1103: Ban Zhao

The First Known Female Chinese Historian

Born: c.45 CE, Anling, Fufeng (Present-day Xianyang, Shaanxi Province, China)

Died: c.116 CE, Present-day China

Also Known As: Huiban

Ban Zhao married at the age of fourteen and had at least one child; never remarrying after her husband died early on. Instead, Ban devoted the rest of her life to her own and her child’s education. Because she lived so long ago, the sources online are all over the place, with one stating Ban Zhao had one son, another stating she had multiple children including several daughters, and another saying no one knows how many kids and which gender they would have been. In any case, she was most likely probably a mother to at least one child.

Ban helped her brother Ban Gu finish their father’s work, a history of the Xi or Western Han Dynasty. After their father died, the emperor made Ban Zhao’s brother the empire’s official historian and ordered him to finish the work, but Ban Gu needed his sister’s help (one source says Zhao’s brother was actually executed for some bad political moves on his part—either way Ban Zhao finished the project!). The work was called Han Shu or Book of Han and is today recognized as one of the best Chinese histories ever written and a model for all Dynastic Histories later.

Ban was also the author of Lessons for Women, basically an etiquette guide, as well as several poems.

Ban was made a lady in waiting to the empress for her scholarly work. Reportedly, Ban Zhao was beloved by the court and royal family, known as “Mother Ban” even. And when she died, the empress and court openly mourned her loss, which was extremely uncommon to do for a commoner.

Little else is known of her life, but that isn’t surprising given the fact she lived almost two thousand years ago. The fact that her name survived at all is astonishing, and goes to show just how influential her works really were.