Ji-li is just like any other teenage girl. She goes to school, gets annoyed at her siblings, and dreams of becoming an actress one day, just like her mom. The only difference between her and you? She's growing up in China in 1966 (okay, your mom probably isn't an actress, too). This doesn't impact her life all that much until she's chosen to audition for the super-competitive Liberation Army dance troupe. She's always wanted to be a performer, and she rushes home to tell her parents—but they aren't thrilled (to say the least). Her dad explains that she won't pass the background check, so she better drop it.
Huh? Ji-li thought she had the perfect family life. She tells her teacher the news the next day, but she remains confused by the whole thing. Ji-li can't spend too much time worrying, though, because the Cultural Revolution is at hand. Chairman Mao tells everyone to get rid of the "four olds," a.k.a. old customs, ideas, culture, and habits. Sounds easy enough, right?
Not so fast. All of her classmates write mean notes (da-zi-bao) about their teachers; people shut down Ji-li's favorite bookshop; everyone has to get rid of their old school stuff. Suddenly things are way different in Ji-li's life. When word gets out that her grandpa was a landlord, everyone shuns her family—it's a big no-no to be related to someone who was rich, even if he is long dead. People come to search Ji-li's home and take a bunch of her family's stuff away to teach them a lesson. Her dad is arrested and put in jail for no reason.
Ji-li tries to support Mao and the new beliefs, despite the trouble it's caused her family. When she's asked to make a presentation about Mao at a big exhibition, she's thrilled—at least she's still good at school stuff. She gets everything ready for the big day, and she nails it at the rehearsal. Afterward, though, government officials ask her to testify against her dad. For what? They don't really care, as long as she does it.
Even though Ji-li believes in the revolution, she can't lie about her dad. It just isn't right. When she refuses to testify, they drop her from the exhibition, and before long, she's sent to the fields to work long days picking wheat. It's back-breaking work, and she even faints from the heat.
When Ji-li gets to go back home, she finds out that her mom has written a letter to the government, complaining. Ji-li knows this isn't good news. Red Guards come to the door, find the letter, and slap her grandma around a bit. She now has to sweep the streets as punishment, and more of their stuff is taken. Ji-li is so depressed, but she knows she has to keep her head up for her family; without each other, they have nothing.
In the epilogue, Ji-li tells us that things were bad for a while. It's thirty years later at this point, though, and her family is finally happy; they live in America now. Her dad got released from prison, but not for a while, and nothing can bring those years back. She tells us that she wrote the book to explain what it was like for her family during the Cultural Revolution. She also wants to bridge the gap between China and the U.S.