Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.


Bones represent the importance of a connection to the past. Bones are typically left behind after someone or something dies, and thus they show that few things vanish entirely. Everyone leaves behind a trace, and what is left needs to be treated with respect and reverence. The fossilized bones that are initially thought to be “dragon bones” or “oracle bones” turn out to be the bones of the Peking Man, a prehistoric human. These bones reflect a profound human desire to understand one’s history to better understand oneself. While much of the story relies on Ruth’s personal journey to understanding her immediate family ancestors, humanity as a whole needs a connection to its ancestors. Bones, of course, also exist within living bodies and are part of the ancestral profession of Precious Auntie’s family. Bones are central to the childhood accident where Ruth breaks her arm. In this sense, bones represent resilience and healing since a broken bone is painful but can heal if it is cared for properly.


The motif of ghosts reveals the challenges of establishing an independent identity. Ruth works as a ghostwriter because she does not feel confident in writing in her own voice or telling her own story. She eclipses her identity behind the identity of another author because she feels safer that way. Her work as a ghostwriter is, in fact, foreshadowed by her childhood, when LuLing believed that she could communicate with the ghost of Precious Auntie. LuLing’s belief that Precious Auntie continues to be an active presence in her life shows that she has a hard time separating her own identity from a longing for her lost mother. LuLing’s loss was particularly traumatic because she only learned Precious Auntie’s identity after the suicide and never had the chance to know her mother as her mother. Even though LuLing has a daughter of her own and has moved to a new country, her obsession with Precious Auntie’s ghost shows her inability to truly establish a new identity for herself.


Suicide is a motif that reoccurs across three generations of characters, showing how trauma is passed down and self-harming behaviors can be inherited. Precious Auntie first tries to commit suicide while pregnant with LuLing and then succeeds in killing herself fifteen years later. LuLing regularly threatens to commit suicide and makes a serious attempt when Ruth is a teenager. Ruth has been haunted by ideas of suicide throughout her life , and she considers it as an option when she mistakenly believes that she is pregnant. Precious Auntie’s first suicide attempt is rooted in her lack of control over her fate, and her death ignites a legacy of trauma which continues on to both her daughter and granddaughter. LuLing is at an impressionable age when she has the horrific experience of finding her mother’s body, and her response to future pain is usually to resort to threats of suicide. The moment when she lost her mother was also when LuLing truly understood their bond, so when she threatens suicide later in life, she is also, ultimately, trying to find a way to connect with Ruth in a meaningful way.