Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is an immersive tale about an elite woman who becomes a physician in spite of societal restrictions during China’s Ming Dynasty.
From a young age, Tan Yunxian understands her place in the world as a “proper Confucian woman”: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.” However, after Yunxian goes to live with her grandparents, her grandmother introduces her to hereditary medicine, especially related to women’s illnesses. Yunxian also meets beautiful Meiling, a midwife in training. Meiling becomes Yunxian’s only friend and gives her a glimpse of the world outside the confines of her privileged life.
Despite Yunxian’s knowledge and desire to learn about medicine, she cannot escape gendered societal expectations. After getting married, her controlling and traditional mother-in-law bans her from helping the women in her new clan. She is also forbidden from seeing Meiling.
Lisa See’s spellbinding historical novel, inspired by Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor by the real-life Tan Yunxian, vividly depicts 15th-century China with artfully woven details, rich characters and descriptive language. See captures a world of propriety and cruelty as she ruminates on the disparity between the lives of men and women, and how women—no matter their class—are treated as possessions of the men around them. But through her strong-willed characters, See also emphasizes how women can act as the anchors of society.
Yunxian is immediately likable, with a palpable commitment to persevering amid struggles and taking care of both herself and the circle of women that depend on her. Yunxian describes the world around her—the practice of foot binding, the marriage of girls at a young age and the duties expected of women—with a balanced, objective tone, one befitting a physician who must observe and diagnose. Yunxian’s shrewdness, a reflection of her grandmother’s interpretation of a Chinese aphorism (“Be a hidden dragon. Do not act.”), helps her strike that delicate balance between conforming to a woman’s role and pursuing her personal goals.
Poetic maxims about life are smoothly incorporated into the narrative, imbuing Lady Tan’s Circle of Women with an element of mysticism, while references to medicinal formulas and theories reflect the cultural beliefs of 15th-century China, many of which are still practiced today. For fans of historical fiction, this is an emotional and illuminating epic.