Born near the beginning of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, little Min Li has few worries, other than a spider who has taken over the family outhouse. She believes she lives in the world's greatest nation, the People's Republic of China, and that her family enjoys the fruits of the liberation of the proletariat because they can eat rice twice a week and meat once a year. Too soon her innocence is shattered when the Red Guards terrorize her village. Min Li must elude the armed Red Guards in order to rescue a crystal monkey from Mr. Li's gift shop.
The first toy she ever possessed, Min Li believes it has magical qualities as she meets the monkey in her dreams and it shows her new and wonderful places. But she must hide it from the Red Guards, a plan thwarted by an ugly spider which was indirectly responsible for Min Li giving her brother a concussion. Min Li's father comes home for the lunar new year holiday, finds the crystal monkey, and sells it, using the money to buy liquor for himself.
Life soon becomes worse for Min Li as her school is closed for three years and her grandparents are accused of being counterrevolutionaries and must secretly flee the country. Despite this, Min Li knows the secret to changing her family's history is by being successful in school. Against all odds, Min Li succeeds and is accepted by China's best universities with full scholarships. Her pride and future is dashed, however, when her father sells her into a marriage so that he could get into the Communist Party, and Min Li must marry the boy who twice attempted to rape her. She tries to run away, but her father catches her, horribly beats her, but is thwarted by Min Li's cleverness.
After moving to a big city, Min Li lands a job as an English teacher for a primary school where she meets an American English teacher and they fall in love. He manages to find her grandparents address in America and buys her a gift from a second hand store, the crystal monkey.