When Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty has just acceded to the throne, China is beset with troubles at home and threats from abroad. A sound strategy for uniting the nation and strengthening the army is badly needed. Minister Sima Guang recommends Wang Anshi to the emperor, who is impressed byWang's plan of reform; the emperor promotes Wang. The empress dowager adheres to the laws laid down by previous emperors and is doubtful about Wang's ability.
The emperor tests Wang by having him examine a puzzling case of a woman murdering her husband. The suspect, Ke Xue, had insisted that she killed her husband in self-defense, but a bribed official extorted her confession through torture. Learning of her death, Ke Xue's sister Ke Yun comes to the court to complain.Wang insists on finding out the truth and eventually proves Ke Xue's innocence.
Later on, Wang goes to the imperial college for a discussion on reform and strongly disagrees with Sima Guang, Su Shi and others. In the imperial palace, a heated debate over the reform causes disunity among the ministers, and the emperor goes so far as to demote Sima Guang in support of the reform. However, the reform turns out be a failure, causing misery among the people. Finally, Sima Guang requests the emperor to abolish it. In plain clothes, Wang goes to see how the people live and is deeply saddened to know that citizens hate his reform. Ten years later, with Emperor Shenzong passing away, Wang sees flashbacks of his life before he dies as a historical statesman.