Journey of The Bonesetter's Daughter


Lesson Plan: Overview

Author Amy Tan collaborated with friend and composer Stewart Wallace to transform her novel The Bonesetter's Daughter into an opera. Together they embarked on a five-year project that would take them on several journeys to China to discover traditional customs, music and art. This creative process allowed for the traditions to inform and direct the musical and emotional quality of the opera. Go behind the scenes and learn more about the creation of this opera in the documentary, Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter.

* Please note: Journey of the Bonesetters Daughter contains sensitive content and may not be suitable for all students. Be sure to preview all related online and video content before sharing the film with students. In particular, be aware of references to suicide throughout the film. There are also references to vomit, rape, and the OJ Simpson murder trial, which occur between minutes two and seventeen of the film.

Singers in Dimen
Credit: Monica Lam
When Stewart Wallace traveled to the village of Dimen, these young women greeted him with a song.


  • To inspire students to explore the art of storytelling and the process of working collaboratively
  • To foster an appreciation of both Western and Chinese opera and their histories
  • To analyze how a story can be retold through different artistic mediums

Grade Ranges


Estimated Time Requirement

5 Hours

Materials Needed

  • Access to libraries with up-to-date collections of periodicals, books, and research papers
  • Access to recordings of both Western classical and Chinese opera; and a CD player
  • Journey of the Bonesetters Daughter film online or on DVD
  • Computer with Internet access, web browser, and speakers

Lesson Plan Ideas and Discussion Points

Transforming the story
As Amy Tan says, her story of the Bonesetter's Daughter is emotionally true, if not factually true. She was able to take certain real events, such as the suicide of her grandmother, and turn them into a fictional story without making the narrative completely biographical. Assign your class the task of working collaboratively to transform a short story or fable into another form, such as a song or a poem. Challenge them to distill the essence of the story into simple statements that may or may not rhyme, while maintaining the original characters and essential plot. Next, suggest that students take their own journals and convert portions into a short story of 500 words. They should develop a plot with exposition, tension, climax, and dénouement. Discuss and explore other ways of telling the story through movement, added musical accompaniment, singing the story, etc. Invite students to share or perform their new stories.

Opera and related storytelling traditions
Compare and contrast theatrical traditions of various world cultures. For instance, the Korean pansori tradition features a singer who stands in the center of a circle and the only prop used is a fan. She is accompanied by a single percussionist who follows her vocals. Compare this to other Asian vocal forms such as Chinese opera, and Japanese noh or kyogen. Break up the class into three groups and have students work together to conduct their research. Allow each group to give oral presentations to the class on their findings, including musical examples and pictures. To be included in their research are the history, vocal styles, common plots, and character types.

How does it make you feel?
Compare Western opera with contemporary musical theater, such as Cats, High School Musical, The Phantom of the Opera, or West Side Story. Bring musical examples to class of famous operatic arias and songs from musicals, or watch a musical and an opera in their entirety over the course of several weeks. Invite students to take notes on their responses and observations. Lead a discussion on the emotional impact of the music, as well as students' likes and dislikes. Encourage students to be specific about their descriptions to develop critical viewing and listening skills. Because opera includes many different elements, be sure to use musical, theatrical and linguistic terminology during the discussion, such as volume; dynamics; range and types of singers; use of staging and costumes; clarity of diction; plot and character development; antagonist and protagonist; and instrumentation and orchestration.

Lusheng players
Credit: Monica Lam
One of the Miao minority's traditional instruments is the lusheng.

Activity Extensions

  • Compare the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western opera.
    Analyze the plot and compare vocal technique; theatrical concepts; staging; costumes; classic archetypes; use of masks and makeup; and orchestral instrumentation and accompaniment. Extend this idea to other forms of Asian opera or musical storytelling, comparing and contrasting the dramatic arts of Japan, Korea, and India.
  • Act out a story collaboratively and individually.
    Pick any favorite story or folk tale and act it out using different musical themes for the individual characters and moments in the story. Assign some students the role of actors, and others the role of musicians who must provide the background music. Allow time for the whole ensemble to play together, as well as solo performance time for individual students.

Resources: Texts

  • Shih Chung-wen, The Golden Age of Chinese Drama. Princeton University Press. 1976
  • Tan, Amy. The Bonesetter's Daughter. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 2001

This Educator Guide was developed and written by educator Sabra Weber.

For additional classroom content, please visit PBS Teachers and KQED Education.

An extended version of this Educator Guide can be found at KQED Spark.


A co-production of Outlier Films, LLC, the Center for Asian American Media, the Independent Television Service, and KQED, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Franklin P. and Catherine H. Johnson, The Shenson Foundation, and The Fleishhacker Foundation.

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