In a country where patriarchal favoritism and the primacy of sons survived multiple revolutions and an ideological earthquake, this epic novel is first and foremost about women, with the female body serving as the book's central metaphor. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900 and married at seventeen into the Shangguan family. She has nine children, only one of whom is a boy - the narrator of the book. A spoiled and ineffectual child, he stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings. Mother, a survivor, is the quintessential strong woman who risks her life to save several of her children and grandchildren. Each of the seven chapters represents a different time period, from the end of the Qing dynasty up through the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao years.