Chu Ju’s family prays her new sibling will be a boy. In China, families are strictly controlled by population measures. As custom dictates, sons are supposed to take care of their elderly parents. Chu Ju’s family needs the baby to be male.
To everyone’s sorrow but Chu Ju’s, the baby is a girl. Chu Ju is tasked with the care of the child, as her father and grandmother do not want her mother to become too attached to the baby. As the adults will not name her, Chu Ju names her Hua, meaning blossom, because she was born the same day the beans in the garden blossomed and filled the air with their sweet scent.
Chu Ju’s family decides to sell Hua so they can try again for a son. After several weeks, a woman comes to the house and haggles with grandmother as to the price of the baby. Once decided, the woman says she will come back the following day, after she has found a new home for Hua. Chu Ju’s mother cries, and Chu Ju is bereft, thinking of little Hua growing up unloved in an orphanage.
Chu Ju decides to run away to allow her sister to stay in the house and give her parents the chance to try again for a son. That night, she leaves a note and takes her pencil box. Then she sets off to find a new home.
As she has fond memories of watching the fishing boats on the river with her grandfather, Chu Ju sneaks aboard one and hides under the nets. In the morning, the owners find her — a couple and their two sons. Chu Ju tells them that her parents have died and that her grandmother wishes to sell her to an evil woman, so she ran away.
The mother, Yi Yi, is happy to have a girl to keep her company while her sons and husband fish. Soon Chu Ju is considered one of the family. She learns how to mend the knots in the nets and how to gut and dry the fish.
After almost a year on the fishing boat, Chu Ju tells Yi Yi the truth of how she ran away to save her sister. Yi Yi is upset and believes her mother must be heartbroken. She insists that Chu Ju return home when they return to her village the following week.
Afraid her parents will try and sell Hua if she returns, Chu Ju waits until everyone is asleep and swims to shore. She soon finds work at a silkworm farm. Most of the workers are girls from an orphanage with no place else to go. The owner, a woman named Yong, cares lovingly for her worms but treats the girls harshly. She yells at them constantly and allows her foreman to beat the girls for the slightest infractions.
Chu Ju makes friends with several of the orphans. She is content to have a roof over her head and food to eat, even if the dormitory has no fan in the brutal summer heat and the food is usually cabbage and rice. She loses her position, however, after she helps the other girls to write a letter to the orphanage, telling them of the brutal conditions under which they live. Yong knows the orphans do not know how to write, so she fires Chu Ju.
Chu Ju walks many days, keeping away from the villages because she has heard rumors that girls there are kidnapped and forced to become wives. She tries to find work among the farmers tending their rice paddies, but most turn her away. Finally, an older woman and her son offer to let her help in their paddy in exchange for food.
She learns how to plant the rice shoots and that evening is given a bowl of rice. Han Na, the woman, argues with her son, Quan, as they eat. Quan longs to go to Shanghai and find work. He does not like farming and hates doing the same thing every day. Han Na argues that in the city, you are never really known. Besides, Quan does not have the necessary papers and could be arrested. As Chu Ju prepares to leave, Quan tells her she can stay the week if she will continue to work in the paddy.
Chu Ju is a fast learner and works hard. At the end of the week, Quan announces he is leaving for Shanghai. Chu Ju can stay with his mother and help her work the small paddy and keep the house. Quan will find work in the city and send money home. He has seen Chu Ju’s pencil box and asks if she will read any letters he sends. She admits she can only read simple words, and he tells her that is all he can write. Han Na does not know whether Chu Ju’s appearance is a blessing or a misfortune, but she is willing to let her stay for as long as she wants.
Although Han Na hopes her son will return to their farm, she teaches Chu Ju everything she knows about the land. The two women grow close as the months progress. Chu Ju reads the letters Quan sends home, but he never says he wants to leave the city. Han Na keeps the money he sends in a box, even though he encourages her to buy meat and new blankets.
Han Na’s neighbor, a young man named Ling, visits her farm. His father had been a good friend with her husband. His family owns a large farm on the hill. His family heard that Quan left and wanted to make sure Han Na had food. He offers her peaches and plums from the fruit trees he has planted. He tells Chu Ju she should get fish from the government official in town. The tiny fish are free and live in the rice paddies. They only eat bugs and weeds, not the rice. At the end of the season they will be big enough to sell in town for food. Chu Ju and Ling become friends.
When another letter arrives from Quan, Chu Ju dutifully reads it to his mother. But then Quan writes to stop reading the rest of the letter out loud. He has a secret to tell Chu Ju. He has been arrested for not having the proper papers. He begs Chu Ju to bring the money he sent to Shanghai and pay his fine. He tells her not to tell Han Na, as it would kill her to know her son is in prison.
Chu Ju lies to Han Na and tells her she wishes to go visit her parents, and her friend gives her money for the trip. Chu Ju feels terrible when she has to steal the rest from Han Na’s box. Ling helps her buy a train ticket after she tells him what has happened.
Everything about the trip to Shanghai is both frightening and exciting. Chu Ju rides a train for the first time, sees huge buildings and thousands of people. Because of her kindness, she strikes up a brief friendship with an older woman on the train. The woman helps her find the prison where Quan is being held.
Chu Ju pays the fine, and Quan is released. Although glad to have experienced the city, Chu Ju cannot wait to return home with Quan. He has no intention of leaving. He insists Chu Ju use some of the remaining money to buy them food and then takes her to see some of his favorite places before she goes home. He makes Chu Ju promise not to tell his mother the truth, as she would worry herself to death.
When Chu Ju knocks on the door to the house, Han Na refuses to let her inside. She is furious that Chu Ju stole her money. Brokenhearted, Chu Ju sleeps in Ling’s barn with his water buffalo. She plans on leaving the village the following day but stops to say goodbye to Ling. He is glad to see her but upset that Han Na still does not know the truth.
Since he only promised not to tell the truth while Quan was in prison, he races down to Han Na’s house. Once Han Na learns all Chu Ju did for her son, she forgives her and welcomes her back to the house. They promise to tell only the truth to each other from now on. Chu Ju tells all about her family, and Han Na begs her to consider returning home, if only to let them know she is safe. Chu Ju is not ready yet, but will think on it for the future.
Chu Ju continues her relationship with Ling, and he helps her better the farm by raising fish in the paddy. They also develop a deep friendship. When Han Na grows ill, Quan returns to see his mother before she dies. Since he does not want the farm, Han Na asks that he give the land to Chu Ju. He can have all the money he sent home, as they have saved most of it. Quan agrees.
After his mother’s funeral, he asks Chu Ju if she would return to Shanghai with him and be his wife. She tells him she loves the land as much as he loves the city. She would not be happy in Shanghai. He signs the property’s lease over to Chu Ju and leaves.
Chu Ju knows that she must go back to her old village and tell her parents she is safe. Her parents, especially her mother, are happy to see her, and Hua has grown into a little girl. Her mother had another baby girl. They kept her because her mother is too old to have another child.
Chu Ju tells them of her new life. She sees the excitement in her father’s eyes when she tells him of her land. He wants her to sell the land and bring the money back so he can use it to buy land in their village. Chu Ju explains this cannot be done. If she sells the land, the money should go to Quan, as he is Han Na’s son.
She promises to send all the money she makes from the land home so her sisters can go to school. The following day, she returns to her land and immediately begins her work in the paddy. That evening, Ling hurries down the hill to visit her.