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In the catalogue essay of the Royal Ontario Museum's exhibition, China: Fifty Years Inside the People's Republic, writer Rae Yang suggests the Chinese memory has been "stained" by the horrors of a half-century of misplaced idealism. And the photographs, organized by New York's Aperture group and representing 20 photographers, are the record of that idealism and the horrors it entrained.

Seven of the photographers live and work in China, but the earlier pictures were all taken by foreigners, many of them admiring visitors to the nascent revolution. Owen Lattimore snaps a young and wary Mao Tsetung in his Yanan hideout in 1937, standing beside an attaché named Bo Gu who has the guileless, enthusiastic smile of a schoolboy. Robert Capa photographs a circle of young men, Boy Scout-like, sitting in a field, but the bucolic image clashes with the message coming from the bearded elder speaking to them: He is enjoining them to march forward to certain death in battle with the invading Japanese. At the moment of the communist revolution's triumph in 1949, Sam Tata offers the image of a top-hatted young man portraying Uncle Sam as a malevolent clown.

Nobody wants to make excuses for feudal China, least of all the Chinese, but some photos almost accidentally record the loveliness of the old cities. A picture of triumphant Communists entering Beijing includes the magnificent old city wall, which was torn down in the mid-1960s. Images of rushing urban Chinese capture, in a happenstance way, the lovely courtyard houses of old Beijing, which are now being bulldozed by resurgent capitalism in the name of rising property values.

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What the photographs do not convey is the quality of what Rae Yang remembers as "the exquisite harmony of Beijing's colours, the beauty of the city as it was then." For some reason, such beauty is not tolerated by either of the 20th century's two major ideologies. And although an occasional literate Chinese like Yang -- who has lived in the United States for the past 20 years -- may pine for it from a distance, it's worth noticing that none of the Chinese photographers represented here wastes much film photographing upswept roofs or Imperial palaces. Their focus is almost entirely on people.

The reason becomes apparent in Wang Jinsong's recent photo series of elderly couples in their apartments. In a carefully worded presentation, he says the pictures show "not only differences of taste and status but also the ways in which government policies have marked their lives." What is most striking about the faces is the decades of stress and uncertainty imprinted on them. Compared with this drama, landscapes and architecture are of comparatively little interest.

Xiao-Ming Li focuses on one drama in particular -- the suppression of the Roman Catholic church in favour of a Beijing-controlled church that does not acknowledge the Vatican. In these exquisite, tormented images of "secret Catholics" preparing rice cakes as hosts, furtively carting a large image of the Blessed Virgin through a foggy village, or huddling in devotion before an image of the Regina Mundi in what appears to be a fishing boat, Li portrays not only religious fervour but the longing of a tortured people for release.

While most of the images in the show are dramatic and strongly composed, they are primarily documentary. Only a few photographers, especially Hiroji Kubota, stand out as self-consciously "artistic." Twisted trees in front of a white wall in Guangzhou look like a painted stage set rather than reality. Dozens of fishing boats in Dali, a remote city I was once lucky enough to visit, are arranged with painterly balance across the image; ducks in Nanchang cross a road, which swells in a gentle arc. Other, red-saturated images of tailors in Kashgar or opera singers painting themselves in a Shanghai dressing room, are gorgeous and sensuous -- a shocking contrast to the dusty and foggy grimness of so much else in the show.

Another singular vision is that of Zhang Hai-er, who offers a series of fetishistic sexual images of young women in overly tight fishnet stockings. Chinese-based photographers can do such work today, itself an eloquent testimonial to the collapse of communist puritanism.

It would be artificial to argue that Chinese and foreign-born photographers have two completely different views of China. Of course, their preoccupations overlap. But it is also fair to notice that American photographers document everyday modern life with a low-key casual touch quite distinct from the intensity of the Chinese photographers: Brian Palmer's blurred snapshot of a young woman stepping off a subway train, or Reagan Louie's photo of a woman lighting another woman's cigarette in a fashionable restaurant.

The Americans also document architectural decay: In Robert Ketchum's photos, the canal-houses of mythical Suzhou look distinctly rundown, while Stuart Franklin is curious about the bizarre relationship of modern Chinese with their touristic landscape (a subject that interests the Chinese photographers not at all). Lois Conner's revisiting of the landscape, imbued with reverence for traditional Chinese art, results in simply breathtaking images. Several of them are also mildly and delightfully tongue-in-cheek, especially a picture of ugly modern cement steps on a cliffside, which is photographed to look exactly like an ancient ink painting of paths up vertiginous mountainsides.

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China can accommodate these varying visions because, in Rae Yang's words, communism transformed the whole country into a theatre. Young people like herself played the flattering roles of revolutionaries, ranting in public like old-time actors, while others were forced into the roles of landlords and capitalist-roaders. Everybody forgot for a time that there were real people behind the masks, and unbelievable inhumanity was perpetrated.

Now the photographers can choose to see once again those human faces -- which, like living photographs, have recorded the pain of the revolutionary experiment -- or they can continue to see China as a grand theatrical sprawl of activity, both human and natural. Brought together in this show, they sketch a China that is incalculably larger than any lens could capture. China: Fifty Years Inside the People's Republic opens at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum tomorrow and runs through March 26. For information call: 416-586-8000 or visit the Web site at http://www.rom.on.ca.

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