T an Yunxian (谈允贤) was a female physician during the Ming Dynasty in China, a time when Confucian ethics played a crucial role in everyday life and women had a low status in society.
‘The Imperial Doctress’ (明代女医师), also known as ‘Ming Medicine Woman’, is a costume drama produced in mainland China in 2015 and aired daily since February 13th 2016 on Dragon TV (东方卫视) (19:30, 50 episodes total). The drama is directed by Li Guoli, Zheng Weiwen and Lu Zeliang (李国立、郑伟文、卢泽良).
The costume drama tells the story of the Tans, a family that has the doctor profession in its bloodline – even its past ancestors were imperial doctors. But when the family is set up by a grudgeful enemy, the royal court no longer allows them to practice medicine. Young daughter Tan Yunxian, played by Liu Shi Shi (刘诗诗, a.k.a. Cecelia Liu) secretly learns the art of medicine from her grandmother and helps to cure plagues and illnesses among the common people. The drama follows her as she grows up and struggles with her pursuit to become the doctor she wants to be. Emperor Zhu Qi Zhen (actor Wallace Huo) comes to play an important role in fulfilling her destiny (Viki 2016).
Tan Yunxian lived from 1461-1554. Her great-grandfather was a physician, as was her grandmother and grandfather, who passed their knowledge on to her. Tan Yunxian was a wife and a mother of four children, and combined these roles with learning to be a doctor. She started practicing medicine by treating her own children, and checking her diagnoses with her grandmother. She later on treated others, only women, for different illnesses (Ebrey 2009, 231).
Tan Yunxian became the first known female doctor in China to write about her work. Her writings have recently been translated by Lorraine Wilcox and Yue Lu in Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor (2015 – Amazon link). The book consists of one volume with 31 different cases.
As explained in the book’s synopsis about Tan Yunxian: “Tan Yunxian primarily treated women in her practice, and these records reflect insights into the pathology of female patients that male practitioners might not have been privy to. At this time, a wealthy woman could not see a male doctor without having a male relative such as her father, husband, or son present. Modesty was the utmost female virtue. The male doctor questioned the husband, not the woman herself. He might not be allowed to see her face. He needed to ask for permission to feel her pulse. Therefore, because Tan was a woman, she was allowed by her female patients to do things that a male doctor could not, and this intimacy in turn led to a better diagnosis of the patient’s problems.”
Tan Yunxian lived to be 93 years old.
The TV series about Tan has already become a great success; it is currently one of most popular TV dramas in China according to Baidu charts. On Sina Weibo, netizens seem mostly very positive about the show. Under the hashtag of ‘Imperial Doctress’ (#女医明妃传#), fans share their love for the series with hearts and smiling emoticons.
In a world were female doctors were extremely rare, and women had a low status and were not expected to go out and be ambitious, Tan Yunxian could definitely, as the World of Chinese says, be described as a “Badass Lady of Chinese History”.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. 2009. “East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume II: From 1600.” Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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