In this fictional story, Mr Tang, an artist, has been stripped of his livelihood during the Cultural Revolution in China. Painters, writers and intellectuals were forbidden to work during those years (1966-1976). As a result, Mr Tang’s supporters had fallen by the wayside so he and his wife are left alone with time on their hands.
Mr Tang develops a passion for carving pipes, some of which are exquisite. One day he comes across a gnarled old gardener called Lao Tao, an uneducated man but one who knows everything about flowers. He gets into the habit of giving Mr Tang gifts of beautiful peacock-tailed chrysanthemums.
Eventually Mr Tang’s fortunes start to improve. The Chinese authorities allow him to to resume his work as an artist. This means that his friends and admirers start flocking back to see him. However, Mr Tang does not have time to visit Lao Tao who still continues delivering flowers. Matters begin to take an unexpected turn.