Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

Article | Issue: Jul 2023

LISA SEE is a New York Times bestselling author whose works include The Island of Sea Women and Shanghai Girls. Her latest novel Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a historical novel inspired by the true story of Tan Yunxian, a female physician from 15th-century China. Good Reading caught up with the author to discuss her new novel.


How did you first learn about Tan Yunxian and what inspired you to write a novel about her life?
During the first year of the pandemic, I had to abandon a story I’d long been thinking about writing because I couldn’t go to China to do research and all the archives and libraries where I typically do my research were closed. I was in lockdown and totally at a loose end. One day the spine of a book on one of my shelves jumped out at me. It was about reproduction in the Ming dynasty. I’d had it on my shelf for 10 years and I had never even opened it. I sat down right then and began to read. On page 19, I came across a mention of Tan Yunxian, a woman doctor, who, in 1511 when she turned 51, published a book of her cases. I immediately did a search on the Internet and found her book … in print, in English, 500-plus years after it was originally published. I knew right then that my next book would be about her.

In the book, Tan Yunxian becomes a physician, developing new treatments for women’s illnesses. What was involved in your research process in terms of Tan’s contributions and Chinese medicine?
I approach my research from different angles. I’ve been going to traditional Chinese medicine doctors since I was 19. In fact, I was treated by one of the first traditional Chinese medicine doctors to practice in the United States. (I should amend that to say legally in Lisa See modern times.) I’ve had acupuncture and moxibustion treatments and have taken Chinese herbal decoctions. But personal experience only goes so far. It turns out that Lorraine Wilcox, the woman who translated Tan Yunxian’s book into English, lives about 15 minutes from me. Of course, we were in lockdown, so we didn’t meet in person for many months. Who knew that Zoom would become such a huge part of our lives? Lorraine answered countless questions and put me in contact, not only with traditional Chinese medicine doctors, but also with scholars, academics, and other researchers, who have studied Tan Yunxian’s life and times. And, of course, I read, read, read whatever I could find on the history of Chinese medicine, the medicinal properties of different herbs, and the theories behind this practice which stretches back more than two millennia.

Lady Tan's Circle of Friends by Lisa SeeWhile researching the role of women in medicine for this novel, did you come across any information that you found particularly surprising or interesting?
China has a history of women in medicine going back 2000 years. Nevertheless, female physicians were rare. Of the 12 000 known medical texts to be found in China, only three were written by women, with Tan Yunxian’s being the earliest. That was not only surprising to me, but it was also inspiring. What particularly intrigued me about Tan Yunxian is that all her patients were women and girls. Some of her patients suffered from ailments common to both sexes – sore throats, stomach upsets, and the like. But what makes her work truly extraordinary are those cases that pertain to women and girls alone – menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and menopause. Maybe this wasn’t ‘surprising’ in the way you’ve asked, but it did make me think about the fact that it doesn’t matter whether a woman lived in the Ming dynasty or today, is rich or poor, in China or Australia, or is any colour of the rainbow, because we are united by our biological and physiological functions, which tie us together across time and space. That, and the fact that men have been trying to master control over women’s bodies since … forever.

What’s the significance of The Four Examinations of Chinese medicine?
The Four Examinations are looking, listening and smelling, asking, and pulse-taking. Why this is significant in the novel and why these things were important to the real Tan Yunxian and her patients is that in the past male doctors could not see a woman patient. A male doctor had to sit behind a screen or maybe even be in another room, while the woman’s father or husband relayed questions and answers back and forth. I love my husband dearly, but that doesn’t mean I’d like him to be the go-between between my gynaecologist – or any of my doctors as I think about it – and me. But this goes beyond squeamishness about physical symptoms. Tan Yunxian could speak to her patients woman-to-woman. She could ask a woman about her life, she could see if a woman’s complexion was pale or flushed, she could listen sympathetically when a woman wept or was angry about her life, and she could put her fingers on a patient’s wrist to read her pulse.

The novel deals with issues of gender and power dynamics within Chinese society. How did you approach portraying these issues in a way that is historically accurate while still being accessible to modern readers?
It’s mostly a matter of quieting my mind. I try to slow down, distance myself from my world, and be in the room with my characters. If I can do that, then they can act in ways that are true to the times they live in. If I am true to the characters – in their shoes and in their minds – then readers can connect to them. Readers might not agree with something like the practice of footbinding, how women were treated in a society governed by Confucian ideals, or whether or not to give variolation (an early form of vaccination) to your child, but if I’m doing my job right, then readers should be able to understand why characters make the choices they do even if they’re antithetical to their own beliefs. After all, reading and writing are very much about empathy and understanding ways of living that are outside our own experiences – whether it’s a story about hobbits, people living on Mars, singles enjoying the highlife in New York City, or women’s lives in China hundreds of years ago.

Tan Yunxian faces many challenges throughout the novel. What do you hope readers will take away from her story?
I hope readers see the connections between the real Tan Yunxian, who lived 500 years ago, and their own lives. She was a daughter, wife, and mother. She was what today we would call a professional woman – a doctor – who struggled with work/life balance. While the day-to-day circumstances of her life were completely different from ours, what was happening in the world around her was eerily similar to things that are happening around us today. Culture and time may seem at first glance to separate us, but at our cores we are women who have the same needs, wants, and desires as women have since the beginning of humankind.

Visit Lisa See’s website

Author: Lisa See

Category: Fiction & related items

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Scribner UK

ISBN: 9781398526068

RRP: $32.99

Reader Comments

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews
Tracey (Carpe Librum)

Loved this book and really enjoyed the interview!

Diane Weisbeck

My book club had chosen this book for November Just started reading it and find it mesmerizing so far.

The Latest List