Ban Gu Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese historian{$I[g]China;Ban Gu} Through his compilation of a history of the Han Dynasty, Ban Gu created a full, well-documented record for this vital period of Chinese history and set the standard for all subsequent dynastic histories of China.

Early Life

Ban Gu (bahn gew) was a member of the illustrious Ban family of Han China (206 b.c.e. to 220 c.e.). Since the generation of his great-great-grandfather, the Bans had distinguished themselves in scholarship, serving the Han imperial government in both court and provincial posts. His grand-aunt had been a favorite concubine of Emperor Cheng (Ch’eng; r. 32-7 b.c.e.). Gu’s twin brother, Chao (Ch’ao), assigned the title of Marquess for Establishing the Remote Regions, won for himself immortal fame by reestablishing Chinese hegemony in Central Asia. His younger sister, Zhao (Chao), much respected in court circles as the tutor of imperial princesses, was one of China’s foremost women scholars; she wrote the Nu jie (c. 99-105 c.e.; The Chinese Book of Etiquette and Conduct for Women and Girls, 1900; also known as Lessons for Women), the first textbook ever written for teaching Chinese women.

Life’s Work

Despite having such illustrious forebears and siblings, the young Ban Gu had a hard time finding his niche in the world. The Ban family had no automatic right to high office. Gu’s father, Biao (Pan Piao), though fairly successful in his official career, died when his sons were still relatively young and unestablished. He did, however, bequeath to Gu a project that was to secure for the Ban family a hallowed place in China’s literary tradition: the writing of a complete history of the Former Han Dynasty, the Han Shu (also known as Qian Han Shu, completed first century c.e.; The History of the Former Han Dynasty, 1938-1955). Gu’s efforts in writing the history were brought to the attention of Emperor Ming (r. 58-75), who appreciated his merits and made him a gentleman-in-waiting (lang). In this capacity, Gu had access to government archives that facilitated his writing efforts.

Besides writing The History of the Former Han Dynasty, Gu was given other writing assignments such as to report on the proceedings at the Bohu (Po-hu) Pavilion, in which an enclave of Confucian erudites gathered to deliberate on the correct interpretations of Confucian classics bearing on the ritual aspects of the Chinese monarchy. In addition, he found time to indulge his poetic propensities. His two fu (rhymed prose essays or rhapsodies) on the two capitals of the Han Dynasty established him as the foremost poet of his time.

Although other people had a hand in the compilation of The History of the Former Han Dynasty, notably his father Biao, his younger sister Zhao, and the scholar Ma Zu (Ma Hsü), there is no question that the main credit has to go to Gu. He gave the book its definitive form and was personally responsible for writing most of the text. Thus, it is appropriate to credit Ban Gu as the author of The History of the Former Han Dynasty.

Traditionally, Ban Gu’s name came to be linked to that of Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien)—often the two were referred to by the dual name Ma-Ban—to suggest the highest standard in historiographical writing. There is no denying Gu’s indebtedness to Sima Qian. In fact, The History of the Former Han Dynasty cannot be meaningfully discussed apart from the historiographical context that Sima Qian and his masterpiece, Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), provided.

Before Sima Qian’s time (c. 145-c. 86 b.c.e.), historical works had not been formally or conceptually differentiated from other forms of serious literature, which all purported to be authentic words and deeds of the ancients. To the extent that conscious attempts to write history were made, the only available framework into which records of the past could be fitted was the biannian (annals), as exemplified by the Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Summer Annals) edited by Confucius. This was a strictly chronological listing of events as they transpired, recorded from the point of view of some court historian. The disadvantages of this format are obvious. In treatments of events that had to be recorded close to the time they occurred, they often appear to be abstracted from their context, unless substantial digression and background materials were incorporated. To catch the attention of the recorder, events had to be of a spectacular nature—battles, diplomatic alliances, and the accession or death of rulers. Long-term changes such as population growth or technological development occurred too slowly to be noticed. Moreover, the format could not accommodate matters such as social or cultural history that had no immediate bearing on the government.

Sima Qian lived at a time when vast changes had overtaken China. The decentralized feudal China of the time of Confucius had given way to the centralized bureaucratic empire under the Qin (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.). The Qin Dynasty, ruling over a unified China for the first time in history, was undone by excessive tyranny and was overthrown by a universal revolt. The ensuing struggle to succeed to the throne of China ended with the triumph of the House of Han, which was to rule for more than four hundred years. Meanwhile, the quest for empire was taking the Chinese into Mongolia and Central Asia. The economy was expanding, and enormous fortunes were made. Myriad individuals had played important roles in the unfolding drama. The times called for a new historiography that would be capable of portraying these vast changes and doing justice to these individuals and their contributions.

In writing the Records of the Grand Historian of China, Sima Qian overcame the limitations of the old historiography by developing a composite format. The seventy chapters of the Records of the Grand Historian of China are divided into five sections, each representing a distinct style of historical writing. The first section, known as “Basic Annals” (benji), essentially follows the biannian style of the old historiography, being a chronicle of events recorded from the viewpoint of the paramount ruler of China. The longest section is the “Biographies” (liezhuan). Here, attention is given to individuals, ranging from successful generals and ministers to unconventional characters such as the would-be assassin Qingke (Ch’ing...

(The entire section is 2769 words.)