In rural China difficulties with the harvest coupled with the birth of yet another daughter force Pao to accompany his inquisitive,lively eight-year-old daughter Pei to work in the silk factory. Here, despite initially feeling abandoned by her family and a great loneliness, she begins to forge friendship with those who live with her at the girl's house. Her best friend becomes Lin.
As she matures Pei understands that being a silk worker gives her a freedom that would have been impossible to have had if she had remained with her family. At 16 Pei decides that she will never marry and with Lin joins the Sisterhood, the unmarried women who devote their lives to Silkworking, through the "Hairdressing Ceremony".
Due to the depression in the 1930's a deterioration in the working conditions and hours of the silk workers brings them to the decision to strike in 1932. In the background, however, we also become aware of the threats of Japanese invasion which become a nightmare reality and in 1938 we leave Lin who is now fleeing to Hong Kong.
The book spans a period of time from 1919 to 1938 in Pei's life.
This book is well researched and a very interesting perspective on all women, but in particular the silk workers, and culture in rural China. The Silk workers were considered "different" and eyed suspiciously by all; Despite this and the difficulties of their work they consider themselves lucky as they were able to have both the freedom and financial security that gave them not only the opportunity to maintain their families but also have money for themselves.
This is in stark contrast with the life they would have had if they had remained with their family.