Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls (Nǚ jiè 女誡) is an ancient Chinese guidebook for cultivating traditional feminine virtues. Written by polymath Ban Zhao (班昭), it addressed the need for girls to be educated in virtues, and quickly became a lasting reference for raising daughters in China for many dynasties to follow. This series focuses on the virtues of traditional women and their role in harmonizing family and society.
Continued from: Ban Zhao’s Precepts for Women (Part IV): On Early Rising
In taking care of the internal affairs of the family – following the natural laws of yin and yang – a virtuous woman would bear the vital responsibility of educating her children. With the husband providing for the family and taking care of the external matters, the wife would busy herself with rearing their children to be righteous citizens and dutiful individuals.
With men and women fulfilling their natural family roles, society thrived. This was especially true in ancient China, where the endurance and gentleness of the women in each family helped maintain harmony and allowed Chinese civilization to endure for more than five millennia.
A prominent example was the life of Tai Si (太姒 Tài sì), wife of King Wen of Zhou and mother of King Wu of Zhou — founder of the Zhou Dynasty. Considered one of the most respected women in ancient China, Tai Si’s diligent work ethic and her conduct in performing her role as wife, mother and teacher not only allowed the king to focus on his rule, but also resulted in the rearing of ten children who helped civilize the country through their righteous virtue and wisdom.
Perhaps Tai Si served as an inspirational model for Ban Zhao in her advice on rearing children.
The foundation of instruction
In accordance with their divinely inspired culture, the ancient Chinese emphasized the cultivation of character over the accumulation of knowledge. Therefore, children were taught to be polite, sincere, kind and patient before they learned their respective duties in life.
The correct manners and upright character of a mother served as a positive reference for children to model themselves after. Virtues such as the mother’s perseverance, her selflessness and her correct way of speaking, taught sons and daughters to conduct themselves well and treat others with respect.
In her guidebook, Ban Zhao explained the consequences that arise when children are not taught good manners and right conduct:
“Straighforwardness 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.”Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls
Children also learned to cultivate self-discipline and compassion. Grounded on Confucius’ idea that each person should fulfill their role in society to the best of their ability, Ban Zhao explained the importance of teaching children to accept the role and living conditions bestowed upon them by Heaven.
If, instead of complaining, they wholeheartedly attended to their duties while improving their character and remaining good-natured, they would bring harmony to society and prosperity to the nation.
“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 them.Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls
Educating sons to become gentlemen
A virtuous mother would teach her sons and daughters in accordance with the laws of Heaven.
At home, boys were taught to be respectful and dutiful. Once they turned eight years old, they would learn how to read, and by the age of fifteen, they started cultural training, learning to master the Six Arts of rites, music, archery, chariotry, calligraphy, and mathematics. This education path was followed in keeping with the norms established in the Book of Rites.
Among the many accomplishments of a gentleman, learning to write both poetry and prose was essential. Composing poetry, in particular, was considered a spiritual exercise, for the theme of the compositions, as well as the choice of poetic form, were thought to be the window to a poet’s soul. Thus, developing such a skill would certainly help refine a person’s inner nature.
According to Ban Zhao, a son who did not receive a proper education at home would be prone to lead an idle life, indulge in entertainment, neglect family duties and care little for his country. Therefore, she urged women to guide their children with unconditional devotion, for it was in their hands to educate the nation’s leaders.
Guiding daughters to cultivate virtue
Just like boys, girls’ first instruction concerned correct manners and proper conduct, with special emphasis in being modest and humble. From an early age, they were taught to embody their yin nature, learning to carry themselves gracefully and to live in purity and quietness of spirit.
In the early stages of Chinese history, it was not common for girls to attend school, as reading and writing were not essential skills for women to attend to their duties in society. However, there are historical records of elite court ladies who were literate and whose contributions to science and the arts are still highly regarded today.
Was it important for the average girl to learn to read and write? Ban Zhao thought so. She was one of the earliest advocates for women’s education. She believed that developing such abilities would not only help women to better refine themselves, but also to perform their roles even more successfully.
“Yet only to teach men and not to teach women—is that not ignoring the essential relation between them? … Only why should it not be that girls’ education as well as boys’ be according to this principle?”Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls
Unlike most sons, daughters would receive their education at home. The ancients made sure not to encourage casual interactions between boys and girls during their early ages lest their initial — and most fundamental — education was affected by human desires and improper behavior.
A lady’s proper demeanor, especially during marriage, would speak of an impeccable upbringing. Herein lies Ban Zhao’s greatest concern and desire to offer guidance to women, for their conduct could bring deep sorrow or enduring honor to their ancestors and clan.
Respect for teachers
In the same way that children were taught to respect their elders, they were instructed to honor their teachers. Respect for teachers has long been an essential component of Chinese codes of conduct.
There is a folk saying recorded in an ancient Chinese text by an unknown author titled Discourses of the States (国语 Guóyǔ) :
“One should serve their father, their teacher, and their monarch until death. Because their father gave life to them, their teacher educated them, and their monarch provided food for them ”Discourses of the states (国语 Guóyǔ)
It follows that a dutiful mother would teach her children to be reverent towards their teachers. A child who abides by these norms, and respects his or her superiors with unconditional devotion, would naturally cultivate one of the most praised virtues in ancient China: the respect and reverence for the Divine and the steadfast acceptance of Heaven’s will.
Note: The quotes in this article are from Nancy Lee Swann’s English translation of Ban Zhao’s original work.
Continue reading: Ban Zhao’s Precepts for Women (Part VI): On Reverence for Parents and In-Laws