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.
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 Inkandescent.tv.
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.
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?
Lisa: I think what really just so attracted me to her was, first of all, being a female doctor 500 years ago. That’s very remarkable. China has a history of female doctors going back about 2000 years, but they are still few and far between. But the ideas that she had written this book and all the cases are about women and girls. So very unique cases that are about us, right? We have the same health issues today as we did 500 years ago and will have 500 years from today. And so the fact that she had published this was so unique that it was still in print. And if you think about how many books are still in print from more than 500 years ago, we’ve got the Bible, the Iliad, Nedyssey, some Greek tragedies and comedies, and Beowulf. But after that, my mind goes blank. I can’t think of many written by women. So just the fact that this is still in print, that many of her remedies are still used today in traditional Chinese medicine, was amazing to me.
Inkandescent: I want to read one quote from the book that jumped at me. “According to Confucius, an educated woman is a worthless woman.” Talk a little about that idea and how it impacted Tanyan Yunxian.
Lisa: So, Confucius didn’t have a lot of, we could say, love or respect for women. That is one of his most famous quotes. But a couple of others include “A woman should never go more than three steps outside her front door,” and “A girl obeys her father, a wife obeys her husband, a widow obeys her son.” And yet some women broke through that, who said, okay, that’s nice. All that obey, obey, obey. In the novel, Tanyan Yunxian’s mother, at one mother-in-law at one point, says, obey, obey, obey, then do what you want. And I actually used that in Snowflower and the Secret Fan years ago. But it felt really appropriate to use it again here because she defied so many stereotypes and restrictions for women that were not just within her family but within the community and the country, and even the world at the time.
Inkandescent: Tell our audience about Tanyan’s journey and your journey writing this story.
Lisa: So I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying by the end of the first chapter, Tanyan’s mother has died and is sent to live with her grandparents. Now, I want to say that many of the facts in the book are based on her own life. She wrote a book preface describing many things in her life. So she did go and live with her grandparents. And her grandfather loved to have her recite poetry to him. He would drink wine at night, and then she would recite poetry. And one time, he said, this girl is so clever. She shouldn’t just learn how to do embroidery. She should learn my medicine. And, of course, that opened up a path for her. But she learned her grandmother’s medicine, which was much more focused on women and girls, and took a very different approach. So the grandfather and men at that time felt that, for example, women shouldn’t be helped through childbirth, that they should just be able to go squat in the corner, have the baby, jump up, and make dinner.
Inkandescent: As luck would have it, Tan Yunxian’s grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China.
Lisa: Right! She teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, including the Four Examinations — looking, listening, touching, and asking. This is something a man can never do with a patient. So Yunxian is exposed to this very different point of view of looking at women and girls. She married into another elite family when she was 15, so very young. And it’s there that she started to treat the women and girls in that very big compound where she lived with about 100 of her husband’s relatives, right? Plus, the servants who cared for them, the cook, and all those people. So her cases are quite interesting in that most of them are elite women and girls, but a lot of them also are servants, people working really hard to take care of this family. Who are often diagnosed with things like excessive work, and excessive exhaustion, things that I think most women today can appreciate because we have to do so much in our lives trying to have it all.
Inkandescent: This is an amazing story about how women band together to care for each other and about the history of female doctors. I actually had the privilege of writing for Costco about a book called Women in White Coats, by Olivia Campbell. It explains how it’s only relatively recently that women were allowed to become doctors in America.
Lisa: You make a very good point because obstetrics is new. It’s only about 100 years old, and it was about 100 years, maybe about 120 years ago, that men started taking over what had traditionally been a female-oriented practice of helping people deliver babies. And that transition is taking all these very natural things out of the control of women and putting them into the control of men. And as you say, it’s very recent that we have so many female doctors in this country, which moves the pendulum in a different direction.
Inkandescent: Tell us about the love story in this book.
Lisa: There are actually two love stories. There’s the love story Yunxian has with her husband. But the main love story, I think, in the book is with her friend Meling, who is the daughter of a midwife. In Chinese medicine, doctors are never supposed to touch blood, but they have this concept of blood as a function in the body, but with it like a capital B. But anybody who touches blood is seen as very dirty, and it’s rated, like, with a butcher. But for many kinds of secret reasons. Yunxian’s grandmother and this midwife match these two girls, allowing them to become friends. And so they’re obviously of different classes. One has a lot of money; the other one doesn’t. But they can teach each other a little bit from two different perspectives about caring for women and girls. And their friendship, I think, is very deep. There’s a moment when Mailing actually saves Yenshan’s life. There’s another moment when it’s the opposite when Yan Shan saves Mailing’s life. And they are really tied together, almost like sworn sisters. Their relationship is so deep.
Inkandescent: Share with us how you landed on the book’s title, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women.
Lisa: As I mentioned, Yunxian is orphaned and goes to live with her grandmother. And she’s only seven, right? So just a child. And I think she sees herself very much as an orphan. So to me, a lot of the story is about how she formed, not even realizing it, how she’s forming this circle of women where she can take care of them, but they’re also taking care of her. And I mean that not just physically but emotionally as well. And I think we all try to find that in our lives today; we rely on other women who offer us emotional support when things are difficult, who we can laugh with and have fun with. One of the reasons I keep going back to writing about female friendship is that it is a unique relationship that we have in our lives. We will tell a friend something that we wouldn’t tell our boyfriend, lover, husband, mother, or children. It’s a very unique kind of intimacy. And, of course, you’re vulnerable anytime you open your heart.
Inkandescent: I am intrigued by how you return to the dark shadow side of female friendship. All the good stuff about being sister friends is there, of course, but shadows are lurking in the corner.
Lisa: I think it’s part of being women, how even in the most dire circumstances, we find each other, find ways to persist and endure. And to me, I often think a lot about my grandmother, the people who came before me, and their struggles. And I’m only here, and you’re only there because of the people who came before us. We really are on their shoulders, and they should be inspiring us. But also, I think by going back to the past and looking at how people were getting by when life was so much more difficult than it is today, for the most part, we see the ways that. I think we can be inspired by the ways that they did persist, that they did endure, that they did have good times even when circumstances were dire, and that you can find joy even in the darkest moments. I mean, you can look for it. You can aspire to find those moments, and we get so much of our bravery and courage from the people around us, supporting and lifting us up. I do feel like that is a throughline through most of my books.
Inkandescent: I also appreciate how you bring to the pages of your work the power of women. And I love this book. It’s beautiful. This will certainly be another bestseller. So what’s next for you? Have you got another idea? Did something else fall off the bookshelf into your hand?
Lisa: It’s actually something that I wrote just a little bit about in my first book, On Gold Mountain, which tells the history of the Chinese in America through the eyes of my family. And there was an incident here in Los Angeles in 1871 when Chinese men and boys were massaged. It’s considered one of the largest mass lynchings in the history of the United States. And so I’m telling this story from the perspective of the women there. So Los Angeles at that time only 5000 people. It was considered the wildest and most violent of the wild west towns. Of that, 5190 Chinese, and of that 190, only 34 Chinese women were here. So they were true pioneers in the true sense of the word of a pioneer. Some of them were brought against their will. Most were brought against their will, and some were brought here for their own purpose. And so to sort of explore that time period which was so rough and difficult, and to see how they came, what they found when they got here, and how they eventually made a place for themselves.
Inkandescent: Before we finish, can you share some ideas for aspiring novelists?
Lisa: I mentioned it at the beginning of what I learned from my mother and grandfather. To write 1000 words a day, that’s just four pages. If you can’t do that, you could do 500 words, just two pages. At the end of the week, you’d have ten pages. At the end of two weeks, you have a chapter. So what does that require? The number one thing it requires is to put your rear end in the chair and give yourself time to do it. And so to do that, whether it’s 500 or 1000 words. The other thing I would say is that you have to be passionate about what you’re writing sometimes. Maybe this is why I think so long about ideas for my books. It’s like it’s sort of like a fun date, and then you realize the next day, well, maybe that wasn’t so great. And so I really do look at these projects more like a marriage than a one-night stand. That I’m in it for the long haul. As we know, when you’re in any relationship for the long haul, there will be bumps along the way. They are going to be very difficult things. But what carries you through is your love and passion for that person, your friend, or the book or writing project.
Inkandescent: Thank you so much for your time, Lisa! Now, everyone, go get a copy of this amazing book, lady Tan Circle of Women. You will love it and become a longtime fan of this amazing author.