Lessons for Women Paper
My first impressions when reading Ban Zhao’s “Lessons for Women” was one of interested curiosity. I was raised in a conservative household that followed the religious teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism), and as such, was raised with strict gender roles within the household as well as strict family values and expectations. Because of this, I suspect that my recoil from Zhao’s words was less dramatic than some other students may have experienced. The reading seemed self-disparaging at times, but otherwise, it followed a societal structure that I was partially familiar with. The main thoughts that I had, and which evolved as I read the three pieces, were of the similarity in subservience between the Ban Zhao lessons and the Mormon church, the fact that men were also required to withstand rigid structures of gender between ancient China and the church, and lastly that women were historically able to step out of those constraints in times of need in both cases.
As stated in Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, in the first lesson that Ban Zhao (1932) writes, she establishes a woman’s place in the household from birth as one where she “should regard it as her primary duty to humble herself before others” (p. 83). Like institutionalized slavery during colonization, a woman’s place within the society that Zhao writes about are born into their lot in life and as such, their entire existence is shaped by it. This is reinforced by Lily Xiao Hong Lee (1994) when she writes that Zhao’s words are meant to demonstrate that “women are destined to serve others” (p. 13). This differs from Mormonism in that, in the United States, a person is free to leave the church and rejoin the wider world and leave behind the strict gender roles and temple marriage. However, in doing so, they forfeit their chance to get into heaven with their families: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory” (Doctrine and Covenants, section 132: verse 21). The appearance of individual agency exists within the church, but at the expense of the soul if a woman isn’t obedient to the gender structures. This touches on the ideas that Lin-Lee Lee writes about in “Inventing Familial Agency from Powerlessness: Ban Zhao’s Lessons for Women” (2009) when she states that Ban’s lessons “embedded concepts of familial agency” (p. 47). In the Mormon church, the entire family achieving celestial glory in heaven is the example of familial agency ideology right here in the United States.
However, just as the Mormon church and Ban Zhao’s China holds women in a specific role and allows for very little deviation from that role, so too does it corner men into a specific role. While men in both cultures have more freedom than women, they are constrained by their societies as well. Zhao (1932) writes both that the “distinctive quality of the Yang is rigidity” and “[m]an is honored for strength” (p. 85). Similarly, A. Theodore Tuttle (1973) reaffirmed the church’s view on the role of men during his talk at General Conference: “The father is the patriarch in the home. This means that the father is the presiding authority” (n.p.). Additionally, the church requires men to demonstrate good character as soon as possible, as is told by Gordon B. Hinkley in the 2006 General Conference when he says, “With this priesthood comes a great obligation to be worthy of it. We cannot indulge in unclean thoughts. We must not partake of pornography. We must never be guilty of abuse of any kind (n.p.). While Lin-Lee Lee doesn’t mention the responsibilities of the husband during this time, Lily Xiao Hong Lee does write touch on it when she writes “[t]he relationship between husband and wife at this time was more like that of two equal partners than that of lord and servant” (p. 15).
While Lin-Lee Lee (2009) brings up specific examples of women stepping outside of the societal boundaries that Ban Zhao writes about (p. 48), Lily Xiao Hong Lee (1994) merely mentions instances where women are sought for counsel by their husbands or admonish them (p. 14). However, the former brings up examples that are the closest to the demonstration of gender roles in the Mormon church being reversed during times of crisis. She mentions that the history of China is “replete with female figures who exerted influence outside the home, particularly in family exigencies” (p. 48). This matches with the accounts of Mormon pioneer women who faced hardship alongside their families while traveling to the western United States, for example, “…the account of Elizabeth Jackson, whose husband Aaron died after the last crossing of the Platte River with the Martin handcart company” (Cook, 2011, n.p.). These women often lost husbands and children and still finished the journey that they believed would lead them to a promised land within the continent. Once that journey was complete, however, they were expected to settle back into their roles as mothers and wives, turning away from their valorous trek. Ban Zhao doesn’t address this, however, Lin-Lee Lee and Lily Xiao Hong Lee both point out that the reality of that time would have involved women occasionally being non-conforming.
In summary, I believe that it’s fair to analyze the three writings within the lens of someone who has experienced a modern ideology similar to the strict gender structures that Ban Zhao was referring to. Furthermore, Lin-Lee Lee’s assertion that a woman’s agency could be expressed through her family is quite like the Mormon concept of a woman being honored with the celestial kingdom of heaven along with the family she’s worked so hard for. Both can be misconstrued as a type of slavery, but within context, take on a different meaning. Zhao and Hong Lee both address the role of men within this structure, showing that the roles were firmly in place for both men and women. Lastly, Lee and Hong Lee recognize the deviation of history from Ban’s writings in that women often stepped out of their roles, just as Mormon women have had to do.
Cook, Q. L. (2011, May ). LDS Women Are Incredible! Retrieved February 19, 2017, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, https://www.lds.org/liahona/2011/05/lds-women-are-incredible?lang=eng
Hinckley, G. B. (2006, October ). Rise up, O men of god - Gordon B. Hinckley. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2006/10/rise-up-o-men-of-god?lang=eng
Lee, L.-L. (2009). Inventing familial agency from powerlessness: Ban Zhao’s lessons for women. Western Journal of Communication, 73(1), 47–66. doi:10.1080/10570310802636318
Lee, L. X. H. (1994). The virtue of Yin: Studies on Chinese women. Camperdown, NSW, Australia: Wild Peony Book Publishers Pty.
Swann, N. L. (1932). Pan Chao: Foremost woman scholar of china, first century A.D. ; background, ancestry, life, and writings of the most celebrated Chinese woman of letters. New York, NY: The Century Company.
Tuttle, A. T. (1973, October). The role of fathers - A. Theodore Tuttle. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1973/10/the-role-of-fathers?lang=eng