The narrator is misdiagnosed with lung cancer, the same disease that killed his father. He is panicked, but a second set of X rays convinces his doctors that he is healthy and will live for many years. The narrator leaves Beijing to travel among ethnic minority peoples living along the Yangzi River. He begins in the west and moves eastward toward the East China Sea. Early in his wanderings, he hears of Soul Mountain (Ling shan). He is intrigued and tries to locate the place.
The narrator wanders through remote parts of southern Sichuan, through rugged Guizhou, and farther east to Hunan Province. Much of his time is spent in forests or natural reserves, where he talks with forest rangers, archeologists, and local residents, most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups. He delights in meeting and talking with elders in minority communities. The narrator records detailed explanations of the flora and fauna he encounters, as well as a series of strange and marvelous stories from the people he meets.
The narrator’s wanderings lead him to Jiangxi, his home province. The homecoming stirs up memories of his dead mother and grandmother. From Jiangxi, he proceeds eastward to Zhejiang Province, where he continues to visit remote wilderness areas. He stays away from cities, but on occasional visits he finds city people who are aware of his published writing and eager to meet him. For short periods, he enjoys their company.
Interspersed through the novel are chapters involving a woman identified as “she” who interacts with a person called “you.” “She” is frequently identified as a nurse and expresses great fears, despondency, and anger toward “you.” At times, “she” appears to be a composite of more than one woman.
The novel ends in the late 1980’s in Beijing, where various people seek out the narrator looking for assistance. The narrator remains an observer, however, and offers no help to his visitors. In a closing chapter, he realizes that he does not yet want to find Taoist enlightenment but rather wants to continue to live in the puzzling, confusing, and cruel human world. The novel closes with a short chapter expressing the narrator’s lack of understanding of the meaning of existence.