A sumptuous tale about female friendship and leadership in 15th-century China, challenging women’s place in society.
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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.
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women
To Live Is . . .
“A thousand years in the past, a thousand years in the future—no matter where you live or how rich or poor you are—the four phases of a woman’s life are the same,” Respectful Lady says. “You are a little girl, so you are still in milk days. When you turn fifteen, you will enter hair-pinning days. The way we style your hair will announce to the world that you are ready for marriage.” She smiles at me. “Tell me, Daughter, what comes next?”
“Rice-and-salt days,” I answer dutifully, but my mind wanders. My mother and I sit together on porcelain stools under a covered colonnade in our home’s courtyard. It’s monsoon season, so the sliver of sky I can see is heavy with clouds, making the air feel humid, suffocating. Two miniature orange trees grow side by side in matching pots. Other containers hold cymbidiums, their stalks drooping under the weight of the blossoms. Rain is coming, but until then, birds titter in the gingko tree that provides a touch of coolness on the summer day, and I can smell the sea—something I’ve only seen in paintings. The fragrance doesn’t, however, cover the unpleasant odor coming from Respectful Lady’s bound feet.
“Your thoughts are elsewhere.” Her voice sounds as frail as her body looks. “You must pay attention.” She reaches over and takes one of my hands. “Are you having pain today?” When I nod, she says, “The memories of the agony you felt during your footbinding will never leave completely. There will be days from now until you die when the anguish will visit—if you’ve stood too long or walked too far, if the weather is about to change, if you don’t take proper care of your feet.” She squeezes my hand sympathetically. “When they throb or smart, remind yourself that one day your suffering will be proof to your husband of your love. Focusing on something else will distract you from the pain.”
My mother is wise, which is why everyone in the household, including my brother, Yifeng, and I, calls her Respectful Lady, the honorary title she carries as the wife of someone with my father’s high rank. But if she can tell I’m distracted, then I can see she is too. The sound of a woman singing reaches us. Miss Zhao, my father’s concubine, must be entertaining my father and his guests.
Why I love it
Author, The Circus Train
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.”
Member ratings (4,881)
Being a history nerd I love historical fiction where I am immersed in the time period along with the story. See crafts both a powerful story and beautiful narrative of women’s roles in 1400s China. ❤️
I couldn’t put it down. All Lisa See’s books are amazing. This is one of my top favorites. Her writing takes you in and she based her books on facts so you learn something too. A must read for sure.
This author’s books are always so interesting -her research is impeccable. I loved this story (minus the details about foot binding -that was awful) and it’s feminist undertones. It’s a great read.
Massapequa Park, NY
Lisa See is a master storyteller and this historical tale immerses the reader in 15th century China where footbinding and women’s health takes center stage. Fully engrossing story based on real woman.
Favorite BOTM of 2023! Supremely informative and captivating, I consumed it in less than 48 hours over book, ebook, and audio. It didn’t shy away from the gore of medicine and satisfying relationships