Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

Author:  Lisa See

The cover to Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa SeeNew York. Scribner. 2023. 368 pages.

Based on the true story of a female doctor named Tan Yunxian in fifteenth-century China, Chinese American writer Lisa See’s latest work, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, chronicles a woman’s difficult journey to realize her dream against various social prejudices and hardships. 

After the death of her mother and due to her father’s frequently leaving home for the imperial exams, Yunxian grows up with her grandparents in the Mansion of Golden Light, where they live and practice medicine. Yunxian gets the opportunity to learn medicine—four examinations, in particular—under the guidance of her grandmother, one of the few female doctors at that time, and makes friends with Meiling, who learns to be a midwife. Together they grow, and together they pursue the dream of curing disease for women in the neighborhood. 

Unfortunately, like millions of women in the old days, the arranged marriage confines Yunxian to her husband’s house and to the duties of a good wife and mother: “to give birth to sons, uphold rules, and perform rituals that will guarantee a family’s success,” aborting her dream of being a doctor and breaking off her contact with Meiling. However, Yunxian decides to break with tradition and makes a greater contribution to the treatment of female diseases. She not only manages to reunite with Meiling but also fulfills her dream of practicing medicine publicly, with the help and encouragement of her circle of women in the Garden of Fragrant Delights, where she applies her medical skills to women high and low alike as “a humanitarian art” and publishes her medical book to give them further prescriptions. 

Keen on mining materials from Chinese history and focusing on the struggle of Chinese women in various periods, See continues her exploration of traditional Chinese culture and the role of women in Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. Written during the days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the novel attracts our attention to the uniqueness of Chinese medicine by telling a story of the invasion of smallpox, which to some extent resembles the powerlessness of people during the lockdown period, to convey the belief that we can go through any plague with the unyielding spirit shown by Tan’s circle of women. Meanwhile, See weaves the net of fate of Yunxian and Meiling with the philosophy of Chinese medicine: “Yin and Yang are always in movement—buoying and changing each other,” which means, with the rising of Yunxian, the falling is awaiting Meiling, but their mutual trust enables them to keep the balance of yin and yang, and together they can overcome any difficulties. 

Female friendship is a recurring theme in See’s novels such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007), and Shanghai Girls (2009). In a male-dominated society where women, especially concubines, are regarded as the possessions of men, when a woman fails to fulfill her duty of delivering a son, she will be driven out of the house like Miss Chen and her daughter, or reluctantly accept the reality of her husband having concubines. Lady Tan’s Circle of Women emphasizes the significance and necessity of mutual support among women, without which Yunxian and Meiling’s dreams will never come true. 

Xie Fengjiao
Nanjing Normal University

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