Remarkable Women in Ancient China (3)- Ban Zhao

Who is she:

  • The first female historian in Chinese history, a renowned politician and poet
  • Author of the influential text “Lessons for Women” that is inextricably linked to female suppression

Notable life events:

  • Born into the prestigious Ban family (which was reputedly the descendants of a famous philosopher in the Warring State Period) as the daughter of Ban Biao, one of the most influential scholar of his time. She had two elder brothers: the eldest Ban Gu who was also a historian and the renowned Ban Zhao who turned from a scholar into a general and was instrumental in securing China’s western border. Note that the Zhaos in the two siblings’ names were actually different Chinese characters- the Zhao in her brother’s name meant surpass whereas hers meant bright
  • Married at the age of 14 to Cao Shi Shou from the same province, widowed early and chose to remain widowed throughout her life
  • Instrumental in getting permission from the Emperor to allow Ban Zhao to retire from his post at the western border and return to their homeland. Unfortunately, he died soon after arrival such that the two of them never got to see each other again
  • Invited by the Emperor to finish the historical text that her father started and her eldest brother Ban Gu left unfinished due to his untimely demise due to politics
  • Viewed as an instructor by the Empress and concubines of the Emperor and coming to be known as Cao Da Gu (roughly meaning Big Aunt Cao). In particular, only elderly women of high prestige and virtue at that time would be referred to as Da Gu
  • Authored the text “Lessons for Women” in her old age so that her female descendants would know how to properly behave when they were married

Why is she remarkable:

  • There were many renowned female poets and politicians throughout Chinese history. In comparison, female historians were much rarer. In fact, I couldn’t find any other mention of other female historians (that might be just the limit of Google but I also think even if there are others, female historians would still be less numerous compared to poets and politicians)
  • While she herself was a highly influential female figure outside the home, her “Lessons for Women” became one of the texts that later propagated the main tenets of female repression and led to a more subdued role of women in society

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I found it hard to conceptualise her as a person and so I can’t really hold an opinion about her. I’ve previously discussed a little my attitude on gender roles but in the case of Ban Zhao, I don’t think you can really fault her for the outcome that her book led to greater repression. Sure, it basically espoused the view that women should be obedient and weak but I think we need to put it into the context that she was happily married (note that she chose to remain widowed) in a society where marriages were predominantly arranged by parents and sometimes without any consultation with the one who was about to get married! So of course she could afford to be obedient and weak if her husband was treating her well and given that she wrote the book for her direct descendants, I think she probably assumed that all women could be happily married if they behaved like her.

What my Favourite Characters tell me about Myself

The previous two posts have all been about my writing so I thought I would change the pace a bit by talking about a topic that leans towards the reading side: a reflection of the attributes of my favourite characters and what they show about me.  

Firstly, I like a female protagonist who is proud. I mean, I like Mr Darcy too so it’s not just female necessarily but I definitely have a special fondness for female protagonists who are proud so Lizzy Bennett is of course high on my list. As for connection to myself, it’s probably obvious but I am proud (though most probably won’t guess it) and I like being proud. That is not at all the same as being arrogant, just saying but you get the idea.

Secondly, I have a fondness for characters who are a bit ‘bumbling’- that’s the closest word I can come to. I cannot think of a good well-known example in fantasy example for your clumsy mage archetype and the ‘duckling to swan’ female protagonists that are more prominent features of women fiction. In similar veins, I like characters who are a bit odd in some way or socially awkward. For example, I’m rather taken with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, a female sleuth who has a general people issue that crops up in many areas including relatives, romance and when she works on her cases.

Finally, I have a preference for characters who are morally good. If you wonder how come I’ve never given an example in relation to my favourite genre of fantasy, well, this is where it comes in. In at least 80% of the fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed, they are good triumph over evil stories so you get the picture. Having said that, I think I’ve come to appreciate grey more than black and white as I age so my definition of good has changed or relaxed. But I’ve never been interested in a ‘fallen into the darkness’ story such as how Anniken Skywalker became Darthvader. I think this reflects my own moral stance but also I think it’s just part of my reading taste in general.

And there you go: I think that’s a pretty neat summary of myself at your disposal. 🙂

Sneak Peek: My Tentative Next Series

What?! You have a next series already lined up when you haven’t officially debuted with a single book yet? I know most of you are thinking this but it is true. In fact, if I look at my commercial project list document (to be distinguished from my idea journal where anything goes although the distinction is pretty lost by now), I have a trilogy for which I know the core idea and already started a preliminary outline for book 1, another trilogy for which I had a one-liner synopsis of each book and at least two other series that I felt drawn to or a bit more well-formed than the state I call “trapped in the nebulous” which is basically just an idea.

Anyway, today’s post is about the trilogy for which there is already an outline for book 1. It’s my tentative next series because I operate like an artist which is to say completely on whims. The core idea of this trilogy is this: it is going to be about three women that immediately succeed each other within this same lineage; in other words, grandmother, mother and daughter. Furthermore, the grandmother and the daughter are going to be mirror images of each other where the mother is going to be the odd one out.

To be honest, this idea has evolved a lot from the beginning. At first, it was going to be the repercussion of a single deed that the grandmother’s done on the mother and the daughter. The story itself was essentially about this deed being told three times, from each of the three women’s perspectives. But well, as it happened, now the story still retained this aspect but the focus is very different. It’s much more about how individuals with different characters perceive and react to the same set of events.

Those who have followed my blog for a while might have noticed that I have a fascination for world building. So for this series, my mind has concocted a fantasy musical instrument that represents the dynamics between the grandmother, mother and daughter. I shall leave a bit of space for imagination before I have much more substantial progress on this series. The other aspect I will mention is that somehow my mind decided to thrust this into the Han dynasty and this will involve a fair bit of political intrigue at the Imperial Palace.  

Meta Fiction- Han Yu

Appearance:

An irregular shaped block of white crystalline rock, on top of which six strings of undefined material lay.

Special Property:

The strings of Han Yu exudes a slight chill that can be felt if one passes one’s hand close above them. However, upon actual contract with human flesh, they start to exude mild warmth. This property gave rise to the term *Han Yu Sheng Wen (literally Cold Jade giving birth to warmth) which is used to describe a pleasant surprise.

*This term is based on actual Chinese characters but the term itself is made up

Benefit:

Tunes played from Han Yu have a calming effect on their audiences and also provide them with better mind focus.

Drawback:

When played, coldness is summoned to a radius approximately equal to its maximum hearing range. The drop in temperature is a very gradual process. However, that is not to say that the effect could not be lethal*. The well-known incident in which a gathering between several masters of the guqin, among them Master Plum Blossom who happened to be the owner of Han Yu and was using it to perform his masterpiece “The three variations of plum blossom” at the time, resulted in all attendees being frozen to death remained the most lamented event among those with a true appreciation for music.

Lore:

Reputedly, Han Yu was not made by conventional craftsmanship but rather a product of nature. It was said that the strings of Han Yu were actually morning dew condensed into line form by Snow Spirits who were the original owner of this legendary instrument that have now fallen into mortal hands.

Twist:

Whenever Han Yu is played, it acts as a beacon to Snow Spirits. Moreover, it not only attracts them but the sound produced from Han Yu acts as an aphrodisiac that put them ‘in heat’. In fact, the drawback of this instrument is entirely attributable to the tendency of this instrument to put Snow Spirits in heat.