Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The pearl necklace

The pearl necklace symbolizes the deceit and lack of transparency in the relationship between Ruth and LuLing. Ruth buys an inexpensive necklace of fake pearls as a gift for her mother but is embarrassed when LuLing mistakenly believes the necklace to be valuable. Ruth has never told her mother the truth but remains tormented by shame and embarrassment because of the falsehood. The necklace thus reflects how Ruth has never learned to tell the truth to her mother, presumably because LuLing has never modelled honesty herself. The value of the necklace is relatively unimportant, but the fact that Ruth finds it impossible to speak the truth shows just how difficult honesty is for the two women. The necklace also symbolizes how once a lie or secret takes hold, it gains power. If Ruth had immediately told the truth, her shame would have been contained, but after years of silence, telling the truth seems impossible and her shame intensifies.

Precious Auntie’s scars

Precious Auntie’s scars symbolize the secret she keeps and the shame she feels about the tragedy she believes she caused. Although she was once a beautiful young woman, her suicide attempt leaves Precious Auntie grotesquely scarred and unable to speak. Her whole identity changes, and she loses her connection to her previous life as the bonesetter’s daughter, when she was confident and outspoken. She can never own her new identity as LuLing’s mother, so her scars are the physical manifestation of her inability to speak the truth. Precious Auntie sees herself as the cause of her father and fiancé’s deaths and wears her scars as a reminder of her guilt. Because she bears the marks of the tragedy on her skin, her guilt and regret are advertised to the world. Precious Auntie’s self-loathing and shame are implicitly passed on to her daughter, who will blame herself for her mother’s death.

The oracle bone

The oracle bone symbolizes Precious Auntie’s connection to her birth family and her pride in her lineage. After Precious Auntie begins living as a nursemaid, she loses her social status as the daughter of a respected artisan. Because she cannot claim her daughter as her own, the official lineage of her family will die with her. However, though she cannot openly claim LuLing as part of the bonesetter’s line, by giving her the oracle bone, Precious Auntie ensures that LuLing will always have a connection to her mother’s family. It is eventually revealed that the oracle bone is a valuable ancient artifact. Even though Precious Auntie and her family may not have fully understood what the bone was, they had an inherent sense of its value, and Precious Auntie reveals her love for LuLing and her pride in her family history by giving her the bone.