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Baby Uncle, whose real name is Liu Hu Sen, is the youngest son of Great-Granny. He is thin and good-looking. He falls in love with Precious Auntie and a marriage is arranged between them but Baby Uncle dies on their wedding day when a horse kicks him in the head. He is the father of LuLing.
Catcher of Ghosts
The Catcher of Ghosts is a con artist who pretends he is a Taoist priest. He performs a ritual in which he claims to catch Precious Auntie’s ghost in a vinegar jar and cure the Liu clan of her haunting. He is later arrested and proved to be a charlatan but the family still believes they have been cured.
Chang is a local coffin maker. He is an abusive man who repeatedly brings evil into the lives of the Liu clan, beginning with his involvement in the death of Baby Uncle. His first wife falls from a roof and dies, which is probably a lie to cover up her death by his hands. He is publically executed in 1950 after being found guilty of various crimes including fraud and drug trade.
Chang Fu Nan
Chang Fu Nan is the fourth and youngest son of Chang the coffin maker. LuLing is briefly betrothed to him when she is fourteen years old; he later marries GaoLing. He is apprenticed in his father’s trade but, as GaoLing learns when she lives with him, he is addicted to opium and spends all his money buying more.
See LuLing Liu Young
Liu Jen Sen is known as Father. He is married to Mother and is the son of Great-Granny. He has three brothers, Big Uncle, Little Uncle, and Baby Uncle, but as the eldest son he is the leader of the Liu clan. He is largely absent from LuLing’s life because he lives and works at the family’s ink shop in Peking. He helps to arrange LuLing’s betrothal to Chang Fu Nan when she visits Peking. During a terrifying nighttime vision of the ghost of Precious Auntie, he knocks over a lamp and burns down the ink shop.
Great-Granny is the mother of Father, Big Uncle, Little Uncle, and Baby Uncle and is the matriarch of the Liu clan. LuLing remembers Great-Granny had a clever tongue but as Great-Granny ages, her memory deteriorates. She wanders the clan compound, looking for her youngest son, Baby Uncle, who is dead. Precious Auntie describes her condition as Confusion Itch and LuLing, more than sixty years later, wonders if she has the same disease. Great-Granny dies after a fall.
Ruth Grutoff is an American Christian missionary who is nurse and headmistress at an orphanage school housed in an abandoned monastery on Dragon Bone Hill. Miss Grutoff has curly hair and is in her early thirties when she and LuLing first meet around 1929. She is resourceful and keeps the orphanage running during the early years of the war with Japan. She bravely goes with the Japanese soldiers as a prisoner when the United States declares war on Japan. LuLing and GaoLing remain close friends with Miss Grutoff until her death in the late 1940s. LuLing’s daughter Ruth is named after Miss Grutoff.
Art Kamen is Ruth’s boyfriend; they’ve been together for ten years. They met in a yoga class, where she mistook him for a gay man. He has a Ph.D. in linguistics and works as an American Sign Language specialist. He is amicably divorced with two teenaged daughters, Fia and Dory. Ruth lives with him and his daughters in his Edwardian townhouse. Art has become careless about letting Ruth take care of everything, leaving her feeling tired and unappreciated. When Ruth leaves to stay with her mother, Art realizes how much he misses Ruth and works with her to convince— even trick—LuLing into moving into an assisted living home. Near the end of the novel, he calmly asks Ruth to marry him and she agrees.
Dory is the daughter of Art Kamen and his ex-wife Miriam. She is thirteen years old and in the sixth grade. She is a little heavy with chestnut-colored hair and has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Sofia, known throughout the novel as Fia, is the daughter of Art Kamen and his ex-wife Miriam. She is fifteen years old and has chestnut-colored hair.
Old Widow Lau
Old Widow Lau, a distant cousin to Mother, is a matchmaker who is paid to pair LuLing with Chang Fu Nan. She takes fourteen-year-old LuLing to Peking for an arranged ‘‘chance’’ meeting with Mrs. Chang in the family’s ink shop.
Liu Hu Sen
See Baby Uncle
Mother is married to Father and is head woman of the Liu clan. She is GaoLing’s mother, and LuLing’s aunt, although for the first fourteen years of LuLing’s life she poses as her mother also. She hates Precious Auntie for bringing bad luck into their household and sends LuLing away to an orphanage as soon as she believes Precious Auntie’s ghost to have been captured. She dies after 1972 when the remainder of the Liu clan house is swallowed by a sink hole.
Pan Kai Jing
Pan Kai Jing is a geologist working at the Peking Man archaeological site and living with other scientists at the same monastery where the orphanage is housed. His father is Teacher Pan, an educator at the orphanage. He is attractive but suffers from a limp from a childhood bout with polio. Kai Jing and LuLing fall in love and marry but their happiness is short-lived. Kai Jing is conscripted into the Chinese Communist army, then later captured and executed by the Japanese when he will not reveal army secrets to them.
Teacher Pan teaches the older girls at the orphanage school. His son is geologist Pan Kai Jing, of whom he is very proud. He becomes LuLing’s father-in-law when she marries Kai Jing and they have a very happy small family. His skill with calligraphy and scholarship helps the Liu family ink shop succeed following the end of the war. After the ink shop is sold, Teacher Pan remarries and lives out the rest of his life in China.
Precious Auntie, one of the main characters of this novel, is the daughter of a famous bonesetter but her real name is one of the mysteries of this novel. She is LuLing’s mother and Ruth’s grandmother. She is a passionate, clever woman who has deep reverence for traditional Chinese beliefs. After her father’s ghost visits her in a dream, Precious Auntie is convinced that her family is cursed for disturbing the bones of her ancestors. At the same time that scientists are gathering ancient bones to put together Peking Man, Precious Auntie is trying to find all the bones left by her father to return them to her family’s secret cave, called Monkey’s Jaw. Overcome with grief at the loss of her father and bridegroom, Precious Auntie swallows hot resin, scarring her beautiful face and making herself mute. She should have died from these wounds but Great-Granny nurses her back to health, directed to do so by the ghost of Baby Uncle. Her life thereafter is a shadow of her former status and happiness. She acts as a nursemaid to her own daughter to avoid scandal and provide for LuLing. Fifteen years later, Precious Auntie commits suicide to prevent her daughter from marrying Chang’s son. Over the years, LuLing has forgotten Precious Auntie’s real name and this distresses her. Ruth, in coming to terms with her background, seeks out her grandmother’s name, with GaoLing’s help: Gu Liu Xin.
Dottie Rogers is Ruth and LuLing’s landlady when Ruth is eleven years old. She and her husband Lance rent them a barely legal bungalow on their property. Ruth doesn’t like Dottie because she is loud and bossy. Dottie leaves Lance when she thinks he has molested Ruth.
Lance Rogers is married to Dottie and is Ruth and LuLing’s landlord when Ruth is only eleven. She has a crush on him and mistakenly believes that he has impregnated her, which breaks up his marriage to Dottie. Later, he does start to touch her inappropriately and this drives Ruth to manipulate her mother into moving to a new house.
Mr. Tang is the linguist who translates LuLing’s memoir from Chinese into English for Ruth. Over the course of this work, he comes to admire LuLing for her strength of character. He meets LuLing in person and they behave as if they are old friends with great affection between them. Mr. Tang takes LuLing out several times each week and has great patience with her lapses in memory.
Miss Towler is the director of the orphanage school on Dragon Bone Hill. She is sixty-four years old when she meets LuLing around 1929. She is Miss Grutoff’s best friend, plays piano for the students to sing along with, and leads Sunday service. Miss Towler dies in her sleep in the early 1940s, not long before the United States declares war on Japan.
Wendy has been Ruth’s best friend since childhood. She is with Ruth throughout the pregnancy fiasco with Lance Rogers when they are eleven. Over twenty years later, they take yoga together and this is where Ruth meets Art. Wendy is a colorful personality and expresses her emotions without reservation, acting as something of a foil to Ruth’s reserve.
GaoLing Liu Young
GaoLing—known as Liu GaoLing while she lives in China and often called Auntie Gal by Ruth— was born in 1916, five months after LuLing but her birth date is recorded for nine months later, in 1917. She and LuLing grow up as sisters although they are actually cousins. GaoLing marries Chang Fu Nan and lives for several miserable years as his wife, supporting his addiction to opium. The war with Japan gives her an opportunity to disappear. Fu Nan finds her after the war but GaoLing is able to escape with Miss Grutoff to the United States, where she reinvents her life, marrying and starting a family with Edmund Young, the younger of two brothers and a dental student. Her children are Billy and Sally.
GaoLing has always taken care of LuLing, from when Precious Auntie died and no one wanted anything to do with her, up to the present time of the novel when LuLing’s dementia makes it increasingly difficult for her to live alone. GaoLing is relieved that LuLing has told the truth of their life in China to Ruth; she has more readily adopted a Western lifestyle than LuLing has and wishes to let the past go.
LuLing Liu Young
LuLing was born in 1916, the daughter of Precious Auntie and Baby Uncle. Throughout her childhood, she thought she was the daughter of Mother of the Liu clan and does not learn the truth of her parentage until after Precious Auntie’s death. LuLing’s life as a young woman in China is difficult, full of great happiness as well as sadness, but the strength she learned from Precious Auntie and the support of the people she loves, like Pan Kai Jing, GaoLing, and Miss Grutoff, help guide her and keep her going. She marries Pan Kai Jing for love but he dies during the war with the Japanese. She travels to the United States as a Famous Visiting Artist and marries Edwin Young, the elder of two brothers and a medical student. Ruth is their daughter but Edwin is tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident when Ruth is two years old. LuLing’s relationship with Ruth is both dependent and combative as LuLing holds her traditional beliefs and Ruth grows up as an American teen in the 1960s.
As she enters her eighties, LuLing is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia. Ruth is floored that her strong, if difficult, mother is unable to care for herself on a daily basis any longer. But LuLing seems happier as she forgets more, letting go of all the bad things that happened in her life while retaining the good.
Ruth Luyi Young
Ruth is the daughter of LuLing and the granddaughter of Precious Auntie. She is named after Miss Grutoff and Sister Yu. When the novel opens, her life is sliding out of balance as she loses touch with her boyfriend Art and her mother LuLing, and works too much. Her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis forces Ruth to face the issues she has with her mother and her childhood. In the process, she finally learns the entirety of her mother’s history before LuLing emigrated to the United States and this brings them closer together. On her mother’s behalf, as well as for herself, Ruth investigates and learns the real name of her grandmother. This gives her a sense of closure and enables Ruth to move forward with her life. She and Art decide to marry after ten years together; her mother is happy for the first time in sixty years; and Ruth is finally giving voice to her own creativity.
Sister Yu Luyi
Sister Yu works at the orphanage school in China and is in charge of Cleanliness, Neatness, and Proper Behavior. LuLing finds her bossiness tiresome during the start of her life at the orphanage but soon learns to appreciate Sister Yu’s cleverness, determination, and wit. She is especially close with GaoLing. After the war, Sister Yu lives and works in the ink shop with LuLing, GaoLing, and Teacher Pan until Chang Fu Nan kicks her out, disturbed by the sight of her hunched back. Sister Yu goes on to have a successful career in the Communist party of China. Ruth is, in part, named after Sister Yu.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Amy Tan, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.