This story focuses on the experience of a man, Chen Xin (pronounced "Chen Zin") who is returning to the city of Shanghai after an absence of ten years. He has spent that time in a rural area and has looked forward to being reunited with his family, which consists of his mother, his elder brother and the brother's wife and child, and his younger brother. The family lives together in cramped quarters and the introduction of the middle brother into this space creates something of a crisis.
The story shows the extreme regimentation of life in the crowded city and gives us insights into a carefully controlled culture where housing, education, moving people forcibly from rural to urban areas, the doling out of jobs, are all controlled by the central bureaucracy of the government. This is a rather generous portrait of Chinese Communism (also called "Maoism" in the past). Near the end of the story, Chen Xin stands looking at a fountain that he loved as a child.
Once there was a statue of a mother and two children there. It no longer stands there, a subtle allusion to the fact that China has long pursued a policy of zero population growth. Families with more than one child are fined and public art that sends any other message is not allowed.
Wang Anyi, who lives and writes in China, does not pursue the politics of the situation. She just states them as givens and focuses instead on the family dynamics and the difficulties experienced by Chen Xin in "fitting in," both physically into a small space and mentally and emotionally as well. City life is very different from his life in the country and one of the themes of the story, a theme alluded to in the story's title,