Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Ban Zhao

Episode Summary

Ban Zhao (c. 45-c. 117) was the first female historian of ancient China.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s beautiful mind was the first female Chinese historian, almost two millennia ago. She wrote volumes of significant work that remained relevant long after she died. Let’s talk about Ban Zhao.

Ban Zhao was born around the year 45 CE, into a prominent family in what is now Xianyang, China. Her father was a famous historian, and her great uncle was a well-known scholar and poet.

At age 14, Ban Zhao got married, but her husband passed away soon after. Instead of remarrying, Ban Zhao committed herself to her studies and took up the responsibility of educating her sons. She pursued a variety of creative and academic work, including astronomy, math, poetry, other writing, and more. 

Ban Zhao’s father had started an in-depth history of the Western Han Dynasty, by order of the emperor. When he died before finishing the work, the emperor appointed Ban Zhao’s brother to finish the historical account. Ban Zhao assisted her brother with the work, but soon the project was disrupted once again, this time by political unrest. Ban Gu was arrested and imprisoned for his suspected association with a rebellion, and died in prison.

Ban Zhao took up the job of finishing the history’s remaining volumes. When it was completed, the account of the Western Han Dynasty became one of the best-known Chinese histories ever written. Future imperial historians used it as a model for their official work. Ban Zhao contributed some unique historical notes, including the genealogy of the emperor’s mother.

After finishing that monumental project, Ban Zhao became China’s most famous woman scholar. Her reputation led her to become a tutor for the imperial family and a lady in waiting for the empress herself, who often consulted Ban Zhao for advice.

Ban Zhao wrote many more poems, as well as an influential essay called “Lessons for Women.” The piece was dedicated to the daughters of Ban Zhao’s extended family, but the royal court shared the book widely. 

“Lessons for Women” was a guide for how to be compliant and respectful with the goal of maintaining harmony in the family. Ban Zhao wrote that women should be well-educated to better serve those goals.  The treatise became a popular work in the country for centuries.

Ban Zhao also became the court librarian, maintaining a massive collection of scholarly work. After her extended service to the court, some of her family received special postings, including her son. In 113, he was appointed to be a royal official over 300 miles away. Ban Zhao accompanied him and chronicled the journey.

Ban Zhao died around the year 117 CE. 

After she died, her daughter-in-law helped preserve her legacy by collecting her writings into three volumes. Though most of her work has been lost, we still remember Ban Zhao today through that which remains.

Today is the last day of our “beautiful minds” month.  Join us tomorrow for the beginning of a new theme -- Leaders. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!