In 18th century Beijing (18 March 1741), a young firecracker by the name of Wei Yingluo enters the court of the Qianlong Emperor, Aisin Gioro Hongli, as one of the palace embroiderers to secretly investigate her beloved sister’s mysterious death and find the truth. At first believing the imperial guard Fuca Fuheng to be the prime suspect, Yingluo schemes to approach his sister, the Empress Fuca Rongyin, and succeeds in getting transferred from her embroidery unit to the Empress’s Changchun Palace as her maid. Over time, she learns that the Fuca siblings are honest and kindhearted people, innocent of the crime, and even develops romantic affections for Fuheng, who is admired by many around the Palace, including Qianlong’s Consort Chun who allies herself to Empress Fuca because of a deep-seated crush on her brother.
Though Yingluo is not noble by birth and is illiterate, the kindhearted Empress Fuca teaches her how to read and write, along with all the proper etiquette and mannerisms for noblewomen at the time. Yingluo also helps Empress Fuca survive a series of maneuvers by her chief rivals, becoming a trusted friend and confidant while never forgetting her own agenda of avenging her sister’s murder. In time, Yingluo discovers that the actual murderer is a Consort of the late Emperor Yongzheng and mother of Qianlong’s half brother, and hatches a plot to drive the culprit to her untimely death. Empress Fuca, for fear of Qianlong’s fury over Yingluo’s outrageous action, quickly banishes her to the palace sanitation unit to escape from his decree of punishment. There, Yingluo befriends and becomes sworn brothers with a handsome but conniving eunuch, Yuan Chunwang, who is subsequently revealed to be a bastard son of Emperor Yongzheng.
Without Yingluo, Empress Fuca falls victim to the machinations of Noble Consort Gao that puts her in a coma. News reaches Yingluo who hurriedly steals midnight visits into Empress Fuca’s chamber to sit by her mistress’s side and care for her. Yingluo’s devotion to Empress Fuca convinces Qianlong to relent on his tough stance towards her and eventually allows her to return as maid. Empress Fuca is able to wake from her coma, and even becomes pregnant again. She goes through almost life-ending labor to give birth to another son, who is immediately the target of assassination by the duplicitous Consort Chun, devastated for having been rejected by Fuheng. Empress Fuca is driven to suicide when she is not able to save her newborn in a bizarre fire that rose overnight. After Empress Fuca’s death, Yingluo is sent to live and guard over her mistress’s grave at the Old Summer Palace. She stays there for a number of years with Yuan Chunwang until one year (1750), during an imperial visit by Qianlong and his consorts to Fuca’s grave, Yingluo unexpectedly learns that Consort Chun was responsible for her late mistress’s suicide. She decides once again to enter the Forbidden City and exact retribution on the evildoers.
In order to achieve the goal, Yingluo knows she needs the hand of authority so she soon sets her eyes on the Emperor. She skillfully charms Qianlong, becoming part of his harem, and is bestowed a title, Consort Ling. With meticulous planning, she topples her rivals one after another, including the villainess, now Noble Consort Chun, even insofar as exposing her role in Empress Fuca’s death, which incidentally leads to her fall from grace at the hands of Yingluo’s archrival, the newly-named Empress Hoifa-Nara (1751). Yingluo’s captivation of Qianlong brings her numerous threats, such as from newcomer Concubine Shun, a beautiful and cunning woman dead set to even the score with Qianlong and Fuheng for having been forced into political marriage in the Forbidden City. Framing Yingluo for attempted assassination, Concubine Shun deftly teams up with Empress Hoifa-Nara to put Yingluo under house arrest and pull strings to starve her nearly to death. Nevertheless, Yingluo is able to reverse her situation, reveal Shun’s treachery, and restore Qianlong’s affections for her. Having reached stalemate at this point, Yingluo negotiates for a truce with Hoifa-Nara on the condition that they both not harm any children of the palace in spite of the rivalry.
A decade later (1765), however, the nihilistic Yuan Chunwang betrays Yingluo and joins Hoifa-Nara, causing a series of mishaps in the palace that even force the Empress’s hand and break her hold on power. Hongzhou, the Emperor’s brother, at the same time plots to sabotage Qianlong’s Southern river tour. On a chosen night, a band of rebels suddenly storms onto the royal vessel just as a fire engulfs the Empress Dowager’s cabin, prompting Qianlong to charge into the flaming cabin to save his mother, seemingly perishing himself in the process.
The next morning, as Hongzhou gallantly appears to restore order from the overnight coup, Qianlong and the Empress Dowager emerge safely from a secret passageway that had been purposely designed by Fuheng and expose Hongzhou’s plan of treachery. After Qianlong sentences Hongzhou to death, Yuan Chunwang gets on his knees in front of the Emperor and claims he is a long-lost son of the Yongzheng Emperor. The Empress Dowager denies this, ever so slyly, which drives Yuan Chunwang into utter madness while leaving others unable to determine whether or not it is to protect Qianlong. At this time, Consort Ling comes out of hiding under the protection of the Emperor’s guards, prompting Hoifa-Nara to protest once and for all the Emperor’s lavished attention for Yingluo alone. In a fit of rage and jealousy, she cuts off her own hair, a taboo in Manchu tradition analogous to an outcry for divorce, effectively cursing the entire Aisin Gioro clan.
At the end, Empress Hoifa-Nara is permitted to keep her title, but loses all of the Emperor’s affections. Wei Yingluo is elevated to a new title, ‘Imperial Noble Consort’, the highest possible rank for someone of non-noble birth. Remembering Empress Fuca’s teachings, she embodies all the qualities of a virtuous consort, and supports the Emperor until death.