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Lady Tan's Circle of Women

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Lisa See’s latest work of historical fiction is a well researched and intensive study of women in 15th century China.  Tan Yunxian is married at a young age, as all women were at that time, the difference being that her grandmother and grandfather taught her all about Chines medicine, consisting of herbs and tinctures from natural sources.  It’s was fascinating to read about the variety of classes and situations of women from wealthy, to concubines, midwives, to the poor and displaced, letting us see into the past.  Women were supposed to produce males for heirs and every effort was made to make this happen, even by the addition of concubines if the wives could not produce.  I recommend this work of historical fiction.  Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.
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This is a historical fiction book based on the life of a 15th century Chinese woman physician, Tan Yunxian.  Her grandmother is one of a very few female doctors in China. She passes all of Chinese medicine knowledge onto her beloved granddaughter. Knowing nothing about Chinese medicine, I felt like I was learning with Yunxian. Her grandmother was an inspiration and encouraged her to be a strong woman... “You must speak if you want to be heard” .. such wise words during a time when Chinese women were not heard or even recognized.

What an exceptional book!   I couldn’t put the book down  Lisa See writes in a way that you can place yourself in the story .  Tan Yunxian is a determined, intelligent woman. The reader gets to know her, her joys, her loyalties and her hardships through the beautiful writing of Lisa See. 
Tan, coming from an elite family, continues her lifelong friendship with Meiling  even though their lives were the complete opposite of each other.  Learning about the Chinese women’s struggles..foot binding, child-bearing and concubines was disturbing but fascinating at the same time. This novel is filled with well developed characters, mystery and strong women.
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Lisa See brings readers another wonderful story about the life of a Chinese woman in the 15th century.  The story is inspired by a woman physician during that time period.  

Tan Yunxian, born into an elite family, witnessed her mother’s death at a young age.  She is sent to live with her grandparents, who are well-respected and educated.  The grandmother immediately begins to teach Yunxian about Chinese medicine.

Eventually, Yunxian is introduced to a midwife and her daughter, Meiling.  The girls are the same age and immediately become friends.  Meiling is being trained to become a midwife, so as they grow older, the girls see how they could compliment each other in their work.  

Each girl has difficulties to face.  Both are subject to an arranged marriage, however Yunxian is married into an elite family like her own, but Meiling is married to a tea merchant that struggles to make a living.  Yunxian’s  mother-in-law forbids her to see Meiling due to the class difference.

Eventually the girls are able to be together again due to a series of changes that occur in each of their families.  This is the story of a wonderful friendship between two strong women and how they encourage and lift each other up in times of strife.

It is also full of information about the Chinese customs of the time and their beliefs about women, medicine and life.  This was a story that had me going to the Internet to learn more and see pictures illustrating what I was reading about.  I loved it and I think other readers will love it also.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for allowing me to read an advance copy.  I am pleased to offer my honest review and recommend this to other readers.
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3.5 stars

*   Research and woman-centered themes that have become the hallmark of See’s work
* Medical treatments of the time

* More telling than showing in places
* Quite a bit of the material has been covered in previous books.
* Very wide in scope

Thank you to Lisa See, Scribner, and NetGalley for an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Based on an incredible healer in fifteen century China, Lady Tan Yunxian.  This is the story of Yunxian, a young woman born into wealth, haunted by death, educated in medicine, and a marriage arranged, in a time when women had no voice, where there was a distinct hierarchy within households, where trust of servants was bought at a premium, and the truth was hard to come by. This was the time of foot binding, concubines, and deep mistrust of midwives. 
After a young Yunxian’s mother dies she is sent to live with her paternal grandparents who are respected healers. She learns from them, but also a local midwife who attends to all the women in the family. Doctors do not touch blood, it’s unclean.  They are academics.  This contradiction, along with the strict constraints of society, is hard for Yunxian to reconcile as she sees the very real harm it causes. As she grows into a wife and mother, moving into her husband’s home, this conflict only becomes greater.
Lisa See is at her best telling stories about relationships between women, how they grow together, apart, over generations. She peels back what they must do to survive in repressive societies, sacrificing themselves, humanizing difficult choices. Her previous book, The Island Of Sea Women, did this beautifully for me while also telling the story of the all female diving collective and Japanese colonialism. In Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women it clearly works for so many readers based on the rave reviews.  Here, for me, the reading experience got lost in the details, and I wasn’t emotionally connected to the characters. I think this is a reflection of my discomfort with the subject of foot binding, so know yourself as a reader. I respect the awesome care that the author took with the story, and recognize it’s done well, and important history.
I think this is an excellent book for book clubs and buddy reads as there’s so much to discuss.

Thank you to Scribner Books @ScribnerBooks for the early review copy via Netgalley @netgalley
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In true Lisa See fashion, this work of historical fiction has depth and characters you will love forever. I cared so much about Yunxian and and learned a lot about history I wish I had known earlier. Watching her break from tradition and pave the way for future women was so inspiring. I highly recommend reading this!
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A girl is expected to have four phases of a woman’s life: “milk years, hair-pinning, rice and salt, and finally sitting quietly as they come to wisdom." This brilliant novel is a coming of age novel that centers around Yunxian and what her grandmother allowed her to do. At the tender age of eight, she is sent to live with her grandmother due to the loss of her mother. Yunxian leads a privileged life but the best fortune was given to her when she was able to learn medicine from her grandmother and her friendships with the other women.

Beautifully written about women supporting and building each other up. 

Thank you NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me an eARC in exchange for an honest opinion.

⚠️Triggers: Foot binding
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Lisa See writes powerful stories and Lady Tan's Circle of Women takes us to Ming China.  The difficulties and restrictions that women faced, regardless of class, is clear  in the story.  We are drawn in and care for the two main women and their very different situations.  Lady Tan's Circle of Women captures the complexity of women's friendships, envy, and competition but it also shows the strength of the friendships.  I read the book in a day and was captivated by the world of Ming China.
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The best kind of historical fiction isn’t just a book that faithfully recreates the details of a previous era in order to embellish its story, but something that actually tells us something new about a person or time period we weren’t terribly familiar with along the way. Lisa See’s novels excel at both these elements, delving into Chinese history and culture through uniquely female stories and perspectives that make her work stand out from the historical fiction pack. From the rural villages of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to the bustling world of World War II-era Shanghai in Shanghai Girls, her stories are full of strong, capable women, offering us quiet windows into the lives of those who are so often silenced by history.  See’s latest novel, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is set in set in 15th-century China, and follows the story of Tan Yunxian, a woman most modern American readers have likely never heard of. (Confession time: I hadn’t before I read his book!!) 

A female physician who practiced during the Ming dynasty, she published a book of her cases when she turned fifty, titled Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor. (And you can actually still it buy today!)  Little is known about her personal life; in fact, almost nothing survives about her beyond the writing she left behind. But that’s what fiction is for, isn’t it? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women takes that absence of knowledge and fashions a specific, vibrant, and thoroughly lived-in history for Yunxian.
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Lady Tan Yunxian is based on the life of a rare Chinese female doctor who lived in the late 1400s - early 1500s. In this story, she is raised very traditionally with bound feet and lessons to prepare her to be a wife who bears sons and to eventually become the matriarchal head of a wealthy and influential household. However when Yunxian’s mother dies when she is still very young, she is sent to live with her paternal grandparents, both of whom are doctors and she learns to treat women’s maladies from her grandmother. During her childhood, she develops a deep friendship with Meiling, the daughter of a midwife and considered “working class”. When both girls marry at age 15, their worlds no longer interact. Yunxian must obey her mother in law and is forbidden to see Meiling. However, as both girls develop names for themselves as doctor and midwife, they find ways to continue their friendship throughout their lifetimes.
This is a fascinating story about what life was like for women of different classes in this time period in China. Yunxian’s determination to continue to study medicine against opposition and to treat the women of her household is inspiring. But the best part of the story is the friendship between Yunxian and Meiling that grew stronger in spite of their different classes and their personal struggles with each other. It was interesting to read about the various remedies and methods used to treat women and how common symptoms were viewed in this culture. It’s amazing that the doctor who Lady Tan Yunxian’s character is based on wrote a book about her cases that still exists today. Lisa See has written another engaging and fascinating yet complex story of women and friendship - highly recommend!
#NetGalley #Scribner
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What an interesting, well researched and beautifully written book. You can see the care in how see layers in the nuances of the practices that made women's life difficult in China during this time while they still accepted it as part of the culture, and most importantly, how the Circle of Women and the support this offers is critical to survival. I really loved Grandmother, Miss Zhao and Spinster Aunt. But I came to appreciate everyone in the story and how it was all woven together. Lady Tan, being a real person with real cases and writing, is fascinating. I find it remarkable that her legacy was maintained through the appreciation of her grand nephew (as noted in the book) in the 16th century after it potentially being lost and that she lived well into her 90s! This book, though historical fiction, is a great imagining of the times and I don't think that the peek through of modern thinking is at all out of place in a story about a woman of the upper class also being a Doctor.  

Def a recommended read for lovers of See and historical fiction rich in history and detail.
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Absolutely beautiful novel. The research, time and thought used to write this story is amazing. The story follows Lady Tan Yunxian who was born into an elite class in China during the 15th century. Through her eyes you learn about the expectations women of the Ming dynasty were faced with especially in relation to topics of child bearing, medicine and foot binding. I was truly transported to this time and place in history and will not be forgetting the story any time soon.  The authors note at the end shows how much she cares about truly immersing herself in the history behind the story.
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A historical fiction novel based on a real life woman doctor in 15th century China.  Lisa See does a fantastic job placing us in the world of midwives, different classes and expectations of what it means to be a woman (i.e., foot-binding and pressure to conceive a son).  I loved learning about the time period and Chinese medicine.  There is a great friendship between the main character and another midwife (who come from different backgrounds).  I really liked that at the core of this novel is a feminist perspective and thus it made for a very empowering and uplifting read.  

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for an ARC and I left this honest review voluntarily.
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Author Lisa See knows how to draw an audience in and weave a tale of intrigue, drama, and life. The story of Tan Yunxian is powerful and even heartbreaking at times. The women in her life are strong even when they are limited by their status as being born female in 1400-1500’s China. Women were to be ornaments for their husbands and to bring honor and sons into the family, but “an educated woman was a worthless woman” as this book and Confusius highlight time and time again. I am so glad Yunxian consistently pushes those bounds, not only to make the life of others better, but to make her own better as well. From what I understand, this is a historical fiction tale based on some nuggets of truth. I hope for the sake of the women of that time, there were strong women such as Yunxian and Meiling who could provide the level of care others needed during their most trying times.
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Yunxian Tan is born into a life of privilege in Ming Dynasty China. Raised to be a proper wife, mother, and lady of the household, Yunxian is not allowed outside the walls of her family compound, and only interacts with the women of her household. When tragedy strikes her family, Yunxian is sent to live with her grandparents, who are both traditional doctors. Yunxian trains with her grandmother, learning the pillars of Chinese medicine, and is allowed an unusual friendship with a midwife, who is considered unclean by Confucian ideals.
Lisa See is a master storyteller, weaving a vibrant tapestry of emotion, intrigue, and historical accuracy into the story of Yunxian’s life. Must read for all lovers of historical fiction.
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In 15th century China, Tan Yunxian grows up in a wealthy prestigious family. Raised largely by her grandparents, she studies to be a doctor, following in her grandmother's footsteps. Since male doctors are forbidden to touch or examine female patients, Yunxian focuses on illnesses that trouble women, particularly in the reproductive system. Working in conjunction with Meiling, a midwife, they treat the women in Yunxian's household and also the working women who come to them for help. But Yunxian's work stirs controversy in their male-dominated society, putting her and Meiling in danger.
Based on an actual woman healer who wrote a book about her cases and the remedies used to treat them, many of which are still used today. It's a fascinating look at life in an upper class Chinese household during the Ming dynasty, also of medieval medical practices and beliefs. Warning: the descriptions of foot binding are horrible, especially Yunxian's mother dying of blood poisoning after her feet become infected. I love See's books: wonderful descriptions, well-researched, highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
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Lady Tan's Circle of Women was a hit for me! Set in China in the 15th century it was a story of how women supported each other, damaged each other and survived. I read SnowFlower and the Secret Fan by the same author years ago and loved that so I was excited to read another book by her- I can see myself reading her catalog soon. Lisa See is a great author that can bring to life a time/place that I know very little about. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the early read!
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“Lady Tan's Circle of Women,” by Lisa See, Scribner, 368 pages, June 6, 2023.

According to Confucius, “an educated woman is a worthless woman,” but Tan Yunxian, born into an elite family, is being raised to be a healer.

Her mother, Respectful Lady, wants her to be a traditional wife. When Respectful Lady dies, Yunxian, who has never been outside the family compound, is sent to her grandparents, Grandfather Tan and Grandmother Ru. Miss Zhao, her father’s concubine, Yifeng, her half-brother, and Poppy, her maid, also go.

Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China. From the age of eight, Yunxian learns about women’s illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. While her grandfather’s medical knowledge comes from books, her grandmother’s comes from following her parents who learned from their parents.

But when she is older, her grandparents enter her into an arranged marriage.  In seven years, Yunxian is to marry Yang Maoren. His parents are Master Yang and Lady Kuo. Both her grandmother and Miss Zhao tell her that she must fit into the rhythm of the household.

After her marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife: to embroider, to play a string instrument and to give birth to sons.

How can she break free of the restrictions and continue to treat women? Will other women help or sabotage her efforts? And will she have daughters or sons?

“Lady Tan’s Circle of Women” is  a captivating story of women helping other women. This is one of Lisa See’s best novels and will be on many best books of the year lists. It was inspired by the true story of a woman physician from 15th-century China. The inside look of women’s lives in 15th century China is incredible and is highly recommended.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.
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The story of this remarkable female Chinese physician, Lady Tan Yunxian, begins in the 15th century, with the description of the defining event in her life, the one that haunts her, and drives her to want to be a physician. Lisa See immerses the reader in the culture, history, food, and customs of China during the Ming dynasty. The author makes it look effortless and natural, but the she has obviously done meticulous research. And See bares the cultural practices of the time without flinching. There is a tremendous amount of sanctioned cruelty in this era: boys sold to become eunuch servants, and girls regularly sold to brothels. The foot binding requirement on its own is horrific and even worse than we imagine.

Yunxian has an unusual upbringing, one of privilege, yes, but not just economic privilege. She has the privilege to learn. Even as a child, she is not just a quick learner of physician skills, but also a keen observer of society, gleaning other concepts which will guide the rest of her life. She sees how rigid class structure, and competition and jealousy among women are destructive, whereas cooperation can result in better outcomes for everyone. The medical knowledge passed down from her grandmother includes a very early understanding of vaccination and ways to boost immunity, among the effective uses of herbs for healing. 

One of the greatest realizations of Yunxian in her time, is that even though the birth of a son is of great cultural significance, the death of a woman has just as much impact. It is women who can save other women. If women are ever to be taken seriously, they must learn seriously. And they must learn to support each other, not out of obligation, but of their own free will, exercising one of the few choices they have in life. The circle makes all of them stronger.

The melancholy of a woman who is seen as a vessel, a duty, a possession, anything but a person in her own right, is palpable. Her power is in what she knows, so she must gather all the knowledge she can. The worst thing for Yunxian isn't that she is completely under the control of her husband's family, but rather that her abilities, intellect, and talents are stifled and even forbidden. When Yunxian is allowed more flexibility to stretch her intellect, she is aware that at the same time, she is trapped within the boundaries of tradition. 

Yunxian also begins to realize that women need the support of other women, that emotional health and deep connections are every bit as important as every aspect of physical health. She is not just one of the very first female physicians of the time, but also one of the first holistic healers. It takes great bravery and stretching the limits of her position, but she is able to accomplish more than even she had imagined, even publishing a book of her cases and cures. She didn't just break tradition, she remolded it into something new, made space for herself, created her own successful legacy. 

Thank you to Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and Netgalley, for providing a copy of this book for review.
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A well-crafted, immersive historical narrative! I loved reading this book and am so glad it was chosen as a Book of the Month so I also have a physical copy for my shelves. This is an inspiring story that works thanks to See's character work and attention to detail. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a female-driven story or historical fiction!
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