After growing up with a happy childhood, LuLing’s life changes in 1929, when she is 14 years old. A group of scientists and archaeologists become very interested in excavating the nearby caves where bones are discovered. Rumors swirl that there may be human bones in the caves, and eventually information comes to light about the excavation of the Peking Man. Any bones from the caves become very valuable, but Precious Auntie refuses to sell the bones she has kept from her father’s medical practice. Instead, she returns them to the hidden cave. LuLing is frustrated by this decision because she dreams of the family becoming rich and famous. As LuLing grows older, she has become confused about why Mother seems to favor GaoLing over her, even though LuLing is older. Precious Auntie’s low social status also makes LuLing somewhat ashamed of her, and she sometimes gets tired of her role acting as Precious Auntie’s interpreter.
Soon, the village hears news that Chang sold some dragon bones to the scientists that turned out to be human bones, and he has received a lot of money. Most of the Liu family is interested in this news since they respect Chang. Precious Auntie, however, has always insisted that Chang was responsible for the attack on her wedding day, but no one believes her. She is furious now because she thinks that the dragon bones Chang sold are the ones that were stolen during the attack years earlier. Mother is increasingly irritated by Precious Auntie’s behavior, and she seems to be considering sending the nursemaid away. A short time later, Great Granny dies, and when Chang comes to the Liu house to deliver the coffin, LuLing accidentally mentions that Precious Auntie hid bones in a cave but didn’t tell anyone the location of the cave.
A few months after Great Granny’s death, a distant relation who dabbles in matchmaking reaches out to indicate that a local family with many sons has taken an interest in LuLing, who is now of marriageable age. They would like her to come to Peking so that she can “accidentally” meet the family and the match can be considered without the pressure of a formal meeting. There is a discussion about whether Precious Auntie should go with her, and LuLing does not advocate for her nursemaid because she is afraid of Precious Auntie embarrassing her and hurting her chances of the match. In the days leading up to LuLing’s departure, the two of them fight more and more since Precious Auntie is strongly opposed to the young girl going to Peking alone. LuLing leaves on bad terms but is dazzled by her experience in Peking. At the meeting, she meets her prospective mother-in-law, who turns out to be Mrs. Chang. Mrs. Chang appears interested in having LuLing as a wife for one of her sons. LuLing is excited by the prospect of marrying into a wealthy and well-regarded family, even though she still has not met her prospective husband. She returns from Peking feeling self-satisfied. When LuLing returns to her home, she immediately tells Precious Auntie that there is a good chance she will marry one of the Chang sons. Precious Auntie is horrified and tries to forbid it, but LuLing refuses to listen.
LuLing receives an offer to join the Chang family as a daughter-in-law, and her family is eager to accept. Her relationship with Precious Auntie remains tense, but a few days before LuLing is supposed to leave for her new home, Precious Auntie gives her a written manuscript describing the history of her life. LuLing, however, refuses to read it. She lies and tells Precious Auntie that she has read it but that she is still determined to marry into the Chang family. The next morning, the family (including LuLing) finds Precious Auntie’s body. She has killed herself. The Chang family receives a letter stating that Precious Auntie’s ghost will haunt them if they go ahead with LuLing’s marriage. Mother is furious and has Precious Auntie’s body thrown into the ravine behind the house rather than buried. Finally, LuLing reads the manuscript and learns that Precious Auntie was her true mother. She goes to the ravine to search but cannot find the body. Her marriage is called off, and the only person in the family who now treats her with kindness is GaoLing.
Two weeks later, the Liu family receives tragic news that their shop in Peking has burned down, taking much of their inventory with it. Worse still, they may have to pay damages to the owners of the nearby shops that also burned. They believe that these unfortunate events resulted from the anger of Precious Auntie’s ghost. As they wait to hear what the damages will be, they hire a local exorcist to deal with the ghost, and he claims he has sealed it up. The family’s fortunes change quickly for the better, which makes them even more convinced that the ghost was responsible for their misfortune. Afraid of the bad luck that LuLing might bring to them, they announce that they are sending her to an orphanage.
LuLing arrives at an orphanage run by Christian missionaries, who were not expecting her. However, they are impressed by her abilities to read and write elegant calligraphy, skills that Precious Auntie taught her. They allow her to stay so that she can be the assistant to Teacher Pan, who is responsible for teaching the older students. There are about 70 girls and babies at the orphanage, most of whom are illegitimate and some of whom are disabled. The two Americans who run the orphanage are Miss Grutoff and Miss Towler, and they have a staff of former students to help them. A portion of the orphanage is also rented out to scientists who are involved in the Peking Man excavation. Teacher Pan has a son named Kai Jing who works as a geologist and sometimes helps his father at the orphanage. The girls also sometimes travel to the excavation site to help with simple tasks. LuLing treasures the manuscript Precious Auntie gave her, and one day she discovers that the manuscript’s cover contains one of the dragon bones and a photograph of Precious Auntie from before she was scarred.