Mon­key shines in Chi­nese TV clas­sic

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PAGE TWO -

I rarely left my sofa in re­cent weeks, ex­cept to go to work, but this had noth­ing to do with the heat wave.

I was in a rapt state be­cause, to use a Western ex­pres­sion for an ad­dic­tion that can’t be shaken, I had “a mon­key on my back”. The Mon­key King, that is — the imp­ish lead char­ac­ter from Jour­ney to the West, the Chi­nese tele­vi­sion se­ries with English sub­ti­tles that was launched in 1986 (and re­broad­cast about 2,000 times since).

Equal parts fan­tasy and phi­los­o­phy, Jour­ney to the West is based on the novel of the same name by Wu Cheng’en. The se­ries, like the book (one of the four great clas­sics of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture), de­picts the ad­ven­tures of a trav­el­ing monk sent by

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the Tang Em­peror of the East on a long trek to the Western Heaven to seek the “true scrip­tures”. He’s ac­com­pa­nied by three dis­ci­ples, in­clud­ing the Mon­key King and a glut­tonous body­guard with a pig’s head.

The cun­ning and coura­geous talk­ing mon­key, played to perfection by Zhang Jin­lai (stage name Liu Xiao Ling Tong), can fly into the heav­ens and re­turn in a flash, change shape at will, ex­e­cute back­flips and kung fu moves with ease, and ex­pertly use a range of weapons in in­sanely imag­i­na­tive ways — all to pro­tect his mas­ter.

Chi­nese know the beloved Mon­key King as Sun Wukong, who has a range of mag­i­cal pow­ers and 72 trans­for­ma­tions.

Whether avoid­ing temp­ta­tion in the Wo­man­land of Western Liang or res­cu­ing a stolen wife from the de­mon of Horn­dog Cave, Wukong and his three co­horts are be­set by fiends and mis­for- tune just about ev­ery step of the way.

The show’s bare-bones bud­get and hi­lar­i­ously cheesy ef­fects are just part of its charm, as are the bad guys’ schlocky cos­tumes (rem­i­nis­cent of the space aliens’ god-aw­ful getups on the 1960s US tele­vi­sion se­ries Star Trek).

Magic and heav­enly in­ter­ven­tion play a large part in the west­ward romp, as do “trea­sures”, the se­cret weapons, rang­ing from em­broi­dery nee­dles to golden bells, that give their hold­ers — usu­ally demons who co-opted them — in­vin­ci­bil­ity or spe­cial pow­ers.

And long be­fore “green” was an en­vi­ron­men­tal buzz­word, Jour­ney to the West em­braced all as­pects of na­ture, from gor­geous moun­tain peaks and mead­ows to gur­gling brooks and rag­ing rivers, as well as vine demons and tree mon­sters. (In one episode that re­calls the 1939 US film clas­sic The Wizard of Oz, Wukong frees one of his fel­low dis­ci­ples in an en­chanted for­est from the cap­tive bearhug of a huge, sin­is­ter tree by tick­ling its trunk.)

You might be tempted to think that the holy monk and his not-al­ways-up­right com­pan­ions are an al­le­gory for the con­flict­ing parts of our per­son­al­ity that, only through team­work, can get us through the ad­ven­tures of this mortal realm.

Or, you could ig­nore such non­sense and just en­joy the magic-carpet ride of Jour­ney to the West, which, though hob­bled by the tech­no­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of the 1980s, con­tin­ues to cast its spell on view­ers — in­clud­ing hap­less for­eign­ers like my­self who can­not budge from the sofa.

Con­tact the writer at jameshealy@chi­


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