The Jiajing emperor of the Ming dynasty is infatuated with women, seeks elixir, and neglects state affairs.Yan Song wins the flighty emperor’s favor merely by presenting an exemplary Taoist prayer, and is presently appointed grand secretary. Favored and trusted, Yan abuses his power by aggravating the prevalent misery over corruption and usurious taxation. Yan’s son Shifan, not to be forgotten, is a hedonistic ruffian. The literati and the officials in the imperial court are generally silent because Yan’s daughter is in favor amongst the harem.
Imperial censor Hai Rui, a morally upright man who refuses to conform, writes ten letters to the Emperor calling for the impeachment of Yan Song. He does so at the risk of his own life, defying the emperor's decree that demands the execution of anyone who dares question him. Enraged by Hai’s blatant disobedience, and acceding to Yan’s daughter, the emperor has Hai arrested pending execution.
Fortunately, Hai is saved by the report that Yan Shifan has collaborated with Japanese invaders on strategic military initiatives. The emperor orders the audit and seizure of Yan’s household, confiscates his properties, and issues a thorough investigation into his misconducts while in office. Yan Shifan is found guilty and beheaded. Although spared on the grounds of his long-term service, Yan Song is forced to live as a mere commoner, leading a miserable, homeless life.