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Ruth’s life is much affected by her childhood memories with her mother LuLing. Whenever Ruth doesn’t obey her, LuLing threatens by saying, “Maybe I die soon!” (54), and “LuLing’s threats to die were like earthquakes” (54). Ruth’s childhood earthquakes caused Ruth to “think about death every day” (121). If one’s mother threatens to kill herself, nothing would be worse than that for a child. Ruth had to go through all those in her sensitive years, and as a result death became an overwhelming figure in her life.
Ruth also remembers how LuLing would embarrass her by seeming too Chinese at a time when she was so anxious to consider herself American. Tan skillfully portrays the growing pains of Ruth humiliated by her mother’s inability to accept the Western culture: “Her mother couldn't even say Ruth's name right. It used to mortify Ruth when she shouted for her up and down the block. ‘Lootie! Lootie!’ Why had her mother chosen a name with sounds she couldn't pronounce?” (49).
Both LuLing and Ruth are unable to connect with their mothers, who have hidden their past. The secrecy has deprived mother and daughter from the shared fate and emotions that are necessary for understanding each other. Art tells her, “In all these years we've been together... I don’t think I know an important part of you. You keep secrets inside you. You hide. It’s as though I’ve never seen you naked” (360). Though she has nothing to hide, Ruth has unknowingly adopted this attitude of secrecy and remains distant from those she loves.
As a girl, Ruth could only express herself freely in a diary, which her mother repeatedly found and read.
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Like Ruth's diary, LuLing's manuscript becomes her only honest communication. She begins it with a simple and powerful statement: “These are the things I know are true” (1). Precious Auntie also wrote a manuscript for LuLing revealing her own truths. Unfortunately, Precious Auntie’s manuscript was read too late because she killed herself before LuLing could say sorry. When Ruth discovers her mother’s complete manuscript, she realizes that time is running short for them as well: “She sensed that her mother’s life was at stake and the answer was in her hands, had been there all along” (356). She feels pangs of guilt for not making the effort to translate it. The untranslated manuscript becomes a symbol of LuLing herself, who remains misunderstood by her daughter. Ruth views her mother as a woman sunk in unhappiness and criticizes LuLing’s behavior, her ongoing depression, negative view of the world, and repeated threats of suicide.
The second half of the novel is composed largely of LuLing’s manuscript, a journey into the precommunist China. Precious Auntie advises LuLing and, indirectly, Ruth, “A person should consider how things begin. A particular beginning results in a particular end” (268). The manuscript of LuLing begins with Precious Auntie’s story. She came from a family of bonesetters and bone collectors who dug out dragon bones from a nearby mountain and ground them for healing. When Precious Auntie rejected one suitor, a coffin maker named Chang, in favor of a young man from a well-respected family of ink makers. A month before the wedding, her fiancee came to Precious Auntie's room, and they eagerly began their nuptials. On their wedding day, bandits invaded the wedding procession, and Precious Auntie recognized Chang’s voice behind the disguise. Her father was killed by the bandits, and when her fiancee fired a pistol to the sky, a startled horse kills him. With much grief, Precious Auntie attempts suicide by swallowing a fiery black resin from the ink-making studio. Her fiancee’s ghost appears to Great-Granny threatening that he will curse the family as a ghost. The daughter she bore, LuLing, was said to belong to First Sister, and Precious Auntie remained in the household as her nursemaid.
One day, Precious Auntie gives LuLing a manuscript she had written, saying, “Now I will show you the truth” (239). But LuLing rejected these pages and did not read Precious Auntie's final statement of that she was LuLing's mother. When Precious Auntie asks LuLing, however, she lies. “Now that you have read my story, what do you feel toward me?” (241) asks Precious Auntie. LuLing replies, “Even if the whole Chang family were murderers and thieves, I would join them just to get away from you” (241). The next morning, she discovers that Precious Auntie has killed herself and her body was thrown into the ravine. At last, LuLing reads Precious Auntie's pages and learns the truth, but it’s too late for reconciliation.
LuLing was sent to an orphanage run by American missionaries and taken in only because of her ability to write and serve as a tutor, a skill she learned from Precious Auntie. There, she meets Kai Jing, her first love. Her happiness with him is short lived, however. After the Japanese invasion, he is forced by the communist troops to fight. Kai Jing escapes, and he and LuLing shared their final hours together before he was captured and executed. These tragedies left LuLing permanently scarred, believing that a family curse plagued her. Years later in America, the loss of her second husband from a “hit-and-run” (#?#) accident worsens her sense of doom, which she passes on to Ruth.
As LuLing’s memory fades, so does her fear: “Ruth remembers how her mother used to talk of dying, by curse or her own hand. She never stopped feeling the urge, not until she began to lose her mind, the memory web that held her woes in place” (342). Fading memory permits happiness and also forgiveness.
Ruth certainly doesn’t have many happy childhood memories when “LuLing had immersed her in a climate of unsolvable despair thoughout Ruth’s childhood” (17). LuLing tries not to repeat her own bad childhood memories on Ruth, but it doesn’t work very positively. Precious Auntie killed herself because of LuLing’s mistake as a child. LuLing wants Ruth to learn that regrets come too late after she’s dead. By threatening to die and actually attempting to kill herself when she falls out a window, she only makes Ruth’s life more miserable.