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    Contributors | September 15, 2015

    Mary Karr: IMG Memoir Tutorials with Mary Karr, Lena Dunham, and Gary Shteyngart

    Editor's note: It's been 20 years since the groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club sent Mary Karr into the literary spotlight with its phenomenal... Continue »
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2 Burnside Literature- A to Z

Bonesetters Daughter


Bonesetters Daughter Cover



A New York Times Notable Book of 2001

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:


These are the things I know are true:

My name is LuLing Liu Young. The names of my husbands were

Pan Kai Jing and Edwin Young, both of them dead and our secrets

gone with them. My daughter is Ruth Luyi Young. She was born in a

Water Dragon Year and I in a Fire Dragon Year. So we are the same

but for opposite reasons.

I know all this, yet there is one name I cannot remember. It is

there in the oldest layer of my memory, and I cannot dig it out. A

hundred times I have gone over that morning when Precious Auntie

wrote it down. I was only six then, but very smart. I could count. I

could read. I had a memory for everything, and here is my memory

of that winter morning.

I was sleepy, still lying on the brick k'ang bed I shared with Precious

Auntie. The flue to our little room was furthest from the stove

in the common room, and the bricks beneath me had long turned

cold. I felt my shoulder being shaken. When I opened my eyes, Precious

Auntie began to write on a scrap of paper, then showed me

what she had written. "I can't see," I complained. "It's too dark."

She huffed, set the paper on the low cupboard, and motioned that

I should get up. She lighted the teapot brazier, and tied a scarf over her

nose and mouth when it started to smoke. She poured face-washing

water into the teapot's chamber, and when it was cooked, she started

our day. She scrubbed my face and ears. She parted my hair and

combed my bangs. She wet down any strands that stuck out like

spider legs. Then she gathered the long part of my hair into two

bundles and braided them. She banded the top with red ribbon, the

bottom with green. I wagged my head so that my braids swung like

the happy ears of palace dogs. And Precious Auntie sniffed the air

as if she, too, were a dog wondering, What's that good smell? That

sniff was how she said my nickname, Doggie. That was how she


She had no voice, just gasps and wheezes, the snorts of a ragged

wind. She told me things with grimaces and groans, dancing eyebrows

and darting eyes. She wrote about the world on my carry-around

chalkboard. She also made pictures with her blackened

hands. Hand-talk, face-talk, and chalk-talk were the languages I

grew up with, soundless and strong.

As she wound her hair tight against her skull, I played with her

box of treasures. I took out a pretty comb, ivory with a rooster

carved at each end. Precious Auntie was born a Rooster. "You wear

this," I demanded, holding it up. "Pretty." I was still young enough

to believe that beauty came from things, and I wanted Mother to favor

her more. But Precious Auntie shook her head. She pulled off

her scarf and pointed to her face and bunched her brows. What use

do I have for prettiness? she was saying.

Her bangs fell to her eyebrows like mine. The rest of her hair was

bound into a knot and stabbed together with a silver prong. She had

a sweet-peach forehead, wide-set eyes, full cheeks tapering to a small

plump nose. That was the top of her face. Then there was the


She wiggled her blackened fingertips like hungry flames. See what

the fire did.

I didn't think she was ugly, not in the way others in our family

did. "Ai-ya, seeing her, even a demon would leap out of his skin," I

once heard Mother remark. When I was small, I liked to trace my

fingers around Precious Auntie 's mouth. It was a puzzle. Half was

bumpy, half was smooth and melted closed. The inside of her right

cheek was stiff as leather, the left was moist and soft. Where the

gums had burned, the teeth had fallen out. And her tongue was like a

parched root. She could not taste the pleasures of life: salty and bitter,

sour and sharp, spicy, sweet, and fat.

No one else understood Precious Auntie 's kind of talk, so I had

to say aloud what she meant. Not everything, though, not our secret

stories. She often told me about her father, the Famous Bonesetter

from the Mouth of the Mountain, about the cave where they found

the dragon bones, how the bones were divine and could cure any

pain, except a grieving heart. "Tell me again," I said that morning,

wishing for a story about how she burned her face and became my


I was a fire-eater, she said with her hands and eyes. Hundreds of

people came to see me in the market square. Into the burning pot of my

mouth I dropped raw pork, added chilis and bean paste, stirred this up,

then offered the morsels to people to taste. If they said, "Delicious!" I

opened my mouth as a purse to catch their copper coins. One day, however,

I ate the fire, and the fire came back, and it ate me. After that, I decided

not to be a cook-pot anymore, so I became your nursemaid instead.

I laughed and clapped my hands, liking this made-up story best.

The day before, she told me she had stared at an unlucky star falling

out of the sky and then it dropped into her open mouth and burned

her face. The day before that, she said she had eaten what she

thought was a spicy Hunan dish only to find that it was the coals used

for cooking.

No more stories, Precious Auntie now told me, her hands talking

fast. It's almost time for breakfast, and we must pray while we're still

hungry. She retrieved the scrap of paper from the cupboard, folded it

in half, and tucked it into the lining of her shoe. We put on our

padded winter clothes and walked into the cold corridor. The air

smelled of coal fires in other wings of the compound. I saw Old

Cook pumping his arm to turn the crank over the well. I heard a tenant

yelling at her lazy daughter-in-law. I passed the room that my

sister, GaoLing, shared with Mother, the two of them still asleep. We

hurried to the south-facing small room, to our ancestral hall. At the

threshold, Precious Auntie gave me a warning look. Act humble. Take

off your shoes. In my stockings, I stepped onto cold gray tiles. Instantly,

my feet were stabbed with an iciness that ran up my legs,

through my body, and dripped out my nose. I began to shake.

The wall facing me was lined with overlapping scrolls of couplets,

gifts to our family from scholars who had used our ink over the

last two hundred years. I had learned to read one, a poem-painting:

"Fish shadows dart downstream," meaning our ink was dark, beautiful,

and smooth-flowing. On the long altar table were two statues,

the God of Longevity with his white-waterfall beard, and the Goddess

of Mercy, her face smooth, free of worry. Her black eyes looked

into mine. Only she listened to the woes and wishes of women, Precious

Auntie said. Perched around the statues were spirit tablets of

the Liu ancestors, their wooden faces carved with their names. Not

all my ancestors were there, Precious Auntie told me, just the ones

my family considered most important. The in-between ones and

those belonging to women were stuck in trunks or forgotten.

Precious Auntie lighted several joss sticks. She blew on them until

they began to smolder. Soon more smoke rose--a jumble of our

breath, our offerings, and hazy clouds that I thought were ghosts

who would try to yank me down to wander with them in the World

of Yin. Precious Auntie once told me that a body grows cold when it

is dead. And since I was chilled to the bone that morning, I was


"I'm cold," I whimpered, and tears leaked out.

Precious Auntie sat on a stool and drew me to her lap. Stop that,

Doggie, she gently scolded, or the tears will freeze into icicles and poke

out your eyes. She kneaded my feet fast, as if they were dumpling

dough. Better? How about now, better?

After I stopped crying, Precious Auntie lighted more joss sticks.

She went back to the threshold and picked up one of her shoes. I can

still see it--the dusty blue cloth, the black piping, the tiny embroidery

of an extra leaf where she had repaired the hole. I thought she

was going to burn her shoe as a send-away gift to the dead. Instead,

from the shoe 's lining, she took out the scrap of paper with the writing

she had showed me earlier. She nodded toward me and said with

her hands: My family name, the name of all the bonesetters. She put

the paper name in front of my face again and said, Never forget this

name, then placed it carefully on the altar. We bowed and rose,

bowed and rose. Each time my head bobbed up, I looked at that

name. And the name was--

Why can't I see it now? I've pushed a hundred family names

through my mouth, and none comes back with the belch of memory.

Was the name uncommon? Did I lose it because I kept it a secret too

long? Maybe I lost it the same way I lost all my favorite things--the

jacket GaoLing gave me when I left for the orphan school, the dress

my second husband said made me look like a movie star, the first

baby dress that Luyi outgrew. Each time I loved something with a

special ache, I put it in my trunk of best things. I hid those things for

so long I almost forgot I had them.

This morning I remembered the trunk. I went to put away the

birthday present that Luyi gave me. Gray pearls from Hawaii, beautiful

beyond belief. When I opened the lid, out rose a cloud of moths, a

stream of silverfish. Inside I found a web of knitted holes, one after

the other. The embroidered flowers, the bright colors, now gone. Almost

all that mattered in my life has disappeared, and the worst is

losing Precious Auntie 's name.

Precious Auntie, what is our name? I always meant to claim it as

my own. Come help me remember. I'm not a little girl anymore. I'm

not afraid of ghosts. Are you still mad at me? Don't you recognize

me? I am LuLing, your daughter.

Product Details

Tan, Amy
Putnam Adult
Mothers and daughters
General Fiction
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 12
9.26x6.36x1.60 in. 1.50 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z

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