“The Story of the Stone and the visual culture of the Manchu Court”

Talk by Wei Shang, Columbia University

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This talk addresses The Story of the Stone (otherwise known as Dream of the Red Chamber, Honglou meng 紅樓夢), authored by Cao Xueqin (ca. 1715--ca. 1763), with special focus on its recurrent theme as captured in Chapter 1: “Truth becomes fiction when fiction is true; real becomes not-real where the unreal is real.” Apparently paradoxical, this theme seems to invite a philosophical and religious interpretation that transcends the time when the novel was written. However, Wei Shang traces it to the stimuli of the visual culture permeating the Manchu court in the early and mid-eighteenth century. He examines Cao Xueqin’s representation of the Grand Prospect Garden, the main residence for the young protagonists, in light of what may be called the aesthetics of jia 假 (the unreal or fiction) that manifests through all sorts of visual tricks in the interior decoration of imperial palaces and gardens of the time.

In this talk, Shang will focus on the novel’s explicit and implicit references to paintings, including an illusionistic painting and an ambitious project undertaken by Xichun to capture a panorama of the garden in one gigantic painting. More specifically, he emphasizes the impulse of the novel to incorporate into its narrative the popular motifs of the contemporaneous paintings, including the paintings executed by the Jesuit painters employed by the imperial court. Reading the novel from this perspective highlights issues of enormous importance for the comprehension of the cultural dynamics of the time that in return participate in shaping the novel itself: the dialectics of reality and illusion, the mutual fertilization of media and technology, and the constant negotiations between the written and graphic media and between the Chinese and European cultures.

Wei Shang 商偉, Du Family Professor of Chinese Culture in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University. He is an expert on pre-modern Chinese fiction and drama with special attention to the cultural and intellectual history of early modern China (1550-1911). His publications are concerned with the major novels of the Ming and Qing era, including The Unofficial History of the Scholars (Rulin waishi 儒林外史) and The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei cihua 金瓶梅詞話). He is currently working on a book entitled A Lively Illusion: The Story of the Stone and the Visual Culture of the Qing Dynasty. His book on Tang poetry, Writing on Landmarks: From Yellow Crane Tower to Phoenix Terrace (題寫名勝:從黃鶴樓到鳳凰臺), will be published in July, 2019.

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Published: Thursday, January 31, 2019