The exhibition opens with a spectacular eighteen-foot-wide vision of the Palace of Nine Perfections, painted in 1691 by the artist Yuan Jiang. Catering to the wealthy salt merchants living in the commercial center of Yangzhou, Yuan presents an imaginary panorama of a seventh-century palace so grand that the emperor had to ride on horseback between pavilions. Royal palaces have always been likened to Daoist paradises, and Yuan Jiang's vision plays on this theme, with fabulous halls and terraces set in a fantastic landscape that suggests the enchanted realm of the immortals. Meticulously rendered and sumptuously embellished with rich mineral colors, this screenlike set of scrolls would have decorated the main reception hall of a private mansion.
Juxtaposed with Yuan Jiang's fantasy are painted, woven, and carved red-lacquer works that depict auspicious or admonitory narratives set within palace gardens. The earliest of these is a rare painting (10th–11th century) of a tryst between the Tang emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56) and his consort, Yang Guifei. Other works feature young boys at play, a subject that reflects the perennial wish for male offspring to carry on the imperial line. In each case, an ornate balustrade, an imposing garden rock or plant, or finely garbed figures indicate the palace setting.