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.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (2)- Empress Dou

Who is she:

  • Wife to Emperor Wen, mother to Emperor Jing and grandmother to Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)
  • A woman who has risen from a root of poverty to have influence across three different reigns

Notable life events:

  • Born into a poor family in the province of Qinghe in the year just before the founding of the Han dynasty. Her name was commonly thought of as being Yi Fong but might be just Yi or unknown
  • Recruited to the Imperial Court as a lady in waiting for Dowager Empress Lu at about the age of 13
  • Gifted as lady in waiting to her future husband at the age of 15 by mistake (she asked to be put on the list going to her home province but the one in charge of allocating ladies in waiting to different Lords forgot and put her on the wrong list)
  • Made Empress at the age of 18 on the basis of having birthed Emperor Jing’s eldest son (later Emperor Jing)
  • Transferred her belief in the Taoist philosophy to the Emperor across the three consecutive reigns that she personally experienced; her death marked the ushering in an era where Confucianism held supreme over all other schools of thought in Imperial China (at least as far as the Imperial Court is concerned).

Why is she remarkable:

  • She had heavy political influence across three different reigns and her reign marked the end of a ruling regime that was generous towards the populace as pertaining to the  ‘action without intention’ and other principles of Taoism
  • Clearly, hers is a rags-to-riches story on an epic scale

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I don’t really like her or dislike her but I think she is a dynamic character and her actions create unconventional consequences For example, on the one hand, she meddled heavily in politics and was known for elevating those from her birth family which normally leads to corruption. Yet, the Taosim regime that she was instrumental in creating or at least encouraging was seen as inseparable from the prosperity of her husband and son’s reigns.

Remarkable Females in Ancient China (1)- Dugu Qieluo

If you are curious why I’m doing this series because you missed last week’s post, check it out here
qieluo

Who is she:

  • Wife to Yang Jian, founder of the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) which was built on the demise of the Northern Zhou dynasty when Yang Jian made its last Emperor yield the throne to him
  • formally known as Empress Dugu in life or Empress Wenxian after death
  • The seventh daughter born to her parents- a general of Xianbei (a major nomadic group residing in what’s now eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Northeast China) ethnicity and a Chinese lady of noble birth

Notable life events:

  • Named Qieluo for tagara in Sanskrit which has a host of Buddhist connotations, most notably Valerian which is a herb used for incenses
  • Married Yang Jian at the age of 14
  • Dissuaded the Emperor Xuan of the Northern Zhou dynasty, husband to her eldest daughter, from making her commit suicide through “intensive begging and pleading, kowtowing and bleeding” (now that’s the perseverance of a mother!) 
  • Persuaded her husband to ascend to the throne when he was indecisive on whether to continue making the last Emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty his puppet or ascending the throne himself
  • Instrumental in the deposing of her eldest son from the office of Crown Prince to be replaced by her second eldest, who became the second and last Emperor of the Sui Dynasty
  • Known for being jealous
    • Abolished all of the high ranking positions for royal concubines and drastically cut back on their numbers (She was the first Empress who was allowed to make decisions regarding the system regarding royal concubines, ahead of the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty aka the only female Emperor of ancient China)
    • When they were both middle aged, she killed a palace slave of noble descent that her husband had bedded once, prompting him to ride away from the Imperial Palace in anger

Why is she remarkable:

  • It was well recorded that she was loved by her husband, which is far from the norm for most royal couples of ancient China. Furthermore, she
    • was the first Empress to give birth to all of his children (10 of them in total, 5 princes and princesses)
    • and her husband was the first and one of the two royal couples in ancient China ever recorded to live together daily as opposed to apart in separate palaces
    • was mourned intensely by her husband who later expressed a wish to be reunited with her after death when he became very sick just prior to his own death
  • She was the only Empress considered to be equal to her husband in status during his reign by court officials and maintained her influence on him throughout her life. This was opposed to many Empresses who gained power after the demise of their husbands and exerted or even usurped power from their own sons.

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I’m not normally drawn to Court women (Empresses and Dowager Empresses and the like)- those few I know are too ambitious and power-hungry for my taste (this could be the way they are portrayed but then again I have a general aversion in taste against anything related to Court intrigue and politics). But I think I admire Dugu Qieluo and in particular, I admire her known jealousy. Well, not for the sake of her jealousy per se, but to the extent that I feel that she’s authentic to her womanhood in that respect. Ancient China was a monogamistic society and I’ve grown up with the impression that women of that time mostly accept that as their due. I understand that- most people conform to societal norms, but on a deep-seated level, I think I am repulsed due to my feminist streak. Going back to Dugu Qieluo, it might be a trait gifted to her via her Xianbei lineage (apparently the Xianbei society had some matriarchal traits).

The other thing that made her stand out for me was that she didn’t have to seize power by force or trick at all (as I said above, I have no admiration for ambitious individuals in general, I don’t care what great deeds they have done), it just came about naturally for her.

*Note: I mainly used Chinese sources but there is an English Wiki on her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugu_Qieluo

Also, I’m going on holiday in November so there will be no blog posts during that time. But I will come back in December.