Liang Haoyuan and Xie Zhiqiang, respectively the son of a teacher and of a farmer, grow up together in a small village on China's Huangtu Plateau. Fired with ambition, the friends study hard and are both accepted to Qingdou University. There, too, the shy Haoyuan and the irrepressible Zhiqiang settle into the same dorm and quickly establish themselves as a duo, going out in the morning to shout verses by the lakeside and otherwise joyously throwing themselves into campus life. The two are also inspired by a young male literature teacher, Professor Gan, to host a reading circle where they meet Yinglu, a female English-lit major with whom Zhiqiang soon falls in love. In 1989, as the student democratization movement ripples out into China's provinces, Yinglu and the young men go with Gan to see the protests at Tiananmen Square and on their return organize their own local hunger strike. But come June and the crackdown at Tiananmen, the Qingdou demonstration is also quelled, prompting Gan and Yinglu to flee the country. Haoyuan and Zhiqiang briefly return to their studies, but are expelled after injuring an older man for criticizing the student movement at a drinking house. In 1993 Haoyuan marries the daughter of a Japanese World War II orphan and begins working at a print shop in Japan, while Zhiqiang, unable to forget Yinglu, stays behind. Then, as the year 2000 draws to a close, Haoyuan encounters Gan and Yinglu in Tokyo. The novel searchingly depicts the regret of those who in the flush of youth sought democracy out of love for their country, yet in the end became no more than abortive revolutionaries.