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Book Club Questions for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

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Book club questions for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See explore the themes of friendship, societal expectations, and the resilience of women in the face of cultural constraints.

This novel left me realizing how limited my knowledge was about ancient Chinese culture. Beyond being the tale of a female physician in 15th-century China, it unveils a much broader narrative.

I was struck by the profound gender disparities and societal strictures. Likewise, the depiction of medical practices during that era was equally fascinating, portraying a blend of antiquity and enlightenment. Lady Tan’s character is one that I am certain will linger in my memory for quite some time.

Let me know your thoughts about the novel! Feel free to comment below.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

In this blog post you will find the discussion questions for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See.

Book club questions may also prompt discussions on gender and the empowerment of women, cultural traditions along with the historical context of 15th-century China, the complexities of balancing personal aspirations with societal expectations, and the enduring legacy of women who defy convention.

Have a wonderful book club discussion! ✨

About the Author | Book Club Questions | Additional Recommendations

Summary | Characters Explained | Characters List

About the Story

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a historical novel set in 15th-century China.

The story revolves around Tan Yunxian, born into an elite family, who is being raised by her grandmother, one of the few female doctors in China. Despite societal norms that dictate women’s roles, Yunxian learns Chinese medicine, including the Four Examinations, from her grandmother. She befriends Meiling, a midwife-in-training, and together, they navigate the challenges of women’s health, forming a deep bond.

However, when Yunxian enters an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law restricts her from continuing her medical pursuits and separates her from Meiling. The novel explores Yunxian’s struggle to break free from societal expectations, balancing the roles of a wife and healer. As Yunxian faces societal constraints, the story unfolds to reveal her determination to lead a life of significance, leaving a lasting impact on Chinese medicine.

Release date: June 6, 2023
Genre: Asian American Literature & Fiction
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: ‎Scribner

About the Author

Lisa See is a New York Times bestselling author known for her captivating novels, including The Island of Sea Women, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Born in Paris and raised in Los Angeles, she draws inspiration from her Chinese American family’s history, explored in her debut book, On Gold Mountain. Lisa has received prestigious awards, such as the Golden Spike Award and the Historymaker’s Award, recognizing her contributions to Chinese-American storytelling. The Organization of Chinese American Women also honored her as the National Woman of the Year.

Lisa’s writing shines in its exploration of women’s bonds and authentic depictions of Chinese cultures. Her latest work, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, focuses on the inspiring true story of Tan Yunxian, a 15th-century woman who became a doctor.

Beyond her literary pursuits, Lisa has led an active career, serving as a correspondent for Publishers Weekly, curating exhibits, and contributing to publications like Vogue. Her dedication to unveiling hidden stories, cultural preservation, and community involvement has solidified her as a respected figure in literature and cultural exploration.

Book Club Questions for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women

Disclaimer: the following discussion questions contain spoilers, so proceed with caution if you haven’t finished the book yet.

  1. How did Yunxian and Meiling’s friendship evolve throughout the story, and what pivotal moments showcased the strength of their bond in the face of societal expectations?
  2. Were there specific cultural traditions or practices depicted in the novel that you found particularly intriguing or surprising? How did these elements contribute to the overall atmosphere of the story?
  3. Yunxian encounters various medical challenges throughout the story, from the treatment of women’s ailments to dealing with smallpox. How did the portrayal of these medical scenarios contribute to the overall narrative? Can you recall a specific medical case that left a lasting impression on you?
  4. The Four Examinations and traditional Chinese medicine play a significant role. Can you pinpoint specific instances where Yunxian’s medical knowledge had a profound impact on the characters or the plot?
  5. The novel kicks off with a poignant line in the preface about Yunxian treating women through shared experiences. How did this line set the tone for the story, and looking back, what does being a “female on this earth” mean to Yunxian?
  6. The death of Respectful Lady leaves a lasting imprint on Yunxian. How did her mother’s death shape Yunxian’s character? What lessons did Respectful Lady impart, and how does her final warning, “To live is to suffer,” serve as guidance for Yunxian?
  7. Grandfather Tan and Grandmother Ru have different views on childbirth. Whose perspective do you align with, and do you think these ideas about childbirth and women’s medical care still hold relevance today, centuries later?
  8. Yunxian faces a complex balance between her marriage duties and her passion for medicine. Were there specific scenes or decisions related to her marriage that sparked a robust discussion within the group?
  9. Discuss the various female relationships in the book—Yunxian’s connections with her grandmother, Meiling, and other women in her life. How did these relationships contribute to the overall theme of women supporting each other?
  10. In what ways did societal norms and expectations hinder Yunxian’s journey? Can you identify moments where these constraints were particularly challenging for her?
  11. Yunxian’s experiences with motherhood are central to the story. Were there specific scenes or challenges related to motherhood that resonated with you, and how did they shape Yunxian’s character?
  12. Meiling and Yunxian’s friendship faces tests and hardships, such as Meiling taking a potion meant for Yunxian. How did these challenges strengthen or strain their relationship? Were there moments when you found their friendship particularly poignant or relatable?
  13. Social class differences impact Yunxian’s relationships. Can you discuss how these differences influenced the characters and their interactions, especially Yunxian’s friendship with Meiling?
  14. Yunxian and Meiling’s friendship defies societal norms. How do both girls benefit from this relationship? Are there drawbacks for each of them? Reflect on the importance of friendship in your life, considering you’re in a book club, typically a circle of women.
  15. Characters like Miss Zhao, Miss Chen, Lady Kuo, and others undergo transformations in Yunxian’s eyes. How does Yunxian’s perception and understanding of these characters evolve over time?
  16. The novel explores the significance of having a son, a theme still relevant in many cultures. Discuss the plotlines related to this issue for Spinster Aunt, Miss Chen, Doctor Wong, Midwife Shi, Lady Kuo, and Meiling and Yunxian. Were these characters solely motivated by self-interest?
  17. How did Yunxian evolve as a character from the beginning to the end of the novel? Were there key moments or decisions that marked significant growth for her?
  18. Yunxian’s impact on medicine is felt for centuries. How did the concept of legacy manifest in the story, and what reflections does it evoke about the lasting effects of individual actions?
  19. In what ways did Yunxian’s actions, particularly in the later years of her life, contribute to her lasting impact on medicine and the lives of women in her community?
  20. Grandmother Ru, Meiling, Miss Zhao, and Lady Kuo undergo significant transformations in the story. Which character transformation surprised you the most, and how did it contribute to the overall development of the narrative?
  21. The investigation into Spinster Aunt’s death and the actions of Doctor Wong reveal themes of injustice. Discuss how Yunxian’s pursuit of justice and redemption for herself and others influenced the story’s momentum.
  22. Yunxian could be seen as a modern woman. How does she balance work and family? Can you identify with her in this regard?
  23. The Dragon Boat Festival holds special meaning for Yunxian and the women in the Garden of Fragrant Delights. What does it represent for them, and how does its anticipation impact the characters?
  24. The theme of “No mud, no lotus” is central in this novel. How did this theme play out in Yunxian’s life and struggles, and do you see parallels in your own experiences or beliefs?
  25. Considering the historical context, were there aspects of 15th-century China that stood out to you as particularly well-researched or portrayed in a way that enhanced your understanding of the time period?
  26. Were there instances of foreshadowing or subtle hints that you noticed throughout the novel? How did these literary devices impact your anticipation and interpretation of key events?
  27. Which character, aside from Yunxian, intrigued you the most, and why? How did their complexity contribute to the overall richness of the narrative?
  28. Lisa wrote this novel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflect on how time and memory inspire us to reexamine neglected objects. Have you found newfound inspiration or ideas by revisiting objects in your home?
  29. Yunxian faces various challenges and confrontations. Discuss the resolution of conflicts, particularly those with Lady Kuo and the societal expectations placed on Yunxian. Were these resolutions satisfying to you?
  30. Discuss the final chapters and Yunxian’s reflections on her life. Did the ending leave you with any lingering questions or a desire to know more about certain characters?

Additional Recommendations

Hope you enjoyed the book club discussion questions and reading guide for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See. Here are some more of my book club recommendations from this author, with themes related to this book, along with their synopses:

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers.

Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Lily is haunted by memories–of who she once was, and of a person, long gone, who defined her existence. She has nothing but time now, as she recounts the tale of Snow Flower, and asks the gods for forgiveness.

In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu (“women’s writing”). Some girls were paired with laotongs, “old sames,” in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.

With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become “old sames” at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

A powerful story about circumstances, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond of family.

In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations—until a stranger appears at the village gate in a jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.

The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world in the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock—conceived with a man her parents consider a poor choice—she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.

As Li-yan comes into herself, leaving her insular village for an education, a business, and city life, her daughter, Haley, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins. Across the ocean Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of years, each searches for meaning in the study of Pu’er, the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.

Happy reading! ❤️