Summary: Change

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.

Summary: Ghost

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.

Summary: Destiny

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.

After LuLing has been at the orphanage for two years, she receives a letter from GaoLing. It has taken GaoLing that long to track down LuLing’s location since the family refused to tell her where LuLing was sent. GaoLing married into the Chang family in place of LuLing, as part of a business deal where the Chang family lent the Liu family money to rebuild the shop. Now, both the Chang and Liu families have serious financial problems, and many members of the Chang family are also addicted to opium. GaoLing leads an unhappy life, but LuLing’s life has recently transformed: she has fallen in love with Kai Jing.

Analysis: Part Two: Change–Destiny

As LuLing matures into a teenager, her previously happy relationship with Precious Auntie becomes much more tense and fraught. LuLing’s behavior is similar to the defiant arrogance Ruth will display decades later, which implies that regardless of time and place, there are some universal realities about mother-daughter relationships which play out time and time again. Because LuLing hides her history from her own daughter, they are doomed to repeat it. The way in which LuLing’s rebellion manifests reflects the cultural values of the time. LuLing becomes increasingly interested in money and status because these are values that are prized by the Liu family. Because she has lost her connection to her bonesetter heritage, LuLing has also lost her connection to the values of integrity and tradition. She cannot understand why Precious Auntie will not sell the valuable bone or condone her marriage into the Chang family. While LuLing’s self-centered approach is partially a function of her being a spoiled teenager, it also results from her ignorance. Because she does not know the full story of who she is or what Precious Auntie’s history has been, she cannot have compassion for her. This ignorance mirrors the way Ruth has often been frustrated and impatient with LuLing without knowing the context of her suffering.

While the winds of change impact the relationship between LuLing and Precious Auntie, forces of modernity also invade the traditional lifestyle of the village. In 1927, a team of Chinese and Western scientists excavate a site near Peking after discovering what appeared to be fossilized remains of a previously unknown subspecies of the prehistoric species Homo erectus (a species of archaic human). This discovery attracted worldwide attention, and excavations yielded approximately 200 human fossils from at least 40 different specimens. The subspecies became known as the Peking Man. Tan uses the backdrop of this historical event in her novel, presenting it in the context of a local family. The presence of bones in the caves where the fossils were eventually found had been part of local lore for generations, but the local people did not have the archaeological or scientific knowledge to identify these bones as the remains of early humans. Precious Auntie’s father and forefathers, however, had long recognized a special power and value in these bones, calling them “dragon bones.” As forces of contemporary capitalism and colonialism encroach, the stakes for decisions like LuLing’s marriage become even more heightened.

LuLing’s stubborn defiance produces tragic consequences that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Firstly, she refuses to engage with Precious Auntie’s fears and forebodings about the Chang family. Precious Auntie is not just being spiteful; she is committed to keeping her daughter safe. Precious Auntie knows of the history of domestic violence within the Chang family and fears what might lie ahead for LuLing. However, LuLing is not interested in Precious Auntie’s fears because she assumes she herself knows best and thinks of Precious Auntie as superstitious and out of touch. LuLing feels disdain for Precious Auntie’s mistrust of the Chang family in a way that parallels the disdain Ruth will feel for LuLing’s devotion to Precious Auntie’s spirit. LuLing cannot be bothered to read the manuscript Precious Auntie gives her and lies when she says she has read it. While Ruth fails her own mother in similar ways, she is, at least, transparent about delaying reading the manuscript.

Because Precious Auntie mistakenly believes that LuLing rejects her even after learning that they are mother and daughter, she is unable to bear her grief any longer. She has lived her whole life in the hope that she might someday tell the truth to her daughter, and now that her revelation has failed, she has no reason to live. Thus, LuLing lives with the tragedy Ruth narrowly avoids: she learns the truth of her mother’s story only after her mother is dead and gone. LuLing finds her mother’s body and then the corpse is thrown into a ravine. In a culture where veneration and commemoration of deceased family members was an important cultural and spiritual practice, the erasure of Precious Auntie’s body is a particularly devastating blow. Additionally, in light of this lack of burial, the loss of Precious Auntie’s name is even more devastating. Other than LuLing’s memories and a photograph, there is no evidence that Precious Auntie ever lived.

Like her mother, LuLing ends up ostracized by conservative social forces. Suicide was considered unlucky and shameful, and the Liu family does not want the circumstances of Precious Auntie’s death to be revealed. This incident forms the root of LuLing’s superstitious beliefs because of how seriously her family takes the idea of curses and ghosts. They cannot take responsibility for their own complicity in harming others and forcing individuals to keep secrets, so they blame supernatural forces instead. There is also an implied misogyny in the way they treat both Precious Auntie and LuLing. Once LuLing’s marriage is called off, she no longer has a role within the family or society at large. She is effectively banished, and when she gets to the orphanage, she realizes that the family has not even arranged for her to be taken in there. Part of LuLing’s bitterness and suspicion comes from the abrupt abandonment she experiences at the hands of the Liu family. LuLing becomes self-reliant and unwilling to trust others.

Although she often felt ashamed of Precious Auntie, LuLing survives and even thrives because of how she was raised. At the most literal level, her ability to read and write gives her a marketable skill, which means that she can gradually build a respected career for herself as a teacher. She would never have had this ability if Precious Auntie had not passed ancestral knowledge down to her. LuLing can also adapt and make new friends because she has learned to be observant, intelligent, and resilient. LuLing previously blamed Precious Auntie for rendering her helpless and failing to teach her the skills LuLing thought she needed, but this turns out to be unfair.