Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Q&A with Lisa See




Lisa See is the author of the new historical novel Lady Tan's Circle of Women. Her other books include the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


Q: You write that you learned of the historical figure Tan Yunxian (1461-1554) during the pandemic. What intrigued you about her, and at what point did you decide to write this novel based on her life?


A: I was moping around at home like many of us were during lockdown and in the months before the vaccine became available, feeling totally at loose ends and like I couldn’t do what I love to do.


Yes, writers are supposed to be glued to their desks and work from their imaginations, but I write historical novels that require a lot of research. I couldn’t go to China to do research on what I’d thought was going to be the next book, and all the institutions and libraries where I do research were closed.


As you might imagine, I collect books about China. I could never hope to read them all. Seven months into the pandemic, I was walking by the bookshelves in my office when the spine of one of the books jumped out at me. I don’t know why, but I pulled it off the shelf. The book was about pregnancy and childbirth in the Ming dynasty. I decided right then to read it.


I got to page 19 and found a mention of Tan Yunxian, a female doctor in the Ming dynasty, who, when she turned 50 in 1511, published a book of her cases. That seemed extraordinary to me. I set the book down, went to the internet to see what else I could find out about her, and discovered that her book was available in English! I ordered it and received it the next day.


So within about 26 hours, I’d discovered what the next book would be. That had never happened with any of my other books.


Several things intrigued me about her. There weren’t many female doctors in China, let alone the rest of the world, at that time. She was an elite woman, highly educated, married, with children. In the introduction to her book, she writes very humbly to deflect criticism that what she was doing defied Confucian values about women. In this way I suppose we could call her a quiet feminist.


But what’s most extraordinary to me is just the fact that she got her book published and that it remains in print. How many books spring to mind that were written before 1511 and have remained in print for over five centuries? The Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, some Greek tragedies and comedies, Beowulf, and, in China, the I Ching and a few others. And all of those were written by men.


We can add to the list The Tales of Genji and Physica, both of which were written by women, but these are rarities in the history of world literature.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the role of women in Chinese medicine, particularly during the period you write about?


A: During the Ming dynasty and until relatively recently in China, male physicians were not allowed to see, question, or touch their female patients. The doctor sat outside the room or perhaps behind a screen, while a woman’s father or husband acted as a go-between. He’d be sent in to ask the most embarrassing and intimate questions, and the woman was supposed to reveal the answers.


Imagine that for a moment. Even today, how comfortable would most women and girls feel about their husbands or fathers being the intermediary with a gynecologist or obstetrician? I’m not talking about the “we’re-having-a-baby” types of conversations. Rather, the most intimate details about reproductive health.


If a woman was in dire straits, a doctor might be allowed to take her pulse, if her wrist was wrapped in cloth and she was still hidden behind a curtain. Not very effective!


As a woman, Tan Yunxian could be in the room with her patients. She could look at her patient’s complexion and her skin (if she was pale or flushed; if she had a rash, tumor, boils, etc.). She could take a woman’s pulse with no barrier between her fingertips and the patient’s wrist. (In Chinese medicine, there are 28 distinct pulses, which are key to diagnosis.)


Most importantly, she could ask questions—woman to woman. She had sympathy and empathy because she herself shared the societal, familial, and emotional realities of being a daughter, wife, and mother, as well as the physiological and biological experiences of being a woman—menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, nursing, and menopause.


But—and this is a big but—doctors, whether male or female, were forbidden to come in contact with blood. They thought about Blood, with a capital B. This had nothing to do with the blood that comes out of us when we get a cut. In Chinese medicine, this was, and still is, more philosophical.


Physical blood was seen as dirty and polluted, which helps to explain why midwives were a necessity. Someone had to deliver babies, which is a bloody business, after all. Since midwives were already considered polluted, they also assisted coroners when they performed autopsies.


Drum roll for the entrance of the character of Meiling—a midwife in training, who, despite all odds, becomes friends with Yunxian.


Q: Can you describe the terminology you use in the novel--such as “child palace” for the uterus?


A: I used the classic Chinese terms wherever I could. Child palace is still used in China today. I find it to be a beautiful and evocative description.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: Not that much is known about Tan Yunxian’s life. There’s the forward she wrote to her book. There are also the prefaces and postscripts written by men—some of whom were her relatives—that also give details of her life.


Some of what she wrote sounds fantastical. The incident that immediately springs to my mind is when it was believed she was dying. Everything had been done to help her get well, but she kept getting sicker and sicker. Her husband and mother-in-law even began planning her funeral—right next to her bed!

Tan Yunxian wrote about a ghostly visit from her grandmother, who told her what remedy to make, said that Yunxian would never suffer from illness again, and prophesied that she would live to be 68 years old. It turns out ghosts don’t know everything, because Tan Yunxian lived to age 96.


Still, there weren’t that many details about her life or a full roadmap for me to follow, so I did other kinds of research and used other real-life stories from the Ming dynasty.


For example, the stories of the midwife writing “go home” on the foot of a baby who was coming out feet first as well as the story of the midwife who miscarried in front of the empress both happened to other real women in the same time period. Oh, and the worm! That was a real story too.


I was also interested in exploring different aspects of yin and yang—dark and light, female and male, death and life, earthly and heavenly.


As you know, Tan Yunxian’s grandfather became a doctor after years of working for the Board of Punishments. One job is responsible for inflicting pain, torture, even death. The other is about healing and prolonging life. This contradiction that he faced in his own life seemed to me to be the very essence of yin and yang—and it’s one that Tan Yunxian also struggled with.


During my research, I discovered that China was the first country in the world to develop the field of forensics. The Washing Away of Wrongs, published in 1247, was the first book on forensics and was used in China well into the 20th century.


I was able to use a lot of that material—and more real cases—so that Meiling, as a coroner’s assistant, and Yunxian, as a doctor, could explore the darkest aspects of yin—death by violence.


This is my long-winded way of saying that striking the right balance between fact and fiction is probably what I think about the most. In this instance, I used all the real details about Tan Yunxian’s life that I could find and then filled out the empty spaces with the real details of lives and experiences that happened to other real women in the Ming dynasty.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The next novel has as its historic backdrop the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown massacre, when 18 Chinese men and boys were shot, stabbed, and hung. The incident is considered to be one of the largest mass lynchings in the history of our country.


Most people don’t know this, but Los Angeles was the wildest of the Wild West towns—worse than Deadwood, Dodge City, or Laramie. The city was tiny then—just 5,000 people. Of those, 190 of them were Chinese, and of those, 34 were Chinese women. These women were true pioneers, and their lives were incredibly hard.


I’m telling the story from the eyes of three women. Yut Ho was the very young wife of an older but very wealthy merchant. Her kidnapping is what sparked the violence that triggered the massacre. I think of her as the Helen of Troy of the story.


Tong Yue was the wife of a Chinese doctor who was well respected in the community and had mostly white patients. He was the second person to be killed. In the aftermath of the massacre, Tong Yue became the first Chinese woman to file a lawsuit in the city.


The last woman is a composite of two women, both of whom were kidnapped from their homes in China, taken across the Pacific to Los Angeles, and then sold and traded as prostitutes. They then spent years trying to escape their indentured servitude.


This is yet another story of women’s courage, endurance, and persistence in the direst of circumstances. It’s about how women—then and now—find friends who lift us up and support us. Last, it’s another story to show that women haven’t just sat on the sidelines of history. They were participants in it. They were there every step of the way, and we stand on their shoulders today.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe I should talk for a moment about the “circle of women” in the title. I’m not giving anything away when I reveal that at the beginning of the novel Tan Yunxian’s mother dies and her father departs for the capitol to complete his studies for the imperial exams. Yunxian, who’s only 8 years old, is sent to live with her grandparents. I think it’s fair to say she feels orphaned and alone.


These feelings are exacerbated when she turns 15 and goes to her husband’s home in an arranged marriage, where she spends her days in the women’s chambers with her mother-in-law, other wives, concubines, and servants, who aren’t exactly warm or welcoming.


But over time, a circle of women come to surround and support Yunxian. Isn’t that what happens to us in life? We find other women—or they find us—who encourage and support us, who make us laugh and embrace us when we weep. The members of the circle may change over time, but they help us endure and persist in the most challenging circumstances.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lisa See.

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