Summary: Chapter Seven

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.

Summary: Heart

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.

Precious Auntie was taken to the Liu house to recover from her grief, but in despair, she tried to kill herself by drinking burning ink. This left her scarred and permanently unable to speak. When it became clear that she was pregnant with Baby Uncle’s child, the Liu family decided to cover up the scandal of an illegitimate birth. The baby, LuLing, was adopted by Baby Uncle’s eldest brother and his wife and passed off as their own child. Precious Auntie was allowed to stay and care for her child, but no one ever told LuLing that her nursemaid was actually her true mother.

Analysis: Part One: Chapter Seven and Part Two: Heart

The climax of Ruth and LuLing’s turbulent relationship shows just how capable they are of wounding one another. Although she is initially a very docile and meek child, after the move to San Francisco, Ruth becomes a defiant adolescent. She loses faith in LuLing’s ability to protect her after the incident with Lance, and she also realizes that she can manipulate LuLing, which causes her to lose respect for her mother. Developmentally, as Ruth moves into her teenage years, it also becomes more important for her to develop an identity distinct from her mother’s values. Ruth’s increasing defiance leads to more conflict between mother and daughter. Because Ruth knows so little about her mother’s past, she does not understand why LuLing is so threatened by her increasingly willful behavior. A seemingly trivial fight about Ruth smoking cigarettes leads to Ruth lashing out and LuLing attempting suicide. In keeping with the important theme of written messages, Ruth’s message of anger and loathing is communicated in the message she writes in her diary. Similarly, throughout the novel, notions of public and private blur around written documents. Precious Auntie and LuLing both write documents that are intended to be shared with their daughters but are otherwise deeply intimate and personal. Ruth keeps a diary that is ostensibly private but which both she and LuLing know that LuLing is reading.

One tragic aspect of LuLing’s suicide attempt is that it does not actually bring mother and daughter together. The two women do not develop a more open or emotionally intimate relationship. In fact, after a time, Ruth goes back to her rebellious ways. The lack of narrative between the time of the suicide attempt (when Ruth is sixteen) and the present-day narrative thirty years later indicates that there has been a sort of deadlock in their relationship. Things have not gotten worse, but they also have not gotten better. In the present day, facing the possibility that her time with LuLing is running out, Ruth finally becomes more proactive about learning more about her mother. Up until this point, she has largely remained passive, and simply wished for a different type of relationship with LuLing without doing anything about it.

Now that Ruth has taken on the more responsible care-giving role in the relationship with LuLing, she also becomes more active. The simple step of hiring a translator so that she can understand her mother’s life story represents a choice to meet LuLing halfway. Rather than being frustrated by the gap in their language, Ruth chooses to accept circumstances for what they are and work within them. This acceptance of reality represents the first step toward accepting LuLing for who she is. This decision showcases a step for Ruth away from being a petulant child who blames her mother for strange behavior to a calm and curious adult who wants to learn about the experience of someone else. It is only when she fears that she might lose the opportunity to learn about LuLing that Ruth is motivated to act. While she has often felt taken for granted and resentful, she has, in turn, taken her mother for granted.

The narrative of LuLing’s life begins with a significant account of the life of her mother, Precious Auntie, which highlights how foundational Precious Auntie is in LuLing’s story. The story of Precious Auntie’s life is important to make sense of the secrets LuLing has carried with her, but it also speaks to the symbolic connection across generations. LuLing cannot tell the story of who she is without explaining who her mother is because their identities are inseparably intertwined. LuLing has access to context and knowledge about their family history that Ruth has never had. However, LuLing did not always have this clarity and insight. She grew up under the shadow of secrecy, not knowing that Precious Auntie was her mother nor how Precious Auntie received her scars. Still, LuLing’s early childhood passed in a relatively happy fashion. She had closeness with one special person, similar to the bond between LuLing and Ruth, but LuLing also had the support of a large extended family.

The histories of LuLing’s parents reflect themes which resonate in her own life and Ruth’s. The Liu family’s profession as ink-makers reflects LuLing’s interest in calligraphy and painting and Ruth’s eventual career as a writer. The bonesetters of Precious Auntie’s family represent an ability to heal and uncover secrets. Broken bones are painful, but they also have the capacity to mend. Likewise, Ruth and LuLing realize over time that fractured and unhappy relationships can be mended if both parties proceed with care for one another. Precious Auntie’s father learned his profession from his father, and his father before him, and he possessed valuable knowledge that could only be passed down through a family lineage. His life represents the continuity of family tradition and cultural connection that is fractured when Precious Auntie is forced to keep a secret from her own daughter. The title The Bonesetter’s Daughter refers to Precious Auntie specifically, but also symbolically to all of her female descendants who are part of the same lineage.

Precious Auntie is a woman ahead of her time, who is independent, well-educated, and capable. She follows her heart when she chooses to marry Baby Uncle and when she begins a sexual relationship with him before their marriage. Even though she lived decades earlier, Precious Auntie is more sexually aware and liberated than LuLing or even Ruth. However, the world in which Precious Auntie lives is still patriarchal and violent, and she is punished for trying to think for herself and follow her heart. The roadside death of Baby Uncle in a sudden accident mirrors the sudden hit and run death of LuLing’s second husband decades later. Precious Auntie’s suicide attempt reflects the pattern of suicide that will echo across the generations. She is so consumed by guilt and grief that she tries to kill herself through gruesome means. Her physical scars and silencing mean that she is left with a lifelong reminder of her loss.

Precious Auntie’s resilience and courage are what allow LuLing to have the life she does. Precious Auntie is figuratively as well as literally silenced by her tragic loss, but she also manages to move forward for herself and her daughter. At the time that LuLing is born, an illegitimate child was considered shameful, so the Liu family made a collective decision to protect both her and the family honor. Precious Auntie consents even though it means that she will have to live a lie. She will also lose her social position and be treated as though she is a servant, while the other wives enjoy the comfortable lives that easily could have been hers. This experience of social downfall after the death of her husband-to-be is parallel to what LuLing will later experience when she is widowed. Even though Precious Auntie has endured many losses and has to live a hard life, LuLing does not remember her mother as a bitter woman. Instead, Precious Auntie wanted to give her daughter as many happy memories as possible. She is happy to devote her entire life to LuLing even if it can never be revealed what their true relationship is.