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
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.
"Tan at her best....Rich and hauntingly forlorn...the writing is so exacting and unique in its detail." San Francisco Chronicle
"For Tan, the true keeper of memory is language, and so the novel is layered with stories that have been written downby mothers for their daughters, passing along secrets that cannot be said out loud but must not be forgotten."
The New York Times Book Review
"[An] absorbing tale of the mother-dauthter bond....This book sing[s] with emotion and insight." People
Tan's phenomenal #1 national bestseller is now available in trade paperback. "A compelling tale of family relationships; it layers and stirs themes of secrets, ambiguous meanings, cultural complexity, and self-identity; and it resonates with metaphor and symbol."--"The Denver Post."
1. Bones constitute an important motif in The Bonesetters Daughter
. What is the signiﬁcance of the books title? How does breaking a bone change Ruths life and her relationship with her mother? What importance do bones hold for LuLing and Precious Auntie?
2.Each year, Ruth makes a conscious decision not to speak for one week. Why does she elect to go silent? In which ways does this self-imposed muteness mirror the challenges faced by both her mother and by Precious Auntie? How does Ruth ﬁnd her voice as the novel goes on?
3.From childhood onward, Ruth is locked in a constant struggle with her mother. In which ways does her behavior echo LuLings rebellion against her own mother? How do these conﬂicts have violent consequences, both physical and emotional?
4.To frame the novel, Tan uses the device of a story within a story. How is this effective in bringing past and present together?
5.How does LuLing come to life in her own words, and how is that vantage point different from Ruths point of view? How is the LuLing that springs to life in her manuscript different from the ﬁgure Ruth grapples with on a regular basis?
6.LuLing begins her story, “These are the things I must not forget.” Why is she so adamant about remembering-and honoring- what has come before? In contrast, what is Precious Aunties attitude toward the past? In which ways does she recast prior events, thus concealing the truth from LuLing? How does Ruth grapple with what she uncovers about the history of her family, and what it means for her future?
7.Ruth is shocked to learn that her aunt, GaoLing, is not her mothers real sister. How does the relationship between the two women defy the adage that blood is thicker than water?
8.How does the dynamic between LuLing and GaoLing evolve as the book unfolds? What emotions does LuLing feel most strongly toward GaoLing, and vice versa? Why?
9.Although GaoLing speaks English ﬂuently, by contrast, LuLing never learns to communicate effectively in the language, instead relying on Ruth to be her mouthpiece. How is the spoken word depicted in this novel? Is it more or less important than the written word? How does LuLing communicate in other ways-for example, artistically?
10.How does the concept of destiny shape the lives of both Precious Auntie and LuLing? How does each woman ﬁght against the strictures of fate? In the modern world, does destiny hold as much weight? Why or why not?
11.Both Precious Auntie and LuLing lose love in tragic ways. How is romantic love depicted in The Bonesetters Daughter? How does Ruths concept of love differ from that of her grandmothers and mothers? Does LuLings conception of love evolve over time?
12.LuLing is introduced to Western ideas and religion while living and working in an American-run orphanage. How does she reconcile these different ideologies with the beliefs she holds? Does her belief in her familys curse fade or blossom within the conﬁnes of a different societal framework?
13.How does LuLing forge a new life for herself in America? In which ways does she remain constrained by the past, and in which ways does she triumph over it?
14.Which of GaoLings characteristics enable her to adjust to America with more ease than her sister? Which make it more difﬁcult?
15.“Orchids look delicate but thrive on neglect.” In which way does this idle musing by Ruth apply to the other relationships in the novel, including her own with Art and his children?
16.Ruth has lived with the specter of Precious Auntie her entire life. How does her mothers obsession with Precious Auntie affect Ruth? Do you view Precious Aunties presence next to Ruth in the last scene of the book as a ﬁgurative or a literal one? Why?
17.Based on her manuscript alone, the translator of LuLings story becomes fascinated with her. What about her story, in your opinion, is so alluring and transcendent? How does her fading mind open her to new experiences?
18.As LuLing loses her memory, how does her story become more clear to Ruth? How does Tan explore the transience of memory in The Bonesetters Daughter?
19.Ruth works as a successful ghostwriter. How is this profession signiﬁcant, both literally and ﬁguratively, in her communication with her mother and with the world around her? How has her professional life opened Ruth to the world around her, and how has it shut her off?
20.What signiﬁcance do names and their nuances have in The Bonesetters Daughter? Why is it so important that Ruth discover her familys true name? When Ruth discovers what her own name means, how does that realization change her relationship with Lu-Ling?