As I brought up the Monkey King in my previous post on religion in China I thought it would be reminisce of me if I didn’t expound further on this little guy. In some regards he’s a bit like Santa Claus: everyone is familiar with the image and the symbolism in some small way. A guy with a white beard in a red hat is easily synonymous with the term Christmas. But Santa didn’t appear out of nowhere. Like how facts and truths about Santa’s reindeers, elves and home address are a bit more quick to mind than the story of his origin as a monk, the history behind the Monkey King is equally mystical, and also if it not as instantly recognisable as his appearance.
The character of the Money King, known also as Sun Wu Kong, most famous literary appearance is in Journey to the West, where the Monkey King – imprisoned for defying the commands of Heaven and Hell – offers to accompany a pilgriming monk on his quest in return for his freedom. With Xuanzang the monk, the duo also pick up companions Bajie (a pig) and Wujing (a sand demon). At the completion of their journey, each of the travellers are rewarded by Heaven.
However, the story’s transformation from classical 16th century Chinese novel to mainstream culture, and the endurance of its characters is what fascinates me. Major motion picture productions regarding Sun Wu Kong were released in 2014, 2016 and 2017. This year, a good Beijing friend of mine was directing the dubbing of a Chinese made Monkey King cartoon into Russian, while other teams were making it into English and Spanish for international distribution. Next year, filmed in New Zealand and available on ABC, NZTV and Netflix will be an Aus-New Zealand collaboration called The Legend of the Monkey. Some have criticised the ‘white-washing’ of the cast, due to the minimal involvement of Asian actors, but I don’t think this should be a concern. If Romeo and Juliet can be performed in local Chinese productions, then Monkey King should be open to re-interpretation too.
What makes the character of the Monkey King so popular and adaptable? My belief is that the monkey, as an animal, is perceived as cheeky, clever and unpredictable. Paired with the command to obey and serve, with freedom as the reward, makes for a complex character always struggling internally. This personality can then be applied to a variety of situations, old and new, allowing for the character of the Monkey King to be placed in current day scenarios and not be trapped in the era of his creation. 500 years on from Journey to the West, Monkey King remains as iconic as ever. Once you learn to recognise him by his trademark white, red and black face, gold hat and robes, and staff you’ll start to see him everywhere!
Photo from Beijing Playhouse’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol’, where the Ghost of Christmas Past is actually the Monkey King – the things you can create with cross-culture! Beijing, December 2016.