In 1979, in the anonymous provincial city of Muddy River, China, authorities are preparing to execute Gu Shan, a young counter-revolutionary. As a fanatical Red Guard follower of Mao Zedong, she once kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach. More recently she has renounced her past and denounced the Party. And so today, Gu Shan is scheduled to die before thousands of her neighbors and townspeople, who are prepared to jeer on command.
On the mean streets of Muddy River, a handful of barely related characters will find their own fates crossed by Gu Shan's: Nini, a deformed 12-year old girl whose parents treat her like a dog; Bashi, a 19-year old idler scheming to glimpse a naked woman; Kai, a desperately unhappy radio news announcer trapped in a profitable, sterile marriage; Teacher Gu and his wife, the parents of the condemned girl; six-year old Tong, who is living with his parents for the first time in his life; and Old Hua and Mrs. Hua, who survive as garbage collectors. Of all the people of Muddy River, the Huas alone have achieved a measure of peace