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談允賢 Tan Yunxian: Famous Ming Dynasty Female Physician

Some of the most brilliant physicians in the history of mankind have come from China. Many of these healers were women, which came with its own difficulties and controversies in order to be recognized and even allowed to use their skills to help people. Today we will be discussing one such incredible woman.

談允賢 Tan Yunxian was born in 1461 and lived during the Ming Dynasty where literature, poetry, and painting flourished. The population doubled and medical sciences reached their peak while they experienced a renaissance.

談允賢 Tan Yunxian was born into a family of generational physicians. Both her great grandfather and grandfather were respected doctors. Even her grandmother was very well versed in diagnosing and treating disease thanks to her father. It is said that 談允賢 Tan Yunxian’s grandfather married her grandmother because he sought to learn medicine from her talented and skilled father who was a revered physician. Marrying into the family gave him a chance to learn secret ways and prescriptions of that particular lineage.

It is important to note that females during the Ming Dynasty could not attend a medical school or study under a master and then open their own medical clinic after graduating. China was a patriarchal society at the time, just like many other places in the world, who often looked at women that strove to become more than just a housewife unfavorably. Some of the females had to even defy cultural traditions in order to pursue their dreams.

When Tan was still a little girl she often demonstrated wisdom beyond her years and great potential for learning. Her grandparents decided to teach her medicine and impart their knowledge onto her.


The girl is very clever, quite out of the ordinary. When she is grown she will be able to practice my medical arts.

談允賢 Tan Yunxian began studying medicine at the age of 10 and was often seen reading classical medical texts day and night.

The Empathetic Physician

After she got married, Doctor Tan Yunxian faced her own health issues and was unable to get pregnant. As a result this led her on a path to becoming her own physician.

Strict Ming Dynasty practices did not allow men to touch their female patients. They had a difficult time understanding or simply relating to women. Moreover, females themselves did not trust the intimate details of their lives to male physicians.  Therefore, male doctors often delegated diagnosing and treating females to their female assistants or those rare female physicians stepped in and made it their specialty to treat women and children.

That is where 談允賢 Tan Yunxian also found her niche. Having successfully dealt with her own reproductive issues and giving birth to four healthy children, she was able to understand other females, what they were suffering from, relate to their challenges, and empathize with women. By being very effective she quickly gained fame in the entire region. Her specialties were menstrual irregularities, miscarriages, infertility and postpartum fatigue. Women felt safe sharing intimate details of their lives with Doctor Tan Yunxian which assisted both the physician and the patient in effective and fast recovery.

Doctor Tan Yunxian’s strengths were herbal prescriptions which were passed onto her by her grandmother and moxibustion over specified points on the body which stimulates the circulation of Qi. When a list of medical professionals was compiled by the Ming government 談允賢, Tan Yunxian was among the physicians listed.

Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor

談允賢 Tan Yunxian was also an author which was a very rare accomplishment for a female of that time. At the age of 50, after she had gained massive experience, Doctor Tan Yunxian decided to write a book called Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor. Her work consisted of 31 cases she effectively treated. Her goal was to share her expertise with the future generations. The text includes cases of abortion, menstrual disorders, postpartum ailments and abdominal lumps. When Doctor Tan finished her work, she could not just publish it. No publishing or bookselling shop would agree to deal with a female. But Doctor Tan found a way. She had her son publish her work under his name. Her expertise is still referenced today.

Doctor Tan Yunxian was a revolutionary of her time, however, she was humble, gentle, and simply wanted to be of assistance to her community in the way she loved and knew how.

At 96, I wish I could call forth the stream of patients, women mostly, I have healed these years—the tender virgin girls who came with rashes on their secret parts; women with periods not right or for whom sex caused pain; those who could not conceive a child. Ashamed to open up their treasury of womanhood to a male physician's touch, they flocked to me, some with a reddened part quiet easily cured; some with menstrual trials; others, more seriously, nearly mad in the aftermath of a difficult birth—
the things the men who practice healing arts record as "women's complaints." That I was 
a wife and mother made me empathize with them and their distress; and I could cure
the womb, vagina, breasts. My son will cut the woodblocks for prints of the book I wrote.
The Sayings of a Female Doctor lies a manuscript. The booksellers will not publish a text by a woman, even one who served for years, to whom nobility, the royal court, the wealthy looked for cures. Self-published, it might see the light of day. With no apprenticeship, no study with a master healer (who must be a man), I’m scorned. My voice from eighty years spent in the medicinal arts will cease, will go unheard, and my advice will quietly die, unpublished. Slender chance my own copies will sell. The merchants who run bookshops won't give up space for my title in their stalls. These silences—a woman's voice is stilled not out of death and not from a disease of body, but of body politic. I hope healing will come to this soft plague, this lack of voice, this blockage, this complaint.

Here at Si Jin Bao we honor Doctor 談允賢 Tan Yunxian by sharing her legacy of courage, skill, honor, and truth.

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