“Whether animal or woman, we are a man’s possessions. We women exist to give him heirs and feed, clothe and amuse him. Never forget that,” Respectful Lady instructs our narrator at the beginning of Lisa See’s latest novel, “Lady Tan’s Circle of Women.” This scene, which takes place as mother and daughter endure the anguish of foot binding, sets the tone for the book.
The subject of See’s novel is Tan Yunxian, a real-life woman who lived in China during the Ming dynasty. She went on to become a “ming yi” — famous doctor — and published a compendium of 31 cases in the work “Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor.”
After her mother dies from a foot infection, Yunxian finds a new home with her grandparents, who are doctors. Grandmother Ru takes her young ward under her wing, and Yunxian embarks on a medical apprenticeship that will last for years. This is how she meets her first friend, Meiling, who is the daughter of Midwife Shi. From the beginning, the friendship strikes a competitive note; their first game involves racing leaves. Yunxian’s family is privileged and widely respected, while Meiling is destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. (Midwives are generally looked down upon since they come into contact with “corrupting” blood.)
Because of their immense class divide, Yunxian and Meiling face formidable challenges. However, the dynamic isn’t given sufficient space to flourish on the page before coming to an abrupt standstill when Yunxian marries into the prosperous Yang family. Even after Yunxian and Meiling reunite, we are meant to take their mutual affection for granted — a leap that becomes increasingly difficult thanks to Meiling’s own ambition and keen awareness of her less privileged background.
Given the book’s title, it’s no surprise that Yunxian is surrounded by women who are available to help her. On different occasions, her father’s concubine Miss Zhao, her personal maid Poppy, Grandmother Ru, Meiling, Midwife Shi and others appear at her side to offer assistance. Yunxian’s access to this network is fundamentally connected to her family’s status and the protections that come with it.
When Midwife Shi loses her reputation, she doesn’t have the same support, and the burden falls mostly on Meiling to come to the aid of her discredited mother. This isn’t to say that Yunxian is immune from danger; her first childbirth nearly proves fatal. But because of Yunxian’s position, the availability of a “circle of women” seems predictable, even obligatory. If anything, much of Yunxian’s journey involves grappling with whether she herself is willing to help other women, especially ones from different backgrounds. When Meiling tells her about a brickyard laborer who needs medical attention, Yunxian replies, “A working woman?”
Interesting facts fill the book, but make for stilted reading. At one point, a character says: “Our country suffered through centuries of Mongol rule, but Zhu Yuanzhang drove them out, and became the first Ming emperor. Even the word itself — ming — tells of light, brightness and the radiance of virtue.”
Later, in dialogue that sounds like a snippet from a guided tour, Meiling shares the arduous process by which genuine jasmine tea leaves are produced. All of this is fascinating to learn, but the writing begins to feel like an amalgam of research. See’s constant expounding on the medical knowledge and social attitudes of the period results in the absence of any emotional connection with Yunxian, who shows little interiority beyond what she is feeling at the moment, whether it’s sad, lonely or helpless.
Scenes from her life tend to lack the intimacy a first-person, present-tense story should evoke. The effect is reminiscent of a historical re-enactment. The costumes may be sumptuous, the setting and props exude authenticity, but we aren’t transported; we are still on the outside looking in. Perhaps See’s book is meant to be equal parts educational and entertaining, though rarely does it feel immersive.
The novel takes a strange turn when Meiling gets the chance to prove herself in the highest echelons of society. Through a contrivance of plot, and because we need Yunxian in Beijing, too, someone in the palace has an eye infection only Yunxian can heal. The backdrop of the palace offers variety and drama but it also seems gratuitous. Likewise, the later unfolding of a cold case mystery has significant implications for Yunxian’s role in her household, yet comes across as disjointed.
See succeeds when she delves into an issue that was as relevant in Yunxian’s time as it is today: the urgency for those in the medical profession to listen to women and address their concerns. By the end of the novel, Yunxian at last appears ready to use her medical training to help others. Her realization that “our feet may take different shapes and mark us by class, but we share breasts and the travails of the child palace” is probably a giant step for someone from such an advantaged background. However, it may prove an underwhelming observation for the reader, especially when Yunxian continues to uphold strict class divides. She describes a concubine as “a woman whose only purpose is to entertain … and provide treats in the bedchamber.”
Still, if “to live is to suffer” (as Respectful Lady says), See makes clear the ameliorating effects of friendship and love. She shows how with the right people we can surpass our own expectations and that the hardships of life are often easier to endure if we don’t have to survive them alone.