Return of the Monkey King — Journey to the West

Journey to the West is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature written by Wu Cheng’en (1501 – 1582), a Ming Dynasty scholar, which is loosely based on a true event in Chinese history.

The Legend of Journey to the West

In the early years of Tang Dynasty, there was a young monk named Xuanzang who detected a great number of discrepancies in the interpretations of Buddhist text between different Chinese Buddhist schools, so decided to clean up the confusion by obtaining the original scriptures.

At the age of 27 and with no permission from the authority, Xuanzang left China through Jade Gate Pass (玉门关) in year 629. He walked all the way westwards along the silk road, alone, without a horse and without any companion, and eventually arrived in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, where he spent 20 years studying at Nalanda temple and visiting great Buddhist masters of the time.

16 years later he returned to Chinese capital Chang’an, along with 657 volumes of Buddhist scriptures. In the next 20 years he and his disciples translated 75 sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese language which become the classics not only in Buddhist text but Chinese literature.

His journey to the west has been viewed as a legend ever since. 900 year later, Wu Cheng’en created a novel based on all related tales, real and mythical, about the monk’s journey to the west.

And among all the mythical elements added into the historical event is the character Monkey King, the first disciple of monk Tang Xuanzang.

The Legend of Monkey King

Allegedly the monkey surnamed Sun was born from a stone (wonder where his surname came from) and successfully made himself king of a monkey kingdom at Flower Fruit Hill.

While monk Tang Xuanzang spent all his time visiting Buddhist masters to study Buddhist teachings, Monkey King spent all his time visiting Kung Fu masters to learn Chinese martial arts. Eventually he attained the skills to alter his appearance, cover 10 thousand miles of distance in just one handspring and delete his name on the record of the Death King (so he would never die). He also ate all the longevity peaches growing in the celestial garden and quitted a horseherder job appointed by Jade Emperor of Heaven.

For his naughty behaviour and audacious challenges to the orders of heaven and hell, the monkey was repeatedly punished and eventually suppressed under a finger-shaped mountain until he met Tang Xuanzang when the monk was on his way to the west.

The Drama of Monkey King

Despite Xuanzang’s journey to the West was a real event and Monkey King is just a fictional figure, of all characters in the legend of the journey to the west, the monkey is the most popular one, particularly on stage.

Liu Xiao Lingtong (六小龄童) is the son of his father Liu Lingtong who was well known for his excellent stage portrayal of Monkey King, while his father was the son and the grandson of his grandfather and great grandfather who were all well known for their marvellous portrayal of Monkey King on stage.

Born in 1959 in Shanghai, Liu Xiao Lingtong carried forward the family tradition onto the small screen and played monkey in the TV drama series Journey to the West in the 1980s.

Since then, his classic monkey king has appeared on both TV and silver screens and becomes the icon of the Journey to the West.

An Unwanted Girlfriend and A Fake Buddha

This is the #19 episode from the the most acclaimed 1980s version of the TV drama, in which monk Tang Xuanzang was first harassed by a flower spirit then fooled by a fake Buddha.

The wildflower spirit fell in love with the handsome and talented monk, and set up a private meeting with him under the help of her demonic tree friends. When the monk arrived, she harassed him to take her as his girlfriend and to abandon his journey to the West.

It was Monkey King (Sun Yukong) who came to his master’s rescue.

Left the forest of love trap, the thirsty and exhausted team spotted a Buddhist temple, a venue from where they usually could receive spiritual comfort and material assistance.

But not this time. The Buddha and Arhats in the Lesser Thunder Temple were all imposters.

The swindlers were not demons but led by a staff member to Laughing Buddha, a prominent figure in a Buddha land.

That leading imposter was an ambitious guy and believed he should be the core of the journey team. He looked like a Buddha, spoke like a Buddha, but his actions didn’t match his words.

This time even the monkey wasn’t able to save the situation…..

A White Bone Demon and A Foolish Team Leader

This is the #10 episode from the the most acclaimed 1980s version of the TV drama, in which White Bone Demon successfully deceived Monk Tang Xuanzang and drove a wedge between the master and the disciple.

The White Bone Demon was born from a rotten human skeleton and wanted to eat the monk to attain human shape and eternal youth, since the monk was reincarnated from a highly cultivated golden cicada.

The demon first transformed itself into an innocent villager girl. After her true nature was discovered and the body smashed by the monkey, the demon made a second attempt and returned as the girl’s mother. Yet her fate was no better than her “daughter”. So the demon made a last ditch effort and assumed an appearance of the only survivor of the “family”.

The Monk had already been in a towering rage of pain and anger after having witnessed the monkey “destroyed” two lives and determined to protect the poor old man who supposedly lost both his “daughter” and “wife”. He was not a kung fu man, but he knew how to recite a mantra to tighten the headband fixed on the monkey’s skull.

Despite being wrongly accused of murder by his leader (the monk) and misunderstood by his colleagues (Pigsy and Sandy), and despite suffering from unbearable headache as the result of the monk’s powerful denunciation (the mantra citing), nothing could deter the monkey from fighting the demon.

And he did, but with a dire consequence …..

Monkey Subdues White Bone Demon and Shaoju Opera

Monkey King Subdues the White Bone Demon is the most popular episode in the Journey to the West, which has been performed on various Chinese Opera stages for at least a century.

Among all White Bone Demon operas, Shaoju opera (绍剧) is the earliest and best known, with the monkey king played by four generations of Zhang family: from Liu Xiao Lingtong’s great grandfather to Liu Xiao Lingtong himself.

Shaoju opera is originated in Shaoxing, an ancient city in Zhejiang province, and performed in Shaoxing local dialect. Although nurtured by a scholarly and gentle culture of Southern Yangtze River (Jiangnan), unlike Yueju opera or Yongju opera developed in the same area, Shaoju is quite loud, bold and robust with an emphasis on stage martial arts and a musical band featured heavily suona and gongs, since its root is in a far away Yellow Plateau in northern China.

400 years ago when a large number of Chinese fled the capital and the land in the north of Yangtze River in the face of strong attacks from early Manchus, Qinqiang (秦腔), a Shaanxi opera, was brought to Zhejiang and gradually developed into Shaoju, which explains why Shaoju has more in common with vocally-strong and action-oriented northern operas, including Beijing opera, than subtle and soothing Jiangnan operas, such as Yueju, Xiju and Huju.

Of all Shaoju opera Repertoires, Monkey King Subdues White Bone Demon stands for the highest level of Shaoju stage performance and presence. The drama was made into film in 1960, in which Liu Xiao Lingtong’s father Liu Lingtong (1924 – 2014) played the Monkey King.

Welcome to the Fire Monkey year, 2016!

2 comments

  • James

    Monkey!

    I loved this show when I was a kid in the eightees. When I was a kid in the eightees though I didn’t know where monkey was made, Japan or China.

    I recently saw the latest movie – The monkey king…I thought it was wonderful…great soundtrack, visuals and storyline…

    I used to wonder about the bald one on the horse…was that character played by a woman (in the eightees)?

    And Pigsie? Do you remember him too?

    Great story, The Monkey King…

    One more question…

    If the Chinese government is so repressive, and monkey king is all about buddhism, why has it not been banned? For it advertises religion and I believe religion is not tolerated in China. What with Tibet and all too!

    James

    • Awen

      The TV drama involved a bald man played by a female actress (the Buddhist monk with a clean shaven head) is Monkey Magic, produced by Japan in 1979 according to the Ming Dynasty Chinese novel Journey to the West. It was screened in Australia towards 2000 each Saturday lunchtime — oh what a wonderful time I had!

      Yes, I love Pigsie and, the Monkey of course. I love that Japanese Monkey actor’s vivid expression and husky voice. I can still remember the theme song: Monkey Magic, Monkey Magic! 😀

      As for Chinese government, repressive may not be an accurate term to describe it. It brings a great progress to China and also makes many mistakes, just like the government in Australia (I believe on the whole it is better than Chinese government) and in America (I doubt on the whole it is better than Chinese government) 😉

      With regard to religions freedom, no Chinese government ever banned Buddhism or Daoism or any other legitimate religion, except during Manchu’s Qing Dynasty (because it was an alien regime by invaders and had a fear of indigenous religion Taoism).

      On the other hand, most Chinese governments would prohibit the practice of cult religions, especially those with a political agenda.

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