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Wednesday, February 3, 1999

Romancing the stone

The nostalgia-lite version of a 200-year-old Chinese classic.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM

The rise of multiculturalism in the American polity extends beyond the sacrosanct black-white split. Story of the Stone, a handsome albeit vacuous book, appears expressly designed to capitalize on an Asian-American audience caught between the realities of the New World and a faux nostalgia for the old country, a couple of generations removed.

Stone is a photographic interpretation of the classic Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber. Not all of the novel, mind you, only the first two chapters of some 120 — a prologue in which the wild behavior of an aristocratic young gent, Bao-yu, is tamed by the 12 women who come to be the center of his life. Nascent machismo is no match, it would seem, for love and nagging.

Not surprisingly, we get a lot of lovely, soft shots of incense burning, flower blossoms, Buddhas, calligraphy pens set on stones and stoic young ladies staring off into misty space. If the young lasses were topless, one might suspect that roguish shutterbug David Hamilton was behind the camera. Artfully sprinkled around the images are snatches of the text, a strategy that transforms the verse into abstraction.

Photographer Linda Ching contends that her objective is to bring the text to life in a way that has escaped English translators. Try as they might, the white devils don’t have it in them to get "inside" the story. Perhaps so, but what Ching herself accomplishes, inadvertently or not, is to turn a spare, simple allegory about dynastic collapse into a picture book of exoticism that is as precious as it is bogus. You can practically smell the scent of potpourri wafting from the pages. Legions of coffee tables await.

Here is the China that dreams are made of — pre-Malraux, pre-Mao, pre-Ronald McDonald. A China without cell phones, cognac or ugly metropolises teeming with skittish hordes on the move toward the new millennium. The political dimension of the original text, bound up in history, is nowhere to be found.

What a strange bird nostalgia can be. It works on the annihilation of history at the same time that it fetishizes it — the search for that perfect moment or period that resonates with the best of the past or, rather, how we would like to have the past seem to us now.

Imagine, then, if Ching had presented us with pictures of modern-day China accompanied by the whole text. Imagine how powerful the ironic interplay would be between the poetry of the words and the feral gracelessness of the 21st century imposing itself upon a country not yet finished dealing with the previous two or three centuries.

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