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“Lessons for Women” by Ban Zhao Essay

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Updated: May 6th, 2020

Introduction

The primary sources are valuable resources for historical research. They allow for studying the epoch they belong to less indirectly, often creating a less biased picture of that society. In this paper, we will analyze the text labeled Lessons for Women (qtd. in Strayer 244-246), written by a prominent Chinese woman scholar Ban Zhao (45-116 CE), and try to see the cultural implications this text leads to.

Steps 1 and 2

While performing our research, we carefully read the text, Lessons for Women. From the very title, as well as from the contents of the text, it follows that the intended audience was women of the Chinese society, perhaps mostly the young ones who were yet to learn the ways of proper behavior. The text comprises advice on behavior for women and rather detailed explanations of why they should behave this way and not another.

Numerous views of that culture about how a woman (and sometimes a man) should act to be a proper part of the community are expressed. From the contemporary Western point of view, most, if not virtually all, of these opinions can be considered biased towards the gender roles of people. For instance, Ban Zhao constantly stresses that a woman should occupy an inferior position in the family compared to man; that she ought to serve her husband; that she should be nothing distinguished, etc.

Step 3

According to Strayer, Ban Zhao wrote her text to help implement the teachings of Confucianism in the lives of Chinese women and the way they behaved (244). As the text contains the explanations of how women should behave and why it is clear that the main purpose is to teach them proper behavior. The document is written in the form of instructions and elaborations. The form is essential for the purpose, for the text directly tells the audience what to do and why, and what can go wrong if the readers fail to follow the instructions.

Upon reading the text, it becomes evident that the author makes a number of assumptions; they are principles which constitute the basis of that society. For instance, an assumption that can easily be seen in the text is that there exists a natural order of things, and that the described hierarchy is a part of that order.

It is also supposed that, should a person deviate from their role that this natural order dictates, their life will go wrong. (Which was, clearly, correct, at least in most cases, for such misbehavior was likely to be met at least with social disapproval.)

Step 4

Ban Zhao was a distinguished woman of her time, and her works played a significant role in the future course of Chinese history (Bennett Peterson 98-99). Therefore, it is evident that the perceptions expressed in her text that characterize the Chinese society are highly credible. Lessons for Women permits to learn much about the community of that time and the roles of people as they were perceived there. However, it also allows for reading between the lines; and doing so can yield interesting conclusions.

For instance, we could ask a question: does the author criticize her society in any way? Does she wish for any changes? And yes, we can clearly see the passage where she criticizes the lack of education provided for girls.1 Another interesting moment in the text is when Ban Zhao explains the consequences of improper behavior in a family.2 It suddenly comes out that the contempt of women towards their husbands needed to be addressed.

In fact, the very existence of such a book might mean that society was experiencing some problems related to the existing social order. This is, though, understandable, for it should be impossible that the constant suppression and interiorization of a large part of the community did not lead to any dissatisfaction.

Clearly, the text provides too little evidence to assume that Ban Zhao was questioning the social order to any significant extent; however, being able to express her dismay in such a way that it would be consistent with the dominating views indicates the skillfulness of the author.

To us, this document is a compelling piece of work that characterizes the Chinese society of the 1st century CE (and, clearly, many years before and after that, if we take into account the anti-historicism of the Chinese Confucian culture and its length (Levenson 108)). Whereas the principles were important to the people of China of that time, it is not of great importance to our society today, for our culture is very different from that of China of the times of Ban Zhao.

From the point of view of our culture, we can say that the society as it appears in the works of Ban Zhao does not seem appealing, for the strict hierarchy and the imposed inferiority of women, the view that they should only be humble, obedient servants of men seems to us humiliating for the people of both sexes, depriving ones of any choice and freedom and making others the deprivers. Clearly, there should have been women who were quite happy in that context, but we don’t think there were very many of them.

As for us, we do not very often have to understand the assumptions of other cultures to comprehend our classmates, for, having lived in rather a multicultural society, we are quite used to the multiplicity of views.

Conclusion

To sum up, it should be said that Lessons for Women is a significant piece of historical evidence that allows us to learn much about the Chinese society at that time. By asking additional questions about the text, it is possible to make important assumptions about the culture which created it.

Works Cited

Bennett Peterson, Barbara, ed. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2000. Print.

Levenson, Joseph R. Confucian China and Its Modern Fate. Volume Three: The Problem of Historical Significance. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Strayer, Robert W. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. 2013. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Print.

Footnotes

1 “Yet only to teach men and not to teach women – is that not ignoring the essential relation between them?… Only why should it not be that girls’ education, as well as boys’, be according to this principle?” (qtd. in Strayer 245).

2 “If wives suppress not contempt for husbands…” (qtd. in Strayer 246).

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IvyPanda. (2020) '"Lessons for Women" by Ban Zhao'. 6 May.

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