It’s the start of the Chinese Civil War. Revolution is brewing in the south, but in the north, regions continue to be held by local warlords or else foreign interests. Wang Yuan is the son of Wang the Tiger, a now elderly warlord who expects Yuan to take his place, but Yuan hates war and killing and flees from the war school the Tiger had him enrolled in. When the Tiger arranges a marriage for Yuan, that pushes him quite over the edge and he flees to one of the Tiger’s wives’s homes. She lives in a coastal city controlled by foreigners. I’m assuming it’s Hong Kong, but the book uses no names, ever.
He meets his (half-)sister for the first time since they were very young, when the lady (her mother) moved to the coastal city. He also meets new cousins to him, including Meng, who’s a revolutionist that hates — positively hates — foreigners, who he blames for essentially all of China’s problems. The Tiger writes that, if Yuan doesn’t return, he’ll marry him by proxy. The revolution nears the borders of the coastal city and the police start conducting raids of college-age people, executing anyone suspected of being involved. The lady arranges to ship Yuan out of China, to the safety of foreign lands — which sounds very much like California.
Yuan wants to be a farmer and studies agriculture at the foreign college. He befriends one of his professors, who invites him home. The professor is an intellectual and knows all there is to know about plants. He’s also deeply religious and hopes to win Yuan for Christ. Yuan accompanies him to a church service but comprehends none of it. His only other encounter with a preacher was going to a talk and slide show from a missionary back from China. He’s collecting money for desperately poor street beggars — starving, naked, leprous, blind from disease. Yuan is incensed and calls out there’s nothing of the sort in China. Yuan hated China while there but has idealized it since reaching the US. Sheng, his cousin also hiding out in California, tells him that his thoughts are very deep but incredibly narrow: he focuses on one thing to the exclusion of everything else and sees nothing though he’s surrounded by it.
The government is overthrown and the revolutionists are in power. Yuan takes his degree and ships back home, thoroughly excited now that all of China’s problems are solved. After visiting his father, he learns that he’s deeply in debt after funding Yuan’s escape and keeping him six years in the US. It falls on Yuan to repay his expenses. Meng is a captain in the revolutionary army. He’s building the new capital and has arranged a place for Yuan as a professor in the university. The building is old, the windows broken, the door broken, and the students are too cold to pay attention in class. Meng grows disillusioned — the old parasitic rulers have simply been replaced by new parasitic rulers robbing from the starving, naked, leprous, blind from disease beggars that throng the streets. He plots a new revolution.
This new revolution sweeps the north. The Tiger’s lands are taken, his tenants turned against him. Yuan comes to his aid, but he’s already been captured and essentially crucified. Mei-Ling, the lady’s new adopted daughter who’s studying to become a doctor, also comes, but there’s nothing to be done. Yuan, after building up China in his mind abroad and deciding he wants nothing further to do with the white devils, decided he was going to come home and marry Mei-Ling. He found it completely and utterly incomprehensible that she refused. Who ever heard of a maid refusing a marriage? These new ways are the awful influence of foreigners — China should go back to arranged marriages that the bride and groom have no say or appeal in. But now that Yuan and Mei-Ling are standing over the Tiger waiting for his inevitable death… she just changes her mind and now wants to marry Yuan? There’s no “The End” — it just stops there.
Published in 1935, the civil war was nowhere near its end and the Communist Revolution was still a decade off, to say nothing at all of the Cultural Revolution — although the destruction of the olds is a massive part of Meng’s character and is what ultimately sways Yuan to the revolutionists’ cause. All that’s very interesting, though the ending is abrupt and completely unearned.