In 1971, during China's Cultural Revolution, two teenagers, an unnamed narrator and his friend Luo, are sent from their hometown of Chengdu to a mountain village to be 're-educated.'
When the boys arrive, the village headman wants to burn the narrator's violin, but Luo saves the instrument by having the narrator play a Mozart sonata, and then claiming the piece is titled Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao. The villagers and headman are enchanted.
The narrator's parents are doctors, and Luo’s father is a well-known dentist who was labeled a class enemy after revealing that he worked on Mao’s teeth. The narrator recalls a time when Luo punched him in the face after Luo's father was publicly humiliated.
Luo has a talent for story-telling that makes him popular among the villagers. The headman sends Luo and the narrator to a nearby town called Yong Jing so they can watch movies there and then retell the movie’s plot to the villagers. Luo is particularly theatrical, and everyone loves the “oral cinema show” (19). After the first show’s success, the headman agrees to periodically send the boys to town to watch more movies.
The boys meet the Little Seamstress, the beautiful daughter of a tailor from the neighboring village. Luo is particularly taken with her, although he initially insists that she is not civilized enough for him.
As part of their re-education, the narrator and Luo are required to do backbreaking work in the local coal mine. From the work, Luo contracts malaria. Unaware of Luo’s illness, the Seamstress arranges for him and the narrator to take time off from work and give a cinema show in her village. Luo is determined to go. However, when he and the narrator arrive at the Seamstress’s village, Luo falls ill again. The Seamstress makes him an herbal poultice and hires some sorceresses to scare away the evil spirits causing the disease. That night, the narrator sees her furtively kiss Luo.
After Luo's recovery, the boys visit their friend Four-Eyes, another city youth who has been assigned to a different village. In his hut, they notice a heavy locked suitcase, and speculate that it contains banned books, since his parents are both writers. Four-Eyes, who is obsessed with escaping the mountain and returning home, refuses to acknowledge that the suitcase exists.
However, after he loses his glasses, Four-Eyes needs help with his chores. The narrator and Luo help him in exchange for a copy of Honoré de Balzac's short novel Ursule Mirouët. After reading the novel, Luo retells the story to the Seamstress, and they have sex for the first time. The narrator feels jealous of their blooming relationship, and copies some passages from the novel into the inside of his jacket to feel better.
Unfortunately, Four-Eyes refuses to lend the narrator and Luo any more books. However, he has been given an opportunity to work for a literary journal in the city if he can compile some mountain folk songs that the journal can publish. He confesses that he has had trouble finding songs, even after he visited an elderly miller famed for his singing. When he tells the narrator and Luo how he accidentally offended the miller, they promise to collect songs from him in exchange for more books.
Dressed as revolutionary officials from Beijing, they visit the miller and collect songs. However, when they return, Four-Eyes is angry that the songs are too lewd to print. He decides to adapt them to revolutionary purposes, which offends the narrator, who then attacks Four-Eyes.
The narrator, Luo, and the Seamstress travel to Yong Jing to see another film. On the way back, they meet Four-Eyes’s mother, who has come to the mountain to retrieve Four-Eyes. The narrator tricks her into admitting that Four-Eyes has illegal books. During Four-Eyes’s farewell banquet, the narrator and Luo steal the suitcase despite nearly being caught.
Shortly after the theft, the village headman spends a month in Yong Jing for a Party conference, during which time the narrator and Luo skip work to devote all their time to reading. The narrator falls in love with Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. Luo, meanwhile, spends most of his time reading Balzac to the Seamstress.
When he returns from Yong Jing, the village headman complains of a toothache, which has been exacerbated by some bad dental work. He tries to convince Luo to fill the tooth, reasoning that he must have learned the trade from his dentist father. However, Luo avoids the assignment by noting that they do not have the necessary drill.
The Little Seamstress’s father, the tailor, visits the village and asks to stay with the narrator and Luo. During his stay, the narrator tells him the story of The Count of Monte Cristo. The tailor is delighted by the story. However, the village headman overhears, and threatens to take the narrator to the Public Security Office for questioning if Luo does not fill his tooth. Luo reluctantly agrees, and he and the tailor improvise a drill using a sewing needle and the tailor’s treadle. The narrator pumps the treadle slowly to cause the headman more pain.
The next three chapters are brief interludes told by the miller, Luo, and the Little Seamstress. They describe Luo and the Seamstress making love in a pool under a waterfall, which they visit frequently until the Seamstress is bitten one day by a snake while diving to retrieve Luo’s keys. Not long after that, Luo is summoned home for a month because his mother is ill. Luo asks the narrator to ‘safeguard’ the Seamstress from other potential suitors while he is gone.
While Luo is gone, the narrator falls in love with the Seamstress, and is beaten one day by her suitors. Soon afterwards, the Seamstress reveals to the narrator that she is pregnant. This is a bad situation because she is not allowed to marry Luo until they are both 25, and abortion is also illegal. The narrator travels to Yong Jing to see if he can find someone to perform an illegal abortion for the Seamstress. He speaks to a disgraced police officer and Christian preacher, neither of whom are able to help. In the case of the preacher, Luo walks in while the man is on his deathbed. Although the preacher’s family begs him to quote Mao into a tape recorder so they can defend themselves from later persecutions, he will only recite Latin prayers.
The narrator eventually approaches the gynaecologist directly. The gynaecologist initially refuses to help, but agrees when the narrator offers him a Balzac novel in exchange for the service. The next week, the Seamstress comes to Yong Jing. The abortion goes smoothly, and the narrator gives the gynaecologist his copy of Jean-Christophe in addition to the Balzac novel.
Luo returns, and continues his attempts to civilize the Seamstress. She gradually becomes better at affecting a city accent, and she changes her hair and clothes to match the urban styles. One day, she disappears. The tailor sadly explains that she has left for the city.
Luo and the narrator chase after her, and find her in the graveyard, paying respects to her ancestors. Luo tries to persuade her to stay, but the Seamstress explains that she learned from Balzac that a woman’s beauty is "treasure beyond price" (184). She departs. That night, Luo burns all of the books out of grief.