The novel Female Grasslands begins with a girl named Little One entering the grassland situated between Tibet and Sichuan as a vagrant and fugitive in the mid-1970s. She has fled there to escape a murder charge and the entanglement of an incestuous love affair. In the depths of the desolate and uninhabited grasslands, she sees the banner of the “Red Girls’ Horse-Herding Squad” fluttering above a military tent. The flag is a proof of the existence of a legendary group of teenage girl soldiers who herd military horses. They are part of the grand campaign of sending seven million young urban students to countryside to be reeducated by farmers or herdsmen. As a subdivision of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the girls live like soldiers. The husband of Little One’s paternal aunt, with whom she has had the affair, is a veterinarian and has taught Little One many things about the medical treatment of animals. With her skill and charm, Little One infiltrates the squad.
Soon Little One discovers the position of Shushu (“uncle”) in the squad. He is their political commissar, a Tibetan who comes and goes unpredictably, a man with a chieftain’s bearing who brings months-old newspapers and correspondence to the girls. He is the only male around and the girls’ sole contact with the outside world. Little One finds that this man not only has official power over the young women, but he also dominates their feelings, for they are in the height of their adolescence. They secretly adore Shushu and fight each other for his favor.
One day their squad leader Kedan, a Tibetan herdswoman, brings a baby back to the camp, claiming she has picked it up somewhere while herding horses. Only Little One has noticed Kedan’s pregnancy over the long winter, and everyone but Little One believes Kedan’s account of the baby’s origin. Knowing the truth of the baby and its father, Little One and Kedan establish an implicit friendship on the foundation of sympathy, mutual understanding and tacit complicity.
Little One, by keeping their secrets, succeeds in cultivating close relations with all the members of the squad except Hong. Hong is incorruptible. She influences her comrades by setting an example of honesty and altruism through her silent perseverance. She shows contempt toward the method of taming horses the girls use, namely letting the horses drink the girls’ bath water, which they believe is the most effective way of creating a personal, almost sensual bond with the horses. Hong believes in conquering horses with strength and willpower rather than cheating their affection. Hong finds in Little One’s quality something untrustworthy. She even starts to suspect Little One was involved in a murder committed by a group of juvenile delinquents. Hong holds Little One’s influence upon the squad in check, while the girls begin to show interest in their looks and a longing for the opposite sex. Hong wants the girls to understand that pursuing physical pleasure is in conflict with their achieving the noble cause—the ideal of pure communism.
After a while, Little One becomes used to the hard life of the squad. She uses her charm and beauty to get security from Shushu the commissar. She finds the easiest way to secure her place in the squad is to hold on to others’ secret shortcomings. None of the girls around her are as noble as Hong; Kedan has a bastard child; Mao Ya tries to monopolize the commissar; Du Weiwei has lesbian tendencies. Nonetheless, they all lead a simple life that makes her envious. Form her meeting with a young cavalry major of the PLA, Little One becomes even more envious of her comrades for their clean records and their purity and simplicity of body and soul. If she were one of them, her love for the young major would have a future. So she strives to become like them. She breaks of ties with her uncle and sets her mind to follow Hong, working hard and denying herself worldly pleasures. Over a span of three years through their sporadic meetings, she loves him in silence and despair. She feels like a Cinderella who will never obtain her glass slippers.
The squad leads a colorful life in the bitter struggle on the grasslands, sending teams of horses to the army for the cavalry, launching large-scale bloody battles with wolves, slaughtering livestock in the winter, and so on. They have succeed in taming a miraculous red steed through all sorts of hardships, mating it, gelding it and sending it to the army, but at last they have to kill it when it returns to them, infected by disease. The squad’s dog, the old bitch Mumu, keeps raises two abandoned wolf cubs after she stops breeding. One of the two, one returns to the wild and becomes the most ferocious wolf. The other acquires the nature of Mumu and becomes an excellent hound, but in the end it is killed for the ineradicable root of suspicion in its blood. The squad leader Kedan suddenly becomes the most humble member of the squad after the secret of her illegitimate child is discovered. She is even reduced to the status of a Tibetan slave to all the Han Chinese girls in the squad. Mao Ya gets married in haste to a local herdsman. Du Weiwei never recovers after crossing an icy river and dies of illness on her long-desired trip home. The Commissar fights the wolves heroically until he ultimately disappears amid in the vast multitude of wolves together with his tyranny, his valor and his protection for the girls. He lives on through Bubu, his bastard son by Kedan. At this juncture, a new personality emerges in Little One. She is amazed to find she no longer feels any need to cheat or trick or use her natural talent of charming or seducing men. The simple, harsh life gives her sense of peace. She dreams that someday, with all the sins purged from her, she will offer up the cavalry major a clean body deserving of his love.
Just at the moment that Little One begins to live like Hong, her past crime is revealed. Hong gets Little One to confess her participation in the murder. She persuades Little One to give herself up to the authorities. Little One flees instead, at Kedan’s suggestion. One day, all the herders make fire to block the spread of a livestock epidemic. The fire goes out of control and breaks into a conflagration. Little One, days after her escape, shows up and joins the fight to extinguish the prairie fire. They cut off the fire from all directions, but at last the wind direction suddenly changes. All of them manage to get out except Little One, who hesitates at the last moment. Although her life has had no purpose, her death is for a cause, even if it is negated or even ridiculed by future generations.
Hong goes off to pursue the hundreds of horses shocked into a stampede. The girls make ready to follow her as usual when Kedan stands in their way. Punished for bearing an illegitimate child, the submissive female slave suddenly recovers her original ferocity. She tells them that all the students are now returning to the cities and the cavalry has been disbanded as part of the PLA’s reduction in force. There will be no need for horses in future wars, therefore the grasslands are to be returned to the Tibetans. Kedan appears to be helping the girls, but in fact she is driving them away—driving out of the grasslands the last group of female occupants who don’t belong there.