A Woman Historian and Product of Her Time
Ban Zhao, the first known Chinese woman historian, lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25 - 200), and is best known for her contribution to the completion of the Han Shu (History of the Han Dynasty), which covers the entire Western Han period (206BC - AD24). As China's first book on dynastic history, it constitutes the second volume in the Twenty-Four Histories, and sets the style of writing for the rest of the dynastic annals. The Han Shu consists of 120 volumes divided into four parts: Biographies of the 12 Western Han emperors and major events during the reign of each emperor; the Eight Tables listing the names of princes, the emperor's in-laws and the leading officials in chronological order; the Ten Registries dealing with rules and laws; and Biographies of 70 outstanding personalities. Of the four parts, the Eight Tables was compiled by Ban Zhao.
Ban Zhao, also known as Ban Ji or Ban Huiban, was born around AD49 in Fufeng, Anling (east of present-day Xianyang, Shaanxi province) during the reign of Emperor Guangwu. By 14, Ban Zhao had married Cao Shou, a fellow townsman, who died some years later leaving Ban Zhao with several children. Two of the sons, Cao Cheng and Cao Gu, became famous Han scholars.
Her father, Ban Biao, was a popular magistrate of Wangdu County (in present day Hebei province). As a boy he had studied the classics and later became an ambitious prose writer. he was well aware that Sima Qian's Shiji (Historical Records), did not cover the years following 101BC during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty. Many had tried to record the events of those years but their efforts did not measure up to his standards. He resolved to tackle the work himself, entitling it Hou Ji, or, The Sequel to the Historical Records. In AD 54, however, he died leaving his work unfinished.
His eldest son, Ban Gu, then studying away from home, returned to attend the funeral, and set himself the task of sorting out his father's manuscripts and completing the unfinished work. Dissatisfied with the title, he changed it into Han Shu. In AD62, he was accused of altering the history and was imprisoned. Upon imperial review of the manuscript, however, Ban Gu's potential was realized and he was set free. In addition, he was appointed an official editor with the Lantai Imperial Library entrusted with the task of completing the Han Shu. Ban Gu was given access to many rare books and archives. His younger brother, Ban Chao, though a general of great accomplishments, also had a part in the preparation of the Han Shu when he was a librarian and editor at the Lantai Imperial Library before he joined the army. Nonetheless, it was Ban Gu whose work on that manuscript went on for more than 20 years who is credited for the books completion.
In his later years, Ban Gu was again involved in the court's power struggle and jailed a second time. He died in prison in AD92 before he finished the Eight Tables and the section on astronomy. Anxious to have the work completed, the emperor issued an order than Ban Biao's daughter go to the capital Luoyang to complete the taks left by her father and brother. Like her brother, she was permitted access to all books and archive in the Dongguan Imperial Library.
As Ban Zhao had read a wide variety of classical works, and had been taught by both her father and brother, she had become a talented scholar good at writing essays and prose. Her work in the Library required use of all those skills and after many industrious years of reading and checking, she finally finished the Eight Tables, thus completing the unfinished task entrusted to her.
As a compilation of names essential to the larger work, the Eight Tables also provides a complete list of the careers and lines of succession of aristocrats and high officials of the Western Han Dynasty and of those who rendered meritorious service. The categorized personalities and neatly presented facts are, as far as historians can verify, complete, and the lineages accurately charted. It serves as a useful index and supplement to the rest of the contents in the Han Shu.
Historians have remarked about the logical and intelligent organization of the tables, noting the compiler's scholastic level was quite high.
Thus, the Han Shu was actually written by four people over a period of 30 to 40 years, and was carefully checked, edited, and finalized by Ban Zhao.
It is now known that Ban Zhao was not only well versed to history. She was also a good teacher. The language of the Han Shu was difficult for the average person to understand. Consequently, Ban Zhao used to give lectures in the Dongguan Library. Later, the emperor made her the tutor of his queen, his concubines and the ladies-in-waiting, who addressed her as Cao Dagu - Cao being her husband's family name, and Dagu, an honorific title reserved for well-read and talented women.
One of Ban Zhao's students was the queen Deng Sui, who began to study under Ban Zhao when she first came to the court in AD95 at the age of 15. The subjects studied included astronomy, arithmetic, and natural sciences. When the emperor died, leaving his throne to his 100 day-old son, Deng Su became the acting sovereign. Only 26 at the time, she used to seek out Ban Zhao for consultation and advice.
In AD113, Ban Zhao's son, Cao Gu was appointed magistrate of Chenliu county. Although well advanced in age, Ban Zhao decided to accompany him. Her impressions of things she saw on the long journey were recorded to her ode Journey to the East, which has fortunately survived to this day. Ban Zhao died in her seventies, leaving behind a number of academic works, and a mournful public.
Born to a family belonging to the ruling class, Ban Zhao had an unswerving allegiance to feudal rites and ethics which she maintained should never be transgressed. To educate her daughter in her later years, she wrote Admonitions for Women consisting of seven chapters which later served as an important guide to conduct placing women under strict feudal restraints.
Despite the limitations of her time and the feudal views inherent in her family background, Ban Zhao's spirit of meticulous study and her impressive academic record rank her among the highly esteemed women in China's history.