As the book opens, the widowed Fu Be-be arrives in Chungking with her 13-year-old son Yuin-fah and a letter from a village friend to Tang Yu-shu, a master coppersmith, asking that Young Fu be given an apprenticeship in Tang's establishment. Because the widow is alone and Young Fu is her only son, he is allowed to complete his apprenticeship while living in a small rented room with her, rather than living in the shop, a plot device which allows us to see more of the city than might otherwise be the case.
In the chapters that follow, Young Fu goes from being a young and somewhat arrogant boy of 13 to a more capable and humble youth of 18. Along the way, he has encounters with soldiers, foreigners, thieves, political activists, an old scholar, the poor of the city, the rich of the city, and government officials. He is alternately swindled, attacked by bandits, reviled and praised as his coppersmith skills grow.