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Monkey shines in Chinese TV classic

By James Healy | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-21 08:59

I rarely left my sofa in recent weeks, except to go to work, but this had nothing to do with the heat wave.

I was in a rapt state because, to use a Western expression for an addiction that can't be shaken, I had "a monkey on my back".

The Monkey King, that is - the impish lead character from Journey to the West, the Chinese television series with English subtitles that was launched in 1986(and rebroadcast about 2,000 times since).

Equal parts fantasy and philosophy, Journey to the West is based on the novel of the same name by Wu Cheng'en. The series, like the book (one of the four great classics of Chinese literature), depicts the adventures of a traveling monk sent by the Tang Emperor of the East on a long trek to the Western Heaven to seek the "true scriptures". He's accompanied by three disciples, including the Monkey King and a gluttonous bodyguard with a pig's head.

The cunning and courageous talking monkey, played to perfection by Zhang Jinlai (stage name Liu Xiao Ling Tong), can fly into the heavens and return in a flash, change shape at will, execute backflips and kung fu moves with ease, and expertly use a range of weapons in insanely imaginative ways - all to protect his master.

Chinese know the beloved Monkey King as Sun Wukong, who has a range of magical powers and 72 transformations.

Whether avoiding temptation in the Womanland of Western Liang or rescuing a stolen wife from the demon of Horndog Cave, Wukong and his three cohorts are beset by fiends and misfortune just about every step of the way.

The show's bare-bones budget and hilariously cheesy effects are just part of its charm, as are the bad guys' schlocky costumes (reminiscent of the space aliens' god-awful getups on the 1960s US television series Star Trek).

Magic and heavenly intervention play a large part in the westward romp, as do "treasures", the secret weapons, ranging from embroidery needles to golden bells, that give their holders - usually demons who co-opted them - invincibility or special powers.

And long before "green" was an environmental buzzword, Journey to the West embraced all aspects of nature, from gorgeous mountain peaks and meadows to gurgling brooks and raging rivers, as well as vine demons and tree monsters. (In one episode that recalls the 1939 US film classic The Wizard of Oz, Wukong frees one of his fellow disciples in an enchanted forest from the captive bearhug of a huge, sinister tree by tickling its trunk.)

You might be tempted to think that the holy monk and his not-always-upright companions are an allegory for the conflicting parts of our personality that, only through teamwork, can get us through the adventures of this mortal realm.

Or, you could ignore such nonsense and just enjoy the magic-carpet ride of Journey to the West, which, though hobbled by the technological limitations of the 1980s, continues to cast its spell on viewers - including hapless foreigners like myself who cannot budge from the sofa.

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