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What is Normal and what is Right: Grand Matron Cao and the Women of the Astral Sciences in China, 1st – 4th cent. CE

Abstract : Grand Matron Cao 曹大家 (c. 45 – c. 117 CE), née Ban Zhao 班昭, is primarily remembered for having authored the Admonitions for Women (Nü jie 女誡)—a précis of the moral education necessary to prepare a young woman (8–15) for marriage, which, later, in the time of footbinding, would be canonised in the Four Books for Women (Nü sishu 女四書). Less famously, Ban Zhao, upon the death of her brother Ban Gu 班固 (32–92 CE), brought his now celebrated history of the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) to completion by compiling its tables and its ‘Monograph on Heavenly Patterns’ (Tianwen zhi 天文志). Informed by the expectations of twentieth-century feminism(s), scholarship on Ban Zhao has focused more-or-less exclusively on the Admonitions and value-laden questions of its conservatism and/or/as disingenuousness—whether or not she really believed headings like ‘Low & Weak’ (beiruo 卑弱), in which we moderns, in our transhistorical moral superiority, do not. Grand Matron Cao was a single (widowed), elder literata widely recognised in classical scholarship and the astral and mathematical sciences; to understand Ban Zhao the woman, we argue, one must look beyond her writing on girls to her writings on history and celestial mechanics and to the institutional and political context within which it was conducted. That context, we emphasise, was one that was very much oriented by and towards the ‘lower & weaker’ sex. Namely, Ban Zhao was writing in the palace’s Eastern Observatory (Dongguan 東觀), which Empress Deng (b. 81; r. 106–121 CE)—herself a well-educated and powerful widow, and Ban Zhao’s former pupil—would develop into a sort of institute for advanced studies, poaching the brightest minds from the Imperial Academy (Taixue 太學) to conduct sweeping research projects under the charter of palace women’s education. Having established a clearer picture of her milieu, we will explore common themes running through Ban Zhao’s writings on astronomy and feminine virtue, at the forefront of which is the tension between ancient wisdom and modern experience, what is ‘normal’ (chang 常) and what is ‘right’ (zheng 正). A transversal approach, we argue, is crucial for us to understand how Ban Zhao brings cosmic principles to bear on issues like domestic violence while, on the other hand, interjecting questions of morality into planetary motion.
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Submitted on : Monday, June 20, 2016 - 9:49:34 AM
Last modification on : Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 2:38:58 PM

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  • HAL Id : halshs-01333883, version 1

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Daniel Patrick Morgan, Lisa Indraccolo. What is Normal and what is Right: Grand Matron Cao and the Women of the Astral Sciences in China, 1st – 4th cent. CE. Séminaire femmes et savoirs : espaces, frontières, marges, EHSS & Centre Alexandre-Koyré, May 2016, Paris, France. ⟨halshs-01333883⟩

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