The book starts by telling the story of the author's grandmother, Yu-Fang. At the age of two her feet were bound, an extremely painful process that prevented the feet from growing in the normal way, a common practice inflicted of female children in China where tiny feet are considered beautiful. As the family was relatively poor, Yu-Fang's father decided a scheme to have his daughter taken as a concubines to a high-ranking warlord, Generak Xue Zhi-heng, in order to gain status which was incredibly important in dictating quality of life. The General already had many concubines and after their wedding ceremony the young lady was left alone in a luxurious, wealthy household with servants and did not see her husband again for six years. Despite the luxurious surroundings and exquisite accommodations life for Yu-Fang was stressful and tense as she feared that the servants would report rumors or lies about her to the General's senior wife who would then pass them on to him. Because of this she never felt secure in her position and feared constantly for her safety. Although she was permitted to visit her parents at their home she was never allowed to stay there overnight.
After his six year absence, the General made a brief conjugal visit to his young concubine, during which a daughter was conceived. The General did not stay for long even once his daughter arrived, but he named her Bao Qin, which means "precious zither". During her daughter's infancy, Yu-Fang put off persistent reauests for her to be brought to the General's main household, but once he became seriously ill the requests became orders and she had no choice other than to comply. Whilst visiting the household the General's condition deteriorates and realizing that there was no male heir, Yu-Fang knows that their child is now of great importance to the future of the family. Fearing that the General's wife would now have complete control over both her life and her daughter's,Yu-Fang flees to her parents' home and sends false news to her "husband's" family, telling them that sadly the child has died. Unexpectedly with his last words, the General proclaims Yu-Fang free at the age of twenty-four. Eventually, she falls in love with an older man, a doctor who adores her, and they make a home together with her daughter in Jinzhou, Manchuria, where Yu-Fang learns what it is like to be not a concubine but a beloved, true wife.
The book now moves on to tell the story of the author's mother, Bao Qin/De-hong. At the age of fifteen she begins working for the Communist Party of China and Mao Zedong's infamous Red Army. As the Chinese Revolution progresses, her work for the Party helps her rise up through the rank and file, and enables her to meet a high ranking officer, Wang Yu. They are soon married but not permitted to spend a great deal of time together as dictated by the rules of the Communist Party. Eventually the couple are transferred to Wang Yu's home town of Yibin. The transfer itself was a long and arduous trek that Chang's mother was forced to make on foot because of her rank, whilst her husband rode more comfortably in a jeep. He was unaware that she was pregnant at the time of the trek and once they arrived at Nanjing she undertook mandatory military training which was grueling and difficult. This combined with the trek on foot precipitated a miscarriage, prompting her husband to swear that never again would he be I attentive to the needs of his wife.
In the years that followed Chang's mother gave birth to Yang and four other children, shifting the focus of the book to the author's own autobiography.
When Chanf was a teenager the Cultural Revolution began. Though she recoiled from much of their barbaric brutality she nonetheless willingly joined the Red Guards. As the cult of Mao grew, life became more difficult and greatly more dangerous. Chang's father became a target for the Red Guards when he criticized Mai openly for the suffering that the Cultural Revolution had caused the Chinese people. Although this criticism had actually been very mild, Chang's parents were labelled capitalist roaders and made the subjects of public torture. Chang remembers that her father quickly detoriorated both physically and mentally until his death. The way that her father had been persecuted prompts Chang's earlier doubts about Mai to resurface and come to the fore. Like thousands of other young people, Chang was sent down to the countryside for education and thought reform, a difficult, harsh and ultimately pointless form of brainwashing conducted by the peasants. At the end of the cultural revolution Chang returned home and dedicated herself to her studies, working diligently to earn a place at university. Not long after she succeeded in doing so, Mao died. Although the whole nation was devastated and shocked into public mourning Chang observed that they had all been masking their fear and loathing of Mao for so long that they confused this public facade with their true feelings, prompting her to privately question how many of the tears were genuine. Chang herself was exhilirated by his death.
At university Chang studied English which ultimately allowed her to escape China all together. After graduation she worked briefly as an assistant lecturer before winning a scholarship to study in England where she settled, only occasionally visiting China with permission from the Communist authorities.