The Su­per Mon­key

More Than A Big En­ter­tain­ment Event

That's China - - Contents - Text by / David P. Pur­nell

永远的美猴王

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...

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