‘Journey to the West’ actor uses his fame to promote Chinese culture

By Zhang Yuchen Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/18 19:28:39

Zhang Jinlai Photo: IC

Zhang Jinlai (left) in Monkey King costume poses for a picture next to his wax replica at Madame Tussauds Beijing on April 29, 2015. Photo: IC

Although it has been 30 years since he first appeared on TV in Central China Television's (CCTV) Journey to the West, in the hearts and minds of many throughout China and Southeast Asia Zhang Jinlai, better known as Liuxiao Lintong, is still the one and only Monkey King.

This year has been a good one for Zhang as the 57-year-old has published his first autobiography, in which he also pays tribute to Wu Cheng'en, the author of the literary classic.

"To know China, you should first get to know Journey to the West; to understand the Chinese people, you should first understand the Monkey King," Zhang wrote in his book Xingzhe (Traveler).

Written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Journey to the West is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Combining the historic pilgrimage of Tang Dynasty (618-907) monk Xuanzang with folk tales handed down over the centuries and the author's own imagination, the book is considered one of the earliest fantasy novels in China.

"As an ancient Chinese folk tale, Journey to the West reflects the cultural essence of our nation, including yin and yang, Han and Tang culture, and also the imagination of our ancestors. We can see our ancestors' wisdom through Sun Wukong (the Monkey King)," Zhang told the Global Times in early September at a launch event for the China Post's new Xuanzang-themed postage stamps.

Over the years, Zhang has continued to take advantage of his fame to promote this literary classic and other facets of Chinese culture, although there are those who say he is just trying to capitalize on the success of his glory days.

"I worked on that show during a great time when the production crew were serious about producing a high quality program even though the technology wasn't that advanced," Zhang said.

"It was a time when people were willing to spend years focusing on one thing. For me, it's important to do one thing really brilliantly. If I can do that, just once is enough for a lifetime."

Monkey business

In a way, the Monkey King is in Zhang's blood.

He was born to a traditional Chinese opera family that was well-known in local village opera circles in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Playing the role of the Monkey King started with his great-grandfather, and from him was passed down from generation to generation. Originally Zhang was not chosen for this role, but instead took over the job from his older brother after the latter passed away.

One of China's most enduring tales, Journey to the West also has a long history on TV.

Back in 1981, CCTV first presented a Japanese version of the novel, which presented the story in a Japanese manga style and completely changed the book's main four characters and plots into something meant for children.

"Chinese audiences couldn't accept it, and then the critics rose up and the show was canceled after only two episodes were broadcast, which was unprecedented for CCTV," Zhang wrote in his book.

Soon after, CCTV decided to produce its own adaptation, which presented an opportunity for Zhang.

For the role, Zhang relied heavily on elements of Monkey Opera, a branch of traditional Chinese opera, which earned him wide praise as many fans of the show said he looked like a real monkey.

Zhang told the Global Times that this version of Journey to the West led to audiences all over the country to start paying attention to the family business. This, he said, was one of his biggest successes - connecting modern audiences with traditional Monkey Opera. 

"Many people tell me that young people don't and never will like traditional Chinese opera. I disagree. Whenever I meet young people, I ask them if they love traditional Chinese opera and they shake their heads. But when I ask them if they liked my performance as the Monkey King, they nod," Zhang said.

"Then I tell them that my performance as the Monkey King was traditional opera, and ask them the first question again, to which they nod their heads."

Heading West

"Why doesn't the Monkey King have parents?"

"So the Monkey King can fly and Xuanzang can't. What if the Monkey King put Xuanzang on his back? Could they fly?"

These are just some of the numerous questions that a US screenwriter asked Zhang in preparation for a new movie adaptation of Journey to the West.

During the Beijing International Film Festival last year, Zhang announced that he was collaborating with Paramount to produce a 3D version of Journey to the West which would make use of foreign directors and screenwriters to create a more-cinematic story that would still retain the core cultural concepts and characters from the novel.

 Zhang has high hopes for this collaboration, as he sees it as a way to bring traditional Chinese culture to mainstream audiences overseas.

"Just because a Chinese star or work wins an international prize, doesn't mean that Chinese film has gone international. We have to produce works that people will remember years from now; Titanic for example," Zhang said.

According to Zhang, production on the movie hasn't moved forward because his US partners still haven't fully grasped the novel. Meanwhile, he has also been negotiating with them not to make the movie so commercialized that it loses its original charm.

"They want to add commercial elements like a love interest, violence and making one of the main characters female. I said 'absolutely not,'" Zhang explained.

Although the process has slowed production, Zhang has refused suggestions they use a Chinese screenwriter, since he wants to create something that can be truly accepted by Western audiences.

"When it comes to the overall structure and narrative style, we have to respect and adapt to the way Western audiences appreciate things."

Newspaper headline: Journey of the Monkey King

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