Poetry / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Tan Yunxian 1461-1554

by David W. Landrum

female physician of the Ming dynasty

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unpublished.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.
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