About Jour­ney­totheWest

China Daily (Canada) - - TORONTO -

Dur­ing an in­ter­view, he pauses to mimic a mon­key’s fa­cial ex­pres­sions. For those few sec­onds, you’d be­lieve that a real mon­key is sit­ting across the ta­ble.

Most Chi­nese know him by his stage name, Liu Xiao Ling Tong, but his real name is Zhang Jin­lai, 57.

He hit TV screens via his 25-episode Jour­ney to the West in 1986 when he played SunWukong, or the Mon­key King, in the se­ries.

Now, with the Year of the­Mon­key just around the cor­ner, Zhang is busy do­ing record­ings for the Spring Fes­ti­val galas of many TV sta­tions.

“I ap­pear on stage purely to bring peo­ple hap­pi­ness,” he says.

But per­haps, the hap­pi­ness tinged with some nos­tal­gia.

It is es­ti­mated that the TV drama adapted from a 16th-cen­tury clas­sic fan­tasy novel has been re­broad­cast around 3,000 times.

In a child’s mind in China, when­ever its theme song plays on a TV chan­nel, it means that the sum­mer va­ca­tions have be­gun.

For gen­er­a­tions of TV view­ers in China, Zhang is “the” Mon­key King.

“Sev­eral for­eign friends have told methat they were as­ton­ished to find that ev­ery Chi­nese has the same an­swer when asked who Sun Wukong is,” he says, de­spite not be­ing the only one to play the role.

“This is be­cause when asked who James Bond is, they give you dif­fer­ent an­swers, rang­ing from Pierce Bros­nan to RogerMoore.”

De­spite be­ing so closely iden­ti­fied with SunWukong on screen, Zhang also has other rea­sons to be proud.

As a fourth-gen­er­a­tion mon­key opera per­former in his fam­ily, the man born in Shang­hai felt it was nat­u­ral for him to step onto the stage though he never re­ally con­sid­ered tak­ing over his father’s role as

is the­Mon­key King, es­pe­cially as he is the youngest of 11 sib­lings.

Zhang’s father, a vet­eran opera per­former, was called Liu Ling Tong (mean­ing a 6-year-old child in Chi­nese). He was called that as he first had to mem­o­rize his lines as the Mon­key King at that age.

“Xiao” in Zhang’s stage means “lit­tle” in Chi­nese.

His father won na­tion­wide ac­claim in a 1962 film adapted from Jour­ney to theWest.

“My great-grand­fa­ther also per­formed the mon­key opera in the fields more than a cen­tury ago. My grand­fa­ther moved the per­for­mances to the opera stage, andmy father took it to the big screen,” Zhang says, turn­ing emo­tional as he re­calls his fam­ily’s links with the­Mon­key King.

Liu Ling Tong’s se­cond son was once con­sid­ered his “suc­ces­sor” as Mon­key King, but he passed away at

name 16 due to leukemia.

“I once asked my sick brother: ‘How can I see you again?’ And his an­swer was: ‘ When you be­come the Mon­key King, you can see me.’ Some­times, a sim­ple sen­tence can change your life.”

Zhang was greatly en­cour­aged by his brother’s words, and the iconic 1986 TV se­ries was his chance.

There were once more than 20 mon­keys be­ing raised in Zhang’s home.

“In a fam­ily with more mon­keys than peo­ple, you can imag­ine how I was nur­tured,” he says half-jok­ingly.

Zhang, who suf­fered from my­opia and had very lit­tle per­for­mance ex­pe­ri­ence, started his train­ing by liv­ing with a mon­key to learn ev­ery­thing about it, es­pe­cially to mimic its eye move­ments.

“Fi­nally, I brought SunWukong to TV.

“Per­form­ing styles­may evolve but cer­tain things re­main the same,” he says.

“A 1986 TV se­ries may be not be great in terms of tech­nol­ogy, but I guess the rea­son it is still pop­u­lar among kids to­day is that it re­flects Chi­nese life.”

For Zhang, Sun Wukong’s story rep­re­sents a grass­roots hero’s progress as a re­sult of his per­se­ver­ance and per­sonal strug­gle. With its en­cour­age­ment of team­work and op­ti­mism, it is easy for the story to find res­o­nance with the younger gen­er­a­tion to­day.

Nev­er­the­less, he de­cries the ad­just­ments made to the orig­i­nal sto­ry­line in re­cent screen pro­duc­tions base­donJour­ney to theWest to match mod­ern aes­thet­ics.

“What I’m afraid of most is that kids to­day will ask me why Sun Wukong doesn’t have a girl­friend,” he says, smil­ing em­bar­rassed look.

“No mat­ter how Jour­ney to the West is pre­sented, a line has to be drawn: The he­roes should be clearly distin­guish­able from the mon­sters.”

Zhang says he can­not bear to see some adapted ver­sions that even have a mon­ster lover for Sun Wukong.

“When you don’t spend enough time un­der­stand­ing Sun Wukong’s spirit and the orig­i­nal im­age, how can you be called cre­ative?” he asks ex­press­ing sad­ness about the ten­dency to stray from the ba­sics.

Speak­ing of the fu­ture, Zhang is con­cerned about who will fol­low him be­cause he has no son, and only has a daugh­ter. How­ever, he is open­minded about find­ing a suit­able can­di­date to take over.

“The mon­key opera





not sur­named Zhang. It be­longs to hu­man­ity,” he says.

“The new Mon­key King has to be smart, in­ter­ested in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture. And, well, he can­not be too fat.”

But be­fore re­al­iz­ing his plan to be­gin a TV tal­ent show to look for a suc­ces­sor glob­ally, Zhang feels it is bet­ter to pro­moteSunWukong’s story over­seas first.

So, when he re­cently worked with bev­er­age gi­ant Pepsi to re­lease a sixminute mi­cro film, which is also an ad­ver­tise­ment, he re­ceived mixed feed­back, es­pe­cially as he has not done do­mes­tic com­mer­cial ad­ver­tise­ments for many years now.

But Zhang is not per­turbed: “We al­ways talk about ‘let­ting Chi­nese cul­ture go abroad’, but that should not re­main only a slo­gan.

“We need to aban­don a nar­row vi­sion and em­brace ef­forts aimed at pro­mot­ing Chi­nese cul­ture.”

This may also ex­plain why he de­cided in 2015 to co­op­er­ate with Paramount Pic­tures to cre­ate a block­buster based on Jour­ney to the West.

Though the film was orig­i­nally planned to be re­leased this year to mark the Year of the­Mon­key, its has been de­layed, he says.

“I will per­form Sun Wukong again,” he says, his eyes fill­ing up with ex­cite­ment.

“We will use the best spe­cial ef­fects from Hol­ly­wood, but there is some­thing that can­not be re­placed by tech­nol­ogy — the­Mon­key King’s eye­sight.

“As a hero for the Chi­nese, the Mon­key King de­serves a po­si­tion like Spi­der­man or Su­per­man. It’s time to make an­other clas­sic — just like what we did 30 years ago.”

Con­tact the writer at wangkai­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn


Zhang Jin­lai, 57, bet­ter known as Liu Xiao Ling Tong, mim­ics a mon­key’s fa­cial ex­pres­sions. Zhang is a fourth-gen­er­a­tion mon­key opera per­former in his fam­ily.

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