In 1793, British ambassador George Macartney enters the Peking Court, asking the Son of Heaven to ease restrictions on trade between Great Britain and China. However, the envoys fail to win the trust of the Chinese authorities, due to an unresolved clash of visions. The Qing Empire has long considered all other states to be its vassals, whose representatives are obliged to kowtow; whereas Macartney regards such a display of obeisance as an abject betrayal to his own sovereign.
However, soon after Macartney leaves, the Qianlong Emperor grants the Dutch ambassador an audience – to the chagrin of Qianlong’s ‘trusted servant’ Heshen, an official extorting money from the populace and the power behind the throne. The people are disgruntled; White Lotus, a triad of warrior heroines, stirs rebellion; even Chief Censor Qian opines that the Manchus have forfeited the Mandate of Heaven.
Amidst mounting turmoil, Lady Cao Baoqin, the protagonist and erstwhile mistress of novelist Cao Xueqin (who died decades ago), is punished for acting as go-between for the ‘British brutes’ who refuse to prostrate themselves. As stubborn as she’s elegant – a ‘two-faced demon’, Heshen calls her – Lady Cao, loyal to her dreams and her past, blows sparks of hope into the sad lives of the Emperor’s discarded concubines. Soon, rumours all over China whisper that the beloved heroine of Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, featuring in street opera’s and market yarns ever since, is held captive in Court.