The series centres on the schemes between Emperor Yongzheng’s concubines in the Imperial Palace during the Qing Dynasty. The innocent 17-year-old Zhen Huan (Huan Huan) is chosen for the Emperor’s harem, and after entering the palace finds herself caught in the fierce infighting between the Empress and the concubines. Realising that the palace is a cruel and harsh place, she has to learn to survive on her own, sometimes by unorthodox methods. With her wits and talents, Huan Huan fights her way through and wins the Emperor’s affection, ultimately becoming the most influential concubine in the imperial palace, and she ascends to unparalleled glory and wealth. However, she also becomes a woman with few real friends at her side, even after she is rid of all her enemies.
Along the way, she experiences a miscarriage due to mistreatment by Consort Hua, who is the second most powerful woman in the harem, second only to the Empress in rank. However, even though Consort Hua's mistreatment of Huan Huan contributed to her miscarriage, the primary reason for it was because of an ointment that she used regularly to heal a wound. The ointment had ingredients that could induce a miscarriage, given to her by another concubine who Huan Huan thought of as a sister, An Lingrong, the same girl she had once saved. Eventually, Consort Hua is imprisoned in the Cold Palace, a place for discarded concubines, for her many misdeeds, and is eventually given a death sentence and told to commit suicide. Although Consort Hua refuses at first, Zhen Huan makes a visit and tells her that the Emperor has never loved her and only favoured her to please her brother, the general Nian Gengyao. She also tells her the reason for her infertility was a special incense granted to her by the Emperor. In the end, Consort Hua commits suicide but refuses to do so in a way that was decreed.
The Empress plots against Huan Huan, arranging things so that she ends up unknowingly wearing the Emperor’s most beloved late Chunyuan Empress's clothes. The Emperor is enraged by this and grounds her to her palace, where she becomes disillusioned with him. At this time, she is pregnant, and only days after she gives birth to a daughter she is transferred over to a nunnery where she becomes a nun. While there she falls in love with the Emperor's brother, Yunli. However, she eventually comes back to the Forbidden Palace when she mistakenly believes that the Emperor's brother is dead. In the palace, she gives birth to twins, fathered by Yunli (Prince Guo), but she convinces all that they are the Emperor's. She also adopts the fourth prince, who was looked down upon, as his mother was a lowly palace maid. Gradually she regains the love of the Emperor. She also erodes the power of the Empress and kills An Lingrong who caused the death of Shen Meizhuang.
Finally, the Empress confesses her crime and admits that she was the one who killed the late Chunyuan Empress and caused several miscarriages. However, the Empress, who has been granted amnesty by the late Empress Dowager, is not killed but discarded. Towards the end, the Emperor suspects that Zhen Huan and Yunli, the seventeenth prince, of having an affair. He orders her to kill him to prove that she has no feelings towards him. Yunli sacrifices himself for her, and although she does not intentionally kill him, he dies. Following this incident, the Emperor makes Zhen Huan the leader of the Imperial Harem, a post that carries supreme authority in the inner palace. However, increasingly the Emperor grows suspicious regarding the paternity of his children with Huan Huan. In order to save her children, she and a concubine named Ye Lanyi plot against the Emperor, and eventually manage to kill him. As the senior most widow, she plays a crucial role in the succession and installs her adopted son, the fourth prince, upon the Dragon Throne. In the end, Huan Huan becomes the sad and lonely Empress Dowager.