Under the tightly controlled family planning system in China, women do not possess the right to reproduce freely. Starting from the womb itself, and panning out to encompass a variety of personal, family and national affairs, including the complex issues surrounding family planning, the uterus, birth control, the body and female sexual desire, the novel portrays the lives and marriages of five women in contemporary China.
Old Grandmother Qi is young when she becomes a widow. Adhering to social and moral convention, she consciously quashes all her desires, whereby her womb goes to waste and becomes a cold palace. Wu Aixing’s domineering husband dies a comical death during an affair, leaving her a widow in her early thirties, with five daughters to look after.
The eldest daughter Chu Yun marries “the cock”, Yan Zhenqing, and has her tubes tied after their second child. The second daughter marries a mortician called Wang Yangming, and also has her tubes tied after giving birth. The third daughter marries a retired, disabled soldier in town who owns a photography studio; she obeys the one-child policy, and uses birth control, but when she decides to start a new family with a new man, she tries to have her birth control ring removed at an illegal clinic. The procedure fails, leaving her infertile after a hysterectomy is required in order to save her life. The fourth daughter leaves home and undergoes various hardships, finally earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. Faced with the choice between giving birth and sacrificing her own life, or terminating a pregnancy, she was once forced to undergo an abortion, losing her ability to bear children. However, she conceals this fact from her husband, to the extent of using another woman as a surrogate, as her husband is very eager to have children. The youngest daughter is the most intelligent of the five girls, becoming a doctor, but having seen the catastrophes that childbearing has brought upon her elder sisters, she detests children, as well as the female body. She eventually meets a fellow doctor, Zhu Hao, who she falls in love with and marries. She becomes the type of woman herself she resents. The only woman to marry into the Chu family – a beautiful, but weak-minded girl – dies in the mountains at night when she goes into hiding in an attempt to escape the family planning officials.
At the end of the novel, the Chinese government all but abolishes the family planning policy, permitting the birth of the second child, as well as encouraging conception in general. However, no one knows whether Chinese women can be truly liberated from the long history of enforced birth control…