The Bonesetter's Daughter Summary

Amy Tan


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 545 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Chapter Summaries

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Amy Tan’s novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001) explores the difficult and complex relationship between a daughter and her mother—a theme that has affected several of Tan’s works, including her best-selling first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989). Nancy Willard reviewed The Bonesetter’s Daughter in The New York Times; she wrote that although readers of Tan’s novels might recognize this familiar theme, this book is by no means a “rehash of Tan’s earlier books.”

The protagonist of The Bonesetter’s Daughter is Ruth Young, who has, in the past eight years, developed an annually occurring case of laryngitis. For several days each August, Ruth loses her voice. At first this annoys her. However, as time goes on and the inability to speak comes upon her so regularly, she decides to transform the malady into an opportunity for a retreat. Before August twelfth of each year, Ruth informs those around her that she will be entering a place of silence in order to sharpen her awareness and appreciation of language. Ruth is a professional ghost writer, a wordsmith, so her silent retreat makes sense to her family and friends.

During one of her silent retreats, Ruth comes cross an old manuscript her mother had given her. Her mother, LuLing, was born in China. She had told Ruth that the manuscript contained her memoir. LuLing said Ruth had little time to offer her, so she made the effort of recording her personal stories so that one day Ruth would know her history. Unfortunately, her mother wrote the memoir in Chinese characters. Ruth has only a basic knowledge of the meaning of Chinese logograms, so she had set the manuscript aside, and it became buried in the bottom drawer of her desk. Later Ruth rummages through the contents of this drawer and rediscovers the memoir. She promises herself that she will have someone more fluent in Chinese writing translate the story for her.


(The entire section is 539 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

Ruth’s job as a ghostwriter involves her turning rough drafts or other people’s ideas into books they want to publish. Ruth’s clients are usually professionals, such as psychologists who have experience in their fields but do not have the skills to write. So Ruth takes notes from her clients and turns their ideas into marketable books. Ruth is paid for her services but seldom receives any credit. She is the secret behind other authors’ successes. Her profession will become more significant as this novel progresses—LuLing’s story also involves secrets and ghosts.

At Ruth’s mother’s seventy-seventh birthday, LuLing and Ruth’s Auntie Gal discussed Ruth’s profession. LuLing thought the term ghostwriter sounded as if her daughter were a spy. Auntie Gal likened it to being a stenographer. Ruth was hoping for a little more appreciation for her work, but she had trouble explaining things to her mother and her aunt, so she let them continue in their misconceptions of what she does.

Ruth drives to her mother’s home in the Sunset district in San Francisco. LuLing owns a two-story duplex, the upstairs being where Ruth was raised. A tenant lives on the first floor. Recently the tenant has complained of LuLing’s strange behavior, such as accusing her of not paying the rent. Ruth listens to the tenant; this is yet another incident that makes Ruth worry about her mother’s mental abilities. On this day, Ruth has come to take LuLing to the doctor’s office. As she drives, Ruth reflects on her mother’s health. She recalls how physically robust LuLing has been for most of her life.

Although Ruth has seen signs of forgetfulness in her mother, she tends to rationalize them away. However, on this particular day LuLing tells Ruth that she has won a million dollars; she truly believes a mass-mailed advertisement that has told her of her good fortune. Ruth cannot deny that her mother’s logic is failing. Also...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

While Ruth and LuLing wait for the doctor, LuLing asks questions about Dory and Sofia, the daughters of Ruth’s lover, Art. However, LuLing is confused about the details of the teen girls; she mixes up their ages and their levels at school and then argues with Ruth when Ruth attempts to correct her mother’s faulty memory. LuLing also forgets that the old cat Ruth raised from a kitten has died. LuLing receives this information about the cat’s death as if it is a complete shock. Ruth tells her mother how the cat died, but then LuLing contorts these details to make Ruth feel responsible for the animal’s death, which is far from the truth.

Ruth had phoned ahead to the doctor’s office, so the physician is aware of Ruth’s concerns about her mother’s memory lapses. After completing her physical, the doctor announces that LuLing’s heart and lungs and general health are very good. Then he begins a series of questions to attempt to analyze her mental capabilities. The doctor asks LuLing to do some mental math, and LuLing struggles with it. As Ruth listens, she makes silent complaints about this line of questioning. Ruth does the same when the doctor asks LuLing to recite the names of the past six U.S. presidents. Ruth mentally notes that her mother has never been very aware of politics. Ruth also rationalizes that her mother’s English is not very good, so she might not understand the doctor’s questions. However, when LuLing tells the doctor that she not only heard about the O.J. murder trial but actually witnessed the murder of O.J.’s wife, Ruth is caught off guard. Her mother has never even visited Los Angeles. Ruth wonders how she could honestly believe she had witnessed such a horrific crime there.

When the doctor steps out of the examination room to talk to Ruth alone, he tells her that her mother could be suffering from dementia. Even though Ruth has suspected this, it is difficult for her to hear the doctor’s...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 1, Chapters 4-5 Summary

For this year’s Full Moon Festival, Ruth has taken on the role of hostess for her family reunion. She has reserved tables at the Fountain Court, one of her mother’s favorite Chinese restaurants. Ruth was happy in anticipating the event until Art tells her his ex-wife, Miriam, had asked to be included, along with her husband and their two sons. Ruth complains that there is not enough room for more people, but Art is not one to turn down any of Miriam’s requests. On the other side of the issue, Ruth had always held the Full Moon Festival as her family’s response to Thanksgiving. This is a family affair, and she does not like having to include Miriam. However, she gives in.

Art’s parents are included and arrive first. They are, as usual, cool toward Ruth; in contrast, they show exuberance when Miriam walks in. Art’s girls are also very excited to see their paternal grandparents, but they barely even acknowledge LuLing when she enters. Ruth also notices how all the Chinese-related members of the group sit on one side of the table and the Caucasian people sit on the other.

The dishes Ruth had ordered reflect her consideration of the Chinese members of the group. The food leans toward a traditional Chinese menu, which LuLing would appreciate. There are jellyfish, tofu, and glutinous rice cakes, for example, which the children eventually all reject with verbal disgust.

During the meal, Ruth’s Auntie Gal offers stories about some of her new adventures with LuLing, including almost being thrown in jail. Auntie Gal is exaggerating, but LuLing had argued with a waiter after a lunch she and LuLing had shared. LuLing insisted that she had already paid the man, which was untrue. Auntie Gal also tells Ruth about how she teased LuLing about arriving at her house at six in the morning, under the mistaken notion that they had previously planned an early morning appointment.

After dinner, Ruth hands out presents...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 1, Chapters 6-7 Summary

Ruth asks her Auntie Gal to take care of LuLing for a week or so. Ruth does not have the time right then to give her mother the care that she needs. In addition, she needs time to make a decision concerning what to do with her mother in the future. LuLing is no longer capable of taking care of herself.

While her mother is at Auntie Gal’s, Ruth goes to her mother’s place and begins to clean the apartment; she sorts through the old clothes and bath towels and sheets, and she cleans out the kitchen cabinets. The process stirs memories about her childhood.

There was a time when Ruth and her mother lived in a small, three-room cottage (a converted garage) in Berkeley. LuLing had moved there because it allowed...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary

Part 2 of The Bonesetter’s Daughter is narrated by LuLing, Ruth’s mother. The story is related through a first-person point of view, as if this section is LuLing’s memoir she wrote and gave to Ruth. In this second part of the novel, LuLing is telling the story of her early life in China before she immigrated to the United States.

This chapter of LuLing’s memoir covers the details of her ancestral home and her family before she was born. Her family’s name is Liu, and they live in a small village in the Western Hills south of Peking. LuLing’s family’s history can be traced back for six centuries, locating them on the same property and for several generations even in the same house. Her family...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary

LuLing claims that, in 1929 when she was fourteen, she became an evil person.

In this year, foreign scientists come to the small Chinese village looking for old bones. Precious Auntie hears about the scientists, who have promised to buy the ancient bones people have found as long as the bones are human and ancient. The village is known as a spot where ancient bones can be found.

As the bonesetter’s daughter, Precious Auntie had learned from her father the importance of using ground bone in medical practices. She had also learned where to find the most ancient of bones in a hidden cave. When word spreads about the foreign scientists and the money they are providing, the villagers become somewhat obsessed...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary

As LuLing prepares to join the Chang family even before her official wedding, her aunts begin sewing new clothes for her and preparing her for her new role as a wife. But Precious Auntie spends her time writing. Finally, one night, Precious Auntie hands LuLing a bundle of papers that contains the story she has documented about her life. LuLing reluctantly reads the pages, which relate most of the stories Precious Auntie has been telling her over the years. However, when LuLing reaches the point where Precious Auntie writes that she is about to tell her the truth of why she hates Mr. Chang, LuLing tosses the papers on the floor. She refuses to read anything that will spoil her upcoming wedding and her new life.


(The entire section is 565 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary

When LuLing arrives at the orphanage, she finds that no one is expecting her. No one has made arrangements for her to stay there. The two women who finally greet her are foreigners. LuLing does not understand them at first. Then one of the women speaks Chinese to her, asking her name. LuLing is so stunned by everything that has happened to her so quickly that she is unable to speak. Instead of saying her name, she writes it in Chinese characters. The women are surprised. They have no other child at the orphanage who can read or write. The women decide LuLing can stay and work as a teaching assistant.

Over the course of the next two years, LuLing learns to teach and to help girls younger than she is. She also learns...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 5 Summary

The Japanese have attacked China at Peking and are making their way toward the village where LuLing lives. As LuLing and the others listen to the reports on the radio, a stranger comes to the door of the orphanage. At first, when LuLing sees the woman’s shadowy figure, she thinks it is Precious Auntie’s ghost. However, it turns out to be GaoLing, a young woman whom LuLing had grown up with. GaoLing has escaped her husband.

Months ago, GaoLing managed to send a few letters to LuLing, telling her how Chang, the coffin maker, chose GaoLing to be the wife of his son—the same son LuLing had planned to marry. After living in the Chang family, GaoLing discovered how mean the Chang family members are. Although they have...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 6 Summary

LuLing contemplates suicide after her husband, Kai Jing, is killed. However, GaoLing tells LuLing not to bother because the Japanese are about to come and kill them. LuLing also reminds herself that she is now responsible for Kai Jing’s father, Teacher Pan. She is the one who must feed him and take care of his needs. One of the older teachers tells LuLing that she needs to be brave for the children’s sake; she is a role model for them and should not allow them to see her weaken in her sorrows. So LuLing lives.

However, the Japanese soldiers come. Everyone inside the orphanage hears the soldiers’ gunshots. When they peek through the windows, they see that the Japanese are shooting at the American flags the foreign...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 2, Chapter 7 Summary

LuLing flees Peking and tries to make a living in Hong Kong as she waits for GaoLing to get a visa for her to travel to America. At first, GaoLing’s letters are not very encouraging. She writes that life in America is not the dream she had imagined. She is working hard but not making very much money. Getting a visa for LuLing is also proving to be difficult. She advises LuLing how to fill our her portion of the application—decreasing her birthday so she will appear younger and telling the officials that her birth certificate was lost in a fire.

In the meantime in Hong Kong, life is no easier for LuLing. She has very little money and no contacts. Everyone she knew lives in Peking. LuLing finds a place to stay in the...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary

The narration of the story returns to a third-person point of view and is focused on Ruth’s perspective. A new character is introduced, that of Mr. Tang, an intellectual who is translating LuLing’s memoir for Ruth. Although Ruth has not yet read her mother’s memoir, she senses that Mr. Tang has fallen in love with the woman in the story—young LuLing. Mr. Tang often calls Ruth to ask for information about her mother. One day, Mr. Tang requests photographs. He tells Ruth they will help him better understand who LuLing is so he can translate not only her words but also her intentions. Although Ruth wants to ask Mr. Tang several questions about her mother’s history, she refrains from doing so. She wants to wait until she has...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 3, Chapter 2 Summary

Ruth has read her mother’s memoir and becomes much more sensitive to her mother’s character as well as to her needs. The story of her mother’s youth gives Ruth a much deeper appreciation for her mother as a courageous woman.

At GaoLing’s birthday party, Ruth takes the opportunity to ask her aunt questions about her mother and her past. She asks GaoLing about the orphanage and especially about Precious Auntie. GaoLing is surprised that Ruth knows the truth. GaoLing says that back then, being born out of wedlock was a great disgrace. Even after LuLing came to the United States, GaoLing says, she was afraid the authorities would send her back to China if they discovered she was not truly GaoLing’s sister. Later,...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

The Bonesetter's Daughter Part 3, Chapter 3 Summary

Mr. Tang has becoming increasingly involved in LuLing’s life. The translator sees LuLing as the woman in the memoir and forgives the mental lapses in her present state. In their conversations, when LuLing becomes disoriented, Mr. Tang turns her mind back to the past, bringing up hints of memories on which LuLing can expand. As Ruth watches their relationship develop, she wishes for a similar connection and trust between her and Art.

Ruth talks to Art about Mr. Tang and her mother’s budding friendship. Ruth tells Art she is surprised Mr. Tang is so taken with her mother. Mr. Tang is an intellectual who must have interests in so many subjects that her mother could not possibly understand. Art tells Ruth that because...

(The entire section is 566 words.)