Wang, an impoverished water seller, tries to find lodging for three prominent gods, who have come to Earth to find good people. Wang’s request is refused by everyone. Wang himself lives under a bridge and has no home to offer. He finally asks the town’s prostitute, Shen Teh, who agrees to take them in. The next morning, Shen Teh tells the gods that she cannot make a living though she tries to be good. The gods decide to pay her for lodgings when they leave.
Shen Teh uses the gods’ payment of a thousand silver dollars to buy a small tobacconist business. She hopes to do good through her shop, but people start to take advantage of her. The former owner, Mrs. Shin, begs for rice and money. An elderly couple, who were the first people to take Shen Teh in when she moved to the city but who evicted her when she had no money, ask for shelter for themselves and six relatives. The elderly couple criticize Shen Teh for being too nice. They tell her she should put people off by saying a relative actually owns the store. She is forced to use this excuse several times, including when the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, demands six months rent in advance. The elderly couple’s relatives convince the landlady that Shen Teh’s cousin, Shui Ta, is really in charge. The elderly couple believe that Shen Teh will soon be out of business, but they continue to take advantage of her hospitality. Shen Teh is worried that she will lose her shop.
The gods charge Wang with looking after Shen Teh and informing them of her progress.
In the morning, the elderly couple’s family wonders where Shen Teh is. In her absence, her cousin, Shui Ta, enters with a carpenter. Shui Ta says that Shen Teh will not be coming back and demands that they leave. Shui Ta disposes of several business matters and has the elderly couple’s family arrested. When Shui Ta cannot convince the landlady to exempt Shen Teh from paying six months’ rent in advance, a policeman suggests that Shen Teh marry to raise capital for the shop. A personal ad is composed to attract someone appropriate.
In a public park, Shen Teh comes upon a young pilot, Yang Sun, preparing to hang himself. It starts to rain, and Sun and Shen Teh seek shelter together. Sun reveals that he cannot find a job, while Shen Teh reveals she has worked as a prostitute. Sun begins to appreciate Shen Teh, but he tells her that he could never love her.
The gods visit Wang for a progress report. Wang tells them that Shen Teh is in love with Sun, and has remained good. Wang mentions that Shui Ta has been uncharitable, and the gods are not pleased with the cousin’s actions.
Several people whom Shen Teh has helped wait for her outside her shop. Shen Teh had spent the night with Sun and forgotten that she needs to pay the rent on her shop. A carpet dealer and his wife lend her the 200 silver dollars that she needs. When she leaves the carpet dealer’s shop, Wang shows her his hand, which has been broken by the rich barber, Shu Fu. Though there are many witnesses to Shu Fu’s crime, none will corroborate Wang’s story. Shen Teh becomes angry at those waiting and tells them to leave. Sun’s mother, Mrs. Yang, approaches her, because Sun needs 500 silver dollars to get a pilot’s job. Shen Teh immediately gives her the 200 silver dollars that the carpet dealer gave her, and pledges to get the rest.
Shen Teh reveals that she is really Shui Ta.
Shui Ta is running the shop when Yang Sun shows up. The young pilot wants the remaining 300 silver dollars so he can get his job. Yang Sun even says that he will marry Shen Teh. Shui Ta suggests that he give back the 200 silver dollars and help Shen Teh run the tobacconist business, but Sun insists that they sell the shop for 300 silver dollars instead. Shui Ta agrees until Sun reveals that he intends to leave Shen Teh behind with nothing to live on when he goes to his job. Shui Ta asks for the 200 silver...
(The entire section is 1,656 words.)