Animals, chinese, film and visual cultures, Folktales, literature

Beyond nostalgia: Reconsidering the magic of Monkey in a contemporary context

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Saiyuki (Monkey Magic) Stencil art by Elmic-Toboo (via DeviantArt)

Submission by Rebecca Hausler PhD (Cand.).

Hausler, Rebecca. “Far from white-washing, ABC’s Monkey Magic remake takes us back to its cross-cultural roots”. The Conversation. 31 Jan. 2018.
https://theconversation.com/far-from-white-washing-abcs-monkey-magic-remake-takes-us-back-to-its-cross-cultural-roots-90853

In this piece, I discuss the way in which an ancient Chinese folktale Xiyouji, known in English as The Journey to the West has appealed to audiences the world over, from its journey from China to “the West”. Earlier this year, the story was remade as an Australian-New Zealand co-production entitled The New Legends of Monkey.

Prior to its release, the show was criticised by internet commentators as “white-washing” of an Asian story. I suggest that this claim is not only incorrect (given the highly diverse and multi-racial cast) but dismisses the transcultural and transnational nature of the story itself.

The tale depicts a pilgrimage by a Buddhist monk from China to India to obtain spiritual scriptures. The monk is helped on the long and treacherous journey by a powerful supernatural Monkey, a pig monster, and a river demon. The story draws on a shared history of monkey lore from India, and the tale itself depicts a literal crossing of borders and importing of religion into China. The folktale was spread through oral retellings, but it wasn’t until the late 16thcentury that the tale was transcribed into its written form by the respected Qing dynasty author Wu Cheng’en.

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A translated edition of The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (trans. by Anthony C. Yu)

This tale was imported into Japan and enjoyed widespread popularity as it did in China for hundreds of years. In 1978, Nippon television created yet another retelling, Saiyūki,a live-action television drama with exaggerated humour and featured an all-star cast.

The Japanese series was picked up by the BBC, rewritten and dubbed for an English-speaking audience. However, the writer charged with this task, David Weir, didn’t speak a word of Japanese! As such, he aimed in as far as possible, to closely match the dialogue with the character’s lip movements, rather than on the original dialogue itself! The script was full of puns, double-entrendres, and pseudo-philosophical musings, and the British voice actors spoke in typical 1970s “faux-riental” accents. The series entitled Monkey, was unlike anything audiences had seen before, and it enjoyed a cult-following that persists through to today.

The opening credits to the English-dubbed version of Monkey.

Fast forward to 2018, and it would be impossible to recreate Monkey as it’s ABC viewers from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s would have remembered it. However, the show’s reboot The New Legends of Monkey sought to appeal to contemporary Australia and New Zealand, by including a cultural and gender diverse cast, with the titular Monkey character played by Chinese-Thai actor Chai Hansen.

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The cast of The New Legends of Monkey (2018).

Given the short nature of the article, it is impossible to unravel the complicated and culturally diverse history of Journey to the West. Instead, I hope to highlight that it is precisely because of the tale’s transcultural history, that it has enjoyed such popularity the world over.

 

Keywords:

Japanese; Chinese; Folktales; Animals; Transcultural; Film; Television; Literature;

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