Scene 1: Enlightening the Daughter
When Governor Du Bao returns from an official tour, his only daughter Du Liniang, serves wine to him and his wife Dame Du, to celebrate the coming of spring. Her maid Chunxiang inadvertently reveals, that they catnap when done with their needlework. Du Bao chastises Liniang for idleness, then plans to engage a strict Confucian tutor to educate her.
Scene 2: The Classroom
Tutor Chen Zuiliang teaches Du Liniang and her maid Chunxiang ("Spring fragrance"), a love poem from the Book of Songs, usually interpreted as a poem about feminine virtues. Chunxiang disrupts the lesson and escapes by pretending to have to relieve herself. She comes back and entices Liniang to go with her to a beautiful garden. Tutor Chen is about to punish Chunxiang, but Liniang takes over and feigns beating Chunxiang.
Scene 3: Interrupted Dream
Du Liniang wakes from a restless sleep. She decides to dress up and go to the garden that Chunxiang talked about earlier. Chunxiang admires her dress and jewelry and she expresses her love of beauty.
In the garden, Liniang is overwhelmed by the profusion of spring flowers and plants, but also saddened by her loneliness, and unappreciated beauty. Returning to her chamber, Liniang expresses her longing for a lover and falls asleep. Flower goddesses appear in her dream, leading a handsome young man, who courts her and makes love to her. In the middle of this happy dream, Liniang is wakened by falling flowers.
Scene 4: Declarations of Ambitions
A young scholar, Liu Chunqing, tells of his illustrious lineage, but declining family fortune. He laments that he is dependent on labors of an old family retainer, Hunchback Guo, for livelihood. However, he is confident that he is destined for great accomplishments.
He tells of a dream in which a beautiful woman holding a branch of plum blossoms, promises him success and romance. So he changed his name to Mengmei, "Plum blossom dreamer". He summons the old gardener and tells him that he is leaving to take the examination in the capital.
Scene 5: Search for the Dream
Du Liniang returns to the garden to search for her dream lover. She finds the places in her dream where she met and made love, but no trace of a real person. She falls sadly by the plum tree where she last saw her dream lover, and wants to die and be buried there.
Scene 6: The Traitor
Wanyan Liang, ruler of barbarian Jin empire, has conquered northern China. He has bribed the loyalty of a Chinese bandit chieftain Li Quan to harass the Huaiyang region, in preparation for an invasion of south China.
Scene 7: Painting a Portrait
With a plum blossom branch in hand Du Liniang laments her lost dream lover. Sleepless and without appetite, she pines away. When Chunxiang expresses shock at her emaciation, Du Liniang decides to paint a self portrait so that her beauty will be remembered. She inscribes a poem on the portrait alluding to the lover in her dream.
Scene 8: The Taoist Nun
The Taoist nun, Sister Stone, confesses that she was born with a hymen hard as stone. She tells a bawdy tale of her wedding night and her decision to enter priesthood to spare her husband further embarrassment. This day she is summoned to perform exorcism for Miss Du, who has been overcome by a mysterious illness.
Scene 9: The Soul Departs
On a rainy night of the Mid Autumn Moon Festival, Du Liniang is dying of a broken heart, despairing of ever finding her lover. She bids her mother farewell and apologizes for not being able to fulfill her filial duties. She pleads to be buried under the plum tree in the garden; and instructs Chunxiang to inter the self portrait with her. She dies as flower goddesses appear to escort her soul to the other world.
The soul of Du Liniang is led before Judge Hu, newly appointed to the land of the dead. He is surprised by her beauty, and cannot believe that anyone can die because of a dream. One of the flower goddesses assures him that it is true. He also discovers that she is the daughter of a righteous magistrate, fated to marry her dream lover eventually. Thereupon, he releases her spirit to roam the world in search of him.
Scene 2: On the Road
Liu Mengmei is on the way to Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Song, to take the civil examination. Sick and exhausted, he falls and faints in a thunder storm. Chen Zuiliang rescues him and takes him to the Plum Blossom Shrine to recuperate.
Scene 3: Reminiscing about the Daughter
Chunxiang enters and explains that Du Bao was promoted to a defense post at the time of Du Liniang's death. Du Liniang was buried in the garden. A Plum Blossom Shrine was erected in her memory and tended by Sister Stone. Chunxiang, Madame Du, and Du Bao, each remember Du Liniang as they offer incense and wine to her spirit and call out her name.
Scene 4: The Portrait Recovered
Liu Mengmei has recuperated in the Plum Blossom Shrine and explores the garden. Strolling about the ramshackle garden, he finds the portrait of Du Liniang. To his surprise, the inscribed poems contain two characters in his name: Liu, his family name, which means "willow"; and mei, which means "plum". The poem also alludes to their union by way of "willow" and "plum". He takes the portrait to his room, admiring and calling to it, as if the image were alive.
Scene 5: The Wandering Spirit
Sister Stone conducts a memorial rite for Du Liniang. Thereupon, her spirit returns to the deserted garden and found the shrine erected in her memory. She hears Liu Memgmei passionately calling to some one, and is deeply moved.
Scene 6: Consorting with a Ghost
Du Liniang's roaming spirit finds her self portrait and realizes that Liu Mengmei was calling to her. She appears to Liu Mengmei as a young woman from the neighborhood, and proposes to visit him every night. They consummate their love.
Scene 7: Impending Danger over Huaiyang
Li Quan the henpecked bandit chief strategizes with his wife Woman Yang, about how to attack Huaiyang. Woman Yang proposes to attack Yangzhou first to cut off Du Bao's rear guard.
Scene 8: Love Vows
Hearing voices in Liu Mengmei's chamber, Sister Stone becomes suspicious and investigates. Du Liniang realizes that she cannot hide the truth forever. She reveals her ghostly status after making Liu Mengmei swear an oath of fidelity. Liu Mengmei is frightened at first; then, out of love for Liniang, is determined to seek her resurrection.
Scene 9: Resurrection
With Sister Stone's help, Liu Mengmei finds the grave in the garden. He prays to the earth god and local deities for divine permission to open the ground. When the grave is opened, flower goddesses escort Du Liniang back to life.
Scene 1: Wedding
To avoid detention for grave robbery, the young lovers, together with Sister Stone, leave Nan'an by boat. At Sister Stone's urging, they take their marriage vows on the boat.
Scene 2: Armies on the Move
Du Bao is aboard ship on the Huai River as Li Quan's rebel army closes in on Huai'an (Yangzhou). Du Bao is order to defend Huai'an and leaves quickly by land. Madame Du and Chunxiang return to Lin'an by boat.
Scene 3: Arrival in Hangzhou
The young couple settles in Hangzhou. They dream about their happy future when Liu Mengmei succeeds in passing high in the examination. Sister Stone rushes in to tell them that the examination hall is open and scholars are streaming in. They drink to Liu Mengmei's success and bid each other a tearful farewell.
Scene 4: Frustrating the Enemy
Under Du Bao's defense, Huai'an holds out. An envoy from Jin arrives to demand action from Li Quan. His flirtation with Woman Yang angers Li Quan who berates him. The envoy leaves, demanding that Huai'an be taken in three days or else. Just then, Li Quan's soldiers bring in a captive, Chen Zuiliang. Li Quan sends Chen to Du Bao with two decapitated female heads, saying that they are Madame Du and Chunxiang, hoping to frighten Du Bao into surrendering.
Instead, Du Bao sends Chen Zuiliang back with a bigger bribe. Li Quan and Woman Yang decide to accept and withdraw from the conflict.
Scene 5: Reunion with Mother
Madame Du and Chunxiang escape to Lin'an and arrive at Du Liniang's dwelling as homeless refugees. They beg for lodging, but frightened by Du Liniang, thinking that that they have met her ghost. Sister Stone arrives and assures them she is real, not a ghost. Mother, daughter, and Chunxiang, are joyfully reunited.
Scene 6: Stranded at Huaiyang
Liu Mengmei has finished the examination. He goes on to Huai'an in search of his father-in-law. Penniless, he seeks lodging at an inn, saying that he is the son-in-law of Commissioner Du Bao. The inn keeper shows him a proclamation poster which says that anyone claiming to be Du Bao's son-in-law is an imposter and anyone harboring such will be punished. Turned away, Liu Mengmei spends the night an abandoned shrine.
The next morning, he goes to Du Bao's official residence and asks to be announced. Seeing his shabby appearance, the guard turns him away, saying that the commissioner is holding a victory banquet.. Hungry, angry, and tired, Liu Mengmei breaks into the banquet. and is promptly arrested.
Scene 7: Searching for the Top Candidate
The results of the examination are announced; Liu Mengmei has achieved first place. A team of messengers searches high and low for him. They meet Hunchback Guo, who is also looking for his young master. The messengers decide to carry the old hunchback with them and search together.
Scene 8: Torture
Du Bao brings up Liu Mengmei for questioning. When a search of Liu Mengmei's sack turns up Du Liniang's self portrait, Du Bao suspects that he is the grave robber. Upon interrogation, Liu correctly accounts for Du Liniang's grave goods, whereupon Du Bao orders him flogged to obtain a confession. Hunchback Guo hears his master's cries and rushes in to rescue him. The presiding examiner professor Miao also arrives to tell Du Bao that Liu Mengmei is indeed the First Place Scholar. Liu breaks his bondage and leaves to attend the imperial banquet for high placing scholars.
Scene 9: The Emperor's Verdict
Rewarded for his role in pacifying Li Quan, Chen Zuiliang is made lord chamberlain. Du Bao arrives to petition the emperor to punish Liu Mengmei. The latter arrives to defend himself. Du Liniang appears in court as lady of the First Place Scholar. Madame Du is summoned to verify her daughter's resurrection. But Du Bao believes that Du Liniang and Madame Du are both demons pretending to be human, and asks the emperor to destroy them.
To prove whether she is ghost or real, the emperor orders Du Liniang to show herself before a magic mirror and walk in a sandy path. Her image and foot prints prove that she is not a ghost but a real person. The emperor orders the family to reconcile, and rewards Du Bao and Liu Mengmei.