In 1937 in China, a little girl named Jun-Ling is born and shortly thereafter her mother dies. When Joseph Yen Tse-Rung remarries, his new wife decides to change the names of the children he brought into the marriage and so Jun-Ling becomes Adeline. The remarriage was a direct result of the intense grief experienced by her father after losing his wife. Like something out of a Western fairy tale, Adeline’s childhood is stolen away and replaced by a stepmother who—while not evil—is most definitely not Carol Brady. The relationship suffers all the more when Adeline interferes with a beating she is giving her biological daughter Susan.
Adeline’s Aunt Baba is mercifully kinder to her than is Niang the stepmother, the suffering begins to extends to everyone due to the new wife’s almost obsessive need to control the family finances. One day Adeline receives a beating simply because friends stopped by to visit. Not long afterward, she is sent away to school and things go from bad to worse when she falls so ill that she nearly dies. While away at school, she receives exactly one visit from her father.
When Mao’s communist revolution proves a success, the family escapes expected persecution by fleeing to Hong Kong. This safe haven affords Adeline the opportunity to win a writing contest and eventually attend medical school in England. Upon returning home, she discovers that her father has devised a strategy for pursuing her career. A move to America results in a marriage and a song, but when her husband turns becomes too unpredictably violent to withstand, the marriage falls apart.
Meanwhile, Susan, the half-sister Adeline was moved to protect from the wrath of her own mother is disinherited by the family. Back home in Red China, Aunt Baba is proof that the family’s fears of the consequences of the communists coming into power prove all too real. Profoundly moved by the suffering she experiences for the decision to maintain her ties to her past, Adeline makes a trip to visit. Things are not going that much better back in Hong Kong where not only does her father die, but in doing so he has left everything to Niang and nothing to his children. Fortunately for all concerned, Niang succumbs to cancer.
Less fortunate is the news from China that Aunt Baba is also facing death. Adeline returns to China to see her one last time and make the peace that both hope can spread to heal the entire family.