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Lady Tan’s Circle of Women: Summary and Characters Explained

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lady tans circle of women discussion guide

Note: the following discussion guide contains spoilers, as well as references to critical plot points and detailed character analysis for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, published in 2023 by Lisa See, is an adult historical fiction novel that explores the life of Tan Yunxian, a female physician in imperial China during the Ming dynasty.

This story unfolds as Yunxian, influenced by her early life experiences, including the loss of her mother, marries into a wealthy family. Despite societal expectations, her encounter with Meiling, a young midwife, sparks a desire to challenge traditions and pursue her passion for treating women from all backgrounds.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

The narrative challenges cultural norms that limit women to childbearing and decorative roles, highlighting the importance of supportive female relationships in shaping a fulfilling life.

In this guide we will go through the complete summary and characters explained for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See.

Have a wonderful book club discussion! ✨

Summary | Characters Explained | Characters List

About the Author | Book Club Questions | Additional Recommendations

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women Summary

The story begins with eight-year-old Yunxian witnessing her mother’s death due to inadequate medical care. Sent to live with her medical practitioner grandparents, Yunxian learns medicine from her grandfather’s books and her grandmother’s family traditions.

While grappling with societal restrictions on doctors touching blood, Yunxian befriends Meiling, a midwife’s daughter. The two share knowledge and stories, defying societal boundaries and setting the stage for Yunxian’s unconventional journey in the field of medicine.

As Yunxian’s marriage is arranged to the son of a wealthy merchant family, her grandmother imparts crucial knowledge about treating women’s specific ailments, particularly those related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Yunxian learns about the importance of balance and harmony in the body and the universe, gaining insights into treating various conditions. Exploring the histories of her maid, Poppy, and Miss Zhao, her half-brother’s mother, Yunxian begins to grasp the vulnerable position of women in a society where their well-being hinges on pleasing men and producing male heirs.

A turning point occurs when one of her grandfather’s concubines breaks her leg in the garden. Despite Yunxian’s offer to set the bone, she is instructed to let the bonesetter handle it. Witnessing the replacement of Miss Zhao and meeting her father’s new wife deepens Yunxian’s awareness of women’s value and role in her world. Amidst this, she recognizes a “circle of good” in women like her grandmother, Poppy, Miss Zhao, and Meiling, who protect, guide, and nurture her.

At the age of 15, Yunxian marries Yang Maoren, a wealthy silk merchant’s son, residing in the Garden of Fragrant Delights. Despite initial contentment with her husband, Lady Kuo, her mother-in-law, prohibits Yunxian from practicing medicine.

According to Lady Kuo, Yunxian’s sole duty is to bear sons, with household medical care assigned to Doctor Wong. The seclusion in the inner chambers becomes tiresome for Yunxian. Her attempts to help a girl with digestive disorders lead to Lady Kuo restricting her friendship with Meiling due to the difference in social status.

Yunxian’s pregnancy coincides with Miss Chen, one of Yang’s concubines. Disappointingly, Yunxian delivers a girl, while Miss Chen gives birth to a son, raising concerns about the succession line.

After a challenging birth and the discovery of Spinster Aunt’s drowned body, Yunxian faces further distress during the inquest where false conclusions are drawn about Spinster Aunt’s death. When Yunxian falls gravely ill, Lady Kuo allows Grandmother Ru and Meiling to attend to her. With their assistance and knowledge, Yunxian eventually recovers.

Thirteen years later, Yunxian finds herself occupied as a dedicated wife and mother, raising three daughters with a focus on imparting qualities of obedience and grace. She is involved in the challenging task of foot-binding her youngest daughter, Ailan.

Despite maintaining a cautious relationship with Lady Kuo, her mother-in-law, Yunxian secretly visits Meiling and provides medical assistance whenever possible. During a visit from an official and his family, Yunxian shares her medical expertise, showcasing Meiling’s skills in assisting a childbirth.

Following this, Meiling is summoned to Beijing to serve as a midwife in the imperial court. She reaches out to Yunxian for assistance when a woman in the court experiences an eye infection. Despite being pregnant again, Yunxian complies with her husband’s desire to serve the emperor, embarking on a journey to Beijing with her maid and Miss Zhao.

Upon discovering that her patient is the empress herself, Yunxian is anxious but wins the empress’s favor with her care. She also tends to Meiling, who is pregnant, but worries when Meiling experiences severe morning sickness.

Both Meiling and the empress go into labor simultaneously, resulting in the empress delivering a healthy baby boy while Meiling delivers a stillborn girl. The emperor, deeming this act a contamination of the empress’s chambers, initially orders Meiling’s execution.

However, the empress and Yunxian intervene, pleading for clemency, leading to a commuted sentence of flogging. Distraught for her friend, Yunxian disregards the taboo on touching blood to nurse Meiling herself. After Yunxian finally gives birth to a baby boy, she and Meiling return to Wuxi.

During their voyage, Meiling reveals that she took a concoction prescribed by Doctor Wong for Yunxian. Shockingly, Yunxian recognizes ingredients meant to induce miscarriage. Upon returning home, Yunxian faces the impact of smallpox in her household.

Having had the disease in her youth, she entrusts her infant son to her mother-in-law while nursing the afflicted, including her youngest daughter. Ailan recovers, but many succumb to the disease, including Maoren’s new concubine and her infant son. Suspicious of paternity, Yunxian discovers that Manzi, Miss Chen’s child, does not resemble Master Yang.

Once the threat of smallpox has passed, Yunxian, assisted by Grandmother Ru and Miss Zhao, investigates further. She consults with Meiling and Meiling’s mother, Midwife Shi, gathering enough evidence to write to her father, now a high-ranking magistrate. Yunxian urges him to come to Wuxi to consider the case she plans to bring against Doctor Wong.

Despite facing criticism from her husband’s family for causing a stir, Yunxian is determined to uncover the truth. The investigation into Spinster Aunt’s death suggests foul play, and Meiling’s testimony points the finger at Doctor Wong for prescribing Yunxian a harmful remedy.

Midwife Shi reveals a dark secret – Doctor Wong silenced Spinster Aunt, who knew about Miss Chen identifying him as Manzi’s father during the child’s birth. Yunxian’s father pushes Doctor Wong to confess to a plot preventing Yunxian from having a son who could challenge Manzi’s claim as heir.

After the investigation, Yunxian tends to Grandmother Ru, who succumbs to a breast tumor, leaving her pharmacy and medical records to Yunxian. Overwhelmed, Yunxian falls seriously ill again. In a dream, Grandmother guides Yunxian to a remedy, cautioning against emotional imbalances causing her illness.

Meiling nurses Yunxian back to health. Upon recovery, Yunxian confronts Lady Kuo, who admits to encouraging Doctor Wong’s affair with Miss Chen but didn’t anticipate the harm caused. Lady Kuo finally allows Yunxian to practice openly, starting with treating her chronic cough and reconciling the two.

In the final chapter of her life, Yunxian is far from idle. Her husband leads the Yang family, while Yunxian manages a bustling household, overseeing various tasks. Yunxian defies tradition by letting wives and children attend the Dragon Boat Festival. The joyous occasion includes her daughter-in-law giving birth, Meiling welcoming a son, and her brother Yifeng thriving.

Encouraged by Meiling, Yunxian compiles her medical records, advocating for equal medical treatment for women. Content with her medical practice and growing family, Yunxian reflects on growing old with Meiling as her steadfast companion.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women Characters Explained

Tan Yunxian

Tan Yunxian, the central figure and storyteller in the narrative, serves as the protagonist. She is the sole daughter of Master Tan, an imperial official, and his wife, Respectful Lady. Unfortunately, Yunxian loses her elder brothers to smallpox, leaving her with the responsibility of overseeing the education of Yifeng, her half-brother from her father’s concubine, Miss Zhao.

Yunxian’s life takes a crucial turn at the age of eight when her mother succumbs to a preventable infection, sparking an early interest in medicine within Yunxian. She is characterized by her intelligence, diligence, cleverness, and obedience.

While she adheres to societal rules, her keen observations reveal the harm inflicted by certain traditions. Yunxian genuinely cares for the well-being of those around her, striving to maintain harmony in her household. Her medical knowledge becomes a source of satisfaction, particularly in treating women.

Despite being raised with an awareness of social class distinctions, Yunxian comfortably transcends these boundaries. Her early friendship with Meiling and her commitment to treating women from all walks of life, including those of the working class and even the empress, highlight her open-mindedness.

Brave and vocal against injustice, she fearlessly speaks up before the emperor and brings a case against Doctor Wong for his wrongdoing. Through her resilience and skill, Yunxian persuades even Lady Kuo of the value of her medical practice, leading to a more open acceptance as a doctor.

In her later years, Yunxian compiles a book of medical cases that elevates her to fame. The postscript by her great-nephew suggests that she matures into a wise matriarch and a trailblazer in female medicine, leaving an enduring legacy.

Grandmother Ru

Grandmother Ru stands as a revered figure within Yunxian’s cherished circle of women, providing invaluable guidance, instruction, and care throughout Yunxian’s life and beyond. Hailing from a lineage of hereditary doctors, Grandmother Ru represents the custodians of knowledge, customs, and remedies integral to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Wise, level-headed, compassionate, and selfless, Grandmother Ru embodies Confucian ideals while harboring a broader social vision than her culture typically maintains. Despite the societal undervaluing of girls in Yunxian’s world, Grandmother Ru takes a keen interest in Yunxian, assuming the roles of mentor and guide.

Recognizing the importance of women understanding how to care for one another, Grandmother Ru breaks conventions by valuing midwives, a trade often disdained by the higher classes. Her foresight encourages the friendship between Meiling and Yunxian, foreseeing the mutual benefits this crossing of social strata would bring to both.

Grandmother Ru excels as both a skilled doctor and an affectionate grandmother. Her guidance persists throughout Yunxian’s life, even during her own battle with a breast tumor. During the smallpox epidemic, Grandmother Ru aids Yunxian, showcasing her practical, resourceful, and determined personality.

In a feverish dream, Yunxian imagines Grandmother visiting after her death, aligning with Grandmother’s character to demand Yunxian heal herself and precisely locate the needed remedy in her case notes. Grandmother entrusts her pharmacy to Yunxian, symbolizing her unwavering trust and belief that Yunxian is evolving into a doctor capable of genuinely helping people.

Shi Meiling

Shi Meiling stands as Yunxian’s lifelong companion and close friend. Meiling, the daughter of Midwife Shi, possesses striking beauty and uniqueness—her feet remain unbound, allowing her unrestricted movement. Under Yunxian’s guidance, she learns the etiquette of a refined lady, as well as the skills of reading and writing.

In contrast to Yunxian’s cautious nature, Meiling exudes exuberance, energy, curiosity, and compassion. Despite lacking a father figure, Meiling’s unbound feet symbolize her freedom, a quality she balances with the refinement learned from Yunxian.

Her ambition is evident, driven by a sincere desire to improve her and her husband’s circumstances through hard work and honesty. Meiling’s innate kindness, humor, and resourcefulness shine through, such as when she ingeniously disguises Yunxian to facilitate a meeting with a friend.

Meiling’s resilience is a defining trait. Despite experiencing a miscarriage and enduring physical abuse, she remains determined to survive and recover from her lowest points. In addition to being a source of joy and grace in Yunxian’s life, Meiling actively contributes to the compilation of Yunxian’s medical cases, assisting in selecting the ones to include.

While Meiling admits to occasional jealousy and harboring selfish motives, particularly in taking a prescription meant for Yunxian during her fourth pregnancy, she suffers deep remorse and confesses to Yunxian, seeking to mend their friendship.

Shared experiences, such as selling teas to appease demanding in-laws, further deepen the bond between Yunxian and Meiling. Grateful for Yunxian’s assistance in conceiving and safely delivering her treasured son, Meiling cherishes the friendship that has been an integral part of her life.

Miss Zhao

Miss Zhao holds a significant place within Yunxian’s cherished circle of women, embodying the role of a concubine in an elite household. Her presence illustrates an alternative career path compared to that of a high-born daughter destined for marriage.

Contrary to societal expectations, a concubine’s responsibilities include pleasing and entertaining the man while bearing his children—sons, in particular, who can be adopted and inherit the family name. Miss Zhao fulfills these duties for Master Tan, providing him with a son.

However, Miss Zhao goes beyond the traditional role of a concubine. Instead of merely serving as a companion to Master Tan, she becomes a nurturing influence on Yunxian, acting not only as a chaperone but also as a loving guide and mentor during their travels to Wuxi.

Despite being considered the property of a man and susceptible to being sold at his discretion, Miss Zhao remains loyal to the Tan family, particularly to Yunxian. She proves to be a valuable companion, accompanying Yunxian to Beijing and assisting in nursing the Yang family during the smallpox outbreak.

Miss Zhao’s selfless care, unwavering support, and genuine affection play a crucial role in supporting Yunxian throughout her life. Despite the societal constraints and limitations placed upon her as a concubine, Miss Zhao becomes a steadfast ally, highlighting the power of relationships beyond societal norms.

Lady Kuo

Lady Kuo, Yunxian’s mother-in-law, assumes a significant role in the narrative. Elevated to the position of the foremost woman in her husband’s household at the young age of 29 due to the death of her husband’s parents from typhus, Lady Kuo is characterized by a high forehead and elaborate buns adorning her hair. She governs with strictness, described as ruling “with an iron fist,” though she refrains from inflicting such severe punishments on servants that they are unable to work the next day.

Yunxian perceives Lady Kuo as stern, disapproving, and cold, primarily because Lady Kuo prioritizes obedience and duty above all else. Lady Kuo’s determination to secure the Yang household’s lineage leads her to manipulate Doctor Wong into a relationship with Miss Chen to produce another son.

However, Lady Kuo’s pride and unwavering commitment to duty and appearances prove detrimental in other aspects. She refrains from seeking Yunxian’s medical assistance, even when Yunxian possesses the knowledge of the proper remedy. The tapeworm within Lady Kuo serves as a metaphor for her distorted worldview, symbolizing how she consumes the energy and efforts of others for her personal gain.

Lady Kuo’s character reflects a complex interplay between tradition, ambition, and a distorted sense of pride, showcasing the nuanced conflicts within the story.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women Characters List

  1. Tan Yunxian
    • Role: Protagonist and first-person narrator, navigating conflicts between tradition and ambition.
    • Relationships: Lifelong friend of Shi Meiling, mentored by Grandmother Ru, daughter-in-law to Lady Kuo, and influenced by Miss Zhao.
    • Traits: Intelligent, diligent, clever, compassionate, and determined. Passionate about medicine and women’s health.
    • Additional Notes: Drives the narrative with her journey from obedience to challenging societal norms, becoming a pioneer in female medicine.
  2. Shi Meiling
    • Role: Lifelong friend and companion to Yunxian, contributing to Yunxian’s medical endeavors.
    • Relationships: Close friend of Yunxian, experiences shared hardships and joys.
    • Traits: Exuberant, curious, compassionate, hardworking, and resilient.
    • Additional Notes: Adds joy and grace to Yunxian’s life, highlighting the power of enduring friendships.
  3. Grandmother Ru
    • Role: Mentor and guide to Yunxian, representing the hereditary line of doctors and emphasizing the importance of women’s health.
    • Relationships: Guides and instructs Yunxian throughout her life, providing wisdom and care.
    • Traits: Wise, level-headed, compassionate, selfless, and practical.
    • Additional Notes: Symbolizes the transmission of Traditional Chinese Medicine knowledge through generations.
  4. Lady Kuo
    • Role: Mother-in-law to Yunxian, representing the conflicts between tradition and ambition.
    • Relationships: Mother-in-law to Yunxian, establishes strict rules within the household.
    • Traits: Strict, disapproving, cold, values obedience and duty, and adheres to societal expectations.
    • Additional Notes: Illustrates the challenges Yunxian faces within the traditional household structure.
  5. Miss Zhao
    • Role: Concubine in Master Tan’s household, nurturing influence on Yunxian.
    • Relationships: Provides a son for Master Tan, acts as a loving guide and mentor to Yunxian.
    • Traits: Committed, loyal, nurturing, and selfless.
    • Additional Notes: Challenges societal norms by going beyond the traditional role of a concubine, highlighting the complexity of relationships in elite households.

Which character did you like the most in the novel? Happy reading! ❤️