Amy Tan’s fiction, including The Bonesetter’s Daughter, often focuses on the Chinese-American experience, and the bond between mothers and daughters. Tan’s interest in these themes comes from the circumstances of her own life. She was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. Her parents immigrated from China, and Tan’s experience growing up as the American child of Chinese parents shaped her identity and her writing. Tan has openly spoken about her difficult relationship with her mother, and the complicated bond between mothers and daughters is a major theme in many of her novels. Tan’s mother kept significant aspects of her own past secret for years, and only revealed them once Tan was grown. For example, Tan eventually learned that her mother had been previously married and had children from this marriage, whom she left behind in China. As an adult, Tan travelled to China with her mother to meet the half-sisters she had never known. The idea that mothers have secret pasts unknown to their daughters is an important theme in Tan’s fiction, appearing in The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, two of Tan’s acclaimed novels.
Details drawn from Tan’s life and family history appear in The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Tan’s maternal grandmother committed suicide when Tan’s mother, Daisy, was young, and throughout Tan’s childhood and adolescence, Daisy often threated to commit suicide herself. Because of the trauma she experienced in China, Daisy was regularly preoccupied with the idea of curses and ill fate. Around the time Tan began writing The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Daisy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she died before the novel was completed. When she was a college student, Tan’s roommate was murdered, and due to the trauma of identifying the body, she temporarily lost the ability to speak. For years afterward, she would lose the ability to speak on the anniversary of the murder. All of these details appear in the novel in some form.
Tan also interweaves historical events into the plot of The Bonesetter’s Daughter. In 1927, a team of scientists began a formal excavation of a site in Zhoukoudian, China. They discovered 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 fossils from at least 40 different specimens. The subspecies became known as Peking Man, and was widely celebrated as an important archaeological discovery that could shed important light on the history of human evolution. In 1937, the excavations ceased due to the outbreak of war between China and Japan. The fossils were first stored at Union Medical College in Peking in hopes that excavation could resume after the end of the war, but as hostilities increased, it became too dangerous to leave the fossils in Peking. In 1941, the fossils were packed up to be shipped to the United States but vanished en route. They have still never been located, and the disappearance remains unexplained.
While the excavation of the Peking Man represents a specific historical event, the broader scope of twentieth-century Chinese history creates another important context for the The Bonesetter’s Daughter. In the novel, LuLing is born in 1916, when her mother is approximately twenty years old, which means that Precious Auntie is born some time at the very end of the nineteenth century, when China is still under imperial rule. By this time, however, the Emperor had lost significant power. In 1912, a few years before LuLing’s birth, the Republic of China is established. By 1927, civil war breaks out in China between the Republican government and the Communist Party of China. This conflict is reflected in the fates of LuLing and GaoLing’s brothers, who either choose to fight on the side of the Communists or are conscripted into the opposing army. Civil war continues to rage until the outbreak of hostilities with Japan in 1937. The Second Sino-Japanese War (which eventually becomes part of World War II) is usually considered to originate with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which Tan references in her novel. Other effects of the war—such as Americans in China being considered prisoners of war after 1941—also appear in the novel. Tan includes this historical content in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, but she mainly focuses on the ways in which these historical events affect the lives of individuals, especially women.