12 July 2023

Review: Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

I've never read a book set in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and I'm not into women's literature, so when this book arrived in my mailbox, I took one look at the title and cover design and assumed I probably wouldn't enjoy it. I do love historical fiction though, so I decided to give the first 10 pages a chance, remaining convinced I wouldn't connect. How wrong I was!

I was instantly engaged by the young character's plight as she receives instruction from her mother - Respectful Lady - about the pains of foot binding.

Yes, foot binding! The author seized my attention so quickly I felt dizzy, and Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See went on to become a stellar read.

Set in 15th century China, this is the fictional account of the life of Tan Yunxian, a woman who became a practicing doctor in China at a time it was extremely rare and severely frowned upon. Yunxian was so successful looking after her female patients, she published a book of medical cases in 1511 and to date, it's the oldest known medical book written by a woman in China.

In the beginning of Lady Tan's Circle of Women, young Yunxian learns how to treat women from her Grandmother and the medicine prescribed is not what we'd recognise today. Firstly, to diagnose an illness, Yunxian is instructed to use the Four Examinations of looking; asking and listening; smelling and pulse taking. Treating only women and encountering a range of medical problems, Grandmother teaches:
"We are also governed by the Seven Emotions of elation, anger, sadness, grief, worry, fear, and fright. Of the Five Fatigues, three specifically target women: fatigue from grief brought on by losing a child or husband, fatigue from worry about finances, a wayward husband, or an ailing child, and fatigue from trying to lift her family to a higher status. If women are prone to the Five Fatigues, then men are apt to fall victim to the Four Vices of drink, lust, desire for riches, and anger." Page 50
Centuries later, and I can still relate to these insights, however some of the methodologies were astounding. Here's an example, how many pulses do you think you can detect? Yunxian learns multiple layers of pulse taking from her Grandmother, who advises:
"In time, you will learn to identify twenty-eight separate and distinct types of pulses." Page 51
These pulses can be floating, slippery, knotted, scattered, hidden and more. Fascinating isn't it?

We follow Yunxian from 1469, through her Milk Days, Hair-Pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days right through to her Sitting Quietly days, which formed a wonderful structure for her story and life progression. The relationships Yunxian has with her mother Respectful Lady, mother-in-law Lady Kuo, her father's concubine Miss Zhao, and her friend Meiling drive the character development and plot forward in an interesting and engaging way.

The differences between the sexes were stark, and Yunxian rarely sees her husband, instead spending most of her days with the other women also living in the family compound.
"Men have physical cravings for food and bedchamber affairs, but we women ooze affection and desire, love and hatred, envy and jealousy, nervousness and vindictiveness, bitterness and revenge." Page 101
While much of the medical assistance Yunxian provides relates to women's health problems, fertility and childbirth, it was the foot binding tradition that held my attention.

In this next scene, Yunxian is in bed with her husband. He takes one of her feet into the palm of his hand, noting that with each step she takes, her golden lilies bloom beneath her.
"He brings my slippered foot to his nose so he can appreciate its aroma. But mostly it's as I've always been told. My feet are physical proof of the pain I suffered to give him this treasure so dear to him. He'll never see them naked, but he knows from the books that taught him about bedroom affairs that hidden beneath the binding cloth is the deep cleft formed where my toes meet my heel." Page 113
It's hard for us to imagine any beauty in the cruel and disfiguring practice of foot binding, but I didn't know that a husband never saw his wife's (bound) naked foot. Instead he only viewed or touched his wife's bound feet while she was wearing delicately designed hand-embroidered slippers.
"As men, we admire the sacrifice and pain our women endure to give us this beauty to enjoy, but it leaves them unstable." Page 144
Some of the foot binding scenes may be a little gruesome for some readers, but not this one. I leant heavily into these sections, and keenly soaked up any and every crumb of information about the practice.

During the novel, Yunxian travels to the capital, known as the Forbidden City, where she encounters the presence of eunuchs for the first time. Boy eunuchs undertake intimate work for women within the empress's inner circle and their inclusion here goes to show how little I know of Chinese history:
"The boy eunuchs change the cloths the women wear during their monthly moon water, wipe their mistresses' behinds over chamber pots, and see to perfuming a woman's feet when she knows her husband will be seeking her company." Page 228
This is my first time reading any of Lisa See's work, and early on I realised I was in the hands of an author capable of conducting a tonne of research and writing a novel that immerses the reader in the era without the research 'showing' so to speak. Some of my favourite historical fiction writers also achieve this feat, including: Ken Follett, Philippa Gregory, Maggie O'Farrell and Alison Weir. Despite having little to no knowledge of the historical setting of their novels, these talented authors are able to immerse readers deep into the time period of their choice with - what seems like - relative ease, and I can now comfortably include Lisa See in this category.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was a complete surprise and a timely reminder not to judge a book by its cover. This could very well end up in my Top 10 books of 2023, and may even deserve a place in the Top 5, so lesson well and truly learned.

Highly recommended! (Read a FREE extract here).

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Wonderfully done you summed up all of my reactions and thoughts

    1. Fantastic! I'm so glad you enjoyed this as much as I did. I'm actually reading one of the author's backlist titles (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) right now and it's also set in China but within the last 50 years or so. So far so good!


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