In chapter 1, we’re introduced to Ye Wenjie who witnesses her father, Ye Zhhetai, getting murdered by a mob persecuting him for being a “reactionary” during the early stages of China’s cultural revolution in 1967.
They tried to make him say that the theory of relativity was an American capitalist idea, but he would not, even despite his wife, Shao Lin, also a physics professor, trying to force him to do so in front of the gathered mob
They considered the big bang theory that Ye Zhetai taught to be reactionary since prior to the big bang, there was nothing and leaves open the idea that there is a god, and Ye would not definitively say that there was no god, just that he didn’t know since there has been no evidence either way “according to science”
In chapter 2, 3 years later, Ye Wenjie is at the Production and Construction Corps, a labor camp in Inner Mongolia, responsible for cutting trees and dealing with the forest in an area surrounding the mysterious Radar Peak, where people noticed strange phenomena around the appearance of a antenna that seemed to make the ice melt and turned the snow to rain. There are also soldiers that have authorization to shoot anyone who approached the peak.
At the camp, Ye Wenjie meets Bai Mulin, a reporter that introduces her to Silent Spring, an American book that talks about the death of a small town from pesticides. Bai wants to write a letter to the government in Beijing saying that the work they’re doing to the forests of Inner Mongolia are harmful and should be stopped. He eventually asks Ye Wenjie to copy the letter he had written to make it more legible, and Ye agrees.
Later Ye Wenjie is arrested and charged with being a reactionary when Bai Mulin says that she was the one that actually wrote the letter in order to save himself from charges.
Ye Wenjie is given the opportunity of leniency by signing a document, supposed to be written by her sister, saying that she had overheard conversations from her father about a defense project that he was supposed to have been working on. When Ye refuses to sign since she was not aware of the conversations, she is forced to remain in isolation in a cell in the freezing Inner Mongolian winter.