The Mon­key King: China’s Peer­less Hero

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Weix­ing, pol­ished by Roberta Raine, pho­tos by Zhao Dechun

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.”

Other Adap­ta­tions

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

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