Where the Mountain Meets the Moon begins with a description of a small girl, Minli, and her parents, who live in a poor village at the base of Fruitless Mountain. Every day, the family works in the mud growing rice. The effort is enormous, and they grow barely enough to feed themselves. Even so, Minli is a happy and vibrant child who eagerly listens as her father, whom she calls Ba, tells stories every night. Her mother, Ma, complains that these stories are foolish and harmful. She says they make Minli dream instead of focusing on the reality of the family’s poor fortune.
The text of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is interspersed with many short legends. Ba tells the first such story. It is about Jade Dragon, who used to be beloved by the people of the earth because she controlled the rain that made crops grow. However, when a few people complained that they preferred sunshine, Jade Dragon grew angry. She refused to let it rain anymore, thus leaving the people of the earth to suffer and starve. Jade Dragon’s four children took pity on the people and transformed their bodies into great rivers to nourish the land. This made Jade Dragon regret her selfishness. Her grief at losing her children made Fruitless Mountain barren of growth. Ba explains that the mountain will remain fruitless until Jade Dragon is reunited with one of her children.
When this story is finished, Minli asks to hear another, but Ba refuses, not wanting to displease Ma. The next day, the family works hard in the rice paddies as always. As she works, Minli wishes she could change her family’s fortune. That afternoon, she meets a man who sells goldfish. He says they bring good fortune, so Minli buys one using one of only two copper coins she owns. When her parents find out, Ma is angry. “It will take more than a goldfish to bring fortune to our house,” she says. Ba, however, seems glad that Minli is so hopeful. He scoops some plain rice out of his bowl for the fish to eat.
Minli feels guilty when her father gives up some of his food for her fish. She realizes that her family cannot afford to feed a pet. In the morning, she sneaks out of the house and releases the fish into the river. To her surprise, the fish speaks and says that it has swum every river of the world except the Jade River—the one Minli has brought her to now. In thanks, the fish tells Minli how to travel to Never-Ending Mountain to find the Old Man of the Moon, who may know how Minli can change her family’s fortune.
The next day, Minli sneaks away from her village, leaving a note for her parents saying where she is going. She walks deep into the forest and travels all through the night, stopping to sleep at first light. The next day she finds a stream, but it is salty. Curious, she follows it and finds a red dragon crying a river of tears. He is tied up with some ropes, so Minli cuts him free. The dragon explains that he does not know how to fly and wants to learn, so Minli invites him to come with her to see the Old Man of the Moon, the only person who might be able to tell him how.
When Minli’s parents discover that she is missing, they run after her. They travel all through the night, searching. Ma blames Ba, saying that his stories put foolish ideas in Minli’s head. As they search, they come upon the goldfish man, who listens to their troubles and tells them his story. When he was a teenager, he learned that he was going to die young. He spoke to the Old Man of the Moon, who changed the Book of Fortune to give him ninety-nine years of life instead of nineteen. The goldfish man says that Minli, too, may be able to change her fortune. Ma and Ba say that Minli is too little to do such a thing. “Perhaps…you need to trust her,” the goldfish man says.
Ma and Ba camp in the forest, and Ba tells the story of a greedy magistrate who tried to steal the secret of happiness from a poor but otherwise perfect family. The elder of the family gave up the secret readily. He wrote a single word on a sheet of paper, but the magistrate’s soldiers lost it on the way home. When the magistrate heard about this, he decided that the family must have been trying to trick him. He resolved to kill them for this impertinence, but when he and his army arrived at their house, they had mysteriously disappeared. At the end of the story, Ba says that he thinks nobody is meant to find Minli, just as the magistrate was not meant to find the paper that explained the secret of happiness.
Still following the goldfish’s instructions, Minli sets out for the City of Bright Moonlight. She is supposed to find the city’s Guardian and ask for something called “the borrowed line.” She assumes that the Guardian is the king, so she leaves Dragon in the forest outside the city and goes in alone. She meets an orphan boy who lives alone with only a water buffalo for company, and she tells him that she needs to see the king. The boy finds out that the king is supposed to appear in the Market of Green Abundance. He takes Minli there, and she tries to give him the one copper coin she has left. The boy laughs and refuses to accept it. Minli watches him go, feeling puzzled that he is so...
(The entire section is 2124 words.)