Monday, September 25, 2023

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

This story begins in 1469, in the fifth year of the Chenghua emperor’s reign, when Tan Yunxian was eight years old.

So begins Lisa See’s superb account of Chinese medicine in the 15th century. On one level it is a simple story of a girl, Tan, who wants to become a doctor and is tutored by her grandparents who are both doctors. Her best friend Meiling is in training to be a midwife, and the two girls pursue their dreams under the kind but demanding eyes of Tan’s grandparents. The book is worth reading just for this simple and lovely story, but See’s real intent is to talk about Chinese medicine, and especially male Chinese doctors.

Confucius made clear that any profession in which blood is involved is considered below us…A midwife’s contact with blood places her in the same base level as a butcher. Furthermore, midwifes are disreputable. They are too much IN THE WORLD.

“Perhaps.” Grandmother sighs. “But since we physicians acknowledge blood is corrupt and corrupting, then how can a woman give birth without the aid of a midwife?”

This appears to be one of the only issues the grandparents disagree on. 

“Child look at me,” she says softly. “Respect your grandfather in all things but know as well that midwives are a necessity. A more pleasing phrase we use for a midwife is she who collects the newborn”

As absurd as it may sound to our western ears, Chinese doctors were not allowed even to touch a woman’s body. Insofar as they are involved in pregnancy and child birth it is only behind a screen set up between doctor and patient. A doctor “might attend to a woman in labor—giving her herbs to speed  the delivery and make the baby slippery” but that is all.

Each of the young girls envies the other. Tan envies Meiling because she can actually be in the world and help women have safe deliveries. Meiling envies Tan both for her wealth and position and because she  able to train to be a doctor.

He grandmother doctor tells Tan:

I’m irritated with men. I’m lucky to love your grandfather, but most men—other doctors especially—don’t like us to succeed. You must always show them respect and let them think they know more than you do, while understanding that you can achieve something they never can. You can actually help women.

Both girls are successful in their studies and, for different reasons, are invited to attend women in the emperor’s court. If they are successful, male doctors will be credited, and if they fail, their very lives may be at stake. 

Besides the history of Chinese medicine during this period, See gives the reader a long look at caste systems in China and the incredible history of foot-binding among the higher castes, and the ways in which higher caste girls are kept almost entirely out of the daily world of commerce.  Tan continues to envy Meiling’s ability to look at the real world rather than living a shuttered and sheltered life. 

After giving birth, the upper cast women do their month attended by a doctor and perhaps the midwife who assisted in the delivery. Watched over during the dangerous four weeks following birth.

Grandmother and I visit Lady Huang every morning to make sure she isn’t affected by noxious dew—old blood and tissue that refuses to leave the child palace…We bring with us different warming medicines. Grandmother has been  strict with Cook to make sure Lady Huang is offered warming food only. Her blood has transformed into milk, and the baby suckles well.

Western doctors have certainly had their dismal history of denigrating midwives and failing to progress in the treatment of pregnant women, even for a time refusing to release their patented grip on the use of forceps to aid in delivery. 

I loved this book on so many levels: the story, the researched history and the strong feminist bent the narrative takes.

I hear the sound of voices. Miss Zhao, Lady Kuo, and Poppy come into view and begin to cross the zigzag bridge to reach Meiling and me. For much of my life I felt alone, but over the years a circle of women came to love me, and I came to love each of those women in return…who knows , really, how many days might be left for a woman such as myself, and what yet I might do when surrounded by so much beauty and love.

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