The Super Monkey
More Than A Big Entertainment Event
Western scholars of China have long been aware of these earliest novels in China, but the popular translation by English Orientalist and sinologist Arthur Waley (Monkey) in 1942 reached a much wider audience, and his emphasis on the comedic and earthy nature of the work, encouraged by his colleague Hu Shih, only added to this appeal.
Ithink it is fair to say that among the ‘Four Great Classical Novels’ in Chinese literature, Journey to the West stands out in the popular consciousness of Americans. True, the title still confuses many foreigners momentarily, automatically thinking of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. But, as soon as the Monkey King is brought into the picture, an increasing number of foreigners instantly realize that this journey refers to an epic one from the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an
nd (present day Xi’an) out through the great western expanses of China and eventually into the heartland of Buddhism, far to the south. Western scholars of China have long been aware of these earliest novels in China, but the popular translation by English Orientalist and sinologist Arthur Waley (Monkey) in 1942 reached a much wider audience, and his emphasis on the comedic and earthy nature of the work, encouraged by his colleague Hu Shih, only added to this appeal. Arthur achieved both popular and scholarly acclaim for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry.
As an English teacher and student of Chinese in Beijing in the mid1980’s, I was aware of Journey to the West and that, like the other Four Great Classical Novels, it was born of the oral tradition in which itinerant storytellers would depend on their ability to entrance their audience and have them pay for adventure after adventure. Perhaps it was this highly episodic nature that led the television industry to select Journey to the West as a TV series, the phenomenal success of which spawned a continually thriving industry of Journey to the West - related products in animation, video games and feature films. But watching TV was so different then. Unlike in today’s streaming video world – any video, anytime, anywhere - watching a new episode of a hot, new series was an event that you savored by gathering around the tube with your friends and family at the appointed hour. I could tell from the excitement and
thrilled reactions of those close to me that this was a very special event, indeed. The experience of watching those episodes unfold in 1986 has endured as much more than a big entertainment event for me. No matter how hard we try, people from any culture carry sets of stereotypical traits that partially describe members of other cultures, and these often remain sadly incomplete. Having studied Chinese and spent time in Taiwan Province before arriving in Beijing the year before, my stereotypes had been challenged and revised quite a bit already, but I was still struggling to match up the seemingly contradictory elements. In great contrast with the “perfect Asian student” stereotype in the U.S., some of mine would brazenly read newspapers, and then just put their heads down on them and go to sleep. The lock-step, orderly, and always respectful picture of the typical Chinese person would simply melt during the daily battles to board the bus. Were these just isolated examples of “bad” Chinese behavior? Of course, this wasn’t a conscious effort at reconciliation; intellectually I knew that no group of humans is ever all good or bad. But something was bothering me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on …until Sun Wukong entered my life through the unparalleled portrayal by Liu Xiao Ling Tong. At first, the Monkey King seemed to simply turn the traditional stereotypes upside-down. We all laughed and were thrilled by this self-aggrandizing, capricious, disrespectful, wildly playful king of the monkeys (after all?), who dared to eat all of the Immortal Peaches, raise hell in the Jade Emperor’s Heaven, and even piss (albeit unknowingly) on the fingers of Buddha! As episodes proceeded, however, I began to sense a deeper connection with the timeless, Chinese personality itself. More than any other source, Sun Wukong crystallized this for me and joined those features that had seemed to lie outside with those traditional, noble Chinese virtues of loyalty, sacrifice and even submission of the self. Over the years, in subsequent trips back to China, I always found it supremely comforting to find Liu Xiao Ling Tong, in the form of Sun Wukong, playing almost constantly somewhere among the ever-increasing TV channels. I will always feel a very personal connection and owe him a debt of gratitude.
In more than one sense, the CCTV version of Journey to the West was not just a TV show, and it is a cold understatement to call it a cultural phenomenon. It was an historical milestone that has become part of the collective consciousness and identity...