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Ban Zhao’s Precepts for Women (Part VI): On Reverence for Parents and In-Laws

Carolina Avendano
Carolina is a Canada-based writer and journalist who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, the connection between humans and nature, and human rights.
Published: March 29, 2023
Qing Dynasty album titled “Gathering Gems of Beauty (畫麗珠萃秀).” According to Ban Zhao, a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness, modesty and acquiescence. (Image: He Dazi via Wikimedia Commons)

Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls (Nǚ jiè ) 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 is the final installment in a series focused on the virtues of traditional women and their role in harmonizing family and society.

Continued from: Ban Zhao’s Precepts for Women (Part V): On the Instruction of Children

Based on China’s traditional custom of self-cultivation, all of Ban Zhao’s advice revolves around improving one’s character. In ancient China, a person’s good character was evidenced, among other things, in his or her filial duty.

Stone headrest with scenes of filial piety, Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Filial piety has long been a fundamental component of traditional Chinese codes of conduct. (Image: Fæ via Wikimedia Commons)

A virtuous person respected and revered his or her parents, and the same dutiful treatment was accorded to in-laws. Women, in particular, were to cultivate unconditional filial piety as they lived with their husband’s family after marriage. Let’s explore Ban Zhao’s guidance on how to nurture this virtue. 

Reverencing with an obedient heart

Ban Zhao advises women to regard their parent’s words as most important. When rebuked, a respectful daughter would receive her parent’s instructions with patience and humility. A truthful woman would confess her mistakes and cherish her parents’ guidance on how to do better. 

“Should she do something good, let her not mention it; should she do something bad, let her not deny it … When a woman follows such maxims as these, then she may be said to humble herself before others.”

Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls

Humility, along with modesty, were a woman’s most graceful qualities. A respectful daughter would not act against her parents’ wishes or argue with them about right and wrong. To cultivate a heart so humble, women had to unconditionally temper their will and relinquish negative notions such as their attachment to self or their desire to show off. 

The result of cultivating such a selfless and modest character was a type of beauty that transcended the physical realm and even extended beyond one’s lifetime.

PQing Dynasty album titled “Gathering Gems of Beauty (畫麗珠萃秀).” According to Ban Zhao, a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness, modesty and acquiescence. (Image: He Dazi via Wikimedia Commons)

Being dutiful to in-laws

After marriage, the woman became part of her husband’s family. This did not mean that she severed ties with her own family, but rather that the capacity of her heart was expanded to embrace her life partner’s relatives. 

A virtuous wife would serve her in-laws as her own parents. She would unfailingly honor her father-in-law and wholeheartedly listen to her mother-in-law. 

“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 an echo and a shadow, how could she not be praised?’”

Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls

Ban Zhao explained that an exemplary wife would unquestionably follow her in-laws’ guidance. Doing so, even when she did not agree with her in-laws, would speak of a woman’s impeccable character. Ban Zhao often praised such compliance and referred to it as obedience that sacrifices personal opinion.

Providing unparalleled care

As her in-laws grew old, a filial daughter looked after them with dedication. She would provide them with suitable clothing for the four seasons and cook all their meals to nurture good health. 

If her parents fell ill, a dutiful woman took great pains to alleviate their suffering. She would tend to all their needs, administering medicine with a careful hand, and praying to Heaven for their health to be restored. 

Painting with scenes from The Twenty-four Cases of Filial Piety. This classic text outlines Confucian guidelines on filial piety and has largely shaped traditional Chinese culture. (Image: Kano Motonobu via Wikimedia Commons)

Ancestral worship

In ancient China, women were to observe three fundamentals of life: cultivating humility, being industrious, and carrying on the tradition of ancestral worship. When a girl was born, her birth would be announced to her ancestors by an offering. This custom, established by the traditional ceremonial rites and regulations, served to epitomize a woman’s primary role in continuing the observance of worship in the home.

Honoring ancestors was an essential aspect of filial piety. A filial woman would observe all sacrificial rites in a timely manner. Tapping into her natural tendency for cleanliness and order, a dutiful daughter would keep her parents’ graves tidy and in good repair as a sign of respect and devotion.

“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.”

Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls
Page of the illustrated version of the Classic of Filial Piety, annotated by Kuan. Written as a conversation between Confucius and his disciple Zengzi, this text gives advice on how to behave with superiors, such as a father, an elder brother or a ruler. (Image: Kuan via Wikimedia Commons)

The beauty of a filial daughter

Ban Zhao explained that a daughter who wholeheartedly cultivates filial piety has the ability to make her affection sincere and firmly bind her family relationships.

“Praise of her radiates, making her illustrious in district and in neighborhood; and her brightness reaches to her own father and mother.”

Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls

However, Ban Zhao acknowledged that women are not perfect, and that it is only natural to make mistakes in the process of cultivating traditional feminine virtues.

“Although a woman possesses a worthy woman’s qualifications and is wise and discerning by nature, is she able to be perfect?”

Ban Zhao, Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls

Thus, Ban Zhao suggests that meeting the traditional standard for women requires constant, gradual improvement of one’s character and moral integrity. As long as a woman has the genuine desire to better herself and follow the will of Heaven, she will be able to achieve the greatest merit: to embody her yin nature and become an exemplary woman in every sense of the word.

Note: The quotes in this article are from Nancy Lee Swann’s English translation of Ban Zhao’s original work.