The rise of a Chinese painter Pan Yuliang (1899-1977) as she went from prostitute to famed artist in Paris is the focus of this Chinese biography. The film opens with then 12-year old Pan working in a brothel in a small rural town. She is soon hired to become a prostitute after the head hooker retires and is killed.
She meets her eventual husband, Zanhua, on her very first night. He already had a wife, but he married Pan anyway, and they moved to the city where Pan studied painting at the Shanghai Arts Institute. The institute is closed after a series of demonstrations of people resenting foreign influences on Chinese art, and from those against the use of nude models.
Pan still does nude portraits, but uses her body as the model. She becomes famous after her self-portrait Bathing Woman wins a French prize. Since her husband earlier went back to his former wife, Pan is free to move to Paris where her work continued to garner critical acclaim. In China her work was never recognized because they classified it as depraved.