Little known today, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls has a storied place in Chinese history as the first educational text for women and a standard reference for them from the first century AD all the way into the nineteenth. Polymath author Ban Zhao was perhaps China’s greatest female scholar. A writer, historian, mathematician, and astronomer, she was also a tutor to the ladies of the imperial court and a close confidant of Empress Deng. Although Ban Zhao completed a monumental historical tome on the Western Han dynasty, she would be best remembered for this slighter work – a short handbook of female etiquette in which she advises submissiveness in order to achieve household harmony. A kind of women’s Art of War, there is more yielding than winning in the guidebook, but at least Ban Zhao was a pioneer in asserting that girls should be educated.
Instructions for Chinese Girls and Women is an easy, enjoyable read. It contains passages preaching subservience that will make the modern reader cringe and/or laugh, but there is interesting nuance there for readers with an open mind.
The husband commands, the wife obeys;
Yet let there be mutual grace and love;
There are timeworn, universal complaints:
The present generation’s children are very bad;
They have learned nothing.
And there are humorous warnings against immoral immodesty:
Imitate not those rude women who with confusion eat, drink, and talk;
Drinking wine until crazy, they shamefully vomit their food;
In this state going home, before reaching their house, many shameful, rude acts will they do.
This Camphor Press edition has illustrations and a new introduction from Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the memoir Good Chinese Wife.