In this handscroll is a great imperial procession making its way to pay respects at the imperial tombs. Departing from the Te-sheng (Victory) Gate of the Peking city wall, the artists here depicted shops along the way and the appearance of ceremonial guards to the final destination of the imperial tombs, the final resting place for Ming dynasty emperors 45 kilometers from the capital at Mt. T'ien-shou.
Departure Herald is actually accompanied by another long handscroll painting entitled Return Clearing. That work depicts the process of the tomb sweeping and inspection tour. Usually considered as a pair, they are collectively known as Departure Herald and Return Clearing. Encapsulated into both scrolls, the artists depicted the entire event over time and space from the departure, arrival at the destination, and return to the capital. The traditional means of viewing Departure Herald is from right to left, whereas Return Clearing is from left to right. Departure Herald represents the emperor riding a horse, taking land route from the capital, while in Return Clearing, he is shown riding on a boat, taking a water route back to the palace.
These two scrolls are not only the two longest handscrolls in the collection of the National Palace Museum (Departure Herald measuring 26 meters and Return Clearing more than 30 meters in length), they represent a rare, enormous effort in terms of the number of figures and majesty of the scenery seen among surviving works of Chinese painting. Neither of these two works were signed or sealed by the artists who painted them. However, judging from the style, content, and great effort, it most likely took a cooperative effort of many court artists in order to complete these two great masterpieces of imperial Chinese painting.