The Bonesetter’s Daughter tells the story of three generations of women, mother to daughter to granddaughter. Tan does not hesitate to reveal the pain and conflict in these relationships that cause the women to struggle with each other, as well as the love and loyalty that keeps them together. Throughout the novel, family relationships are defined with some fluidity, starting with LuLing being adopted by Mother to cover up the scandal of her birth outside wedlock. Many years later, after LuLing and her cousin GaoLing have settled in the United States and are married to a pair of brothers, the stigma of being born outside wedlock is much less significant and yet the lie is maintained so as not to disturb their new husbands. In the contemporary setting of the novel, Ruth’s unmarried relationship to Art and his daughters is not typical but it is very stable and her fluid sense of family is represented by the variety of friends included in Ruth’s family reunion.
LuLing and GaoLing grow up as sisters although they are technically cousins. When LuLing is cast off by the Liu family and sent to an orphanage, the two girls swear to stand by each other as sisters and indeed do so for the rest of their lives. Like all sisters, there is an element of competition but they never hesitate to help each other. In her novel, Tan represents healthy family relationships as important to a happy life. Ruth and LuLing struggle with this as their different values—American and Chinese—drive them apart. As a child, LuLing is very close to her mother, Precious Auntie, just as Precious Auntie was close with her father following the untimely deaths of her mother and brothers. Through these strings of relationships, a heritage is built. When Ruth finally learns the truths of her past, she is buoyed up and this strength is reflected in her relationship with Art, her business life, and her creativity.
Traditional Chinese culture is rich with superstitions that guide people in the choices they make in their everyday lives. One type of superstitious activity in the early twentieth century in China was fortune telling. The fortunes told could be good or bad but were often so vague that they could be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, Baby Uncle has a fortune-teller read the omens for his marriage to Precious Auntie. The fortune-teller sees nothing but calamity; nonetheless, Baby Uncle is so smitten with Precious Auntie that he pays the old woman to reinterpret the omens so that they can be married.
Ghosts are also prevalent in traditional Chinese culture and often bring bad luck. Many behaviors are used to prevent or drive away ghosts, such as proper burial and respectful treatment of their wishes. In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, ghosts are more real in China than in the United States, visiting people in their dreams or in the latrine. Baby Uncle threatens to haunt his mother unless she saves Precious Auntie’s life. Precious Auntie’s vengeful ghost frightens Father, causing him to knock over a lamp and burn down the family’s ink shop. These superstitions have less hold when LuLing and GaoLing move to the United States. GaoLing readily embraces Western life, leaving behind the old ways, whereas LuLing, sure that her family has been cursed, clings to traditional beliefs. Chinese superstitions often revolve around bad luck and its avoidance. Ghosts are feared largely because they bring bad luck; ghosts do not stay behind to haunt mortals if they are happy and peaceful.
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.