Inkandescent® Book of the Month

This summer: Take a trip back to the Ming Dynasty with Lisa See’s “Lady Tan’s Circle of Women”


Listen to the podcast on Inkandescent Radio

Travel to 15th-century China this summer with Lisa See's Lady Tan's Circle of Women

Authors Between the Covers: Inspired by a true story of Tan Yunxian, a woman physician in 15th-century China, Lisa See's new novel is a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

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June 2023: A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, founder, Inkandescent PR + Publishing Co.What a thrill to start off the summer with a suggestion for an amazing beach read by New York Times bestselling author Lisa See. I had the privilege of interviewing Lisa for the June issue of the Costco Connection magazine. Lisa was kind enough to let me report on her much-anticipated novel on our Authors Between the Covers Show on the Inkandescent Radio Network and

I cannot more highly recommend this historical novel: Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, which is inspired by a true story of Tan Yunxian, a woman physician in 15th-century China.

About the book: 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 even though 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? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

About the author: The New York Times bestselling author has penned a dozen books, including The Island of Sea Women, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and Dreams of Joy,which debuted at number one. Born in Paris and raised by her mother in Los Angeles, Lisa spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown.

“Because of this, I have always been influenced and intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or now in the world today,” shares Lisa, whose stories have garnered honors from the Organization of Chinese American Women—who named her the National Woman of the Year in 2001. She also received the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award in 2003; in 2017, she received the Golden Spike Award (which recognizes exceptional accomplishments of Chinese Americans in Southern California) from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

Scroll down for our Q&A with this truly amazing author. Don’t miss our podcast interview on Inkandescent Radio Network and the video version on

Take a trip to 15th-century China this summer with Lisa See’s Lady Tan’s Circle of Women

Inkandescent: Lisa, tell us about your life and what led you to become a writer.

Lisa: I was born in Paris, but that sounds more glamorous than it was. My parents were students, and I slept in a dresser drawer for the first six weeks of my life, and then we came home to Los Angeles, CA. My mother was a writer. My mother’s father was a writer. I sometimes joke around with them and say, why couldn’t they have been plumbers or brain surgeons? Because I learned to be who I am by watching them. So, I feel like I had a lifelong apprenticeship as a writer on my mother’s side of the family. But the other side of my family is Chinese. And so my great great grandfather came here to work on the building of the railroad in the west. He stayed and became a godfather patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown.

Inkandescent: Tell us more about him!

Lisa: He had four wives, one of whom, as you can guess from my complexion, was white. This was back when it was against the law in  California until 1948 for Chinese to marry white people. Believe it or not, that was the case in many other states until 1967. So, when I was a girl, I had about 400 relatives. Maybe a dozen looked like me, but the majority were fully Chinese. When I looked around me, I saw Chinese faces, experienced Chinese culture, tradition, and language, and ate a lot of Chinese food. And that’s why I write the kinds of books that I do.

Inkandescent: Let’s talk about this new book. So what inspired you to write it? 

Lisa: I think about books for a long time before deciding what to write. For example, I had been thinking about Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane for 20 years before I penned it. One day I figured out my way into the story with The Island of Sea Women. It was, I don’t know, about four or five years before sort of circumstances came together, and I knew, okay, this is the one right now. So I knew what the next book was going to be. After the Island of Sea Women, there was just one problem. Well, actually, two. One was that the Pandemic had arrived, and the second was that that particular book was going to require a lot of research and a trip that would take me deep, deep, deep into a very remote part of China. Obviously, there was no way I could go in 2020.

Inkandescent: So what did you do?

Lisa: I hate to say it, but I was moping around like my life is over. I kept muttering to myself: What am I going to do? I can’t do the thing that I love. Not only couldn’t I travel to China to do research, but I also couldn’t research in all the usual places where I do it, like UCLA’s seven research libraries, which were all closed. In fact, research institutions around the world were closed. Then there came a moment in October 2020 when it changed for me. I was walking through my office, looking at the books on the shelves where I have all my research books, and one spine of one just popped out at me. I don’t know why. The cover was gray with darker gray lettering, and I pulled it down. The title was Reproducing Women: Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Ming Dynasty. I’d had that book on my shelf for ten years and had never opened it. So I thought, well, here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and I’ve got lots of time on my hands, so I sat down right at that moment to read it. I got to page 19, where there was a mention of a woman doctor in the Ming Dynasty named Tan Yunxian, who, when she was 50, published a book of her own about her medical cases.

Inkandescent: And that was 500 years ago?

Lisa: Yes, this would be in 1511. I thought, well, that’s fascinating. I set the book down and looked her up, and it turned out that her book was still in print, not just in Chinese, but also in English. And I had a copy of it in my hands within about 24 hours. So instead of the usual 20 years or eight years, I thought about something from the moment that spine jumped out at me until I knew that this was the next book, which was about 26 hours. It was amazing!

Inkandescent: At that moment, what were you thinking? (more…)

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