This story is about the effects of the Cultural Revolution on individuals in China. The protagonists in this story are Mr. Gao, a school teacher who is a member of the Communist Party in China, and Zhu Yuanda, a peddler of soup who is not a Party member. The day after Mr. Gao moves to his new house (32 years before he tells the story), he meets Zhu selling wontons. Gao makes his living correcting compositions for other overworked teachers, and, as he often has to work late at night, he buys wontons, which he describes as "a powerful temptation and a delight!"
Zhu's practices are capitalist in nature, as he follows the laws of supply and demand. He tells Mr. Gao, "always say there's a limited supply of your product. Then people will snap it up."
Eventually, however, the government turns against all forms of capitalism, and Zhu is forced to sell his goods on the black market. Gao warns his friend that the government will crack down on capitalism, but Zhu is confident about the permanence of capitalism. He says, "Relax. It can't be destroyed. There are people who want to buy things, and those who want to sell. If the state-run stores won't sell things, how can you say capitalism will be abolished?"
Despite Zhu's confidence, he is denounced during the government's anti-rightist campaign, and he asks Mr. Gao to write a self-criticism for him when Zhu is accused of profiteering. Gao criticizes his friend for only working for himself, but Zhu defends himself, saying that he also serves the people by offering them what they want. In speaking with Zhu, who has four children, Mr. Gao realizes how hard the peddler's life has been and how comparatively easy his life has been. He says, "It felt as though cold water had been thrown in my face." Nonetheless, he tries to block out the difficulty of Zhu's situation. He does, however, allow his family to buy from Zhu and celebrates when market freedoms are occasionally permitted by the government.
Over time, Gao also is denounced because he believes that people should work for their money, not just spout jargon about the Party, as he calls it. Gao is not sent to a labor camp, and he retains his salary. However, Zhu suffers a worse fate. His wonton cart is crushed, and he must serve as a laborer in the country. When he returns after eight years, he has become a believer in the Communist Party and wants his son to attend college so that he can spout Party jargon. In the end, Gao thinks, "In these past years I and others had hurt him. We had stifled so much spirit." Gao realizes that everyone just wants to have enough food and to be free of worry, which will not happen under the current system.