During the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-A.D. 220) in Chinese history, there was a talented woman named Ban Zhao. She was the daughter of a famous scholar and historian of the era, Ban Biao. Ban Zhao was known to be a talented woman with high moral standards and was consequently frequently summoned by Emperor He (A.D. 88-A.D. 106) to the palace to teach the imperial family. The empress and all the royal concubines were her students for literature and history. Henceforth, Ban Zhao was respected as the great teacher (大家 dàjiā). Since Ban Zhao was married to the Cao family, she was called Great Teacher Cai (曹大家).
Ban Zhao was a scholar with a broad range of interests. She was assigned to complete her brother Ban Gu’s (班固) work on the history of the Western Han (Book of the Han) by Emperor He. She accomplished the mission, then she wrote Lessons for Women, an educational guide on Chinese women’s morality and etiquette.
Jin Tingbiao, a royal artist during the Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644-A.D. 1911), was good at depicting people and objects. He painted Great Teacher Cai Lecturing, describing Ban Zhao’s teaching at a room in the Han Palace.
Dressed in colorful clothes, holding a calligraphy brush by its very end with a loosely hanging wrist, Ban Zhao was elegantly focused on teaching the student by writing Chinese characters. A little boy was holding down the paper, loaded with small characters, with both his hands, giving it his full attention.
The three generations displayed in the picture are middle-aged, teenage, and youthful. The artist utilized body posture, figure, gesture, and clothing to vividly depict the three generations.
By Cheng Xingzhi
Translated by Jean Chen