When a 13-year-old boy in rural central China receives a letter from his absent mother, he sets off alone in search of her. Leaving his sister and grandfather behind, the boy follows the changing landscapes of the Yellow River. Alone and destitute, the boy finds work at a coalmine to survive. He soon runs away from the harsh environment, only to join a group of young thieves in an opium den. On his travels, the struggling boy glimpses occasionally a better world and manages to find beauty and hope despite the many harsh realities of his life.