4 reviews

Lady Tan's Circle of Women: A Novel
by Lisa See

Published: 2024-06-11T00:0
Paperback : 368 pages
31 members reading this now
150 clubs reading this now
5 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 4 of 4 members

From “one of those special writers capable of delivering both poetry and plot” (The New York Times Book Review) an immersive historical novel inspired by the true story of a woman physician in 15th-century China—perfect for fans of Lisa See’s ...

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From “one of those special writers capable of delivering both poetry and plot” (The New York Times Book Review) an immersive historical novel inspired by the true story of a woman physician in 15th-century China—perfect for fans of Lisa See’s classics Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

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 while 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, 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 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? A captivating story of women helping each other, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a triumphant reimagining of the life of one person who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

Editorial Review

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1. To Live Is… To Live Is…

“A thousand years in the past, a thousand years in the future—no matter where you live or how rich or poor you are—the four phases of a woman’s life are the same,” Respectful Lady says. “You are a little girl, so you are still in milk days. When you turn fifteen, you will enter hair-pinning days. The way we style your hair will announce to the world that you are ready for marriage.” She smiles at me. “Tell me, Daughter, what comes next?” ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. The opening of this novel begins with a preface which includes the line “My cousin has excelled at treating women because she has shared in the losses and joys of what it means to be a female on this earth.” How does this set up the novel and what is to come for Yunxian? After reading the novel, what does it mean to be a “female on this earth?”

2. Each character—and Yunxian’s relationship to that person—changes and evolves over time. How does Yunxian come to see and understand the characters of Miss Zhao, Miss Chen, Lady Kuo, Doctor Wong, and her husband and father?

3. The importance of having a son was critical in ancient China. It still is in many countries and cultures around the world. What are the main plotlines in the novel related to this issue? Consider the perspectives of Spinster Aunt, Miss Chen, Doctor Wong, Midwife Shi, Lady Kuo, and Meiling and Yunxian. Were these characters out for his or her own self-interest?

4. Lisa often uses aphorisms to help illuminate a character or a plot point. One of the most significant in this novel is No mud, no lotus. Discuss how this aphorism is important to the story. On page 256, Miss Chen recites a series of aphorisms to Yunxian: It takes a lifetime to make a friend, but you can lose one in an hour. Life without a friend is life without sun. Life without a friend is death. What message is Miss Chen trying to convey to Yunxian? Lisa considers these aphorisms to be true across time and cultures. Do you agree? How have they played out in your life, if at all?

5. A case could be made that Yunxian was a modern woman. What are some of the ways she balances work and family? Do you see yourself in her?

Suggested by Members

Do today's high heels echo the bound feet of the Chinese women?
by [email protected] (see profile) 06/13/24

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

I think this would make for great discussion!
by [email protected] (see profile) 06/13/24
We meet in a library so no home food situations, but it is definitely a fun book to use for refreshments I would think. There is a link on See's site for a tea package to go with the book.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by MariaSole K. (see profile) 07/04/24

  "Lady Tan's Circle of Women"by Karen A. (see profile) 06/13/24

the first of this book concentrated a bit too much on the smells of bound feet. I did find it interesting about the role of women as doctors and the way women were diagnosed. And the way women were... (read more)

by Kierin I. (see profile) 05/28/24

  "Historical fiction at its best"by Ann D. (see profile) 05/26/24

This is an eye opening book about life for the elite in 15th century China for women. Lisa See paints a vivid picture of Lady Tan and the culture and medical beliefs in China during her life from young... (read more)

by Kathleen M. (see profile) 05/18/24

by Sandra A. (see profile) 05/07/24

by Janet B. (see profile) 04/14/24

by Beth J. (see profile) 03/15/24

Great read. Gives insight into the Chinese culture and Chinese medicine. As a woman of culture in an affluent family she had to follow the “rules” of etiquette, but was able to learn a... (read more)

by Sandy F. (see profile) 03/13/24

by Janine L. (see profile) 02/18/24

So important to know this hard history!!! Love Lisa See!!

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