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About The Book

'Despite the inordinate limits placed on women, See allows their strengths to dominate their stories' Washington Post
'Poignant . . . quietly affecting' Time
'Emotional and illuminating' BookPage

In 15th century China two women are born under the same sign, the Metal Snake. But life will take the friends on very different paths.

According to Confucius, ‘an educated woman is a worthless woman’, but Tan Yunxian – born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separation and loneliness – is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. She begins her training in medicine with her grandmother and, as she navigates the male world of medicine, requiring tact and diplomacy, she struggles against the confining world of her class.

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.

How might a woman like Yunxian break free of tradition, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, 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? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

Praise for Lisa See

'This novel spans wars and generations, but at its heart is a beautifully rendered story of two women whose individual choices become inextricably tangled’ Jodi Picoult

'No one writes about female friendship, the dark and the light of it, with more insight and depth than Lisa See’ Sue Monk Kidd

'See’s thoughtful and empathetic book sheds necessary attention on this largely ignored event' New York Times

'A powerful and essential story of humanity' Los Angeles Review of Books

'A spellbinding portrait of a time burning with opportunity and mystery' O: The Oprah Magazine

'A lush tale infused with clear-eyed compassion' The Washington Post

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Lady Tan’s Circle of Women includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


The latest historical novel from New York Times bestselling author Lisa See is inspired by the true story of a woman physician from 15th-century China—and perfect for fans of See’s classic Snowflower and the Secret Fan and The Island of Sea Women.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

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. How does the death of Respectful Lady shape Yunxian? What lessons from Respectful Lady does Yunxian carry with her? When Respectful Lady is near her end, she mutters: “To live is to suffer.” How is this a warning for Yunxian early in the novel?

3. Grandfather Tan and Grandmother Ru have very different ideas about childbirth. Who do you agree with, and why? Although 500 years have passed since the time the novel takes place, do you think these contradictory ideas still hold true today – not just for childbirth but for women’s medical care in general?

4. Lisa often writes about friendship: Snow Flower and Lily in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Youngsook and Mija in The Island of Sea Women, and now Yunxian and Meiling in Lady Tan’s Circle of Women. These two girls shouldn’t have contact with each other, let alone have a relationship formalized and sanctioned by Grandmother Ru and Midwife Shi. How do Yunxian and Meiling each benefit from the relationship? Are there downsides for each of them? Talk about what friendship means to you. And, since you’re all in a book club—typically a circle of women—share what it means to you.

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. The Dragon Boat Festival looms large in Yunxian’s imagination. What does it mean for her—and the other women who reside in the Garden of Fragrant Delights—to finally get to attend?

10. Lisa was inspired to write this novel during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, walking past her bookshelf to find a text she had but hadn’t read in the decade that she owned it. How does time and memory inspire us to examine neglected objects? Have you experienced newfound inspiration or ideas by the objects around your home?

Enhance Your Book Club

1.Host a tea tasting for your book club. Bana Tea Company has put together a package featuring the special tea dried in the mandarin orange that Yunxian serves Lady Kuo on page 166 and the jasmine tea that Meiling and Yunxian share on page 177. Access the custom tasting kits here:

2.Share with your book club the year in the Chinese zodiac in which you were born. What are the characteristics of your birth sign? Do they ring true to you? What other signs are you compatible with, and why? What signs should you avoid?

3.Design your own Ming dynasty outfit. Use this link to find an outline of an outfit along with some symbols and their meanings. You can do this as a group activity with the host providing crayons, colored pencils, felt-tip pens, or even watercolors. Or you can create your outfit at home and bring it to your book club to share. What symbols did you use, and why?

4.Step Inside the World of Lady Tan on Lisa’s website to see photos, videos, and more about the people, places, customs, and traditions that inspired the book.

About The Author

Photo by Patricia Williams

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of The Island of Sea Women, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, China Dolls, and Dreams of Joy, which debuted at #1. She is also the author of On Gold Mountain, which tells the story of her Chinese American family's settlement in Los Angeles. See was the recipient of the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Association of Southern California and the History Maker's Award from the Chinese American Museum. She was also named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner UK (July 4, 2024)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781398526082

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Raves and Reviews

‘A poignant new story exploring the life of a Chinese woman whose fate is bound by her country’s patriarchal power structures… The quietly affecting reimagining follows Yunxian from her youth learning about the traditional pillars of Chinese medicine to the beginning of her lifelong friendship with a young midwife-in-training to the years after she is sent into an arranged marriage.’ Time

‘See envelops her story in the accepted practices of the time: arranged marriages, the buying and selling of concubines, the pressure to provide male heirs, and the crippling and sometimes deadly practice of female foot binding. Despite the inordinate limits placed on women, See allows their strengths to dominate their stories, even though not all women were graced with lives of fulfillment.’ Washington Post

‘Spellbinding… vividly depicts 15th-century China with artfully woven details, rich characters and descriptive language. See captures a world of propriety and cruelty as she ruminates on the disparity between the lives of men and women, and how women – no matter their class – are treated as possessions of the men around them. But through her strong-willed characters, See also emphasizes how women can act as the anchors of society… an emotional and illuminating epic.’ BookPage

‘Based on true events, this richly imagined historical novel captures the extraordinary lives of two women in the Ming Dynasty’ Woman’s Own

‘Engaging… Based on the writings of an historical Ming dynasty female physician, See’s accomplished novel immerses readers in a fascinating life lived within a fascinating culture.’ Booklist

‘The lives of women in 15th-century China are illuminated in this engrossing novel… Women’s friendships in a world where they have little freedom shape a quietly moving book.’ Kirkus Reviews

‘An appealing tale of female love and loyalty… See adds intrigue with a side plot involving a mysterious death, along with notable depictions of footbinding and the intricacies of Chinese medicine. See’s fans will find much to enjoy.’ Publishers Weekly

‘The deft ways the story addresses issues of class and power are intriguing… But the heart of this tale is indeed its titular circle of women, who rally around each other in ways both large and small … the quiet ways they make space for and uplift one another is touching and heartfelt.’ Paste magazine

‘See’s novel is a portrayal of female strength, resilience, and intelligence… An intimate and absorbing story that immerses readers in the rich cultural and historical context of Ming Dynasty China, revealing the life of a woman whose legacy extends far beyond her time.’ Medium

Awards and Honors

  • ALA "The Reading List" Selection

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Lisa See