BAN ZHAO Biography - Writers


Biography » writers » ban zhao


Ban Zhao (old spelling: Pan Chao) was born in the provinces to a family of               
scholars that had been involved for three generations with the Chinese emperor's         
court. Zhao had two elder brothers, twins at least 13 years older than she: Ban           
Gu, who would become a courtier poet and the major author of Han shu, a history           
of the first 200 years of Han dynasty China; and Ban Chao, who would become a             
general, winning important battles on China's northwest frontier.                         
Her father, a well-known scholar who had begun the Han shu, died when Zhao was           
about eight years old. She was married when she was 14, had several children,             
was widowed "early," and never remarried. Her husband's family name was Cao, so           
her court name would become "Cao Dagu" (Venerable Madame Cao).                           
By 76 CE, Zhao's brother Chao had become a soldier, and her mother and her               
brother Gu were in the capital, where Gu was attached to the emperor's court as           
a historian and editor. Zhao, nearly 30, apparently soon joined them (it was             
unusual that a widow would leave her husband's family). Gu was working on the             
Han shu; scholars see it as "likely that [Zhao] was already an active                     
contributor to the project in the 70s & 80s" (Wills, p.94).                               
In 89, there was a new emperor, a child, so rule fell to his mother, Dowager             
Empress Dou, and to her family; Ban Gu became closely associated with them. In           
92, the Dou family was accused of treason: the men of the family committed               
suicide; the empress lost her power; and the family's friends, including Gu,             
were executed. But no action was taken against the other Bans: Chou was a                 
victorious general (and safely far away); Zhao was a mere woman (though the               
assignment of her son to a distant post in 95 has been seen by some as an exile           
which she shared).                                                                       
By 97, however, Zhao had been called back to the capital to complete the history         
left unfinished at Ban Gu's death. According to a biography of Zhao written in           
the 400s: "Emperor He summoned her to the Library at the Easter Hall so that she         
could continue [Ban Gu's] work and complete it" (Idema & Grant, p.34), and to             
teach other scholars how to read this new text. Because the Han shu is an                 
important work to historians of China, the question of how much Zhao contributed         
to it (substantial writing? editing and polishing?) has been debated ---                 
sometimes hotly --- for 1900 years. From internal evidence, the translator Nancy         
Lee Swann believes that Zhao is responsible for about one-fourth of the whole (p.65).     
Besides working on the Han shu and tutoring at the imperial library, Zhao also           
became a teacher to the leading women of the court, particularly a teen-aged             
girl, Deng, who had come to court in 96. Zhao taught Deng astronomy and                   
mathematics as well as history and the classics. In 102, the emperor dismissed           
his current empress and promoted Deng to that role. When he died in 106, he was           
succeeded by a child who soon died and was followed by another child; through             
these reigns Dowager Empress Deng was regent. Ban Zhao's influence with the               
empress was apparently great; a contemporary wrote about one court problem, "At           
a word from mother Ban the whole family resigned" (Swann, p. 236). We don't know         
the year of Zhao's death but we know that it was before 120, for the Empress,             
who died in that year, had gone into mourning for her (rare treatment for a               
After her death, her daughter-in-law collected Zhao's written work, which the             
biographer of the 400s described as including "Narrative Poems, Commemorative             
Writings, Inscriptions, Eulogies, Argumentations, Commentaries, Elegies, Essays,         
Treatises, Expositions, Memorials, and Final Instructions, in all (enough to             
fill) 16 books" (Swann, p.41). Apparently, Zhao also "annotated" an earlier work,         
Lienu zhuan (Lives of eminent women, 79-8 BCE). The extant works whose                   
attribution is sure include one long poem, Dongzheng fu (Traveling Eastward);             
fragments of three short poems; two memorials (letters to the throne); and the           
much quoted survival manual, Nujie (Precepts for my daughters).