Women are not well documented in the history of ancient Chinese medicine, as they were often not valued for their contribution to society’s progress. Women historically were not supported in their desires to get an education, many even being forbidden to do so. Sadly, this view still exists in some cultures today. Unaware of their impact on the future of women, our ancestral mothers and grandmothers that defied their cultural traditions to better themselves and others are the inspiration that feeds the hopes and dreams of all women today.
Tan Yunxian (1461-1554) was born into a family history of accomplished doctors. While women were not educated much beyond primary levels of schooling, Tan’s grandparents saw the potential of their granddaughter and tutored her in Chinese medicine. Her grandmother would quiz her understanding of classic medical teachings. As Tan began to practice medicine, she would depend on her grandmother’s years of experience to support her own diagnostic skills. Tan’s own grandmother was a pioneering woman of her day, which explains the tenacity of Tan’s constitution.
Due to the confines of the Chinese culture, Tan was forbidden to treat men; therefore her practice was composed of predominately women in search of cures for female related disorders. As a result, she was seeing patients that male doctors wouldn’t be apt to treat as effectively because male practitioners were also unable to touch female patients. Thus, male doctors were less capable of diagnosing and were very limited in their treatment options for their female patients. This obviously limited the medical options of women to get adequate healthcare.
At age 50, Tan Yunxian had completed writing an autobiographical account, The Sayings of a Female Doctor, which included 31 case studies. Chinese cultural also deprived Tan of the right to publish her clinical practices and findings. Even though Tan was forbidden to publish a book in her culture, she was determined to have her work move forward to help others. The inability to get her book published wasn’t going to deter her mission, she had printing blocks made and self-published her accounts. This book, called The Sayings of a Female Doctor, a few copies can be found today.
It can be assumed that the years of research that Tan did has played a role in increasing the quality of care that women receive in China. First to those women she treated, getting focused treatment would improve quality of their lives. Secondly, the documentation and publishing of her clinical findings would improve outcomes and give a basis to new or improved discoveries. Maybe the most important attribution she has given all humanity was that her determined efforts empowered other women.
As a woman, I can’t help but feel a sisterhood to Tan Yunxian and her achievements and to others like her. The determination and desire of some of the historical women play an important role in the equal rights movement all over the world. If only Tan Yunxian could have known the impact she would contribute, not only to medicine but maybe more importantly to humanity by showing the value of women’s contributions.