Lady Tan’s Circle of Women

Written by Lisa See
Review by Susan Lowell

No mud, no lotus.

This aphorism captures the essence of Lisa See’s latest novel: pithy, yet entertaining; thought-provoking, yet down-to-earth; dark, yet inspiring. Repeated throughout the text, no mud, no lotus encapsulates this 15th-century protagonist’s life. From the mud of adversity grows something even better than beauty: wisdom and high achievement. See was inspired by the biography and writings of a female physician who lived during the Ming Dynasty, Tan Yunxian (1461-1556), coeval with Columbus, Leonardo, and Queen Elizabeth I. But Yunxian’s traditional Chinese medicine (still practiced) had advanced far beyond Renaissance European health care.

The novel opens when Yunxian is eight, still in the phase of female life called “Milk Days.” She’s born into an elite family, but mud abounds: bound feet, shriveled legs, oppression, seclusion, smallpox, loneliness, and grief. But when her mother dies, Yunxian goes to live with her grandparents, where her real vocation becomes clear.

Her grandmother, who is one of the very few Ming Dynasty woman doctors, begins to train Yunxian too. In her grandparents’ family compound, upper-class women live in an elegant zoo devoted to breeding male infants. But male doctors are forbidden to see, touch, or speak to female patients, so, like her grandmother, Yunxian becomes a specialist in women’s medicine. Gradually, as she passes through other life stages (Hair-Pinning Days, Salt-and-Rice Days, and Sitting Quietly), Yunxian grows. A circle of other women support her, and in a young midwife, Meiling, she finds a lifelong friend.

In this brilliant novel, loaded with fascinating facts but fast-moving, against all odds, the lotus blooms.