The Views of A Female Confucian
from Nancy Lee Swann, trans, Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, (New York: Century Co., , 1932), pp. 82-90 repr. in Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Vol 1, 2d. ed., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), pp. 148-53
[Andrea Introduction] Education in the Confucian classics increasingly became one of several avenues to a position of social and political power in Han China. Confucian doctrine, however, did not accord women a status equal to that of men, because women were generally regarded as unworthy or incapable of a literary education. In fact, the Confucian classics say little about women, which shows how little they rnattred in the scheme of Confucian values. Most Confucians accepted the subservience of women to men as natural and proper. In their view, failure to maintain a proper relationship between two such obviously unequal people as a husband and wife or brother and sister would result in social disharmony and a breakdown of all the rules of propriety.
Yet this was only part of the traditional Chinese view of women. Both Confucian doctrine and Chinese society at large accorded women, as noth mothers and mothers-in-law, a good deal of honor, and with that honor came power within the family structure. In every age, moreover, a handful of extraordinary women managed to acquire literary educations or otherwise achieve positions of far-ranging influence and authority despite social constraints. The foremost female Confucian of the age of Han was Ban Zhao (ca 45-116 CE), younger sister of the court historian Ban Gu (32 – 92 CE). Upon Gu’s death,, Zhao served as imperial historian under Emperor Han Hedi (r. 88-105 CE) and completed her brother’s Han Annals, a history of the Former Han Dynasty, which is generally regarded as second only to the historical work of Sima Qian. Ban Zhao also served as an adviser on state matters to the Empress Deng, who assumed power as regent for her infant son in 106 CE.
Madame Ban was the daughter of the widely respected writer and administrator Ban Biao (3- 54 CE) and received her elementary education from her literate mother while still a child in her father’s house. Otherwise, her early life appears to have been quite conventional. She married at the agof 14, thereby becoming the lowest-ranking member of her husband’s family, and bore children. Although her husband died young, Ban Zhao never remarried, devoting herself instead to literary pursuits and acquiring a reputation for scholarship and compositional grace that eventually brought her to the imperial.
Among her many literary works, Ban Zhao composed a commentary on the popular Lives of Admirable Women by Liu Kiang (77- 6 BC) and later in life produced her most famous work, the Nü Jie, or Lessons for Women, which purports to be an instructional manual on feminine behavior and virtue for her daughters. In fact, she intended it for a much wider audience. Realizing that Confucian texts contained little in the way of specific and practical guidelines for a woman’s everyday her, Ban Zhao sought to fill that void with a coherent set of rules for women, especially young women.
I, the unworthy writer, am unsophisticated, unenlightened, and by nature unintelligent, but I am fortunate both to have received not a little favor from my scholarly Father, and to have had a cultured mother and instructresses upon whom to rely for a literary education as well as for training in good manners. More than forty years have passed since at the age of fourteen I took up the dustpan and the broom in the Cao family [the family into which she married]. During this time with trembling heart I feared constantly that I might disgrace my parents, and that I might multiply difficulties for both the women and the men of my husband’s family. Day and night I was distressed in heart, but I labored without confessing weariness. Now and hereafter, however, I know how to escape from such fears.
Being careless, and by nature stupid, I taught and trained my children without system. Consequently I fear that my son Gu may bring disgrace upon the Imperial Dynasty by whose Holy Grace he has unprecedentedly received the extraordinary privilege of wearing the Gold and the Purple, a privilege for the attainment of which by my son, I a humble subject never even hoped. Nevertheless, now that he is a man and able to plan his own life, I need not again have concern for him. But I do grieve that you, my daughters, just now at the age for marriage, have not at this time had gradual training and advice; that you still have not learned the proper customs for married women. l fear that by failure in good manners in other families you will humiliate both your ancestors and your clan. I am now seriously ill, life is uncertain. As I have thought of you all in so untrained a state, I have been uneasy many a time for you. At hours of leisure I have composed… these instructions under the title, “Lessons for Women.” In order that you may have something wherewith to benefit your persons, I wish every one of you, my daughters each to write out a copy for yourself.
From this time on every one of you strive to practice these lessons.
CHAPTER ONE: HUMILITY
On the third day after the birth of a girl the ancients observed three customs: first to place the baby below the bed; second to give her a potsherd [a piece of broken pottery] with which to play; and third to announce her birth to her ancestors by an offering. Now to lay the baby below the bed plainly indicated that she is lowly and weak, and should regard it as her primary duty to humble herself before others. To give her potsherds with which to play indubitably signified that she should practice labor and consider it her primary duty to be industrious. To announce her birth before her ancestors clearly meant that she ought to esteem as her primary duty the continuation of the observance of worship in the home.
These three ancient customs epitomize woman’s ordinary way of life and the teachings of the traditional ceremonial rites and regulations. Let a woman modestly yield to others; 1et her respect others; let her put others first, herself last. Should she do something good, let her not mention it; should she do something bad let her not deny it. Let her bear disgrace; let her even endure when others speak or do evil to her. Always let her seem to tremble and to fear. When a woman follows such maxims as these then she may be said to humble herself before others.
Let a woman retire late to bed, but rise early to duties; let her nor dread tasks by day or by night. Let her not refuse to perform domestic duties whether easy or difficult. That which must be done, let her finish completely, tidily, and systematically, When a woman follows such rules as these, then she may be said to be industrious.
Let a woman be correct in manner and upright in character in order to serve her husband. Let her live in purity and quietness of spirit, and attend to her own affairs. Let her love not gossip and silly laughter. Let her cleanse and purify and arrange in order the wine and the food for the offerings to the ancestors. When a woman observes such principles as these, then she may be said to continue ancestral worship.
No woman who observes these three fundamentals of life has ever had a bad reputation or has fallen into disgrace. If a woman fail to observe them, how can her name be honored; how can she but bring disgrace upon herself?
CHAPTER TWO: HUSBAND AND WIFE
The Way of husband and wife is intimately connected with Yin and Yang [these are the two basis elements of the Universe: Yin, the soft yielding feminine element, and Yang the hard aggressive male element. Every substance contains both elements in varying proportions]. 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. Therefore the “Rites” [The Classic of Rites] honor union of man and woman; and in the “Book of Poetry” [The Classic of Odes] the “First Ode” manifests the principle of marriage. For these reasons the relationships cannot but be an important one.
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 husband does not control his wife, then the rules of conduct manifesting his authority are abandoned and broken. If a wife does not serve her husband, when the proper relationship between men and women and the natural order of things are neglected and destroyed. As a matter of fact the purpose of these two [the controlling of women by men, and the serving of men by women] is the same.
Now examine the gentlemen of the present age. They only know that wives must be controlled, and that the husband’s rules of conduct manifesting his authority must be established. They therefore teach their boys to read books and study histories. But they do not in the least understand that husbands and masters must also be served, and that the proper relationship and the rites should be maintained.
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 years, 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?
CHAPTER THREE: RESPECT AND CAUTION
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 is yielding. Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness. Hence there arose the common saying: “A man though born like a wolf may, it is feared, become a weak monstrosity; a woman though born like a mouse may, it is feared, become a tiger.”
Now For self-culture nothing equals respect for others. 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. So respect may be defined as nothing other than holding on to that which is permanent; and acquiescence nothing other than being liberal and generous. Those who are steadfast in devotion know that they should stay in their proper places; those who are liberal and generous esteem others, and honor and serve chem.
If husband and wife have the habit of staying together, never leaving one another, and following each other around within the limited space of their own rooms, then they will lust after and take liberties with one another. From such action improper language will arise between the two This kind of discussion may lead co licentiousness. But of licentiousness will be born a heart of disrespect to the husband. Such a result comes From not knowing that one should stay in one’s proper place.
Furthermore, affairs may be either crooked or straight; words may be either right or wrong. Straightforwardness cannot but lead to quarreling; crookedness cannot but lead to accusation. If there are really accusations and quarrels, then undoubtedly there will be angry affairs. Such a result comes from not esteeming others, and not honoring and serving them.
If wives suppress not contempt for husbands, then it follows that such wives rebuke and scold their husbands. If husbands stop not short of anger, then they are certain to beat their wives. The correct relationship between husband and wife is based upon harmony and intimacy, and conjugal love is grounded in proper union. Should actual blows be dealt, how could matrimonial relationship be preserved? Should sharp words be spoken, how could conjugal love exist? If love and proper relationship both be destroyed, then husband and wife are divided.
CHAPTER FOUR: WOMANLY QUALIFICATIONS
A woman ought to have four qualifications: (1) womanly virtue; (2) womanly words; (3) womanly bearing; and (4) womanly work. Now what is called womanly virtue need not be brilliant ability, exceptionally different from others. Womanly words need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation. Womanly appearance requires neither a pretty nor a perfect face and form. Womanly work need not be work done more skillfully than that of others.
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.
To choose her words with care; to avoid vulgar language; to speak at appropriate times; and nor to weary others with much conversation, may be called the characteristics of womanly words.
To wash and scrub filth away; to keep clothes and ornaments fresh and clean; to wash the head and bathe the body regularly, and to keep the person free from disgraceful filth, may be called the characteristics of womanly bearing.
With wholehearted devotion to sew and to weave; to love not gossip and silly laughter; in cleanliness and order to prepare the wine and food for serving guests, may be called the characteristics of womanly work.
These four qualifications characterize the greatest virtue of a woman. No woman can afford to be without them. In fact they are very easy to possess if a woman only treasure them in her heart. The ancients had a saying: “Is love afar off? If I desire love, then love is at hand!” So can it be said of these qualifications.
CHAPTER FIVE: WHOLEHEARTED DEVOTION
Now in the Rites is written the principle that a husband may marry again, but there is no canon that authorizes a woman to be married the second time. Therefore it is said of husbands as of Heaven, that as certainly as people cannot run away from Heaven, so surely a wife cannot leave a husband’s home.
If people in action or character disobey the spirits of Heaven and Earth, then Heaven punishes them. Likewise if a woman errs in the rites and in the proper mode of conduct, then her husband esteems her lightly. The ancient book, A Pattern for Women, says, “To obtain the love of one manis the crown of a woman’s life; to lose the lose of one man is to miss the aim in a woman’s life.” For these reasons a woman cannot but seek to win her husband’s heart. Nevertheless, the beseeching wife need not to use flattery, coaxing words, and cheap methods to gain intimacy.
Decidedly nothing is better to gain the heart of a husband than wholehearted devotion and correct manners. In accordance with the rites and the proper mode of conduct, let a woman live a pure life. Let her have ears that hear not licentiousness and eyes that see not depravity. When she goes outside her own home, let her not be conspicuous in dress and manner. When at home let her not neglect her dress. Women should not assemble in groups, not to gather together, for gossip and silly laughter. They should not stand watching in the gateways. If a woman follows these rules, she may not be said to have wholehearted devotion and correct manners.
If, in all her actions, she is frivolous, she sees and hears only that which pleases herself. At home her hair is dishevled and her dress is slovenly. Outside the home she emphasizes her femininity to attract attention; she says what ought not to be said; and she looks at what ought notto be seen. If a woman does such as these, she may be said to be without wholehearted devotion and correct manners.
CHAPTER SIX: IMPLICIT OBEDIENCE
Now “to win the love of one man is the crown of a woman’s life; to lose the love of one man is her eternal disgrace”. This saying advises a fixed will and a wholehearted devotion for a woman. Ought she then to lose the hearts of her father- and mother-in-laws?
There are times when love may lead to differences of opinion between individuals; there are times when duty may lead to disagreement. Even should the husband say that he loves something, when the parent-in-law say “no”, this is called a case of duty leading to disagreement. This being so, then what about the hearts of the parents-in-laws? Nothing is better than an obedience that sacrifices personal opinion.
Whenever the mother-in-law says, “Do not do that,” and if what she says is right, unquestionably the daughter-in-law obeys. Whenever the mother-in-law says, “Do that,” even if what she says is wrong, still the daughter-in-law submits unfailingly to the command.
Let a woman not act contrary to the wishes and the opinions of parents-in-law about right and wrong; let her not dispute with the them what is straight and what is crooked. Such docility may called obedience which sacrifices personal opinion. Therefore the ancient book, “A Pattern for Women,” says: “If a daughter-in-law who follows the wishes of her parents-in-law is like and echo and shadow, how could she not be praised?
QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS
- What does Ban Zhao tell us about the status of daughters-in- law? Ho has she escaped from the fears of such servitude?
- According to Ban Zhao, what rules of propriety should govern a marriage?
- What does Ban Zhao consider the principal duty of a husband? of a wife?
- How and why are they complementary parts of the natural order of the universe?
- What sort of education does she advocate for women, and what ist its purpose? Why are we able to infer that her daughters also received at least a rudimentary education in Confucian literature?
- In what way and why does Ban Zhao advocate a departure from tradition?
- What does her claim to lack of intelligence suggest? Do you think she was sincere in this claim?
- What was there about Ban Zhao’s essay which has caused it to be so highly regarded by Confucian scholars over the following centuries?
- Would it be correct to call Ban Zhao a feminist?