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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Tan Yunxian

A Ming-dynasty doctor soon be the star of her own television drama


Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Tan Yunxian

A Ming-dynasty doctor soon be the star of her own television drama


Every Friday for the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series called “Badass Ladies of Chinese History.” As Chairman Mao said, “Women hold up half the sky.” Likewise, women hold up half of history, although not always the half we’re taught. A quick poll of my foreigner friends revealed that the only woman they could name in China’s 3000+ years of history was…Hua Mulan. Thanks, Disney. As a history buff with a passion for feminist scholarship, I look forward to shedding some light on a few of my favorite females from China’s past.

Tan Yunxin

Tan Yunxian as portrayed by Liu Shishi in the upcoming drama The Imperial Doctoress.

This week, I’m kicking off the series with Tan Yunxian. Tan Yunxian (谈允贤) was a physician during the Ming Dynasty. She specialized in women’s health (since she wasn’t permitted to treat men) and was one of the first Chinese doctors to take gynecology and obstetrics seriously. She was so punk rock, she ignored rules against women publishing and released a book about her medical practice. All that, in an age when most women weren’t allowed to go to primary school.

Being badass ran in Tan Yunxian’s family. Her grandmother was the daughter of a physician. Records show that Granny Tan must have picked up a few things, because Tan’s grandfather married her in order to learn medicine himself. Tan Yunxian’s cleverness quickly made her the favorite grandchild, and her first healing knowledge came from her grandparents.

In her early 20s, Tan married and had four children. Her first real experiences with medicine came from treating her children’s ailments. She would ask her grandmother for advice, and together the two of the consulted medical treatises.

After her grandmother passed away, Tan Yunxian became very ill, and dreamed that her grandmother told her reference pages to diagnose her illness. After surviving her illness, she decided to start practicing medicine more seriously.

During this time in the Ming Dynasty, Confucianism had taken a turn for the conservative, and women had very low status. Tan couldn’t apprentice with an experienced doctor as male pupils did, so she worked largely as a nurse in various clinics. Conservative Confucianism held that male doctors shouldn’t touch their female patients, so Tan was able to do hands-on work in ways they couldn’t.

With the hope of passing on knowledge about medicine for women, she compiled 31 case studies from her patients into a book called Sayings of a Female Doctor (《女医杂言》)—with the full knowledge that women weren’t allowed to publish books. Completely undeterred, she asked her son to have printing blocks cut for her, and she printed it independently. Extraordinarily, copies of her book still survive today.

Tan Yuexian lived to 93 years old—an unprecedented age for the mid-1400s. Her understanding of medicine must have paid off.

Tangren Production is making a TV drama based on Tan’s life, reimaging her working at the Zhengtong Emperor’s palace. While it may not be especially historically accurate, it’s keeping the story of this brilliant and persistent woman alive. Tan herself will be played by Liu Shishi, and from the advertising, the production value appears quite high. Look for The Imperial Doctress (女医明妃传) in 2015!


If you’re excited for this series, check out these war heroines from Chinese history.


All images courtesy of  The Imperial Doctress production, from Wu Xia Edge. (x)