Insulting the Monkey King

Posted by Joel Martinsen, November 21, 2006 6:00 PM

A Japanese production team was granted authorization by SARFT to film in Ningxia, Hunan, Gansu, Anhui, Guangxi, and Inner Mongolia for a new big-screen adaptation of Journey to the West. Like Japanese adaptations of the past, the role of Xuanzang, the monk who is escorted through 81 trials to obtain scriptures from the western heaven, will be played by a woman. There are even rumors of a romantic subplot between the monk and Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.

Not everyone is pleased by this, though reaction has been muted by the fact that (a) the adaptation is nowhere near as insulting as a recent Japanese game that took the cast of A Dream of the Red Mansions and turned them into sex slaves; (b) the movie hasn’t actually come out yet, and when it does, it probably won’t be shown in the mainland, anyway; and (c) people find it hard to get excited over Xuanzang, not the most charismatic character in the novel, as demonstrated by last year’s disappointing A Chinese Tall Story, which focused on Nicholas Tse’s monk.

However, two people involved with the classic 1980s TV version of Journey to the West have made vocal objections. Zhang Jinlai*, the actor who played the monkey in that series, has been speaking out for quite some time against the indiscriminate adaptation of China’s great novels. Here’s what he said to The Beijing News last week:

I have been giving lectures at universities, with the topic being a call to enact national law protecting traditional Chinese culture. Journey to the West is undoubtedly the soul of China’s traditional culture; the attention toward Journey to the West on the part of foreign countries is a good thing, however you want to call it, but we must also prevent malicious spoofing of our traditional culture under the banner of “fashion” or “subversion”. Actions such as these will hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. Some people say that today’s Chinese youth and college students enjoy that sort of “comic” stuff; giving speeches at all those universities, I have found that this is an entirely mistaken claim. Our most traditional things remain what our college students.

Actually, I have reflected on this myself - why do we always say that we have a responsibility to protect traditional culture, but we never shoot anything? Next year I will shoot the movie Handsome Monkey King, still playing the role of Sun Wukong. Currently there is a Japanese film version shooting that has plans for a romance between a female Xuanzang and Sun Wukong. China’s Hansome Monkey King is unique in the world - not just anyone can put on monkey fur and play his character.

Today, when this sort of international film company shoots this kind of material inside our country’s borders, how are our administrative departments monitoring and controlling things? The US has a legal framework concerning famous works; if you wish to film their famous works, they will first look over the script, and you cannot violate the spirit of the original. If, as some adaptations of Journey to the West have done, you exaggerate Sun Wukong’s devotion to love so that it far exceeds his conviction to obtain the scriptures from the west, then what is shot on film is not Journey to the West. American parents even tell their children that the story of Journey to the West is a vacation to the west taken by two monks and their pig and monkey; American children will believe that the Chinese were the first to have pets. You can film King Kong or Tarzan of the Apes - those are good and moving - but you can’t spoof such a character as Sun Wukong, whose Chinese heroic character is so deep.

The scriptwriter and director of the 1980s version, Yang Jie, had this to say:

I have watched the previous television adaptation of Journey to the West from Japan, and in fact it was very far off the mark. This time, they’re filming a movie, and it will definitely have its own perspective. Expecting fidelity to the source is not likely; we can’t do anything about it.

Actually, the key point here is ourselves - why, for so many years, have Chinese people not treated their own famous works earnestly and seriously? Back when we shot Journey to the West, conditions were far more difficult than they are today, not to mention special effects, but we put effort into the script and story, so it should be said that the outcome was not too bad. Today, the country does not do much to protect its famous works: society is fickle, everyone has been dazed by their faith in money, and too many people try to entertain with junk. I truly fear that the next generation will completely misunderstand the true meaning of Journey to the West. Those who have the will to shoot Journey to the West have not the funds, and those who have the funds are unwilling to treat it seriously, leaving such a great story to go to waste!”

In past interviews with the media, Zhang has brought up French law as an example of what he’d like to see in China. He’s mentioned Les Miserables as a book that requires permission to adapt, probably referring to a suit brought by Victor Hugo’s heirs against the author of a sequel to the novel. In 2004, a French court of appeals decided that Hugo would not have authorized a sequel to his finished work and fined the author 1 euro, reversing a lower court decision.

Zhang’s on less firm ground when he brings the US into the picture, since American copyright law does not have much to say about the moral right of the author. In addition, Journey to the West draws its material from earlier sources as well as folk traditions, meaning that Zhang’s imagined law would be much broader in scope than even French moral rights. A Dream of Red Mansions could conceivably be protected from more extreme forms of adaptation by appealing to Cao Xueqin’s right not to have his reputation impugned; would it be possible to pass a law saying that it is illegal to write a work that adapts traditional Chinese culture in a way that causes harm to China’s reputation?

And if so, would such a law result in the banning of works of traditional Chinese culture that insult other works of traditional Chinese culture? Xu Lai, entertainment critic for The Beijing News, takes a look at how adaptation has been done throughout Chinese history:

Retelling need not be “not serious”

by Xu Lai / XJB#

SARFT authorized the Japanese film version of Journey to the West to shoot inside Chinese territory; the crew has already arrived in Ningxia. Reports swiftly attracted widespread attention on the Internet, and a significant proportion of netizens disagreed. In interviews with the media, the creators of the 1987 TV version* of Journey to the West, Yang Jie and Zhang Jinlai, said that it was obvious that the Japanese Journey to the West was maliciously spoofing an ancient classic; Yang Jie said that “currently, those with the finances are unwilling to give this topic serious treatment.”

Actually, pulling out plot elements from Journey to the West for adaptation, or even changing the gender of characters in the original novel during the course of adaptation, is nothing too shocking. An example of the former is China’s first paper-cut cartoon, Zhu Bajie eating watermelon; its plot was not directly connected to Journey to the West, but rather was taken from a folk tale. An example of the latter is Supplement to Journey to the West, written by the late Ming/early Qing novelist Dong Shuo. In this book, the author has the heroic Sun Wukong fall into the “Hall of 10,000 Mirrors,” transform into a woman, and consort with the King of Chu. If this sort of stuff was made known to some online extremists, no doubt it would be called an act of malicious spoofing, and would be used as an example to demonstrate that Chinese people do not treasure their traditional culture.

The greater online population does not fully understand cultural history and the principles of artistic creation, so pointing to adaptations as malicious spoofing is still pardonable. But you’d think that the creators of the 1982 TV version of Journey to the West would be very familiar with the cultural history of Journey to the West; who would have thought that they’d say things like this - it truly has me flabbergasted.

As an important product of popular culture, production of television dramas has its own unique methods and rules. Adaptation of the script comes in just two ways: one strictly follows the plot of the original, proceeding through close adherence; the other picks out representative characters and plot elements, which are then adapted according to the demands of the creators. The goal of the former is to accurately reflect the classic story contained in the classic work, while the goal of the latter is to provide enough space for new creativity to take flight.

The process of retelling is, to a large degree, a process of subverting classic characters and classic scenes. It is because classic works are so familiar that they invite reasonable exaggeration of classic character traits, extensions in opposite directions, to further expand the structure of the work. More importantly, this type of modification gives the adapted work a sense of novelty in the eyes of the audience, leading to better results. This technique appears in movies and television, and it is not rare in the literary realm, either. Romance of the Three Kingdoms “tries to show off Liu Bei’s generosity to the point that it seems fake and plays up Zhu Geliang’s wisdom so much that he seems like a demon”* But this is within the framework of literary creation, the result of the retelling of that classic of history, Records of the Three Kingdoms. Shortly after that, Lu Xun in his own stories extended the images of Nuwa, Chang’e, Laozi, and Zhuangzi. These works are all adaptations, and some of them are not short of heterodoxy; written intentionally to shock, they have entered the literary canon a hundred years later, and may even have surpassed their “originals.” It is obvious that this type of retelling cannot be dispatched simply by labeling it “malicious spoofing.”

As for “unwilling to treat seriously,” this is an even stranger matter. According to standard creative principles, adaptations largely increase the dramatic conflict of the original and augment the consequences of the drama; this type of activity is clearly more difficult than simply reading from the text. And if you say that people who engage in this sort of activity are not serious, you probably will have a hard time convincing anyone. Besides, even the 1982 version of Journey to the West intentionally played up everything from “comic Chang’e” and the “spiderweb cave” to the “bottomless pit” and the “Kingdom of Women.” At the time, if I recall correctly, these scenes stirred up a debate over whether they were “serious,” did they not?

Then there’s this:

Where did Sun Wukong come from?

by Meng Xiaoshe (ferocious little snake)#

The always-peculiar Master Ke Yunlu* has once again taken flight, saying things like Sun Wukong’s father was Buddha, and his mother was the Bodhisattva Guanyin. And there’s someone who has proven that Sun Wukong was originally from Gansu - truly, in these cool autumn days, as snakes and insects take to their nests to sleep and create the next generation, the monsters and demons come out to write blogs.

So where did Sun Wukong come from? To use a really crude expression, he popped out of a crack in the rock. When I was young, one of my neighbors was the 90-something Old Grandma Jin, whose blind eyes did not prevent her from becoming a famous master storyteller in those parts. Our school even invited her to tell her stories to the entire student body. At that time, the school often had people come to give all kinds of presentations - things like the heroic warriors from Mount Faka, or excellent teachers - the most absurd was a professional speaker from out of town whose topic was “Climbers in Chains,” but none of these people had as much of an effect on the assembly as did Grandma Jin.

According to Grandma Jin, in those days, Guanyin traveled about on her propitious cloud - that is, “cloud-sailing.” When she arrived at the eastern seashore to look at the ocean, she carelessly fell asleep on a rock, and flew off once she awoke. The bodhisattva took a female form at the time - or more correctly, in order to investigate the conditions of the local monkeys, she took on the form of a female monkey. Bodhisattvas have substantial magical abilities, and can transform into thousands of things - transforming into a female monkey, or even a female louse, is nothing special. So as the bodhisattva was sleeping away, her “auntie” made a visit, and the blood ran onto the surface of the rock. She probably did not notice, since otherwise she probably would have wiped it clean before flying off.

With the bodhisattva’s blood, the rock was no longer a common rock, but rather a magical stone.

Everyone knows the rest of the story - the magical stone took in the essence of heaven and earth, absorbed the radiance of the sun and moon, and eventually that stone tossed out a monkey.

The story of Journey to the West is actually quite simple; it reflects reports of official actions, or more specifically, the bitter history of the struggles of an official working in the ministry of foreign affairs. I own a dozen or so versions of Journey to the West, and I make annotations as I read them. My greatest stroke came when I realized that Journey to the West is a natural script for a role-playing game. If you’ve never played an RPG before, then perhaps you’ve read Lord of the Rings; Rings-like bands typically have the following characters: wizard, knight, warrior (strongman, barbarian), archer, mascot. Take another look at the five characters in Xuanzang’s band of disciples: the pale, fat Xuanzang is just like the wizard-leader; however, he is an official master with substantial backing - the Tang emperor’s sworn brother - and though he has no magical ability, he is imperially-authorized spiritual leader, similar to a chairman of the board or party secretary; the knight is the administrative leader, like a CEO, and this role is Sun Wukong’s; the warrior’s role naturally falls to the scruffy Sha Monk; the white dragon horse, at times the third son of the dragon king, at times a horse, could be the mascot that runs with the squad, but he also has fighting ability. So what role is lacking in this Journey to the West squad led by Xuanzang? Naturally, that of the incomparably handsome elf prince in Lord of the Rings, the archer. The squad’s last remaining slot - that of the archer - falls to Zhu Bajie. But as everyone knows, Zhu Bajie uses a nine-toothed rake, so how is it that he can become an archer?

“God helps those who help themselves” - I found in Journey to the West the following description of when Zhu Bajie first comes on the scene:

Knotted and rolled his guts hung from his mouth,
His ears like fronded fans, his eyes flashed gold.
Ferocious teeth as sharp as steel files,
His open mouth as hot as brazier fire.
His golden helm hugged tightly to his cheeks,
A silken cord bound python-scale mail.
His hands held out a rake like dragon claws,
A half-moon bow circled about his waist.
Massing his might, he threatened Jupiter,
His towering will put challenge to the gods.

Do you see it? “His hands held out a rake like dragon claws, a half-moon bow circled about his waist.” Zhu Bajie had a bow at his waist - he is the only bow-carrier among those in the band. Naturally, he is much uglier than the elf prince, but why is it that the elf prince’s ears are so large and pointy? It’s like an imitation of Zhu Bajie’s big ears. From this we can see that source of the rules of AD&D in the west probably can be found in an eastern source. The great Tolkien perhaps found his inspiration in Journey to the West.

Note 1: When Zhang Jinlai is mentioned in the Chinese press, he is invariably called 六小龄童; his real name is rarely used at all. Since the stage name is awkward to translate, English-language reports typically use Zhang Jinlai instead. See his Wikipedia entry for more details.
Note 2: Shooting and airing of the pilot began in 1982, but it was only in 1987 that the series was aired in its entirety.
Note 3: 欲显刘备之长厚而似伪,状诸葛之多智而近妖. This assessment is from Lu Xun’s critique of Romance of the Three Kingdoms in A Concise History of Chinese Fiction.
Note 4: The article by Ke Yunlu that Meng Xiaoshe refers to is here - a lengthy explication of the story of Sun Wukong as an allegory of human growth and maturation. The relationship between Monkey, Buddha, and Guanyin in the book is seen as representative of the typical relationship between a child and his parents. Monkey learns about life, throws tantrums, and receives both indulgence and punishment from his ‘parents’.

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