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Journey to the West should journey to the west

Yang Jie, director of the TV series Journey to the West, passed away on April 15, 2017, at the age of 88.  Her death triggered contagious nostalgia, especially among those born in the 1970s and 1980s. Yang's series was adapted from Wu Cheng'en's novel of the same name. Written in the 16th century, the Chinese classic chronicles the legendary pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzan (or “Tang Tripiṭaka” in some translations), and his four disciples: a monkey (Sun Wukong), also known as the Monkey King, a pig (Zhu Bajie), a former court official (Sha Wujing) and a dragon prince (Bailong) who can transform into a horse.Yang’s adaptation of the historical fantasy was probably the most viewed TV series in China.
 
The success of Yang’s production should first of all be credited to the appeal of the Chinese classic itself. Like the Odyssey, Journey to the West is a hero’s quest that can be the mother of many other quest stories. Journey to the West teaches us much about life in a way that is accessible and entertaining. We have not got enough mileage of the original novel for the cultural heritage it has left. 
 
As European psychologists found inspiration from stories of Oedipus or Hamlet, Chinese scholars can still use Journey to the West as a prototype for various social studies, including the study of group dynamics and personality familiar story for the average person, Journey to the West may inspire theories using some of its plots, structures or characters. For instance, think about the fight between the real Monkey King and the fake one.  Isn’t that a brilliant dramatization of our struggles and dilemmas? Think of Monkey King's attempted escape from a palm of the Buddha. That should make us ponder about power distance we have with authorities, and omnipresence we associate with higher beings. Monsters that create troubles during the pilgrimage represent various human struggles we face.
 
Yang’s series may seem primitive using standards of today’s TV production, which rely heavily on celebrities, special effects, and marketing gimmicks. Yang impressed us in producing top-notch series with a low budget and simple tools.  All the mid-air fights between the disciples and monsters, we later learned, was created using trampolines instead of sophisticated wire systems. I do not deny the benefits of technical progress that has since happened in moviemaking, but I admire Yang for pursuing artistic excellence against all logistical odds.  Actors she selected had real talents. For instance, Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the actor for Monkey King had gone through years of martial arts training in the Beijing Opera tradition.  Those were the times of the “real deal”.
 
The story behind the drama was much like the struggles that Tang Sanzan and his disciples go through in their pilgrimage as depicted in the TV series.  The 1980s was a time when China went through transitions to a market economy. While the episodes were made, some actors were lured by more lucrative work and left the production.  We also learned from Yang’s memoir that she did not always have the support she needed from her “danwei” (organization). Yang persisted. Over six years she produced a historical series that transformed all the actors and actresses into instant superstars. Yang deserves our respect for her devotion to her art. Too often, this kind of recognition comes posthumously. Few people knew Yang while she was alive, or associated her with the series.  Upon her death, the public suddenly discovered her. This does not feel right.
 
The 1986 adaption of the story focused more on telling the story and showing us the characters, instead of offering us a lot of eye candies.  In looking at all these characters we think about choices we make in life, and people we have to deal with in our journeys. That is the kind of connection an artist can create. The novel, as well as the TV adaptation, shows us the weaknesses we all may have, including our caprice, sloth, and disobedience, as well as our strengths, such as our devotion, playfulness, fraternity, and focus on a mission. We like the story because it taps into our humanity. 
It is about us. 
 
I hope that the renewed attention on Journey to the West will last a while. Journey to the West is a uniquelyChinese story with the potential to reach broad audiences. If the story of Mulan can appeal to people from every corner of the earth, the fantasies in Journey to the West should be ten times more interesting. As the world gets to know China better, Journey to the West should start its own journey to the west.
 
Originally published in China Daily, April 21, 2017
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