22 July 2016

A few words on Ban Zhao

Ban Zhao 班昭

The Bans of the Han Dynasty were a family of notable literati: Ban Biao was a noted historian, and his eldest son Ban Gu and his youngest daughter Ban Zhao followed in his footsteps. The family project was an innovative history: the first true dynastic history, which developed out of Ban Biao’s work of appending the record of the ‘later traditions’ 后传 to Sima Qian’s Shiji. Two of his children, Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, continued this work and eventually crafted the first true dynastic history (jizhuanti 纪传体) in China.

Still, even though they drew upon the work of Sima Qian, they had a number of differences of conviction with the Grand Historian. Contra the assertions of Roderick Long, who wants to situate the pro-mercantile leanings and proto-libertarianism of Sima Qian and the Shiji in the main of the Confucian tradition, Michael Gibbs Hill writes of Sima Qian’s work that ‘[t]his particular set of biographies ran counter to a strain in early Chinese thought that viewed merchants and commerce with suspicion’. Even though the Ban family were indebted to Sima Qian’s format in historical writing, both Ban Gu and Ban Zhao clearly held with the early Chinese suspicion of the mercantile profession, clearly preferring the ‘poor and lowly’, but virtuous, artisan and farming classes. Hill also writes of the attitude Ban Gu and Ban Zhao showed to Sima Qian and to the controversial mercantile, proto-capitalist tendency his ‘Biographies of Merchants’ represented:
The next dynastic history, the History of the Former Han (Han Shu 汉书), mostly assembled by Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE) and Ban Zhao 班昭 (48-112 CE), took a dim view of Sima Qian’s praise for merchants. Its biography of Sima rebuked him for “praising wealth and power while shaming the poor and lowly”. It then produced its own “Biographies of Merchants”, adding a long section on ancient history that linked the rise of commerce with a decline in rites and government. These new biographies of merchants integrated much of the information found in Sima Qian’s Records into its own main text, but, in a classic example of rewriting and “transmitting” the historical record with an ideological bent, intervened regularly to blame merchants and traders for many of the troubles seen in history and in contemporary society. The History of the Former Han set the model for all subsequent dynastic histories, which followed its format; the condemnation it issued for “Biographies of Merchants” was apparently so powerful that no subsequent dynastic history reproduced this section.
Note that this distrust of the profit motive evinced by Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, and of trade without production of value, is an attitude which is consistent with Mencius as well as with the non-Mencian classicist Dong Zhongshu, representing both the ‘mind Confucian’ and the ‘institutional Confucian’ canons. The historiography of the Ban family was clearly highly influential in restoring the radically virtue-oriented, producerist and pro-peasant tenor of Confucian thought, and if Hill’s reading of the history is correct, they seem to have done it with such aplomb that it became taken for common sense in subsequent eras.

In addition to this, Ban Zhao’s virtue-ethical radicalism extended also to the realm of gender. Though it is perhaps unfair and anachronistic to consider a historical figure by the categories applied in another age, many modern scholars have already taken to describing the well-educated, historically-astute Ban Zhao as a sort of proto-feminist. In this vein, it seems worthwhile to note that the sort of feminism that she espouses in her Lessons for Women 《女诫》 is a kind of difference feminism (as opposed to an equity feminism): her main arguments seek to provide grounds for women to cultivate their own virtues - such as humility, loyalty, filial piety, compassion, circumspection and obedience - in a way which befit themselves rather than deferring to the norms of behaviour which governed men. It is interesting to note that Ban Zhao, who was unfortunately widowed at a young age, nevertheless managed to retain a personal reputation both for her high personal virtue and her intellectual acumen, and as her tutor, she grew very close in the confidence of Han Empress-Dowager Deng Sui, even becoming the powerful royal’s most trusted friend. Deng Sui, advised by Ban Zhao, governed wisely and prudently as the power behind the throne. She was able to avert the natural disasters and end the foreign wars that visited her regency, lowered taxes on outlying lands, and also carried out much-needed reforms to combat corruption and waste at the court, and to ameliorate abuses in the Han penal codes.

The rich tradition of Confucianism, and the Han Dynasty it seems in particular, is replete with such examples of cultural conservatives whose thought turns out to have radical implications, whether pro-poor or pro-woman, or simply personalist and virtue-ethical. That makes the subject always a delight to explore!

EDIT (28 October 2017): Here is a full translation of the passage where Ban Gu (and Ban Zhao also) offer some pointed criticisms of Sima Qian in the Book of Han. Not only for his treatment of merchants, it seems, but also for his Huang-Lao proto-Daoist sympathies and his treatment of knights-errant (游侠).

When we come to [Sima Qian’s] selection from the classics and use of commentaries, he divides and scatters the affairs concerning the various schools, and there is a great deal that is sketchy and unreliable, and sometimes there are contradictions. But such was his diligence that what he wades through and hunts down is comprehensive, penetrating the classics and the commentaries, and galloping from the ancient to the present, from the beginning to the end several thousand years [later]. However, his judgements of right and wrong are quite in error with regard to the Sage. In his discussions of great principles, he puts Huang-Lao first and the Six Classics afterward. In giving a place to wandering knights, he discredits retired scholars and promotes debauched heroes. In writing of ‘The Increasing of Goods’, he esteems those who profit from advantageous situations and heaps shame on the lowly and the poor. These are his weaknesses!

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