Lady Tan's Circle of Women
by Lisa See
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Pub Date 06 Jun 2023 | Archive Date 06 Jun 2023
From “one of those special writers capable of delivering both poetry and plot” (The New York Times Book Review) an immersive historical novel inspired by the true story of a woman physician in 15th-century China—perfect for fans of Lisa See’s classics Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.
According to Confucius, “an educated woman is a worthless woman,” but Tan Yunxian—born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness—is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations—looking, listening, touching, and asking—something a man can never do with a female patient.
From a young age, Yunxian learns about women’s illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose—despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it—and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other’s joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom.
But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged 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—embroider bound-foot slippers, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights.
How might a woman like Yunxian break free of these traditions and lead a life of such importance that many of her remedies are still used five centuries later? How might the power of friendship support or complicate these efforts? A captivating story of women helping each other, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a triumphant reimagining of the life of one person who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 216 members
There are very few Lisa See books that I don’t love. This was another one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I love that she is doing historical fiction now. Her previous historical fiction book was wonderful. If you know little about China they are very enlightening.
I read this in less than a day, which I hadn't intended and didn't have time for, to be honest, but it was compelling and I couldn't put it down. The Acknowledgments section at the end thrilled me as much as the book. It's where I learned that during the pandemic, Lisa See finally notice a book on her shelves that she'd never read before, "Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China" by Yu-Li Wu. She sat down to read it and found a mention of Tan Yunxian, a woman doctor who wrote about her medical cases in 1511. See found the book is still available, including in an English translation, and her next historical fiction novel began coming together in her mind. I love knowing this.
It's a master who can tell a story about a time long before our own in such amazing detail you feel like you're there; and also one set in a culture so unlike our own but that is so relatable and understandable. I loved reading what is clearly very detailed research into details, settings, hierarchy, life in privileged society, medical care, and ethics of the time and so much more.
And the plot is very interesting. This is a fascinating story about women in 14 and 1500s China, specifically a female character with high standing--an unintentional play on words when you consider foot-binding, which crippled women and limited their mobility. We see Tan Yunxian move throughout the seasons of her life, first getting training in doctoring and then being a doctor, and I was very interested in the characters and story and couldn't put it down. SUCH a good read.