Dong Xiaowan is one of the most famous courtesans at the River Qinhuai during the last years of the Ming Dynasty. She is in love with Mao Pijiang, one of the best-known socialites of the time. Soon after the Manchus take over the throne, Hong Chengchou, a minister closely connected with Prince Yu, lusts forXiaowan’s beauty and so persecutes Pijiang. To justify his actions, he claims that Piajiang is rebelling against Manchu rule.
Later, Emperor Shunzhi plots to reclaim the rule from the Empress Dowager Wen and to act against PrinceYu. At the eunuch Ke’er’s suggestion, Prince Yu arranges an affair for the Emperor with Xiaowan in order to gain his favor. Xiaowan strongly refuses at first but then assents for the interest of her countrymen. Alone with Shunzhi,she recommends the elimination of Hong and Ke’er. Unfortunately, Ke’er learns that.Hong then slanders Xiaowan in front of the empress dowager, who banishes the woman to a Buddhist temple. On her way to the temple, Xiaowan is deeply depressed and then falls ill when she learns ofPijiang’s death. On her deathbed, Xiaowan advises and encourages the emperor to take back his power.Shunzhi accepts her advice and reclaims control of the country.