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 email@example.com
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.