A perfect woman does not always have a perfect life. Good-looking, knowledgeable, kind and disciplined, Concubine Ban of Emperor Cheng of Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) seemed to fit all the criteria of a perfect woman and even a perfect queen, but she led a lonely life especially in her late years.
Ban was born in an official family during Western Han Dynasty but had no record of her full name. Her brothers Ban Bo, Ban You and Ban Zhi were all scholars and known for their knowledge and morality. Her nephew Ban Biao and grand-nephew Ban Gu and Ban Zhao were distinguished historian in Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).
Ban was smart and gifted with extraordinary retentive memory and curiosity. She enjoyed reading. She became a low-rank royal concubine of Emperor Cheng of Western Han Dynasty first, and upgraded to the second-rank as Jie Yu after the emperor discovered her talent.
Ban avoided intentionally winning favors from the emperor or interfering in politics. But she tried disciplining the emperor in her way. The emperor ordered a big carriage so that he could take Ban with him on his travels. But Ban rejected the emperor’s invitation.
She said all wise emperors in historical paintings were accompanied by wise officials. The last emperor of Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties had their beloved concubines by their sides. “Wouldn’t you look fatuous if I travel with you in the same carriage?” she asked.
Ban’s deeds were highly appreciated by the queen mother who gave her more priority in the imperial harem. Yet, she only bore one child who died in infancy.
Yet Ban did try to influence the emperor to some extent, urging him to be a wise governor in the early years. The emperor gradually got bored of her persuasion and indulged in carnal pleasure with other concubines like Zhao Feiyan and Zhao Hede.
Ban was later framed for a crime in the imperial harem. During questioning, Ban calmly replied: “I heard that everybody’s life and fortunes are predestined and cannot be changed by men. Devoted to good cause does not necessarily bring good fortune, let alone doing evil. If Heaven is aware, it will not listen to unfaithful pray; if Heaven is not aware, what is the point of praying? I would never do that.”
Recalling her behavior, the emperor bought her defense and granted her gold. But Ban was thoroughly disappointed by the emperor. She volunteered to serve and live with the queen mother ever since.
After the emperor died, Ban insisted on guarding his tomb alone in the cemetery. She died a year later when she was only in her forties.
Ban wrote many poems, especially in her lonely late years. Yet most of them are lost, except for the well-known “Tuan Shan Ge” (Song of the Circular Fan), “Dao Su Fu” (Poem on Processing Cloths) and “Zi Dao Fu” (Self-grieving Poem).
In “Tuan Shan Ge,” she compared herself to a circular fan in fall. Though she had been favored by the master in the hot days, the fan is left alone as it got colder. The term “qiuliang tuanshan” (秋凉团扇, circular fan in fall) was then often used in literature as a metaphor for women who lost favor. It is also sometimes called “bannu shan” (班女扇, the Ban-girl fan).
Despite fitting all the criteria of a perfect woman, Ban failed to find happiness as would have been expected. It is widely believed that Ban would have more likely made a career if she was a man, or she could have helped her husband succeed if she had married an ordinary person, or she could even have been a great queen if she had served a wise king.
However, she was not favored by fortune — something that many people felt sorry for despite her talent.