Minli is the only child of her parents, and lives in a village near Fruitless Mountain. Her Ma and Ba work hard planting rice, but the soil is not good and they have a three room house and just enough plain rice to eat. Ba is a storyteller, and he tells Minli, who loves stories, that the mountain is fruitless because it is the sad heart of Jade Dragon, who withheld rain from people out of anger, only to have her beloved children turn themselves into rivers so that the people would not starve. Ma is always upset when he tells stories, saying that it distracts Minli and offers no help to their grinding poverty.
Minli was given two copper coins when she was born, and one day when a goldfish seller comes through the village, she uses one of them to buy a goldfish. Her mother complains that they do not have enough rice for themselves. Ba tells a story about the Old Man of the Moon, who lives on Never-Ending Mountain, and reads the Book of Fortune, tying threads of destiny to the people listed there. Minli sees her father give a little of his rice to feed the goldfish, and realizes that it is just another mouth to feed. She decides to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask how to change their family’s destiny. Minli gathers her things in a bundle, and takes the goldfish to the river. In appreciation, it tells her how to get to Never-Ending Mountain (it was a well-traveled goldfish before being caught by the goldfish peddler). After making a compass by stroking a needle with a rock from Fruitless Mountain, she sets off with a good will, so as to outdistance her parents if they come looking for her.
Ma and Ba do go looking for her the next day, with Ma blaming Ba for telling the stories that got her thinking that she could change their fortune by talking to the Old Man of the Moon. They walk all night, and Ma angrily insisted on continuing to search even though they were tired. But the foot-prints they thought were Minli’s turn out to be those of the goldfish peddler. Ba decides that they were not destined to find Minli and advises that they return home and wait for her to return. The peddler gives him a silver goldfish, which occasionally talks to him, but Ma cannot hear it.
Minli rescues a dragon who was tied down by monkeys while he slept, to prevent him from eating or even looking at the peaches in their trees. The dragon was the creation of a painter who punished an arrogant and greedy magistrate. The painter left off the eyes, and when the magistrate discovered this some time later and added them, the dragon came to life and destroyed the palace escaping. But the dragon could not fly. They pass through the monkeys’ forest by Minli cooking some rice, and covering it with a net that has holes only big enough for an empty hand to pass through. The monkeys grabbed the fragrant rice but could not get their hands out, and were too greedy for the rice to let go of it and escape. The peaches were delicious.
The fish had told Minli to go to the City of Bright Moonlight and get the borrowed line from the guardian of the city. On the way they met a gold fish who was likely a cousin of Minli’s goldfish which advised the dragon to stay hidden, as a dragon had smashed the king of the City’s great-grandfather’s palace some years ago and dragons were not kindly received. So the dragon stayed out of site and waited for Minli. Minli found that the king lived in a city within the city and she could not get in, so she spent the night at boy with a water buffalo’s house. He had a friend that was visiting him briefly that night, and he asked her how Minli could find the king. His friend said that the king would be at a specific market the next day. So Minli went and found a beggar asking for a peach from a merchant. The merchant refused and insulted him. Minli spent her last coin for a peach and gave it to him, which he at, and then planted a seed, which rapidly grew into a tree with peaches. The beggar offered his peaches to everyone for free, and the people (including the merchant) gladly ate the peaches. But Minli noticed that every time someone at a peach, one peach of the merchant’s disappeared. Then the tree shrank back into a seed.
Minli brushed against the beggar, and briefly saw that he was wearing a yellow robe with golden dragons embroidered on it. The beggar fled, and Minli realized that he was the king, so she ran after him, just as he pushed open a secret door in the wall of the city. So Minli did the same and went after him. The king was surprised but pleased, and ordered his courtiers to bring him a meal for two in one of the gardens and to not disturb him until the next day. The meal tasted wonderful and Minli told him what she was looking for. The king said that his family had kept a sheet of paper that his ancestor had ripped out of the Book of Fortune in anger one day when he met the Old Man of the Moon, who had told him that his son would marry a grocer’s daughter. The ancestor, the arrogant magistrate from previous stories, wanted his son to marry the king’s daughter, so he ripped the page to prevent it. But the grocer’s family died in a flood and only the daughter survived, and the king adopted her. And the magistrate’s son married her, and became the next king. His family had kept the paper ever since, and it had only one line of text on it that could only be seen in moonlight, and gave advice on what to do in a situation. Right now it said, “you cannot lose what you do not keep,” which the king took to mean he should give it to Minli. (The Old Man of the Moon had mentioned that he had borrowed the paper for his book, hence the line on it was borrowed.)
The next morning, the dragon discovered that the stone lions in front of the city gate were alive, and they told him how the city was tearing itself apart after the magistrate’s son, who had become king, and invited the magistrate to live in the city. The Old Man of the Moon came by and gave them a thread of destiny and told them to hold it until it was needed. The king eventually forced his father out of the city, so the lions never had to use the string, and they gave it to the dragon.
Minli and the dragon continued walking as they goldfish had directed. They took shelter in a cave for the evening, and were attacked by a savage green tiger. The dragon protected Minli, but the tiger’s claws ripped the dragon and poisoned the flesh. Minli went to look for help. She found twins, a boy and a girl, who outwitted the tiger into thinking there was another tiger in the well laughing at him, and the tiger jumped in after it. They took Minli home, and when Minli had told about the dragon, the grandfather immediately took some medicine and went to the dragon.
Minli was very tired and slept all day. The medicine cured the dragon, but it also had a good flavor, and since the water came from a nearby well, they decided to call the drink Dragon Well tea. The family was the family that Ba had told Minli about, which was completely happy. The magistrate had asked for their secret, and the grandfather had given him a sheet of paper, but it blew away before the magistrate’s servants got back. The magistrate didn’t believe that it was a single line of text anyway, and felt insulted by them, so he sent people to kill them. But when they got to the house, the house and family was completely gone. This was the family, and when they had heard that they were to be killed, the grandfather advised that they live the day just as they wanted, so the children flew kites and the grandfather read poetry. They had a great time, but when they started to go back home, they found that they were somewhere else; Old Man of the Moon had apparently used the kites to take them away. But when the magistrate died he became an evil green tiger and came back to hurt them. Fortunately, the twins had fixed the problem.
The family cut a piece of their clothes to make a warm coat for Minli, because they were in the mountains and it was cold. Then they showed her how to get to Never-Ending Mountain. She and the dragon went there, and decided that the only thing to do was to make a kite out of the paper and the thread of destiny. The thread seemed to grow longer and longer as the kite flew out of site, and then it got quite difficult to pull. They pulled it back and down came a bridge of thread and wood. The dragon could not fly, but was too big for the bridge, so he waited as Minli went up alone.
As she climbed higher and higher she found that the clouds and stars turned into the celestial river when viewed from above, and eventually the bridge ended at the moon. A rabbit took her to the Old Man, who was a little brusque, and said that every 99 years someone comes to ask him a question. He said Minli could ask one question. She wanted to know how to change her destiny, but she also wanted to know how the dragon could fly. The old man had his book open and the page returned to it, but now it had one character written on it over and over: thankfulness. And Minli realized that the family that had given her the coat was happy without lots of money, and that really, she had all she wanted: her mother and father loved her and she loved them. She did not need to ask a question for herself, so her question was why the dragon could not fly.
Meanwhile, her mother and father had been anxiously waiting for her return. Ma started asking Ba to tell stories. Then one night she told him a story, about a women who was jealous of the money and fine clothes that other people had (outside their village, for their village was poor and everything was the color of mud). She scoffed at stories and drove her daughter to seek a way to change their fortune. But after the daughter left, the woman realized that what she wanted most was her daughter, and that they already had enough, even though it was not much.
After a many hours Minli returned down the bridge to where the dragon was eagerly awaiting the answer to his question. She told him: the stone on his head was weighing him down, so she pulled it off him, and he was able to fly. They flew back to her village, where the dragon wanted to make his home on Fruitless Mountain. On the way there they saw an orange dragon far below them: it was the color of Minli’s goldfish, which had been searching for a gate which turned fish into dragons if they were able to jump through it. When they parted, Minli asked if the dragon wanted the stone, and he said she could keep it.
Ma and Ba were overjoyed when they found that Minli had returned. Ba recognized the stone from the dragon as a Dragon Pearl, which is worth more than a king’s treasure. And the villagers discovered that Fruitless Mountain was no longer dark and grey but full of new life, and Jade River was no longer muddy but clear. Then Minli realized that the dragon was one of Jade Dragon’s children, in a way: he had been painted with ink from an inkstone taken from Fruitless Mountain, and so was the child of her heart.
The goldfish peddler returned to the village two years later and did not recognize it. The mountain was green, and the village had nice wooden doors with carvings on them, and he sold out of his goldfish immediately, instead of just one girl buying one. And woman came out and embraced him, and then a man, who he recognized as the parents. He had heard that there was a family in the village that had given a Dragon Pearl to the king of the City of Bright Moonlight and the grateful king had given the village seeds and farming tools, and now the village was prosperous. Ma and Ba invited him in, where all the children were waiting to be told the story of Minli’s trip to Never-Ending Mountain. He could see Minli was sitting in the garden, watching the moonlight on the leaves and fish in the pond, and looking up toward Never-Ending Mountain.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is one of the best stories I have ever read. Lin is able to tell a complex story with rich emotional and visual detail in few words, so it is readable by children but still feels like a really rich story. (It reminds me of Biblical narratives, which also compress a lot of story into few words.) The story has frequent stories within it, which slowly reveal the backstory. At first you assume that the stories are just unrelated stories, but after a while you notice that the relationship of the characters to the larger story, and by the end all the stories have woven together into one big story. Yet each story retains the feeling of a fairy tale and each stands on its own.
The story-telling brings ancient China to life. If you have lived in China you immediately can picture the scenes that Lin describes—the doorposts, for instance—and you can hear the characters. The personalities and the values are definitely Chinese. The loving, harsh, angry mother is a pretty common personality. Likewise the value for fortune, and the value for honoring / obeying parents is Chinese. Of course, since Lin is Chinese-American, there are some American elements, but everything is blended nicely and the people feel like they are real and belong in a Chinese fairy tale.
This book is brilliant story-telling that the children’s-book medium condenses to a tale that is both spartan and richly descriptive. It weaves many different Chinese stories into a new story that is both modern and mythical, that is faithful to the genre but makes its meaning much clearer. Unlike traditional stories, however, the characters’ emotions shine through, bringing the stories to life in a similar fashion to how the ink brought the dragon to life. This is story-telling at its finest. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will enjoy the journey.