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Ban Zhao, the First Female Chinese Philosopher and Historian

“How can those who count pennies calculate their worth? They may carve monuments yet lack all understanding.”
– Ban Zhao

Ban Zhao is known to be the first female Chinese philosopher, scholar, and poet. With a keen interest in astronomy, mathematics, history, poetry, and argumentations, she has greatly contributed to Chinese culture and philosophy.

As a renowned scholar during her time, Ban Zhou was also a major contributor to the Book of Han, one of the best-known Chinese history books ever written that covered the Han dynasty.


Her story

Ban Zhou was born in 45 C.E. during the Han dynasty in Anling, near modern Xianyang, Shaanxi province, to an elite family who carried connections to the imperial court. Her father was Ban Biao, a famous Chinese historian; her older brothers, Ban Chao and Ban Gu, were a military general and historian respectively; and grandaunt Consort Ban was a notable scholar and poet.

Ban Zhou was well educated and often tutored by her mother. At the age of 14, she married Cao Shishu, who lived in her hometown. She was recognized as “Venerable Madame Cao” in the court. Although her husband died young, leaving her with kids to raise on her own, she never remarried again as she chose to dedicate her time to scholarly pursuits. This, in turn, led to her success as a philosopher and historian, as well as her most famous work, titled, “Lessons for Women.”



As a historian, philosopher, and taking on a significant role in an imperial court, one of her greatest contributions was her success itself, especially in a male-dominated world. Despite the criticism and restrictions that she must have faced during her time, Ban Zhou carried on, devoting her life to knowledge and teaching, contributing to Chinese history.

Her work, “Lessons for Women,” has become the most popular treatise on the education and conduct of women in China. Ban Zhou dedicated it to the daughters in her family. It also eventually circulated in the royal court. Although “Lessons for Women” was seen as a survival guide for women as heads of the household, Ban Zhou’s work was focused on earning respect from society in order to gain power from their male counterparts just as she had done.

A lot of interpretations of “Lessons for Women” indicate that it’s a founding text of Confucian feminism. Although Confucianism may seem misogynistic to some, Ban Zhou emphasized the Confucian teachings that focus on the social action, roles, and responsibilities of women that would contribute to a balance of gender roles and harmonious society.

She strengthens and emphasizes the value of women and their societal roles. They must fulfill their duty to their families, ancestors, and society so they would be worthy of respect from men and even possibly rise above their current status.

Ban Zhou didn’t only write what she knew but also practiced what she preached and taught. She was ansi personally chosen to be the closest Lady-in-Waiting to Empress Deng Sui, the regent of China at that time, which showed Ban Zhao’s ability to garner respect from people regardless of being a woman at that time.

She utilized her intelligence and promoted her ideas to become one of the most trusted by the Empress and members of the court in the royal library. She gained and held much political power and influence in the imperial court.


Interested in wise Chinese philosophers? Get to know more of them here.

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