Zhao Ruzhou, a talented scholar from Shandong, is in love with a famous courtesan called Xie Suqiu.Although they have never met before, they communicate by writing letters and poems to each other.Ruzhou’s sworn brother, Qian Jizhi, initially opposes to his sworn brother’s relationship with a courtesan,however, after hearing about Suqiu’s chaste reputation, he agrees to arrange a meeting for the lovebirds. Unfortunately, things go wrong and they fail to meet.
Prime Minister Wang Fu has intended to force Suqiu to be his concubine, but instead he presents her, along with over a hundred women he keeps, to the state of Jin for appeasement. Ruzhou tries to rescueSuqiu but is misled into thinking that she has poisoned herself, although she has actually been rescued. Worried about Ruzhou’s future, Jizhi persuades Suqiu not to meet him before he has passed the imperial examination. Suqiu is asked to stay in the Red Pear Yard next to Zhao's house. One night, the drunkenRuzhou sees a large red butterfly, which he takes for the incarnation of Suqiu’s ghost and chases it all the way to the Red Pear Yard. Because of Jizhi’s advice, Suqiu keeps her distance from him. As Jizhi urgesRuzhou to go to the capital for the imperial examination, Suqiu is saddened by the departure of her lover. Worse still, she is betrayed by her sworn sister; Wang Fu abducts her, and takes her back to his place to be his concubine.
Having come out first in the examination, Ruzhou is ordered by the emperor to
investigate into Wang Fu’s bribery to the state of Jin. Wang Fu wants to present Suqiu to Ruzhou, and the lovers meet again. Having been told by Jizhi of all that has happened, Ruzhou finally realizes that she is none other than the girl he loves. Wang Fu, as the story ends, reaps what he has sown.