Towards the end of the QingDynasty, young Emperor Guangxu accedes to the throne under Empress Dowager Cixi, the regent. The emperor’s efforts to make courtier Zhen empress are stopped by Cixi, who uses her power to install her niece as Empress Longyu instead. Though defiant, the emperor is too weak to take any action aside from increasing his affections toward Concubine Zhen.
Because of the political instability, patriots with foresight propose a fund to strengthen the navy. However, to the disappointment of the people and the emperor, Cixi embezzles the funds to build the Summer Palace. Conspiring with Zhen, the emperor summons Weng Tong and Kang Youwei to plot political reforms and a coup. Yuan Shikai is secretly dispatched to seize control of the troops so they can overthrow the empress dowager at the capital.
Yuan betrays the plan and the coup fails. Consequently, Weng Tong and others are executed, while the emperor and the concubine are placed under separate house arrests; they maintain secret contact with each other with the help of a eunuch. When the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers are at the gate of Beijing,Cixi flees with the emperor and orders that Zhen be drowned in a well. When the war is over, the emperor goes to the well to mourn for her, and, looking up at the moon, heaves a deep sigh.