An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Ban Zhao 班昭

Dec 24, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Ban Zhao 班昭 (c. 45-c. 117 CE), also called Ban Ji 班姬 "Lady Ban", courtesy name Huiban 惠班 (or Huiji 惠姬), was one of the earliest known female writers of China. She lived during the mid-Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) .

Ban Zhao was the sister of the historian Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE) and is said to have compiled some parts of the history book Hanshu 漢書. She had obtained an excellent education as daughter of the historian Ban Biao 班彪 (3-54) and was known for her vast knowledge. She was married to Cao Shou 曹壽 (courtesy name Shishu 世叔) who died early in their life. Ban Zhao, together with Ma Xu 馬續, took over the task to finish the Hanshu, the official history of the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), after her brother had died. For this task she was allowed to consult the documents in the imperial Dongguan Archives 東觀. It is known that she was the compiler of the eight tables (biao 表) in the Hanshu as well as the treatise on astronomy (Tianwen zhi 天文志). She also took over the revision of the whole book to bring it into a coherent and smooth shape.

The Hanshu is written in a quite antiquated language, and therefore Ban Zhao was often consulted to explain difficult passages. The famous Confucian scholar Ma Rong 馬融 (79-166 CE) sought her advice. Ban Zhao was highly appreciated by the ladies of the imperial court and was therefore bestowed the titled of a palace lady (nüguan 女官), and she was allowed to instruct the palace women. Empress Dowager Deng 鄧太后, regent for the young Emperor Shang 漢殤帝 (r. 105-106 CE) also asked her to give her support in political matters.

For her female chastity that was combined with an extraordinary education, she was seen as a model women in Chinese history. She was called "Lady Cao" (Cao Dagu 曹大家, a special reading). Of her own writings, only the rhapsody of the eastern travel (Dongzhengfu 東征賦), a memorial to Empress Dowager Deng (Shang Deng Taihou shu 上鄧太后疏) and her instructions to her own daughters (Nüjie 女誡) have survived. Her Dongzhengfu had a great influence on Pan Yue's 潘岳 poem Xizhengfu 西征賦 "Rhaposdy of the western travel". Ban Zhao's commentary to her brother's rhapsody Youtongfu 幽通賦 has also survived.

Chu Binjie 褚斌傑 (1986). "Ban Zhao 班昭", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 30.
Shang Zhi 尚志 (1995). "Ban Zhao 班昭", in Lu Leshan 盧樂山, ed. Zhongguo nüxing baike quanshu 中國女性百科全書, Wenhua jiaoyu 文化教育 (Shenyang: Dongbei daxue chubanshe), 468.
Wang Xia 王霞 (1995), "Ban Zhao 班昭", in Lu Leshan 盧樂山, ed. Zhongguo nüxing baike quanshu 中國女性百科全書, Shehui shenghuo 社會生活 (Shenyang: Dongbei daxue chubanshe), 42.