposes. How can her repute be high?

Such behavior would cloud her virtues, manifest her faults.... Humiliation would reach to, be heaped on, her own father and mother, and she would create difficulties for her lord.

These are the respective roots of glory and disgrace, the frontiers of fame and evil reputation. Must not a woman act carefully!       [pp.247-249]


[In this study, Robert Hans Gulik gives his translation of Nujie (pp.98-103), though without the help that Swann gives the reader. The whole book is an interesting overview of the roles of women during various stages of Chinese history. And a bonus for those who thought studying Latin would have no practical benefit: when Gulik quotes from Chinese sex manuals, "all realistic passages have been put in Latin" (p.xiv); here "realistic" means "sexually explicit":]

Gulik, Robert Hans van. Sexual life in ancient China: a preliminary survey of Chinese sex and society from ca.1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974. (xvii, 392 p., [15] leaves of plates: ill. (some col.); 27 cm)
LC#: HQ18.C6 G8 1974x;   ISBN:9004039171

Works attributed in part to Ban Zhao

[There is no complete English translation of Han shu. This selection, translated by Burton Watson, includes passages from Chapter 97, which tells the stories of early court women; Ban Zhao may have contributed to these sections:]

Pan, Ku. Courtier and commoner in ancient China; selections from the History of the former Han. Translated by Burton Watson. New York, Columbia University Press, 1974. (282 p.)
LC#: DS748 .P3 1974;   ISBN: 0231037651

[Most of Liu Xiang's Lienu zhuan, here translated by Albert Richard O'Hara, was written a century before Ban Zhao's birth. However, the last part, Book 8, contains supplementary biographies added after Liu Xiang's time. Until the 1100s bibibliographies listed Ban Zhao as "annotator" of the whole work, and scholars believe that she wrote some or all of those supplementary biographies:]

Liu, Hsiang. The position of woman in early China according to the Lieh nu chuan, "The biographies of eminent Chinese women" / [edited] by Albert Richard O'Hara. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1981. (xii, 301 p.)
LC#: HQ1767 .L5813 1980;   ISBN: 0830501126.
Reprint of the 1945 ed. of the editor's thesis published by Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., which was issued as v. 16 of the Catholic University of America studies in sociology. Bibliography: p. 286-288. Includes index.


Other helpful primary sources

[This collection by Deborah Sommer has translations of substantial passages from older Chinese works that contributed to Ban Zhao's view of life; it also gives Swann's translation of "Lessons for Women," though without Swann's notes:]

Chinese religion: an anthology of sources / edited by Deborah Sommer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. (xxiii, 375 p.)
LC#.: BL1802 .C5477 1995;   ISBN: 0195088948,  0195088956
Translated from Chinese. Includes bibliographical references (p. 361-367).

[The print version of James Legge's translation of Li ki that is available online:]

Li chi: book of rites. An encyclopedia of ancient ceremonial usages, religious creeds, and social institutions. Translated by James Legge. Edited with an introd. and study guide by Ch'u Chai and Winberg Chai. New Hyde Park, N.Y., University Books [1967] (2 v. illus.)
LC#: PL2478 .G4
"Except for the new material added by the editors, the text of this edition is that published by Oxford University press in 1885 as volumes XXVII and XXVIII of The sacred books of the East and also designated as parts III and IV of The text of Confucianism." Bibliographical footnotes.


Secondary sources

[Lisa Ann's Raphals' study includes a section (pp.236-46) on the Nujie, which discusses the work's relation to earlier and later descriptions of a woman's role and which considers Ban Zhao's purpose in writing it. Raphals gives the original and her own translation of several passages:]

Raphals, Lisa Ann. Sharing the light: representations of women and virtue in early China (SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture) Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, c1998. (xxiii, 348 p.: ill.)
LC#: HQ1767 .R36 1998:  ISBN: 0791438554, 0791438562
Includes bibliographical references (P. 309-332) and index

[John E. Wills' book has a useful chapter on Ban Zhao, based on Nancy Swann's study. Some quotations are from Swann, others are translated by Wills:]

Wills, John E. Mountain of fame: portraits in Chinese history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1994. (xvi, 403 p. : ill., maps)
LC#: DS734 .W63 1994;   ISBN: 0691055424
Includes bibliographical references (p. [381]-388) and index.

[An essay in this collection, "Confucianism," by Theresa Kelleher, discusses the position of women in Confucian society; Kelleher describes both the influences on Ban Zhao and her influence in later periods:]

Women in world religions / edited by Arvind Sharma; introduction by Katherine K. Young (McGill studies in the history of religions). Albany: State University of New York Press, c1987. (xii, 302 p.)
LC#: BL458 .W583 1987;   ISBN: 0887063748,  0887063756
Bibliography: p. [267]-281. Includes index

[Xia Xiaohong's essay in this collection, "New Meanings in a Classic: Differing Interpretations of Ban Zhao and Her Admonitions for Women in the Late Qing Dynasty," looks at the changing interpretation of Nujie by Chinese women writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s: Ban Zhao's views were first praised, then condemned, and finally seen as an inevitable produst of Confucianism:]

Holding up half the sky: Chinese women past, present, and future / edited by Tao Jie, Zheng Bijun, and Shirley L. Mow; foreword by Gail Hershatter; translated by Amy Russell. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004. (xxxvi, 313 p.)
LC#: HQ1767 .H643 2004; ISBN: 1558614664, 1558614656
Includes bibliographical references (p. [303]-306)


Updated 03-25-05

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