By Beverly Ewart
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women: A Novel by Lisa See
From the online catalog: 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?
Lisa See has never failed to capture my imagination and my time! Her novels are well-researched, her narratives compelling, and her characters relatable. She draws me right into a world I otherwise could not have imagined and opens history that I had never been taught. Though fiction, this novel revolves around a historical figure – a real woman who changed history for GOOD for the women she treated and the women to come after her. A trailblazer with bound feet!
The novel is rich in details about traditional Chinese medicine, culture, and customs. It is also a story of a deep friendship that overcomes class and gender strictures, and even character flaws and foibles. It was worth reading deep into the night! (Because I couldn’t put it down!)