Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu – The concubine who longed for the Emperor after losing favour




(public domain)

Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu’s sorrowful tale has wrenched the hearts of readers for centuries. Her longing for an emperor who abandoned her for younger women has made her story seem very relatable to many women. She has been seen as a feminist icon who is known for being virtuous and is able to find peace with her tragic circumstances. Her story has been the inspiration for many countless female writers in China.[1] Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu is also known as an accomplished poet. She is the only woman to have written in the rhapsody genre (a popular genre in Western Han).[2] Thus, Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu should not be remembered for losing the Emperor’s favour, but also her literary talents.

Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu’s name is unknown. Her surname was Ban, and Jieyu was the rank that Emperor Cheng bestowed upon her.[3] She was born around 48 B.C.E. in Loufan (modern-day Su county in Shanxi province).[4] She was the daughter of Ban Kuang, who was an officer in the military.[5] Ban Jieyu was educated and was said to possess great literary talent.[6] She was selected to work as a librarian in the palace during the beginning of Emperor Cheng’s reign.[7] Emperor Cheng noticed her, and she quickly became his favourite. He gave her the title of Jieyu, which was the third rank in the harem (two ranks below the empress).[8] She gave him a son, who sadly died in infancy.[9] Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu was also well-liked by Empress Zhengjun because of her modesty, her Confucian principles, and her advice to Emperor Cheng to be more frugal.[10]

Over time, Emperor Cheng began to lose interest in her and favoured younger women in his court.[11] Yet, it was not until the arrival of the notorious Zhao sisters that trouble was brought upon Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu.[12] They accused her of cursing the Emperor in witchcraft.[13] Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu lost her position. Since then, the Emperor made very few attempts to see her.[14] Because of her loss of favour, she decided to stay out of trouble by moving into Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun’s palace.

It was in Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun’s palace that she began to live in seclusion, where she often reflected back upon her life.[15] She began to spend her time writing poetry.[16] In her poem Elegy for Myselfshe writes about her sorrow at losing the Emperor’s favour and how she is still longing for him.[17] An excerpt of her poem is:

“I reflect that man born into this world,

Passes as swiftly as though floating on a stream,

Already I’ve known fame and eminence,

The finest gifts the living can enjoy.

I will strive to please my spirit, taste every delight,

Since true happiness cannot be counted on.

‘Green Robe’–’White Flower’–in ancient times as now.”[18]

Even though Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu lost the Emperor’s favour, she served at the imperial tomb after he died in 7 B.C.E.[19] When she died in 6 B.C.E., she was buried in the funerary park.[20] Yet, Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu’s legacy continues to live on. Her great-nephew Ban Gu wrote a biography of her in History of the Han Dynasty, where she is a model for female virtue.[21] Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu has also been known as a feminist icon. Over the centuries, countless female writers have written poems about her praising her virtue and her modesty.[22] Thus, Imperial Consort Ban Jieyu’s tragic story will continue to inspire future female writers for countless generations.

Sources:

Ban, G. (1974). Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China. Selections from the “History of the Former Han” by Pan Ku. (B. Watson, Trans.). NY: Columbia University Press.

Bijun, Z. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E(L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge.

McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Milburn, O.(2021). The Empress in the Pepper Chamber: Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Xiaoming, Z. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; X. Kaicheng, Trans.). London: Routledge.


[1] Milburn, p. 123

[2] Bijun, p. 101

[3] Xiaoming, p. 82

[4] Xiaoming, p. 82

[5] Xiaoming, p. 82

[6] Bijun, p. 101

[7] Xiaoming, p. 82

[8] Xiaoming, p. 82; Milburn, p. 133

[9] McMahon, p. 77

[10] Xiaoming, p. 82

[11] Xiaoming, p. 82

[12] McMahon, p. 77

[13] Xiaoming, p. 82

[14] Bijun, p. 102

[15] Xiaoming, p. 82

[16] Xiaoming, p. 82

[17] Bijun, p. 103

[18] Watson, p. 264

[19] Bijun, p. 103

[20] Bijun, p. 103

[21] Xiaoming, p. 82

[22] Milburn, pp.122-123






About Lauralee Jacks 93 Articles
I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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