In Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, author Lisa See reimagines the life of Tan Yunxian, who became a doctor in China, a rare profession for a female during her lifetime. At the age of 51, during the Ming dynasty, Tan published a book of her medical cases titled Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor. The book is still available today in Chinese and English.
Yunxian spent her early years following the death of her mother with her paternal grandparents, both doctors, who set her on the path of studying medicine. During those years, Yunxian meets Meiling, the daughter of Midwife Shi. Grandmother Ru understands Yunxian’s weaknesses and Meiling’s strengths, and proposes to Midwife Shi that the 8-year-old girls be allowed to form a friendship despite the cultural prohibitions. After all, Yunxian is from a privileged family, evidenced by her bound feet, and Meiling is from the lower class, a big-footed girl.
Grandmother Ru, ever mindful of obstacles that might surface in Yunxian’s future, wants to ensure that her granddaughter will have someone she can trust and who will stand by her after she is married, no matter how her mother-in-law, sisters-in-law or other women in her new household might treat her.
Grandmother Ru’s plan becomes part of a “circle of good” that surrounds Yunxian as a child and “a circle of women” who surround her when she becomes Lady Tan. As such, her main duty is to bear a son who will care for her husband’s ancestors through offerings and prayers. As Lady Tan and Meiling enter their child-bearing years, their friendship endures conflicts, separations, intrigue, a search for justice and unexpected journeys. Through it all, each woman grows in her skills and each draws strength from the other in times of weakness and despair.
After one such time, Lady Tan thinks, “I’ve been lucky to have been cared for and loved since childhood by a circle of women. Now it’s time for me to create a wider circle, so I can do for my daughters and other women in the household what Grandmother, Miss Zhao, Meiling, and even Poppy have done for me.”
Rich with historical details, descriptions of religious practices, insights into the emotional lives of women and accounts of medical methods in China in the mid-1400s and early 1500s, this novel for adults offers an in-depth exploration of the power of friendship, as well as a satisfying plot replete with suspense and intrigue. (Scribner)