Foreword by Susan Blumberg-Kason
I got my hands on a copy of the book and became engrossed in the many sayings that seem laughable to me now but which certainly would have rung true to my earlier self: a naïve young American woman who had obstinately tried five years to adapt wholly to Chinese culture. Back then, thinking that there must be rules for how a Chinese woman should behave but lacking any real knowledge of these, I made up my own. These guidelines turned out to be similar to the ones I later read in Ban Zhao’s Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls. For example, “When pleased, laugh not aloud; If angry, still make no noise” (Chapter I). That could explain why I didn’t speak up when things started to go wrong in that marriage. Or “When your mother-in-law sits, you should respectfully stand” (Chapter VI). I didn’t exactly stand up when my mother-in-law sat, but she was a tough cookie and unquestionably the family’s head honcho. Better yet, “If your husband is sweet, be you sweet; if sorrowful, be you sorrowful” (Chapter VII). I took so much responsibility for my then-husband’s happiness that my moods swung with his.
Looking back, my rules for adapting to Chinese family culture were unfounded and ridiculous. I’ve been closed to Chinese women for thirty years and can say with confidence that I was in the minority when it came to behaving in line with Ban Zhao’s Instructions.
So who was Ban Zhao and why did she write Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls? What we know of her is this: Ban Zhao was born in Shaanxi Province in northwest China during the first century AD and was China’s first recorded female historian. To put things in perspective, Confucius lived a good five hundred years before Ban Zhao was born. She married when she was a young teenager, but became widowed some years after that and devoted the rest of her life to study and writing. Ban Zhao came from a family of scholars and was so intelligent that when her brother was imprisoned and executed before he could complete The Book of Han, an important historical narrative of that dynasty, she was able to pick up where he left off and finish the book.
She is best known for Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls, which remained popular for centuries after she passed away at the ripe old age of seventy. Ban Zhao supported education for both boys and girls. “When they are three or four years old, It is important to begin their instruction. This work is truly the mother’s” (Chapter VIII). When kids became a bit older and started learning from a teacher, the genders should be separated, she advised: “The boys and girls may not study together, But in different rooms, with different teachers” (Chapter VIII). At this time, however, this notion of education for all was quite progressive. It was the first century AD, after all.