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The Confucian Woman

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Scott Craig
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The Confucian Woman
The Confucian Woman



Student will examine primary source documents regarding the “ideal” woman in Han Dynasty China. They will then examine differing viewpoints from the Qing Dynasty. Students will be able to analyze both the continuity and change of women’s roles. This lesson will take a total of four class periods: 3 for activities, 1 for the assessment.

Skill & Content Objectives

This lesson will be used with AP World History:

  • AP History Reasoning Processes #3: Continuity and Change – describe patterns of continuity and/or change over time.
Lesson PlanDay 1


  • As a warm-up activity: on a piece of paper have students list the characteristics and attributes they think the “ideal” woman should have.
    • Have them share their list with the other people in their group (3-4 students per group)
    • Have the group come up with a list they can all agree upon
      • Have each group share with the class their list.
  • Review with students Confucian teachings:
    • The Five Relationships
      • How many of those relationships include women?
      • What do you think Confucius would say is the ideal woman?

Jigsaw Activity:

  • Divide students into five different groups and have each one read the section of Ban Zhao’s writing that pertains to their topic:
    • Humility
    • Husband & Wife
    • Respect & Caution
    • Woman Qualifications
    • Implicit Obedience
  • Each group will need to read the article, highlighting any key points.
  • They will need to create a summary (in their own words) of what Ban Zhao was saying.
  • They will write a general argument that supports what Ban Zhao said.
  • They will write a general argument that opposes what Ban Zhao said.


Day 2
  • Mix up the groups so each new group has at least one person from each of the five topics.
    • Each student will report to their new group what they read and the arguments supporting and opposing it.
    • Students will complete a chart that lists key points from each section of the reading, and at least one argument to support and one argument to oppose the statement. (Students can discuss and come up with new arguments as they talk with each other.)
Day 3
  • Pass out the Qing Revolutionary Women’s Views.
    • In pairs, students will read the quotes and then answer the questions on a separate sheet of paper.
Day 4 – Assessment
  • Students will write an essay that answers this prompt:
    • How did Confucian teachings dictate the role of women in China from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty? How did revolutionaries at the end of the Qing Dynasty feel about the Confucian role of women? In what ways did they want to change it or keep it the same? Be sure to use specific examples to support your claim.





Ban Zhao Pan Chao (c. 80 CE)

Lessons for a Woman - The Views of a Female Confucian

     from Nancy Lee Swann, trans, Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, (New York: Century Co., 1932), pp. 82-90 reprinted in Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield,

     The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Vol 1, 2d. ed., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), pp. 148-53


Education in the Confucian classics increasingly became one of several avenues to a position of social and political power in Han China. Confucian doctrine, however, did not accord women a status equal to that of men, because women were generally regarded as unworthy or incapable of a literary education. In fact, the Confucian classics say little about women, which shows how little they mattered in the scheme of Confucian values. Most Confucians accepted the subservience of women to men as natural and proper. In their view, failure to maintain a proper relationship between two such obviously unequal people as a husband and wife or brother and sister would result in social disharmony and a breakdown of all the rules of propriety.

     Yet this was only part of the traditional Chinese view of women. Both Confucian doctrine and Chinese society at large accorded women, as both mothers and mothers-in-law, a good deal of honor, and with that honor came power within the family structure. In every age, moreover, a handful of extraordinary women managed to acquire literary educations or otherwise achieve positions of far-ranging influence and authority despite social constraints. The foremost female Confucian of the age of Han was Ban Zhao (ca 45-116 CE), younger sister of the court historian Ban Gu (32 - 92 CE). Upon Ban Gu's death, Ban Zhao served as imperial historian under Emperor Han Hedi (r. 88-105 CE) and completed her brother's Han Annals, a history of the Former Han Dynasty, which is generally regarded as second only to the historical work of Sima Qian. Ban Zhao also served as an adviser on state matters to the Empress Deng, who assumed power as regent for her infant son in106 CE.

     Madame Ban was the daughter of the widely respected writer and administrator Ban Biao (3- 54 CE) and received her elementary education from her literate mother while still a child in her father's house. Otherwise, her early life appears to have been quite conventional. She married at the age of 14, thereby becoming the lowest-ranking member of her husband's family, and bore children. Although her husband died young, Ban Zhao never remarried, devoting herself instead to literary pursuits and acquiring a reputation for scholarship and compositional grace.

     Among her many literary works, Ban Zhao composed a commentary on the popular Lives of Admirable Women by Liu Kiang (77- 6 BC) and later in life produced her most famous work, the Nü Jie, or Lessons for Women, which purports to be an instructional manual on feminine behavior and virtue for her daughters. In fact, she intended it for a much wider audience. Realizing that Confucian texts contained little in the way of specific and practical guidelines for a woman's everyday life, Ban Zhao sought to fill that void with a coherent set of rules for women, especially young women. The following excerpts are translations from her book for feminine behavior:



          On the third day after the birth of a girl the ancients observed three customs: first to place the baby below the bed; second to give her a potsherd [a piece of broken pottery] with which to play; and third to announce her birth to her ancestors by an offering. Now to lay the baby below the bed plainly indicated that she is lowly and weak, and should regard it as her primary duty to humble herself before others. To give her potsherds with which to play indubitably signified that she should practice labor and consider it her primary duty to be industrious. To announce her birth before her ancestors clearly meant that she ought to esteem as her primary duty the continuation of the observance of worship in the home.

          These three ancient customs epitomize woman's ordinary way of life and the teachings of the traditional ceremonial rites and regulations.  Let a woman modestly yield to others; 1et her respect others; let her put others first, herself last. Should she do something good, let her not mention it; should she do something bad let her not deny it. Let her bear disgrace; let her even endure when others speak or do evil to her. Always let her seem to tremble and to fear. When a woman follows such maxims as these then she may be said to humble herself before others.

          Let a woman retire late to bed, but rise early to duties; let her nor dread tasks by day or by night. Let her not refuse to perform domestic duties whether easy or difficult. That which must be done, let her finish completely, tidily, and systematically. When a woman follows such rules as these, then she may be said to be industrious.

          Let a woman be correct in manner and upright in character in order to serve her husband. Let her live in purity and quietness of spirit, and attend to her own affairs. Let her love not gossip and silly laughter. Let her cleanse and purify and arrange in order the wine and the food for the offerings to the ancestors. When a woman observes such principles as these, then she may be said to continue ancestral worship.

          No woman who observes these three fundamentals of life has ever had a bad reputation or has fallen into disgrace. If a woman fails to observe them, how can her name be honored; how can she but bring disgrace upon herself?


          The Way of husband and wife is intimately connected with Yin and Yang [these are the two basis elements of the Universe: Yin, the soft yielding feminine element, and Yang the hard-aggressive male element. Every substance contains both elements in varying proportions] and relates the individual to gods and ancestors. Truly it is the great principle of Heaven and Earth, and the great basis of human relationships. Therefore the "Rites" [The Classic of Rites] honor union of man and woman; and in the "Book of Poetry" [The Classic of Odes] the "First Ode" manifests the principle of marriage. For these reasons the relationships cannot but be an important one.

          If a husband be unworthy, then he possesses nothing by which to control his wife. If a wife be unworthy, then she possesses nothing with which to serve her husband. IF a husband does not control his wife, then the rules of conduct manifesting his authority are abandoned and broken. If a wife does not serve her husband, when the proper relationship between men and women and the natural order of things are neglected and destroyed. As a matter of fact, the purpose of these two [the controlling of women by men, and the serving of men by women] is the same.

          Now examine the gentlemen of the present age. They only know their wives must be controlled, and that the husband's rules of conduct manifesting his authority must be established. They therefore teach their boys to read books and study histories. But they do not in the least understand that husbands and masters must also be served, and that the proper relationship and the rites should be maintained. Yet only to teach men and not to teach women -- is that not ignoring the essential relation between them? According to the "Rites," it is the rule to begin to teach children to read at the age of eight years, and by the age of fifteen years they ought then to be ready for cultural training. Only why should it not be that girls' education as well as boys' be according to this principle?


          As Yin and Yang are not of the same nature, so man and woman have different characteristics. The distinctive quality of the Yang is rigidity; the function of the Yin is yielding. Man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness. Hence there arose the common saying: "A man though born like a wolf may, it is feared, become a weak monstrosity; a woman though born like a mouse may, it is feared, become a tiger."

          Now For self-culture nothing equals respect for others. To counteract firmness nothing equals compliance. Consequently, it can be said that the Way of respect and acquiescence is woman's most important principle of conduct. So, respect may be defined as nothing other than holding on to that which is permanent; and acquiescence nothing other than being liberal and generous. Those who are steadfast in devotion know that they should stay in their proper places; those who are liberal and generous esteem others, and honor and serve chem.

          If husband and wife have the habit of staying together, never leaving one another, and following each other around within the limited space of their own rooms, then they will lust after and take liberties with one another. From such action improper language will arise between the two This kind of discussion may lead co licentiousness. But of licentiousness will be born a heart of disrespect to the husband. Such a result comes from not knowing that one should stay in one's proper place.

          Furthermore, affairs may be either crooked or straight; words may be either right or wrong. Straightforwardness cannot but lead to quarreling; crookedness cannot but lead to accusation. If there are really accusations and quarrels, then undoubtedly there will be angry affairs. Such a result comes from not esteeming others, and not honoring and serving them.

          If wives suppress not contempt for husbands, then it follows that such wives rebuke and scold their husbands. If husbands stop not short of anger, then they are certain to beat their wives. The correct relationship between husband and wife is based upon harmony and intimacy, and conjugal love is grounded in proper union. Should actual blows be dealt, how could matrimonial relationship be preserved?  Should sharp words be spoken, how could conjugal love exist? If love and proper relationship both be destroyed, then husband and wife are divided.


          A woman ought to have four qualifications: (1) womanly virtue; (2) womanly words; (3) womanly bearing; and (4) womanly work. Now what is called womanly virtue need not be brilliant ability, exceptionally different from others. Womanly words need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation. Womanly appearance requires neither a pretty nor a perfect face and form. Womanly work need not be work done more skillfully than that of others.

          To guard carefully her chastity; to control circumspectly her behavior; in every motion to exhibit modesty; and to model each act on the best usage, this is womanly virtue.

          To choose her words with care; to avoid vulgar language; to speak at appropriate times; and nor to weary others with much conversation, may be called the characteristics of womanly words.

          To wash and scrub filth away; to keep clothes and ornaments fresh and clean; to wash the head and bathe the body regularly, and to keep the person free from disgraceful filth, may be called the characteristics of womanly bearing.

          With whole-hearted devotion to sew and to weave; to love not gossip and silly laugher; in cleanliness and order to prepare the wine and food for serving guests, may be called the characteristics of womanly work.

          These four qualifications characterize the greatest virtue of a woman. No woman can afford to be without them. In fact, they are very easy to possess if a woman only treasures them in her heart. The ancients had a saying: "Is love afar off? If I desire love, then love is at hand!" So can it be said of these qualifications.


          Whenever the mother-in-law says, "Do not do that," and if what she says is right,

unquestionably the daughter-in-law obeys. Whenever the mother-in-law says, "Do that," even if what she says is wrong, still the daughter-in-law submits unfailingly to the command. Let a woman not act contrary to the wishes and the opinions of parents-in-law about right and wrong; let her not dispute with the them what is straight and what is crooked. Such docility may be called obedience which sacrifices personal opinion. Therefore, the ancient book, "A Pattern for Women," says: "If a daughter-in-law who follows the wishes of her parents-in-law is like and echo and shadow, how could she not be praised?




Lessons for a Woman













Argument Supporting Instructions:





Argument Opposing Instructions:







Lessons for a Woman









Husband & Wife




Respect & Caution




Womanly Qualifications




Implicit Obedience






Qing Revolutionary Women’s Views

“Power belongs to the learned and knowledgeable men who contribute to society” – Qiu Jin address to two hundred million fellow countrywomen (1904)

  • What was happening in China when Qiu Jin said this?
  • What doe Qiu Jin advise women to do?
  • How does this align with Ban Zhao’s ideal woman?


“All of you are aware that we are about to lose our country. Men can barely protect themselves. How can we rely on them? We must revitalize ourselves. Otherwise all will be too late when the country is lost.” – Qiu Jin, (1904)

  • What role does Qiu Jin envision for women


“The ancients said that the relationship between the wife and her husband was like that of the minister and his ruler, and so men took precedence over women.” He Zhen, “Women’s Revenge” (1907)

  • What does the analogy He Zhen draws suggest about the relationship between the state and the family?


“The family is the origin of all evil. Because of the family, people become selfish. Because of the family, women are increasingly controlled by men…because of the family, children-who belong to the world as a whole – are made the responsibility of a single woman...” Han Yi, “Destroying the family” (1907)

  • Do you agree with these views of the family?
  • How do you think Confucius would respond to this statement?



“The learning of Confucianism has tended to be oppressive and to promote male selfishness. Therefore, Confucianism marks the beginning of justifications for polygamy and chastity.” He Zhen “Women’s Revenge” (1907)

  • How does He Zhen relate women’s status to Confucianism?