Photographer Linda Ching's
exhibit, on view at the China
Museum, retells 'The
Story of the Stone'
Without merits that would entitle me to a place in the blue sky,
in vain have I lived in the Red Dust (mortal world) for so many years.
These are the events before my birth and after my death --
Who will transcribe them and give the world my story?
-- The stone
By Nadine KamDREAM of Red Chambers," an 18th-century Chinese novel, opens with "The Story of the Stone." The humble stone, the only one of 36,501 stones not used by the goddess Nugua in the repair of heaven's dome, is feeling sorry for itself when it hears a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest discussing the joys of the Red Dust.
Curious, the stone asks the two for a turn in the mortal world. For a chance to enjoy its pleasures and luxury, the stone imagines "I shall be grateful to you for eons to come."
The stone is transformed into a piece of jade that is witness to the fortunes and folly of two 17th-century Chinese households, and this is the story of "Dream of Red Chambers."
"It's a wonderful, mythical, magical story," said Hawaii photographer Linda Ching, for whom the book conjured "a fantasy of visuals."
Ching is in China for an exhibition of her photographs based on the story. On view at the China Museum of Fine Arts this week are 20 images from her 1997 book retelling "The Story of the Stone," and 20 others from her 1987 book, "Hawaiian Goddesses."
"I'm very honored that they invited me back to China to have this exhibit," she said. " 'Dream of Red Chambers' is one of China's greatest and beloved novels. Elements of the story are reflected everywhere in Chinese pop culture, from theme parks to movies to characters' portraits on porcelain plates -- everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.
"A whole area of scholarship, Redology, surrounds the novel. For them to embrace my work in interpreting a story that's so precious to them is more than I could have asked for.
"I felt I was a novice, and was merely working as an artist inspired by another artist. To me, it was a tribute to the author.
Cao Xueqin (also spelled Tsao Hsueh-chin), the author of "Dream" was a descendent of a prosperous Beijing family (red chamber refers to a place where young women live) that lost its wealth over three generations. At the heart of "Dream" is the love story between Lin Dai-Yu and Bao-Yu, the son born with a piece of jade in his mouth who is the great hope of the house of Jia.
Ching pulled the story out of her projects file at Chinese New Year in 1995.
"I read it again and wanted to find out more about it. I was walking, talking, living, breathing the story."
About that time, Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, playwright and founder of the Hawaii International Film Festival, was going to Beijing and urged Ching to meet her there.
"That gave me the impetus for getting on the plane and going to explore," Ching said.
"I didn't know how difficult it was going to be to go into a foreign country, and people told me the China I'd be looking for no longer existed."
But in the South, she found classical gardens of the Xing dynasty. The Beijing Film Studio allowed her to borrow sets and costumes from a film version of "Dream of Red Chambers," and Beiputuo Film Studios allowed her to use its actors and dancers for her photographs.
Ching's work encompasses four seasons and when it came time to shoot the winter photographs, she traveled to China only to be told no snow was expected that year.
"We headed to South China and by the time we got to Zuozhou it snowed, and it kept snowing throughout the night. The next day I photographed the things I saw, everything blanketed in snow."
She went to China three times in two years, staying three to four weeks each visit. Peking University became her sponsor.
"People were so willing to help, it was the ideal experience. I found it so rich and fulfilling.
"Working on 'Story of the Stone' gave me an understanding of my Chinese culture, but part of its message is we are all one and the same."
After finishing "Story of the Stone," Ching returned to her usual work as a commercial photographer, but having reflected on only the first five of 40 chapters in "Dream of Red Chambers," there is plenty of material for a follow up.
Ching said, "I always had it in the back of my mind that it is such a complex story that my part feels incomplete. But I have the feeling the dream will call another time, and I'll go back to work on it again."
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