The play is set in China between World War I and World War II. The title character, Shen Te, is a poor but warmhearted prostitute. The action centers on the desire of Shen Te to be good and the impossibility of living up to that standard in society. She has a small amount of money, which she must use to help herself and those around her to a better life if she is to be good. Because she alone was willing to shelter three gods, they have favored her with a gift of money. She purchases a tobacco shop but finds that her kinsfolk and other customers take advantage of her kindness. She discovers very quickly, however, that in order to survive she must invent a tough cousin, a formidable businessman, to protect her interests. Thus throughout the play she alternates between two roles: As herself, she is the gentle, generous, sweet Shen Te, but when she must meet business crises head-on, she assumes the identity of a man, the harsh and sometimes vicious Shui Ta.