The plot of this play is derived from the novel A Dream of Red Mansions, which was written in the mid-eighteenth century and remains one of China's most popular novels. In this love story of two young people from prestigious families, the leading male character, Bao Yu, is a pampered young man who spends his time cut off from the outside world, simply because he is the family's only son. He lives in relative isolation with his cousins — two lovely and knowledgeable young ladies named Lin Dai Yu and Xue Baochai — because his father wants him to study for the civil service exam without distraction.
Lin Dai Yu is a fragile young girl, and falls in love with Bao Yu. Xue Baochai is lively by contrast, and is a family favourite. The three cousins are close companions, enjoying the beauty of the garden and writing poetry which they read to one another. Bao Yu rarely thinks about the exam, preferring instead to enjoy the companionship of Lin Dai Yu.
Bao Yu's mother becomes concerned about Bao Yu's relationship with his cousin, because Lin Dai Yu is always sick and morose. Bao Yu's mother wants Xue Baochai to become her daughter-in-law instead, but she knows Bao Yu will never agree. With the support of other family members, Bao Yu's mother tells her son that he will marry his beloved Lin Dai Yu. On the wedding day, however, the bride is Xue Baochai instead. Lin Dai Yu learns of the marriage, but does not know that Bao Yu has been tricked into it. On the day of the wedding, Lin Dai Yu burns the manuscripts of all the poems she wrote to Bao Yu, then dies of haemoptysis.
Bao Yu does not learn that his bride is Xue Baochai until the wedding night. He runs from the house, only to learn that Lin Dai Yu is dead. He mourns his lover and decides to abandon the great red mansion for a simple life as a Buddhist monk.