When the Yuan emperor of the Han dynasty begins looking for concubines, it is customary for the court portraitist, Mao Yanshao, to prepare pictures of the candidates. It is likewise customary for the candidates to give bribes to the portraitist in exchange for proper representation. Refusing to comply, Wang Zhaojun, a spectacularly beautiful candidate, is sent to the palace for disfavored concubines when the artist smudges her portrait. When the emperor eventually discovers this neglected beauty, he is awestruck. Finding out that she was sabotaged, he orders Mao to be arrested and calls for the reinstatement of Wang.
The fugitive portraitist reaches barbarian land and offers their king this time an accurate portrait of Wang. The king asks the emperor for the beauty. Met with refusal, the king invades Han land and defeats WenLong, the defending general. Alarms sound at the capital when the invader demands that the woman be handed over within ten days.
While the emperor finds himself in a quandary, Wang expresses her wish to make a sacrifice for the country by going to the barbarian king. Reluctantly, the emperor orders Wen Long to escort her across the river. With a cautionary reminder for the emperor to refrain from starting a war lightly, Wang departs. Once on the king’s turf, the beauty beseeches him for three favors, the first of which is to execute Mao, the portraitist. In the end, the beauty kills herself and her body drifts upstream into Han territory, where she has earned her countrymen's solemn respect.