Lady Tan’s Circle of Women Review

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See is an historical fiction set in the late 15th century China during the Ming dynasty. Having shelved this novel for far too long, I am so glad I finally got the chance to read it. It is a beautifully written novel regarding Tan Yunxian, a woman born into an elite household but a woman nonetheless. This comes with a lot of disadvantages during imperial times and when it came to elite female members of society such as Lady Tan, this boils down to one goal and one goal only: to produce a male heir for her husband in hopes of carrying on the family name and succession. While it may sound simple, the rules and expectations of what a woman during those times must live and go by is extremely harsh by modern standards. Lady Tan’s journey to becoming an influential woman doctor, especially during those times when all she is expected to do is to breed as many sons as possible, is truly remarkable.

“Friendship is a contract between two hearts. With hearts united, women can laugh and cry, live and die together.”

Grandmother Ru

Although I’ve read and watch many historical Chinese drama shows, I don’t believe I’ve come across a story or novel that focuses so much on childbirth and a woman’s body such as this one. It’s fascinating in that if you compare childbirth today and during Lady Tan’s time, it would seem the latter to be almost inhumane and yet, that’s how it was. This in turn highlights how weird and incredible the field of medicine have evolved over time as well. This novel really highlights how love, friendship, hardship and determination were able to get Tan Yunxian through the different phases of a woman’s life from birth to death in imperial China and to also be one of the most respected female doctors of her time although doing so was frowned upon.

“Whether animal or woman, we are a man’s possessions.”

Concubine White Jade

The author clearly did her research, and her postscript lists many of the sources she’s used. Although she had to make up a lot of the story and events that took place in the novel, it was cleverly crafted based on Tan Yunxian’s actual written book on the few cases she chose to document. I’m also glad to find that there is a Chinese TV series aired in 2016 called The Imperial Doctress that focuses on Tan Yunxian’s life as a female physician. Reading Lady Tan’s Circle of Women was such a treat. I didn’t think for once prior to my reading that this would have been the page turner it turned out to be.

I can’t think of a more fitting word for this novel and story besides just simply “beautiful”.

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