The Monkey King: China’s Peerless Hero
Monkey King operas, called Wukong operas, are mythical operas based on the novel Journey to the west with Sun Wukong as the hero, typically performed in Kunqu, Peking and Shaoxing operas.
He has great magical powers and hates evil. He is exceptionally brave and unrestrained. With one somersault he can travel 54,000 kilometres, and he can perform 72 transformations. He is the most famous monkey in China and in the world. He is Sun Wukong, a peerless hero in Chinese people's minds. He is called the Great Sage Equalling Heaven.
Sun Wukong is the Monkey King that first appeared in Journey to the West, a mythological novel written by Wu Cheng'en (1500–1582) in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and then in operas during the late Qing Dynasty (1644– 1911) and the early Republic of China (1912– 1949), such as Antian Hui (“Pacifying Heaven'') and its derivatives such as Nao Tiangong (“Uproar in Heaven'') and Shuiliandong (‘‘ Water Curtain Cave,'' also known as ‘‘Flower and Fruit Mountain''). These traditional Peking operas reflect Chinese history, culture and spirit, and gave birth to masterly Monkey King performers in northern and southern China. In recent years, these Monkey King operas have become popular again.
Pacifying Heaven and Uproar in Heaven
Journey to the West, the first romantic mythological novel in ancient China, consists of 100 chapters. Based on the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602–664) and embellished by the author Wu Cheng'en, the novel vividly reflects the society in which the author lived. The novel tells of a fictionalised and mythologised version of the legendary pilgrimage of Xuanzang, who travelled to the “Western Regions,” that is, India, to obtain sacred texts and returned after many trials and hardships.
In the novel, Xuanzang, together with his three disciples, Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (Monk Pig) and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand), experiences 81 ordeals in which his disciples have to fend off attacks from various monsters. The novel, imaginative and satirical of a world of deities and demons, influenced the development of later satiric novels.
Right at the beginning of the novel, the divine monkey attracts readers by his unusual birth, naughtiness, intelligence, boldness and recklessness. The first seven chapters themselves constitute a fascinating story, which includes such exciting titles as the Birth of the Monkey King, Learning from a Master and Having the Way, Borrowing a Weapon from the Dragon Palace, Struck Off the Register of the Dead, Appointed Protector of the Horses, and Uproar in Heaven. Some of these events have become the basis of operas and films.
In operas, the Monkey King, who wears face makeup, appears as the perfect integration of a monkey, a deity and a man. The Kunqu opera called Pacifying Heaven, based on part of Shengping Baofa (“the precious raft of exalted peace”) written by scholar Zhang Zhao (1691– 1745) in the Qing Dynasty, tells the tale of when Sun Wukong is granted the title “Great Sage Equalling Heaven” and appointed guardian of the Heavenly Garden, where he recklessly eats the Empress' peaches of immortality. One day, hearing that he is not invited to the imperial banquet, Wukong realises he has been tricked again and flies into a rage. He goes to the imperial banquet hall and, after putting all the attendants to sleep, begins to sample the food and wine.
He then leaves for Flower and Fruit Mountain but becomes lost due to his drunkenness, ending up at the great sage Laozi's workshop, where he eats the Emperor's Pills of Immortality. The pills sober him up, allowing him to travel home. The Jade Emperor, angered, orders the PagodaBearing Heavenly King Li to lead a hundred thousand heavenly troops to catch Wukong, who is caught; then Laozi pushes Wukong into the Eight Trigrams Furnace, from which he escapes. The Buddha manages to trap him under the Five Elements Mountain, and the order of the Heavenly Palace is restored, hence the name of the opera: Pacifying Heaven.
Pacifying Heaven was popular as Kunqu, Kunyi and Hui operas in the Qing Dynasty. After the emergence of Peking opera, it was also performed in that style but was still sung in the Kunqu way. During the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, Hao Zhenji (1870–1942) was the best performer of Sun Wukong in Kunqu opera in northern China. In southern China, amateur Kunqu opera performer Xu Lingyun (1886–1966) made it a popular and frequently performed opera through combining the performing skills of Peking and Kunyi opera.
An adapted version of Pacifying Heaven also became one of the most celebrated
operas of Yang Xiaolou (1878–1938), a masterly martial artist of Peking opera. In 1926, Yang Xiaolou and Shanghai-style martial artist Zheng Faxiang (1892–1965) went to Japan to perform Pacifying Heaven and other operas, which were very popular. From 1937 to 1942, Monkey King performances were great successes in Peking opera.
In 1951, when the National Peking Opera Company was about to give performances abroad, playwright Weng Ouhong and Peking opera artist Li Shaochun adapted the traditional opera Pacifying Heaven as Uproar in Heaven, which was later performed abroad, causing a great sensation. After returning home, playwrights Mao Shaobo (1918–2009) and Li Shaochun jointly reported this to Premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), who instructed Li to expand Uproar in Heaven and let Weng Ouhong write Danao Tiangong (“Havoc in Heaven'').
Based on Pacifying Heaven, which only includes such acts as “Stealing Heavenly Peaches,” “Stealing the Pills of Immortality” and “Heavy Fighting,” the expanded version called Havoc in Heaven adds such acts as “Borrowing a Weapon from the Dragon Palace,” “Edict from the Hall of Miraculous Mist,” “Going to Flower and Fruit Mountain to Invite Wukong,” “Appointing Wukong as Protector of the Horses,” “Charging Out of the Imperial Stables,” “Defeating the Heavenly Troops the First Time,” and “Inviting Wukong Again.” The titles of these new acts reflect how Sun Wukong's image became more heroic.
At the 1953 World Festival of Youth and Students, Li Shaochun performed this opera, for which he received great acclaim and won an award. Later, he visited many countries to perform Uproar in Heaven and other operas, making the Monkey King well-known around the world.
Monkey King Operas
A little-known fact about the Monkey King character is that he was based on actual monkey performances, which were carved on stone reliefs dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). In ancient China, monkeys, deemed the guardians of horses, were often raised in stables to restrain horses, and were allowed to perform at ritual ceremonies. Therefore, monkeys got the name maliu (“horse restraint”), a term which is still used in Guangdong. Later, monkey performances became less religious and more entertaining.
Monkey King has long been part of Chinese opera. The earliest Monkey King opera is said to be Baiyuan Jiumu (“the white ape saves its mother”) from the Tang Dynasty, which is adapted from a book about Taoism called Baopuzi written by scholar Ge Hong (283–343). The synopsis is: The mother of a white ape living on Yunmeng Mountain is seriously ill. The white ape goes to Sun Bin's peach orchard to steal peaches, and is caught by Sun Bin. The white ape kneels before Sun, tearfully telling Sun that his mother is ill and wants to eat peaches. Amazed by the fact that even an ape acts like a dutiful son, Sun gives peaches to the ape and lets it go. After eating peaches, the mother ape gets well. To repay Sun's kindness, the white ape presents a book on the art of war kept in its cave to Sun, who because of this later becomes a famous general of the state of Qi.
Later Monkey King operas, called Wukong operas, are mythical operas based on the novel Journey to the West and have Sun Wukong as the hero. Typically performed as Kunqu, Peking and Shaoxing operas, they feature distinctive facial makeup. Easy to understand and humorous, Monkey King operas are very popular and are the best introduction to Peking opera.
In Monkey King performances in Peking opera, the stage appearance—especially the facial makeup—of the Monkey King is very important. The main colour of the facial makeup is gold, which represents mysteriousness and is typically used to represent both deities and evil spirits. Besides gold, red and black are the other main colours used. The facial makeup of the Monkey King is not only coloured according to Sun Wukong's character, but also changes according to what is happening in the story. For example, before Sun Wukong enters Laozi's elixir- refining furnace, his facial makeup has pink eye sockets; after he gets out of the furnace, his eye sockets are golden, indicating that he then has fiery eyes with golden pupils.
Northern and Southern Monkey Kings
During the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, many Monkey King opera masters, representing the northern or southern style, appeared in Peking, Kunqu and Shaoxing operas. Representative Monkey King opera performers in the northern style were Yang Xiaolou, Li Wanchun and Li Shaochun; they performed more like martial artists, emphasised the spoken parts and captured the character's likeness in appearance, creating the image of a kingly monkey by letting “a monkey imitate a man.” Those who performed in the southern style were Gai Jiaotian (1888–1970), Zhang Yipeng (1910–1955) and Zheng Faxiang; they largely performed like military comedians and stressed body language, creating an agile, lively monkey by letting “a man imitate a monkey.”
Yang Xiaolou, known as “Little Monkey Yang,” learned Monkey King opera performance from his father Yang Yuelou (1844–1889). Though big and tall, Yang Xiaolou played the Monkey King agilely. It is said that when Yang Xiaolou was young, he performed many stunts in Water Curtain Cave. Famous drama critic Ding Bingsui said that the Monkey King performed by Yang Xiaolou in Pacifying Heaven, in which he wore an embroidered robe, moved agilely and sang clearly, appearing relaxed but not vulgar. Mei Lanfang, reporting what Gai Jiaotian had said, stated: “When performing in the act ‘Disturbance in the Sea' of Water Curtain Cave, Yang Xiaolou somersaulted agilely like a cat. I was amazed.”
Following Yang Xiaolou, Li Wanchun and Li Shaochun became masterly Monkey King opera performers. Li Wanchun gave a lively and agile performance in Pacifying Heaven. He was taught by Yang Xiaolou and the uncle of Emperor Xuantong (reign: 1908–1911), who was a famous amateur Peking opera actor and gained popularity in Beijing by performing in
Pacifying Heaven. The secret of performing in Monkey King operas that Puyi's uncle taught Li Wanchun was: a man imitates a monkey, and a monkey imitates a man.
Li Wanchun personalised the Monkey King in his performances. In the act “Guarding the Peach Orchard” of Pacifying Heaven, Li changed Wukong's king's crown into a golden cap with bobbles and plumes, indicating that Wukong was an official. Also, Li Wanchun performed a special feat in the act “Stealing Peaches,” in which he ate a real peach by nibbling its peel around its perimeter, so that finally he could lift up a long strip of peel, a feat that brought on cheers from the audience. His Monkey King operas were popular in northern China, but at that time there were only a few Monkey King operas, including Water Curtain Cave and Pacifying Heaven.
Li Wanchun developed a new version of Pacifying Heaven and other Monkey King operas, such as Wuxingxhan (‘‘Five Elements Mountain''), Dou Liuzei (‘‘Fighting with Six Scoundrels''), and Zhenja Meihouwang (‘‘ True and False Monkey Kings''), in which Li added new feats of fighting that astonished and amused the audience. Li Wanchun therefore became a master of Monkey King operas known as the “Living Monkey King.”
Li Shaochun was Li Wanchun's wife's younger brother. He was born in a family of Peking opera performers. His father Li Guichun (1885–1962) was famous in Shanghai for performing in Lord Bao operas. The playwright Weng Ouhong once said that Li was both agile and lively in his Monkey King performance in the southern style and composed in the northern style.
In spring 1938, Li made his debut in Tianjin, where he caused a great sensation with Water Curtain Cave and Nao Difu (“disturbance in the nether world”). He acted agilely and performed such feats as vaulting onto the stage with the aid of his goldbanded cudgel. That year, Li Shaochun also performed in Zhiji Meihouwang (“Intelligently Prodding the Monkey King”), and Shiba Luohan Dou Wukong (“Eighteen Arhats fight against Wukong”).
In southern China, the most famous Monkey King opera performers were Gai Jiaotian, known as “the living Wu Song in the regions south of the Yangtze River,” and his two sons Zhang Yipeng and Zhang Erpeng. When performing in Uproar in Heaven, Gai Jiaotian snatched a pipa (a plucked string instrument) from one of the Buddha's four warrior attendants, and then fought against the mythical being Nezha; then Gai snatched the band Nezha held and spun it with his foot while using the pipa to block Nezha's spear, thus showcasing his excellent performing skills.
Monkey King performances are also great favourites in regional opera styles, such as Sichuan, Henan, Anhui, Shaanxi and Shanxi operas. The most famous performer was Liu Ling Tong (1924–2014), also known as Liu Xiao Ling Tong but whose real name was Zhang Zongyi. Having learned widely from other performers, Zhang performed Sun Wukong as the integration of a man, a deity and a monkey, and as an exceptionally brave and resourceful, lively and lovely Monkey King.
Liu Ling Tong's most well-known opera, Sun Wukong Subdues the White-bone Demon, suits both refined and popular tastes. Chinese author Guo Moruo (1892–1978) praised it in a poem, which Chairman Mao (1893–1976) responded to with a poem that includes the famous line, “The Golden Monkey wrathfully swung his massive cudgel, and the jade-like firmament was cleared of dust.”
Among all of China's classical novels, Journey to the West is exceptional, having been adapted for both the stage and screen. It is said that hundreds of scholars make their living from A Dream of the Red Mansions, but thousands of people working in the film and TV industries make their living from Journey to the West.
In the 1960s, an animated feature film of Havoc in Heaven was created, making the image of Sun Wukong more vivid and unforgettable. Another film is an adaptation of Sun Wukong Subdues the White-bone Demon, a Shaoxing opera in which Liu Ling Tong plays Wukong. In 1986, the novel Journey to the West was made into a TV series in which Liu Ling Tong plays an impressive Monkey King. In the 1990s, director Stephen Chow's film A Chinese Odyssey changed the image of Sun Wukong to one who was less divine and more affectionate and humorous. The slapstick humour associated with this film was epic.
In 2014, an action-fantasy film of The Monkey King was screened. Its plot is based on the first eight chapters of Journey to the West. Although the adapted plot was criticised, the visual effects are good. In 2015, Monkey King: Hero Is Back, an animated film, was screened, depicting an obstinate, unruly hero that suits modern audiences.
The image of the Monkey King continues to be depicted differently in different times. However, Monkey King is part of the collective memory of generations of Chinese, and is associated with their childhoods, beliefs, dreams and sense of duty. There is a Sun Wukong in the mind of every one of them.
The Monkey King played by Peking Opera artist Li Shaochun