There are three people in China who will never die: one is Cao Cao, one is Yuan Shao, and the other is the novel’s first-person narrator. When Cao Cao was a senior minister during the Three Kingdoms Period, the narrator was his personal attendant, giving him daily foot massages, and Yuan Shao was a powerful warlord. Cao Cao led his forces into battle against Yuan Shao, telling his men that this fight against Yuan Shao was for justice and ideals; Yuan Shao told his men the same thing about their fight against Cao Cao. A huge battle ensued, and the blood ran in rivers. Over 1900 years later, the narrator discovers that this battle was actually over a beautiful young woman.
In the Ming Dynasty, Cao Cao, Yuan Shao, and the narrator have all become peasants in Shanxi Province. Because of the continuing war in Henan, the Hongwu Emperor comes up with an idea: move the peasants from Shanxi to Henan to bring new land under cultivation. Back in Shanxi, everyone gathers under a giant locust tree to say their goodbyes. By the time they finally reach the location of their resettlement, in Yanjin County on the banks of the Yellow River, many of them have already died on the road. Yanjin then becomes the “hometown” of the narrator.
During the Qing Dynasty, Yanjin becomes part of the “Heavenly Kingdom” during the Taiping Rebellion. The local leader, “Little Pockmark,” holds a beauty contest, and Cao Cao, Yuan Shao, and the narrator are given the task of helping Little Pockmark find the most beautiful woman in Yanjin. When the forces of Empress Dowager Cixi overcome the Taiping rebels and take Little Pockmark prisoner, Cao Cao, Yuan Shao, and the narrator become the executioners and put Little Pockmark to death.
In 1960 the Great Famine sweeps over China, and many in Yanjin starve to death, including Cao Cao and Yuan Shao. The narrator discovers that, by the cover of night, some people have been engaging in cannibalism. When the leadership visits Yanjin to investigate, the narrator reports the situation and feels a sudden bout of nausea. From that point on, he never again eats meat.