WOMEN’S WORK IN IMPERIAL CHINA, the physician granny

Undoubtedly the most well-known female doctor in China’s long history is Tan Yunxian (1461-1556) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  It’s not that there were no other noteworthy female doctors; it’s just that there are very few detailed records of their lives and their work. Lorraine Wilcox with Yue Lu opened up the window into her life and work by translating Tan Yunxian’s book, Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor, into English. Today there are many movies and stories written about Tan Yunxian.

TV drama, 50 Episodes. Directed by Li Guoli, Zheng Weiwen and Lu Zeliang. Tan Yunxian is played by Liu Shi Shi (AKA Cecelia Liu)

Although movies may make up parts to add excitement/tension to the story, because of this book, we have factual information about her and her family—she came from a medical family and was trained by her accomplished grandmother. Much of her medical prowess was based on well-established medical texts, but she also developed some of her own treatments. My character, Xiang-hua, in the A Ming Dynasty Mystery series (Deadly Relations, No Way to Die,and Justice Delayed, Justice Denied) is modeled on her life.

Because of China’s social conventions demanding varying degrees of separation between men and women—including male doctors and their female patients—female doctors were needed to treat women. A male doctor was limited in how much he could examine, touch, his female patient.  Usually, and only under appropriate circumstances, he could take her pulse to determine her illness and prescribe medicine. A female doctor could examine her patient more directly and more completely. She could also give a wider range of treatments, some involving touching the patient.

Of the other female doctors we know about, most are written about because they served in the imperial palace taking care of the emperor’s women. For example, in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), Yi Shuo (AKA Yi Xu) from Shan Xi province is known to have been a valuable and trusted female doctor because of her treating the empress dowager.*

Some were also noted because they worked with their husbands. Bao Gu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE), who traveled with her highly acclaimed husband throughout Guangdong, was also so well-known and so famous, people called her the “Immortal Lady Bao.”

One female doctor, Wei Hua Cun (?252-334 AD) seems to be an exceptional case. She came from a literati family; her father was a court official. After marrying and having two children, she separated from her husband and apparently lived alone, practicing medicine for the rest of her life.

As important as female doctors were to their women patients, however, they were often roundly criticized by well-educated male doctors and other Confucianists as incompetent charlatans that should only have limited access to their families’ women. As with the other grannies, this distrust arose out of the lack of control men had over these relatively independent women. Nevertheless, in spite of this, female doctors were ultimately allowed into the homes because they were medical experts and served an important function—caring for sick women and children.

* NOTE: Information for this blog was taken from: Women Practitioners in Ancient China” bartleby.com; “Female Doctors in Ancient China,” Elena Santilli; A Flourishing Yin, Gender in China’s Medical History, 960-1665, Charlotte Furth; Dangerous Women, Victoria Cass.

To order books go to: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=pa+de+voe&i=stripbooks&crid=20Q1ZL6QA6K16&sprefix=pa+de+voe%



While there was some variation over the centuries, Imperial China was largely a highly gendered, patriarchal society. The lives of men and women were kept separate as much as possible. While families and friends could get together now and then, by and large, mixing was discouraged. Including in the area of medicine.

This meant that such medical needs as childbirth, fell to other women. The latter specialists, midwives, took care of pregnant women and delivered their babies. However, they didn’t receive formal training and were often illiterate. They learned their skills through experience, through on-the-job training. Those who were successful in their deliveries were sought after; those who failed to save a baby or its mother, were not.

If there was a complication the midwife failed to handle successfully, she may even be considered bad luck to have in a delivery room in the future. So, being a midwife required her producing safe pregnancies. If she did this, she earned a good reputation and respect.

One way such practitioners were shown respect was by calling them Granny (po), Old Granny (lao po), Old Elder Sister (lao jie), Old Lady (lao niang), Old Mom (lao ma), and Old Auntie (lao sou).* The use of the word “Old” didn’t refer to their actual, chronical age but to their status. Traditionally, all older people deserved deference and esteem because of the wisdom they accumulated through a long life. Therefore, using the appellation Old was a way of honoring them, of showing them respect.

However, they were not always seen in a positive light. Because midwife grannies were able to travel about on their own and to go to any woman’s home—no matter what that patient’s family’s social position was—they were also considered dangerous. Dangerous to the family and to the over-all society.

This fear of the grannies’ power lay in their independence.  As unrestrained women they could infiltrate a family, learn its secrets, and cause disruption in the its order and harmony. The men of the family often saw these grannies as outsiders who had too much access to their patriarchal family’s women. And, therefore, it was risky to allow them to become intimates to the family’s women.

Thus, we see that granny midwives had an essential, yet complicated, position throughout Chinese history.

If you have any stories about granny midwives, I’d love to hear them.

*An excellent book on women in China is Dangerous Women, Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming by Victoria Cass, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Boulder. 1999.

** pictures from depositphotos.com


International Women’s Day, March 8th

The impetus for the establishment of International Women’s Day came from 1909 suffragist demonstrations in New York City. The first IWD was held in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland in 1911. The theme was women’s rights: to vote, hold public office, and against unfair employment practices. The United Nations officially recognized it in 1977 as a day for women’s rights and international peace. Today more than 2 dozen countries celebrate IWD as an official holiday—including China. Another eight countries or so, while not making it an official holiday, celebrate it nonetheless.

In 1994, Maxine Waters introduced a bill to make International Women’s Day a national holiday in the United States. However, Congress did not pass the bill. Therefore, this day of celebrating gender equality and women’s rights is not an official holiday in the US. (go to this link for more: https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/america-started-international-womens-day-so-why-don-t-we-celebrate-it-50b10ec7829e#:~:text.

China has been observing International Women’s Day for a long time. I’ve seen 2 different years mentioned: 19211 and 1949. The day is to encourage women to continue to work toward economic, social, and political achievements by highlighting women and organizations that are models for supporting women in China. It is a time to reflect on gender discrimination and stereotypes and how to change them.

As an official holiday, women enjoy a half-day off work to show the country’s appreciation for their contribution to society.

Interestingly, if you browse websites on China and the International Women’s Day, you’ll find a few that bemoan the fact that, while the day was originally designed to celebrate and encourage women’s drive toward equality, it is now becoming more and more of a shopping holiday. That reminds me of how so many people here in the U.S. bemoan Thanksgiving, which is a day for giving thanks and for being with family, having become such an important day (weekend) for holiday sales.

However, it looks like, as is to be expected, China is keeping to the original intent of the International Women’s Day—gender equality and justice—while at the same time, allowing for commercial spill-over.

An example is a short 2-minute video made by the cosmetic’s company Proya with China Women’s Daily called “Gender is not a borderline” staring the rapper Yu Zhen. The video was part of a campaign which included several media influencers who talk about the gender bias seen on social media. (see more at: https://daoinsights.com/news/proya-and-china-womens-daily-launch-viral-video-for-womens-day/)

This video is interesting because China Women’s Daily is a government-controlled media partnering with a commercial enterprise, Proya. China has been, and is still in many ways, a highly masculine-oriented culture. This orientation appears to be something the present government is encouraging. So, the video’s nod of the head toward questioning, examining, women’s equality is noteworthy.

At the same time, Proya, a business enterprise based on selling beauty products, is talking about women’s and men’s shared qualities as humans and not objectifying women and stressing their physical appearance (and, therefore, something they, as a cosmetic company could market off of). Of course, it has also been reported that Proya’s sales have gone up after this video came out.

As with our Thanksgiving, International Women’s Day in China (or anywhere) can bolster the economy through specialty sales and, at the same time, show homage and respect for those working for gender equality and to encourage the county to keep moving in that direction.

That is, the video may be considered a win-win as both a social message and as a commercial endeavor. However, to some, the video may be considered manipulative on the part of a cosmetic company. What do you think? I would be interested in your opinion.

Happy International Women’s Day!

1 https://daxueconsulting.com/history-behind-international-women-day-in-china/

*pictures from depositphotos.com