In the early 1970s, with China under the yoke of its Cultural revolution, the policy of Mao was to re-educate the "intellectuals" by making them work alongside peasants in order to open their eyes to the harsh realities of life.
Luo and My, two teenage sons of intellectuals belonging to the fields of medicine and science are considered by the system to be enemies of the people and are sent for rehabilitation to a remote region bordering on Tibet. Upon their arrival, the young people settle into their new life of degrading drudgeries. Exhausting work in rice plantations. Extracting with their bare hands the ore of some forgotten mine, infested with malaria. Because of their family history, My and Luo have little hope of returning one day to their normal lives.
One day, the boys meet the Old Tailor and his beautiful granddaughter, the Small Seamstress. My and Luo are sent to see films that are shown at a nearby city – a two day walk away - so that they can return and tell the other villagers the stories. They quickly gain reputations as highly skilled storytellers. Luo falls madly in love with the Small Seamstress, who informs the boys that Binoclard, the son of a known writer and a poetess, has a bag of foreign novels hidden under his bed. The three young people decide to steal the bag and find inside the novels of Flaubert, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dickens, Rolland, Dumas, Rousseau and, of course, Balzac.
Luo and My work during the day and read at night secretly. Each evening, they tell their fellow villagers the adventures of Ursule Mirouët, or those of the Count of Monte Cristo, liberally seasoning them with revolutionary sauce. Gradually, the Small Tailor and the other villagers have their minds opened to thoughts of freedom. Freedom of choice, freedom to think and freedom to dream... well beyond the limits permitted by the Red Book.