Lessons for Women

How the Han Dynasty scholar Ban Zhao helped me mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg

(Ban Zhao at her writing desk)

When the news broke of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, I was struggling to comprehend a translation of Lessons For Women, an instructional manual for feminine propriety written by the Han Dynasty scholar and stateswoman Ban Zhao (circa 47-117 A.D.)

I started floundering even more when I returned to the text after a despairing doomscroll through Twitter. And not just because I was distraught by the prospect of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump forcing through a lame-duck Supreme Court appointment. I was also having serious issues with the content of the document.

By nearly any estimation, Ban Zhao was an impressive woman; a historian who not only completed the epic history of the Former Han Dynasty started by her father and brother but who was also a close political adviser to Empress Deng, a woman who served as a powerful -- and much praised -- imperial regent for 15 years at the beginning of the second century. Nancy Lee Swann, Ban Zhao's biographer, called her the "foremost woman scholar in China's history."

The problem was that "Lessons for Women," read at face value, is a patriarchal Confucian wish list of admonitions to women to embrace their weaker sex, to be submissive to their husbands, to be chaste and retiring and ever so respectful.

"To counteract firmness nothing equals compliance. Consequently it can be said that the Way of respect and acquiescence is woman's most important principle of conduct... To guard carefully her chastity; to control circumspectly her behavior, in every motion to exhibit modesty; and to model each act on the best usage, this is womanly virtue."

Could anything be less respectful to Ginsburg's memory? There have been more occasions than I care to remember over the past four years when submerging myself in ancient Chinese history was my only antidote to all that was ailing the world. This was not one of those times. Sick to my stomach, I shelved the history and tried listening to Janelle Monae instead. I did not sleep well that night.

(Nancy Lee Swann)

How did I get here? On Thursday, I saw a tweet introducing the historian Nancy Lee Swann, a founding member of the Association for Asian Studies, as "perhaps the first woman to get a Ph.D. in Sinology.... Most Sinologists will never have heard of her."

I certainly hadn't, so I googled her, and learned that her first major work, in 1932, was a biography of Ban Zhao, which I promptly downloaded. I'd been curious about Ban Zhao ever since I discovered a couple of years ago that she was responsible for at least 25 percent of the Han Shu, one of the greatest achievements ever in Chinese historiography, and the model for all the massive dynastic histories that followed in its wake.

I'd had no idea! My previous experience had been that whenever I saw a citation to the Han Shu, the only name appended was that of Ban Gu, Ban Zhao's elder brother. But Ban Gu got caught up in court intrigue and died in prison before finishing his life's work. At the emperor's request, Ban Zhao, whose original Chinese biography describes her as displaying "profound erudition and talent of the highest order," pushed the Han Shu over the finishing line. Swann even suggests that Ban Zhao may have revised and edited the entire work.

Swann, as it turns out, was also the first Westerner to translate the biography of Empress Deng, Ban Zhao's contemporary, into English. Women who exerted imperial power in Chinese history tend to be treated poorly by classical Chinese historians, but Deng's biography is an out-and-out rave.

"At six years of age the empress was able to read a book of history; at twelve she recited the Book of Poetry and the Analects. Whenever her older brothers studied the classics or history, she would interrupt by asking difficult questions. Her interest was in ancient books and records, and she never paid any attention to home duties... Her family gave her the nickname, "The Student," while her father marveled at her and consulted her in all kinds of affairs, important as well as unimportant."

"(When) the government was not obedient and not harmonious, its plans were not those in her heart; when administrative regulations were not in accord with old traditions, she did not use them at court. Her vast virtue abounds and overflows, it fills the universe, it floods abundantly enrich, and spreading out, fill the eight directions. The Flowery Empire delights to diffuse (its culture)... her unsurpassed achievements have become famous throughout the Great Han; eminent favor is added to living people."

Who was Empress Deng's tutor and close adviser?

Ban Zhao!

"It is a phenomenon which may be noted at all times in Chinese history," writes Swann, "that in spite of the manifold restraints and limitations which the orthodox moralists placed upon the activity of women, individual women of spirit and energy have been able to dominate men, and not infrequently even to seize upon the supreme imperial power."

But wait.. over the centuries those orthodox moralists were often the quickest to cite "Lessons for Women" as the justification for exactly those restraints and limitations! There is a mystery here. How does one reconcile Ban Zhao's own accomplishments with her educational precepts?

When I woke up Saturday morning I decided that preemptive mourning for the Supreme Court was for suckers. Instead, I would honor the memory of RBG by trying to figure this puzzle out.


It's possible that face value isn't the best way to read Lessons for Women. In 1996, Yu-shih Chen, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Minnesota, published a provocative essay in which she suggested an alternative interpretation. Lessons for Women, argued Chen, was actually a strategic guide for avoiding the death-traps that waited around every corner in the ever-dangerous imperial court. Ban Zhao was not drawing her influences from Confucianism, argues Chen, but rather from Daoist concepts of pliancy and resiliency, as well as principles of subterfuge drawn from Sunzi's Art of War.

"Ban Zhao's advice to her girls in [Lessons for Women] can very well be understood to have been about survival skills -- skills that Ban Zhao saw as an indispensable part of their education. Her girls, most likely, were from families like her own. They were eventually to enter the perilous environment of a titled family as wives and daughters-in-law. How were they to survive the intense power politics in their future home if they were not well schooled in the art of self defense?"

"Ban Zhao does not seem at all to be advising the girls to submit themselves, either in thinking or in action, to the dictate of others. But she considers it foolhardy and perilous to dash oneself against superior forces. Lacking knowledge of one's self and of others, one is more often than not tempted to take on unequal odds. Keeping unfailing control of oneself and being always aware of the purpose of one's own action, as Ban Zhao is advising here, is altogether an approach to self cultivation different from yielding control of oneself to others."

There is little question that life expectancies in the imperial court during the Han Dynasty was often quite short, for man or woman. The historical record is rife with deadly succession fights, consort infighting, and appalling acts of cruelty. No one knew this better than Ban Zhao, scion of a family of historians and scholars with close family ties to the imperial line. Her great aunt, the imperial concubine Pan Jieyu, was famous for once declining to accompany the emperor in his palanquin because, so she said, she didn't want to interfere with his concentration on "matters of state." This act of model humbleness turned out to have the eminently useful result of endearing her to the then-Empress and insulating her from potentially deadly jealousy. So what looked, on the outside, to be modesty was actually canny power politics. Such was Ban Zhao's family heritage.

Similarly, Empress Deng's life-story, before she became regent at the age of 26, was marked by extreme deference to her superiors and other power-players. She kept a low profile, and ended up top dog. One can even read Lessons to Women as Lessons to Concubine Deng.

It's a seductive hypothesis, but Chen's view is not without detractors.  

In a short essay in his book After Confucianism, the U. Penn scholar Paul Goldin takes strong issue with Chen's thesis, arguing that there is little evidence to suggest that Ban Zhao was influenced by Daoist thought. He also trashes the quality of Ban Zhao's poetry and court memorials, and states outright that Lessons for Women "reduced the complex gender discourse of the venerable canons to a rigid and inhibiting set of protocols that has long been an embarrassment to traditional Chinese ethics."

Goldin goes so far as to close his essay by suggesting that Chen's "attempt to rehabilitate [Ban Zhao's] image" has been greeted with a wave of "scholarly sympathy" mainly because a new wave of feminist historians are eager to reinterpret Chinese classics from a modern gender-aware perspective.

Differences of opinion about textual analysis of 2000-year-old documents are difficult to adjudicate. Was Ban Zhao a wily Daoist giving veiled hints to her daughters on how to thrive in the imperial snake's nest, or just another preachy Confucian? We will likely never have a definitive answer.

But what we do have, thanks to feminist historians, is a much broader range of possibilities for women in ancient China than the conventional historical record, so ably articulated by Goldin, would have it. And thank god for that, for all of the women (and men) who have dedicated so much effort in recent decades to excavating the stories and reputations of women whose remarkable achievements have been buried by millennia of male-on-male obsessed discourse.

Chinese history becomes so much more interesting after one reads the following sentence from Empress Deng's fifth century biography: "When the empress Deng became regent she conferred with Ban Zhao concerning affairs of the state." Suddenly one can dally with fanciful visions of the young Empress and the elder Court Historian relaxing after a hard day of ably administering a great empire, rather than be forced to submit to the monotonous horror stories in which every powerful Chinese woman -- from Empress Lu (consort to the Han Dynasty's founding emperor) to the Tang Dynasty's Empress Wu (the only woman in all of Chinese history to rule under her own name) all the way to the Dowager Empress Cixi at the close of the Qing) --- is remembered as a murderous and immoral tyrant.

A bigger universe for Chinese women in the scope of Chinese history is a bigger universe for us all.

Which brings me all the way back to RBG. Both in eminently practical terms -- changes to the legal code that emancipated women from structural inferiority to men -- and as an living breathing example of what a brilliant woman can achieve on her own merits, Ruth Bader Ginsberg expanded the universe of possibility not just for all women, but for all of us. We are richer because of her.

My first reaction to the news of her death was to mourn the future that will go on without her. But far better, I think, to celebrate what she gave us, and then do our best to follow her example. That's a lesson to cherish, even if my route to it was so convoluted that it had to detour through the Han Dynasty. But hey, whatever gets you through the night -- and the next 48 days.