Li Na describes the arrival of the ragtag Communists in Shanghai as surprisingly civil. Poorly armed but tightly disciplined, the Communists act quickly to dispel the chaos left by the Nationalist retreat. It's not long before the brutal regimentation of life under the Communists leads Li Na and his aunt to flee to Hong Kong, where Sheng-wu has been exiled. There, Li Na is reunited with his parents.
The early days in Hong Kong are bitter for the boy. His father seems distant and cruel – a man he barely knows. With time, however, the bitterness between father and son dissipates and they seem to reach a new understanding. Always active, with a brilliant and curious mind, Li Na rises to the challenge of Hong Kong's fiercely competitive secondary school system, and later delves passionately into a broad range of topics at a post-secondary school.
Yet the apparent calm is deceiving. Sheng-wu's political ambition knows no bounds.
"A Bitter Sea" is not just a book about Li Na's coming of age in a China, but also about the two previous generations of the Li family. However, the more the reader learns about the Li family, the more difficult it becomes to fathom Sheng-wu.
When he, in his own youth, decided to take the college entrance exam rather than work to support his family, it was considered a terrible act of rebellion and created a deep family rift. Later, however, he expects nothing but unquestioning loyalty from Li Na. At one point, he tells Li Na, "A father need not consult his son on what he does or what he plans. If I prosper, you will benefit. If I fail, you will suffer. It's the rule of life!"