Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545
The Bonesetter’s Daughter focuses on ghostwriter Ruth Young, her present life with an almost invisible lover, and the ongoing struggle with her mercurial Chinese mother, LuLing. Fully professional as she rewrites her clients’ books, Ruth is otherwise hesitant. After LuLing fries eggs with the shells on and prowls the neighborhood in her nightgown, she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and cannot live alone safely. Reluctantly, Ruth moves in. LuLing, a fine calligrapher, presents her with a manuscript of her life in China, but Ruth resists reading it.
Narrated in the voice of LuLing, the manuscript reveals her story. Her nursemaid, Precious Auntie, was the daughter of a famous bonesetter, a healer who showed her a secret cave of “dragon bones” that, when powdered, would cure any pain or could be sold for profit. Liu Hu Sen, a gentle inkmaker from a neighboring village, sought the bonesetter’s aid after an accident and was soon betrothed to Precious Auntie. Coffinmaker Chang, a fellow suitor, was rejected.
En route to Hu Sen’s village, the wedding party was attacked by Chang, who coveted the valuable dowry of bones and left Precious Auntie’s father and bridegroom dead. Because the Lius refused to believe that Chang had murdered their son, Precious Auntie, grief-stricken and already pregnant, attempted to commit suicide by drinking boiling ink. She survived, but her lower face was severely disfigured and she could no longer speak. Protected by matriarch Great-Granny Liu, she gave birth to a daughter, LuLing, and was kept on as the baby’s nursemaid. LuLing was not told that Precious Auntie was her real mother.
Eventually Chang, learning that LuLing knew the location of the secret cave, sought to gain control of it by arranging her marriage to his son. Precious Auntie was helpless to intervene; LuLing alone could read her messages and understand her gestures. After writing a letter to Chang’s family, threatening to haunt them forever if the marriage took place, she killed herself to protect her daughter. Only then did LuLing learn the truth. She was sent to an orphanage, where she later met her first husband, a scientist excavating nearby caves for the bones of Peking Man. When Japan invaded China, she escaped to the United States.
As Ruth reads her mother’s manuscript, she understands better the bonds that connect her to her mother and grandmother. Accepting her obligation and her love for her mother, she prepares to care for LuLing.
Tan uses silence as a metaphor for loss of power. Although Ruth provides an effective voice for her clients, she frequently loses her own. LuLing briefly loses her voice at the orphanage and later forgets words, even her family name. Most significant is Precious Auntie, who speaks only with hands, eyes, and chalkboard, yet in death bequeaths her strength to her daughter and granddaughter.
The excavation of bones, as scientists come to dig for Peking Man, provides another metaphor for uncovering the past, revealing its hidden truths of identity, parentage, and name. Ruth’s discovery of her heritage brings her understanding and reconciliation, allowing her to become whole.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (December 1, 2000): 676.
Library Journal 126 (February 1, 2001): 126.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 18, 2001): 9.
Publishers Weekly 247 (December 4, 2000): 51.
The Times Literary Supplement, March 16, 2001, p. 22.