Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See
Publication date: June 6, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Historical
Lisa See’s depictions of the women of China and Southeast Asia have always been entertaining and educational reading so I was pleased to hear about her new novel, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. Set in 15th century China it’s the story of one of China’s first female doctors.
Yunxian Tan is a little girl when, her mother dies at the age of 28. She is sent to live with her grandparents, where she spends time not just in the traditional pursuits of preparing for marriage, but learning from her grandmother about the world of women’s medicine. It’s a crucial component at the time as men cannot come in contact with women other than their wives and concubines, much less examine them. Women’s illnesses and childbirth are the domain of female doctors and midwives.
From her grandmother, Yunxian learns the basic tenets of Chinese medicine, her formulas, and how to keep a journal of every patient’s symptoms, treatment, and outcome to gain knowledge. These teachings become the bedrock of Yunxian’s sense of self and her desire to help others.
During this time Yunxian is introduced to a midwife’s daughter her age. Just as Yunxian is learning medicine from her grandmother, Meiling is studying to be a midwife, a job welcomed for its part in healing women and bringing forth new life, but reviled for its proximity to the corrupting influence of blood. The girls become close friends despite the disparity in their lives, until Yunxian is married off and her new mother-in-law forbids her to practice medicine or to see Meiling. Her sole role is to please her husband and produce sons for the family.
Through the various women in Yunxian’s life See weaves a story that is replete in its details of the times, but is even richer in its exploration of the roles women played in each other’s lives at a time when power for them was almost nonexistent.
Whether animal or woman, we are a man’s possessions. We women exist to give him heirs and feed, clothe, and amuse him. Never forget that.
It’s a conundrum because poor women, in needing to work, could move about freely in the world, but were captive to poverty and the goodwill and power of the wealthy. Women in “official” families (those who had status within the royal hierarchy) had every luxury, but lived in specifically designated spaces within a family’s compound. They never saw the world outside the compound’s walls.
A more disturbing fact is that wealthy women were literally stripped of the freedom to move by foot binding whereas poor women were not subjected to this torture. (DO NOT Google this. Despite what ancient Chinese men believed about the eroticism of a woman’s foot broken into a shape smaller than a fist, it is not the kind of image you need in your head. It was a barbaric way of disfiguring and crippling women, leaving them unable to walk normally and susceptible to falls and infections.)
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is rich in details, but because 15th century Chinese women were so constricted the novel is limited in its movement. It’s more of a character study of Yunxian’s life and how she pushes against its boundaries. That and her complicated, enduring friendship with Meiling.
Later in the novel the pace picks up, but this is largely a quiet novel of women. This is See’s forte in all her works—the power of friendship. She never takes the cozy route, instead probing the complexities of power dynamics caused by the inequities of social and economic status, but always with a respectful view. There is strength in her novels and in all of the women in Lady Tan’s Circle of Women.
For more Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women is her novel about the unique women living on a island off the coast of Korea.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Scribner in exchange for an honest review.*