Profiles – The Monkey King

26 Feb

Every child in China when they grow up is told the stories of “Journey to the West” – also known as “The Monkey King.”  It’s the story of a buddhist monk who travels from China to India to collect the sacred writings of Buddhism and bring them back.  The monk himself is not that interesting, very pious and always being attacked or imprisoned.  He is accompanied though by different companions that he meets along the way, the most famous being Sun Wu Kong (孙悟空) – the monkey king, who has supernatural powers – he can fly, isn’t afraid of anything and has a magic staff that he keeps in his ear and allows him to attack the bad guys.

The original cartoon version from before the cultural revolution

Sun Wu Kong starts as the ultimate bad boy – abusing his powers, causing chaos and not thinking of the needs of others.  Early in the series he gets imprisoned inside a mountain for 500 years.  After his 500 years to think it over, he eventually converts to the side of good, pledging to protect the monk and helping him complete his mission.  The plot then is basically good vs. evil with good always managing to win.

Each Chinese New Year season Chinese TV networks will show mini-series of Journey to the West.  I’ve now seen three different versions – ranging from a mid-80s one where the fight scenes remind me of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers of my childhood, to the new “updated” version with seamless animation and some pretty scary villains.  It’s a super mini-series, with well over 40 episodes, each coming to a close where our hero is fighting yet another villain.  Every villain is either abusing his power and the people and/or beings who live in his area or has a treasure connected with the Buddha that the monk is trying to collect.

Zhu Ba Jie from the cartoon version with his trusty rake

The show has integrated itself into popular culture so much so that the names of its characters now stand alone.  Another companion an individual who looks like a pig is called Zhu Ba Jie (猪八戒) which is basically lazy pig.  If you want to tease someone you can say that they’re a “Ba Jie” and there’s no need to explain the reference.  The ironic part is though, that over the course of the series, Ba Jie actually becomes more and more loyal, puts himself in danger and really does his best to protect the monk and his other friends.

At the beginning when I watched the show I got confused a lot and that still happens some.  The cow villain looks like the fox villain to me and the wives/girlfriends/mistresses of all of the villains in my eyes are almost identical.  There are villains who live under the sea and villains who live in the clouds.  All mystical creatures have the ability to morph into someone else or disguise themselves as an object.  Sometimes if I’m not paying attention three or four new characters will enter and if I don’t ask for clarification I lose the rest of that particular storyline.  That said, the newest version is much clearer – or perhaps my Chinese is getting a little better?

The human reenactors in a version from the 80s

If you have lived or worked abroad, was there a TV program that you connected with in another language?  Sometimes taste will change from one country to another and what you find interesting or even relatable changes as well.  When I first came to China and was teaching English, I started watching a soap opera – because the plot was basic enough that I could follow only understanding every 10th word.  I still have never seen a soap in the states.  Thoughts?

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One Response to “Profiles – The Monkey King”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The third quarter review « 中国 Jumble - April 17, 2012

    […] I find it ironic that my top two posts are not about China, but posts that I did about “The Monkey King – Sun Wu Kong” inspired by the new Journey to the West miniseries shown on Chinese TV and a discussion […]

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