In the present day, Ruth returns to LuLing’s home and cleans up. Sifting through items, Ruth remembers growing up as a rebellious teenager. She wanted to carve out a life for herself that was very different from what she saw her mother experiencing. Ruth wrote about many of these feelings in her diary, though she suspected that LuLing would find and read it. When Ruth was fifteen, she and her mother were at a particularly antagonistic point in their relationship. After they had a fight about Ruth smoking cigarettes, Ruth wrote in her diary that she hated her mother and wished that LuLing would kill herself. The next day, Ruth came home to find out from her Auntie Gal that LuLing had fallen from a window. Horrified, Ruth realized that her mother must have read the diary and tried to kill herself. As Ruth helped her mother recover from her injuries, she tried to be as kind and docile as possible. For Ruth’s sixteenth birthday, she received a Chinese Bible and a beautiful jade ring that belonged to LuLing. However, it turned out that LuLing was only promising her the ring for the future. LuLing and Ruth continued fighting often, and Ruth eventually abandoned the diary in a hiding place in the apartment.
As Ruth looks through the apartment, she finds a long document written in Chinese and realizes that there is much more of the manuscript than the few pages LuLing gave her years ago. Worried about the limited time she may have remaining with her mother, Ruth makes a series of decisions. She decides to get the entire document professionally translated so that she can learn what her mother has been writing about. She also wants to speak with Auntie Gal to see what she knows about LuLing’s past, and then she wants to spend more quality time with her mother, gradually asking questions about her past. To achieve this, Ruth plans to move in with LuLing.
LuLing narrates the history of her life. She was born in a small town in China, not far from Beijing (known at the time as Peking). Her family—the Liu family—had lived in the town for generations and made a comfortable living as inkstick makers. They had a shop in Peking that sold the ink, and the male members of the family spent much of their time dealing with that aspect of the business, while the physical manufacturing of the ink was largely handled by the women in the large family compound in the town of Immortal Heart. As a child, LuLing was surrounded by family: her parents, her sister GaoLing, several brothers, her great-grandmother, and aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her father was the eldest son of the Liu family, giving him a position of power and authority. He had three younger brothers: Big Uncle and Little Uncle, who each had wives and children, and Baby Uncle, the youngest. LuLing abruptly reveals that Baby Uncle was actually her father and goes on to give the back story of her real parents, who are not the people she refers to as Mother and Father.
Precious Auntie grew up in a nearby town, where it was common practice to gather bones from local mountain caves and sell them to fortune-tellers and healers. Precious Auntie’s father came from a long line of bonesetters who treated individuals with injuries and collected bones from mountain caves to use in their medical treatments. When LuLing was a child, Precious Auntie took her to a hidden cave and showed her where “dragon bones” could be found. Because her mother and siblings died when she was young, Precious Auntie grew up much more independent and better educated than was typical for a young girl at the time. However, this unusual upbringing made her less desirable as a wife in the eyes of many, even though she was very beautiful. LuLing pauses to explain that she learned these details about Precious Auntie’s life because the latter wrote down pages about her history and gave them to LuLing.
One day, when Precious Auntie was nineteen years old, her father treated an infant who was the son of a man named Chang, the local coffin maker. Chang seemed malevolent, and there was an implication that he might have been abusing his wife and children. Later that same day, the bonesetter also treated a young man, Baby Uncle. Both Chang and Baby Uncle became interested in Precious Auntie, and a short time later, Chang asked the bonesetter for permission to take Precious Auntie as his second wife. She refused, and the bonesetter made a polite excuse to Chang. However, only a few days later, Precious Auntie accepted the proposal from Baby Uncle, which sent Chang into a jealous rage. Although frightened by his threats, Precious Auntie focused on her hopes for a happy future. Precious Auntie and Baby Uncle began a sexual relationship before their marriage.
On the day of the wedding, Baby Uncle followed tradition and escorted Precious Auntie and her father to his house along with gifts from the bride’s family. These gifts included the “dragon bones” that were found in mountain caves nearby and used in healing rituals. The travelling party was attacked by men who appeared to be bandits. Precious Auntie’s father was killed in the attack, and all the valuables were stolen. Baby Uncle was killed immediately after the attack when he vowed revenge and his horse kicked him. Precious Auntie was convinced that the attack was orchestrated by Chang as revenge for her rejection of him.