What significance do names and their nuances have in The Bonesetter’s Daughter? Why is it so important that Ruth discover her family’s true name? When Ruth discovers what her own name means, how does that realization change her relationship with LuLing?   

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Names take on significance in Amy Tan’s novels. In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, one important name is that of Precious Auntie. She is referred to as both Bao Mu and Bao Bomu. Each name carries a very different connotation which connects to Precious Auntie’s relationship with her daughter, Lu Ling. Bao can mean “precious” or “protect.” Mu by itself means “mother.” Yet, when the two words are placed together, Bao Mu signifies a nursemaid or babysitter. Gao Ling tells Ruth that everyone called Precious Auntie Bao Mu. She was indeed a protective mother, one who was precious only to Lu Ling, even before her daughter discovered her true identity. Yet, sadly her station was not of mother but of nursemaid to her own daughter. However, Lu Ling called her mother Bao Bomu. The word bomu means “auntie” so it also represents the family’s deception in designating Lu Ling’s real mother to be her aunt or nursemaid. Thus, Precious Auntie’s names are tragically ironic.

Throughout the novel, Lu Ling is unable to remember her mother’s family name. When Lu Ling says the family name is Gu, Ruth believes she is mistaken because the word means “bone.” She thinks Lu Ling is confusing people and events from her past. However, Gao Ling confirms the name and explains that it can actually mean several things—bone, gorge, old, blind, thigh, grain, merchant, or character. Gao Ling intimates that the word “character” is closest to its true meaning. “That’s why we use that expression ‘It’s in your bones.’ It means, ‘That’s your character.’” Gao Ling explains Ruth’s grandmother’s first name was Liu Xin. Ruth thinks it means “shooting star” but her aunt explains it really means “remain true.”

Ruth’s epiphany begins with her conversation with Gao Ling. She realizes that the Chinese language is quite rich, not limited as she had always thought. She thinks of a sentence to represent the word and the past: “The blind bone doctor from the gorge repaired the thigh of the old grain merchant.” Ruth gains a new respect for her mother; she recognizes that Lu Ling has actually been telling her about her grandmother and their family, but she has not been truly listening. Ruth cries because she proudly realizes she belongs to this family. Character is shaped by connection to one’s family.

Heritage becomes important to Ruth now. She keeps a picture of her grandmother on her desk and uses the past to see the present. She finds her voice and begins to write her family’s story. “It is for her grandmother, for herself, for the little girl who became her mother.”

Last Reviewed by eNotes Editorial on November 29, 2019
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The clearest example of the importance of names in The Bonesetter's Daughter is LuLing trying to remember her mother's name. She knows that her mother told her—she even remembers the conversation—but the name itself eludes her. This haunts her and keeps her from being able to move on. The novel also opens when LuLing is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's or dementia. This is representative of her lifelong difficulty with memory, beginning with her mother's name.

At the end of the novel, the name is discovered, but it is not as important as it was in the beginning. Ruth knowing her mother's history, repairing her relationship with Art, moving LuLing into an assisted living home, and introducing LuLing to Mr. Tang all have a more tangible impact than the discovery of the long-lost family name.

Just as LuLing's mother communicates through her signs and actions instead of words, Ruth's understanding and the steps she takes to help her mother do more than any name ever could.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 3, 2019
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Names in The Bonesetter's Daughter have a connection to the person's heritage and true self. LuLing wants to know the name of her mother—the woman she knows only as the Bonesetter's Daughter—and to better understand her past. Ruth wants to know her family's true name so that she can experience the connection with her heritage that she's been denied; when she finally learns her name and the history associated with it, she's able to better understand her mother, LuLing, and be more at peace with her and with herself.

LuLing grows up not knowing that Precious Auntie is her true mother. She only knows that her mother was the Bonesetter's Daughter. Precious Auntie shows LuLing her true family name when she is six, but she can't remember it as an adult and regrets the loss. She calls her mother "Gu" to Ruth, but Ruth realizes it means "bone" and thinks it's a reference to LuLing's mother's family's profession. However, near the end, Ruth learns that "Gu" can have other meanings. GaoLing explains that:

"It sounds the same as the bone gu, but it's written a different way. The third-tone gu can mean many things: 'old,' 'gorge,' 'bone,' also 'thigh,' 'blind,' 'grain,' 'merchant,' lots of things. And the way 'bone' is written can also stand for 'character.' That's why we use that expression 'It's in your bones.' It means, 'That's your character.'"

They also find out that Ruth's grandmother's full name was Gu Liu Xin. As soon as she hears it, Ruth understands that her grandmother existed and that she, LuLing, and Lui Xin all belong to each other.

Ruth also doesn't understand her true name until it is revealed to her at the end of the novel. Amy Tan writes,

Ruth was amazed and gratified that her mother had put so much heart into naming her. For most of her childhood, she had hated both her American and her Chinese names, the old-fashioned sound of "Ruth," which her mother could not even pronounce, and the way "Luyi" sounded like the name of a boy, a boxer, or a bully.

This deeper understanding helps her make peace with both her mother and her Chinese heritage. Caring for her aging and ailing mother no longer seems like the burden it did to Ruth at the beginning of the novel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
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