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At the beginning of the 20th century, China is in a state of crisis. The country is split into warring factions, the citizens are starving, and recent political reforms have made matters worse, not better. The ruling Qing Dynasty, led by a seven-year-old emperor and his ruthless mother, Empress Dowager Longyu (Joan Chen), is completely out of touch after 250 years of unquestioned power. With ordinary citizens beginning to revolt openly, the Qing Dynasty has created a powerful, modern army (the "New Army") to quash any rebellion. But weapons are expensive, and desperate for cash, the Qing leaders are trading anything they can get their hands on with foreign countries... and selling China.