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Wei Shang – “The Story of the Stone” and the Visual Culture of the Manchu Court
April 22, 2019 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Speaker: Wei Shang, Columbia University
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. Instead, I will trace it to the stimuli of the visual culture permeating the Manchu court in the early and mid-eighteenth century. I seek to examine 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, I 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, I emphasize the novelist’s impulse to incorporate into his 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 turn 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 Manchu court and Europe in the realm of material and visual cultures.