The Four Books for Women
Ancient Chinese texts for the education of women

Zhang Mingqi (1)
[Translation originally published in B. C. Asian Review volume 1, 1987]

The Four Books for Women (2) were four types of educational material for women in Chinese feudal society -- the Admonitions for Women, the Women's Analects, the Domestic Lessons, and the Sketch of a Model for Women. The Four Books for Women were specialized writings on the education of women; their objective lay in expounding the proper behavior for the female sex, the "three submissions" and the "four virtues" promoted by the Confucian school, in order to promote the "wise and worthy wives and good mothers" character model of feudal ideology.

The education of women was a significant organic part of the whole of ancient Chinese education. Already in pre-Qin times, the texts of the Confucian school had some thoughts relevant to women's education. For instance, the Ritual of Zhou "Officers of Heaven, Minister of State, second section" said, "The Nine Concubines master the standards of women's studies, to teach the Nine Maids: female virtue, female speech, female expression, and female accomplishment." Here, the "four virtues" of female education are introduced. The Record of Rites "Mourning dress, Tradition of Zi Xia" refers to the proper behavior of women, in saying that women have no exclusive power of control, but rather the principle of the "three submissions": "while not yet married, she submits to her father; when married, she submits to her husband; when the husband is dead, she submits to her son." The Changes of Zhou "Heng" hexagram contains the lines, "The symbol says: the wife is pure and virtuous, auspicious: as she follows a single [principle] to the end of her life." The Poetry "Da Ya, Zhou Yang" proclaims, "A woman has no public business"; and so on. But at this time there were still no texts explicitly for the education of women.

As Chinese feudal society developed, and especially after the Han dynasty [-206 - + 220] elevated Confucian techniques to the sole position of honor, the rulers paid ever-increasing attention to vigorous promotion of Confucian ritual teachings and women's education. In order to strengthen the feudal autocratic social order of their patriarchal clan system, they required women to clearly understand the classical texts and hold fast to "the ritual norms of the female," to "bring order to the family," thereby assisting the rule of the country by the feudal royal court.

Given this situation and these requirements, there began to appear clearer signs of women's education, in the form of the Admonitions for Women written by Ban Zhao, the daughter of the Eastern Han historiographer Ban Biao. From that point onwards, the feudal rulers of succeeding ages continued the production of a series of texts for the education of women. By the last years of the Ming [1368-1644] dynasty, the four books mentioned above were chosen from this assortment of educational material, and edited into the collection entitled the Four Books for Women.

As for the authorship and annotation of each of the Four Books for Women, the titles of each section of each work, the editing, and the transmission will be given a brief historical introduction below, following the sequence in which the works appeared:

(1) The Women's Admonitions was a textbook written by the Eastern Han female historiographer and educationalist Ban Zhao for the instruction of her daughters. The entire book has seven chapters: "Humble Yielding," "Husband and Wife," "Reverent Submission," "The Actions of a Woman," "Devotion," "Bending in Submission," and "Uncles and Sisters." This work may be called the earliest example in China of a specialist text for the education of women. After the book was completed, the contemporary classics scholar and educator Ma Rong admired it greatly, and had his wife and daughters study it. Later, the notes of Ma Rong's student Zheng Xuan on the "four virtues" in the Ritual of Zhou, and the discussions of the female scholars of later ages concerning these "four virtues" were all based on and developed out of the interpretation in the Women's Admonitions.

(2) The Women's Analects was written by the Tang [618 - 907] dynasty female scholar Song Ruoxin for the main purpose of instructing her daughter how to become a "wise and worthy woman." Its form imitated the Analects, with the pre-Qin female classics scholar Xuan Wenjun (née Song) replacing Confucius, and Cao Dajia (that is, Ban Zhao) replacing the disciples, exchanging questions and answers to expound the feudal standards for the proper behavior of women, in particular proposing many concrete norms of behavior. Her younger sister Ruozhao made an exposition of Song Ruoxin's work. The Women's Analects that is presently preserved bears the attribution "written by Cao Dajia" and has twelve sections in all: "Establishing Oneself," "Study and Action," "Study and Ritual," "Early Rising," "Serving Father and Mother," "Serving Uncles and Aunts," "Serving the Husband," "Training Sons and Daughters," "Managing the House," "Waiting on Guests," "Yielding in Harmony," and "Being Faithful to the Dead." The sentences are all four-word rhymed texts, not cast in question-and-answer form. It does not appear that this is the original work of Song Ruoxin, and it may perhaps be Song Ruozhao's expository text.

(3) The Domestic Lessons were written by Empress Xu, wife of the Ming Emperor Chengzu [r. 1403 - 1424], to teach the women of the palace. In particular, it selects and edits the works of former writers on women's education, and develops the standards of proper behavior for women with a comparatively greater stress on the theoretical standpoint. The book was completed in the second year of the yongle era [1404], and had in all twenty sections: "Virtuous Nature," "Self-Cultivation," "Care in Speaking," "Scrupulous Conduct," "Diligent Encouragement," "Restraint and Moderation," "Vigilant Warnings," "Accumulating Good," "Moving towards Good," "Honoring the Lessons of the Sages," "Respecting the Model of the Worthy," "Serving Father and Mother," "Serving the Gentleman [husband]," "Serving Uncles and Aunts," "Performing Sacrifices," "Models of Motherhood," "Harmony with Kin," "Love for the Young," "Dealing with Inferiors," and "Dealing with In-laws."

(4) The Sketch of a Model for Women (referred to henceforth as the Model for Women) was written by the mother née Liu of the late Ming Confucian Wang Xiang. It employed the principles of the "Three Controls and Five Constants" of Confucian scholarship as the "models for domestic rectitude," and apart from the usual exposition of the basic principles of women's education, it concentrated to an especially great degree on stories about feudal historical exemplars of pure and virtuous consorts, filial daughters, wise and worthy wives, and good mothers; it also cited examples of female martyrs and women of talent. The book is divided into the eleven chapters "General Discussions," "The Virtue of the Empress," "Models of Motherhood," "Filial Actions," "Chastity Unto Death," "Wholehearted in Principle," "Love and Parental Affection," "Holding to Ritual," "Knowledge and Wisdom," "Diligence and Frugality," and "Talent and Virtue."

The four women's textbooks introduced above came out in succession from the Eastern Han to late Ming, and were each in circulation independently. Among them, the Women's Admonitions was especially acclaimed by the Empress who was mother to Ming Emperor Shenzong; she considered that this work "was adequate to serve as an eternal guide for women's standards," and requested Confucian ministers to make notes and explanations for it.

In the eighth year of the wanli era [1580], Emperor Shenzong wrote a preface for the Women's Admonitions, at the same time ordering the Domestic Lessons be cut on blocks and printed, "to enable the families of the common people to be able to use it to instruct their daughters." After this, Wang Xiang individually made subcommentaries to each book on the basis of traditional Confucian thought.

In the 4th year of the tianqi era of Ming Emperor Xizong [1624], contemporaries began to call the four works the Four Books for Women, as the publishing house Duowen Tang had put them out together in a compilation entitled the Four Books for Women of the Ladies' Quarters, with collected notes. This set was republished in many different areas from late Ming through Qing and on into the first years of the Republic, in a great number of editions.

The authorship, annotation, editing, and circulation of the Four Books for Women demonstrates that the education of women in ancient China was promoted among the consorts and concubines at the feudal royal courts and in the women's apartments of well-known great families, from there spreading out widely among the families of the commoners. Women's educational material thus went from the stage of having no writings especially devoted to it, to that of specialized works circulating individually, and then to the point where these were edited into complete and organized sets of collectania for instructing women. This on the one hand reflects the development of female scholarship in ancient China, while on the other it shows how general was the spread of feudal education for women, and how profound its detrimental effects.

Judging from many chapter titles in each of the Four Books for Women, such as "Humble Yielding," "Bending in Submission," "Serving the Husband," "Filial Actions," and "Being Faithful to the Dead," it may clearly be understood that their basic ideology is shot through with the feudal standard of the "Three Controls" (the prince controlling the minister, the father controlling the son, and the husband controlling the wife) and the "Five Constants" (benevolence, rightness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness). This standard advocated that "the male is venerable and the female debased," and implemented education based on the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" to foster feudalistic "worthy domestic assistance" and "wise and worthy wives, and good mothers."

This becomes still clearer from a general view of the contents of these books. For instance, the first chapter of the Domestic Lessons preaches that the particular virtue of a woman lies in filial obedience and reverence, in yielding submission and "the ability to support and complement her husband." On this account it requires that women "dwell in this through benevolence, practice this through rightness, be wise thereby to shed light on this, be trustworthy thereby to guard over this, follow ritual thereby to embody this." The Model for Women in its general outline speaks of the Way of husband and wife thus: "When the virtue of the Five Constants is resplendent, the great foundation will thereby be strengthened; when the rightness of the Three Controls is clear, human moral standards will thereby be corrected."

As for education in the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues," concepts such as the "maidenly chastity and chaste widowhood" which is asserted in "The Actions of a Woman" chapter of the Women's Admonitions refer to female virtue; "[carefully] choosing one's words and never tiring of the words of others" refer to women's speech; "washing off dirt and cleansing the body" refer to the female appearance; and "devotion to weaving and spinning and the preparation of food and drink" refer to female achievement. "These four virtues are the proper bounds of a woman, and they may not be neglected or omitted." The preface to the Women's Analects elucidates the "Four Virtues and Three Chastities" as the primary principles of female instruction. Domestic Lessons "Scrupulous Conduct" consists of a guide for the conduct of women, such that women must be "gentle and obedient ... and must comply with the three obediences [to the father before marriage, the husband when married, and the son when widowed]." "Devotion" in the Women's Admonitions goes one step further in advising that "there is no more appropriate word for women than propriety": "for the reason that he is the husband, [she] cannot leave him." The Model for Women "Chastity Unto Death" emphasizes even more strongly that "a woman has no remarriage": "[the woman] cannot change her residence for her entire [remaining] life." This is a clear demonstration of the dictum that "males are venerable and females debased" and of the chaste conduct demanded of a woman, so that she would "obey one [husband] for her entire life."

"Males are venerable, females debased" is the kernel of female education which is laid out in the Four Books for Women. The theoretical basis for this concept is found in the heaven/earth, male/female, yin/yang binary opposites taught in Confucianism. The Women's Admonitions "Reverent Submission" counsels that "yin and yang have different natures; males and females have different conduct": "males value the hard, while females esteem the soft"; and "Devotion" in the same book makes special mention of the notion that "the husband is heaven" and cannot be defied. The Women's Analects "Serving the Husband" proclaims that "the husband is hard and the wife soft" and that the wife must "set her husband on a par with Heaven." The Domestic Lessons "Serving the Gentleman" advises that whosoever is wife must be clear about the meaning of yin and yang and "be able to reason in accord with this Way" in serving her husband. With regards to parents, and aunts and uncles, the text also advises that "the father is Heaven and the mother is earth" and demands that girls "master the ceremonies of the female" "proclaim the virtue of the mother," and so on. In sum, they claim the concept that men are exalted and women are base is an unalterable principle and on this basis interpret the filial submission and chaste rectitude of the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues" as rational. Thus, their demand that the woman devote herself to managing the household, evoking the "virtue of domestic assistance" and practicing the "achievements of domestic assistance" with no participation whatsoever in "public matters," besides conducting herself as the wise wife who always obeys, the good mother, and the filial and chaste woman, is no more than a matter of course.

The concept in the Four Books for Women that males are venerable and females debased, as well as the "Three Submissions" and "Four Virtues" for women fully expresses the divine rights of gods, princes, fathers, and husbands in feudal society. These four spiritual bonds act as an extreme form of discrimination against and oppression of women without regard for their characters, stripping their thoughts and lives of autonomy and freedom, obliging them to follow the dictates of fate and the orders of parents and husband in everything. They could only remain confined in the home, to labor at agriculture, weaving, cooking, and washing, and were not permitted to enter society and engage in activities.

This type of feudal female education trampled on the bodies and minds of women and destroyed female talent. Its ill effects have persisted to the present day, greatly hindering human development and blocking socialist reform and construction. It is incumbent upon us to criticize this thought and purge it from our systems. If at the present day we still extol the virtues of wise wives and virtuous mothers, then this completely shatters the feudal idea that males are venerable and females are debased, and stands on the principles of sexual equality, mutual veneration, and mutual assistance.

In general, the Four Books for Women is feudalistic trash. However, with detailed analysis of such areas as its concept of the value of education, the demands of women's education, concepts of virtue and talent, and so on, it still expresses some fundamentals of a rational pedagogy.

On the concept of the value of education, the Domestic Lessons "Virtuous Nature" makes the following claim: "The virtuous nature of the husband is a primary endowment, and the transformation is completed by practice." Although the concept of virtuous nature is "primarily rooted in the person," in the final analysis it recognizes that whether or not this nature can be preserved and perfected is dependent on the transformation wrought by practice. As for literary education -- "reciting canons such as the Book of Poetry and Book of Documents" -- the preface of the Domestic Lessons points out that this must necessarily be "received through the teachings of the parents." It states further that "there were no wise and chaste women who were not created through education." This statement clarifies the crucial significance of education in giving rise to virtue and talent, and is a reasonable point of view. At the same time, it demands education for women and advances the positive idea that women should enjoy education, though of course it does not demand that women enjoy equal access to education.

On the concept of virtue, the Model for Women "Talent and Virtue" advocates an education which combines both these aspects for women, and condemns as "particularly false" the traditional idea that "virtue for women is nothing but an absence of talent." Instead, it claims that "virtue gives expression to talent and talent completes virtue." In the same book, "Knowledge and Wisdom" particularly extols the notion that "women with knowledge surpass men," which reflects openness of thought on the subject of women's knowledge and expresses the dialectical concept that virtue and knowledge mutually reciprocate and compliment each other. Of course, the female talent that the Four Books for Women advocates is restricted by the "Three Submissions and Four Virtues." The "Three Submissions" are totally reactionary; as for the "Four Virtues," they are of mixed worth and should be evaluated after being submitted to a detailed analysis. The promotion of cleanliness, hard work, frugality, and the admonition against wicked speech is an excellent programme to oppose luxury, waste, and indolence, and require cultivated speech and conduct.

Regarding educational methodology, the Four Books for Women presents discussions on the function of proverbs and models. For instance, the injunctions to "revere the lessons of the sages" and "admire the model of the wise and worthy" in the Domestic Lessons expound on the "auspicious words and good conduct" of ancient philosophers and sages as a model for study. Each chapter in the Model for Women lists every kind of famous woman in successive historical periods as models for the advancement of education. For example, it praises Ban Zhao's sequel to the Han Shu (3), the beating of the war-drum to encourage her husband to defeat the Jin by Liang Hongyu (4), to name a few, in exaltation of the scholastic contributions of female talent and the patriotic conduct of heroines in ancient China. Apart from this, it extols in great numbers the model women of feudalistic morality and the achievements of filial women, such as the filial conduct of the woman née Liu who cut her finger in order to obtain blood as treatment for her mother-in-law, and the virtuous conduct of Xiahou who ordered his daughter to cut off her ears and nose as an expedient to preserve her honor. This kind of foolish filiality and chastity which compelled women to harm and disfigure themselves is a poisonous element of feudalism. Nonetheless, one can see the power that making use of "ancient words and deeds" has in education.

In order to give rise to "wise wives and good mothers," the Four Books for Women even brings forth education concerning "maternal standards" and "compassion for the young." It instructs women to pay attention to "prenatal education"; and requires that the teaching of children be "founded on compassion and love." However, compassion and love are not equivalent to indulging and spoiling children, as one must "guide with virtue and rectitude" and "watch over [children] strictly." These notions are undoubtedly correct.

The Four Books for Women is a set of teaching materials for women thoroughly imbued with Confucian ritual-pedagogical thought. It expounds a set of ideological theories, a content, and a methodology for female education, which came to form a "women's scholarship" or "women's pedagogy," having the historical function of advancing the education of women. We must now purge it of its feudalistic harmful elements and influences, and critically absorb its rational elements, to turn the past to the service of the present and thereby to assist in China's socialist education and the construction of both material and spiritual culture.

Editor's Note

For those interested in further research, editions of these and other works of the same genre (including a Women's Canon of Filial Piety [Tang dynasty] and a Women's Scholarship [6 juan; Qing dynasty, by Lan Dingyuan] will be found listed in the Comprehensive Index of Chinese Collectania (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1982) volume 2, pp. 757-758.

1) Translated by Gary Arbuckle and Rosemary Haddon, University of British Columbia. This article originally appeared in the Peking monthly Wenshi Zhishi (Cultural and Historical Knowledge), 1988/6, pp. 69-72. All footnotes are the translators'.

2) The original Four Books were a set of four classical texts given special weight by Neo-Confucian thinkers: the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. The two latter books had been extracted from the Han compilation Records of Ritual by Zhu Xi in the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) and put together with the Analects and Mencius to form the Four Books with Collected Notes to Sections and Clauses, a basic primer of classical studies until the end of Imperial China.

3) Ban Zhao was said to have completed the Han Shu (History of the Former Han Dynasty) after the death in prison of her brother Ban Gu. The exact extent of her contribution is still a matter of dispute.

4) Liang Hongyu lived during the Southern Song dynasty [1127 - 1279]. Her husband was Han Shizhong. See Song Shi (History of the Song Dynasty) juan 364.

Copyright 1999 - 2001 David C. Lam Institute for East West Studies (LEWI),
Hong Kong Baptist University.