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Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See
Historical fiction

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women

by Lisa See
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Quick take

A sumptuous tale about female friendship and leadership in 15th-century China, challenging women’s place in society.

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    Slow build

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    Family drama

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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, pluck instruments, 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, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, 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? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes depicting a miscarriage.

Why I love it

In the sumptuous, illuminating Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, Lisa See brings to light the real-life tale of one of China’s earliest documented female physicians.

The story, which immerses the reader in 15th-century China, follows young Tan Yunxian. Born into an upper-class family, her life is forever changed after her mother dies and she is sent to live with her grandparents. Though uncharacteristic of the time, Yunxian’s grandmother is a doctor and trains her granddaughter in the art of Chinese Medicine. Yunxian also meets the daughter of a midwife, Meiling, with whom she forms a deep friendship. But the day for Yunxian to marry inevitably comes, ripping her away from everything she knows and loves.

As a writer who loves seeing female characters in STEM, I couldn’t conceive of a more wonderful protagonist to root for. Yunxian is at once defiant and vulnerable, and my heart soared and ached at the triumphs and setbacks she endures.

Through deft prose and vivid imagery, See makes us feel like we’re living alongside her characters, and it is this painstaking attention to detail that truly elevates her writing into another class. This novel explores many themes but ultimately, it’s a tale about the quiet strength of women, and a potent reminder that “you must speak if you wish to be heard.”

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