Saturday, February 27, 2016

No Easy Answers: A Critical Examination of the MFA's Kimono Crisis

Ya'll know me, I have no problem blasting racist malarkey on this here blog. Subjectively, I don't like to see human suffering and I feel that racist things produce a lot of that, I like people to be happy and comfortable and I'm a firm believer that the more people experiencing happiness and comfort the better the world is. Objectively, I feel that racism is a symptom of ignorance and a distinct lack of critical thinking which doesn't serve any useful purpose. Racist claims are not based on empirical evidence or objective truths and sweeping generalizations are by their very nature, logical fallacies. In other words, on a macro level, I think racism is unequivocally stupid, useless and causes unnecessary pain and anguish and holds us back as a species from achieving really cool collective feats of awesomeness -- which is why it pisses me off so much.

The town hall in which the director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and a number of prominent figures in the Asian-American community discussed the problematic nature of the exhibit.
That being said, it always takes me a while to write articles about racially sensitive topics because I want to be absolutely sure that I understand the whole situation (or as much as possible), I want to make sure my feelings on the subject don't change based on new evidence, and/or that the thing I'm actually harping at is, in fact, racist and I'm not jumping the gun so to speak. I'm also a white cis-gendered, heterosexual male so there's that too. I quite literally have to take time to check my privilege to make sure I'm not just coming at this from the wrong angle. Do I merely not understand a racially sensitive issue because I'm not a person of colour and have no personal steak or experience in the matter? or am I actually an objective party who has weighed all sides of the argument and is making an informed and educated assessment free from personal bias (as much as one can be free of such a thing)? That's the question I ask myself before I write articles like the one I'm about to write. So here we go . . .     

Claude Monet's La Japonaise
Back in July the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted an exhibit that many found problematic in which a lesser-known Claude Monet painting of his wife, Camille Monet wearing a kimono, and posing with a folded-out paper fan in a faux geisha pose, titled La Japonaise was exhibited in a prominent location in the museum. The exhibit came with a side-gimmick, "Kimono Wednesdays" which allowed museum patrons to wear a kimono fashioned, by traditional kimono makers in Japan, after the one featured in the painting. "Channel your inner Camille Monet. . ." the exhibit read, inviting museum-goers to come and try it on. The exhibition also featured a "spot-light" talk, presumably by some specialist, titled "Claude Monet, Flirting with the Exotic".

A promotional Picture for Kimono Wednesdays.
Shortly after the exhibit opened numerous people, many being members of the local Asian-American community, took to social media, and media in general, to criticize the exhibit and the MFA for exoticizing, fetishizing and advocating the appropriation of East Asian culture. A tumblr page was created to facilitate exposure of the situation, "Stand Against Yellow Face" which was later renamed to "Decolonize Our Museums". Activists showed up in the museum with signs with such slogans reading "Not your Asian fetish" and other considerably longer messages referencing systemic racism in America, the white colonial gaze, objectification of Asian women, orientalism, and even the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (just to name a few). The situation got even more complicated when a counter-protest was organized, largely by other members of the Asian-American community who thought the original protesters were being unreasonable and suppressing the sharing and appreciation of culture, making for a post-modern liberal nightmare.

A group of protesters denouncing the exhibit.
Originally the museum made slight modifications to the exhibit to placate the protesters, but the movement persisted and eventually Kimono Wednesday was removed outright. The discontent continued until the exhibit wrapped. Why am I writing this now? The town hall, dealing with the incident was held recently in which the director of the MFA made a formal apology to all in attendance after a lengthy Q & A session with a panel made up of the director himself and a number of specialists and advocates from the Asian-American community from various sides of the argument. The town hall was conducted in a very interesting manner that I think spells progress for race-relations in general, wherein the director of the MFA was forced to patiently listen to the grievances of those in attendance over the exhibit. I'm all for that, and it probably should have happened sooner. However. . . 

When this incident was playing out back in the summer, I was all over it. I read article after article, followed the tumblr page, trying to make sense of what was going on. I had been to the MFA some years ago and was impressed. Initially I braced myself to be angry as well when I saw that, extremely orientalist painting of Camille Monet. I was getting ready to launch into one of my usual socially-charged tirades about how shitty racism and cultural appropriation are. I was going to condemn the MFA for being ignorant and short-sighted and angering all these already marginalized people.

One of the counter-protesters advocating the return of Kimono Wednesdays.
But as I researched more and more, the arguments that activists were launching at the exhibit, it seemed to me, were becoming less and less relevant to the specific nature of the content of the exhibit itself. On this went to the point where I, armed with all my studies in orientalism and distaste for the fetishization of things foreign, could no longer find fault with the exhibit even in it's unmodified form. 

"Uwwhaaaat!? But Alex, this exhibit is heinous in how it propagates the white colonial gaze, the fetishization of Asian culture and totally ignores the history of marginalization and outright discrimination of the Asian diaspora in the United States! It's racist! I thought you were an ally!"

A protester with a strong message. But, is the white couple wearing kimono really guilty of all that? 
But that's the thing, I'm not convinced that this exhibit, in and of itself, was doing all that stuff and so this whole debate and even it's outcome just never really sat well with me. This is why I held off writing about it until now, because I just couldn't decide how a I felt about it. I was torn. To be sure this whole issue is right up my ally, based on what I've written about on this blog and in school thus far, but I would be so bold as to say that the vitriol directed at the MFA and this exhibit itself was misdirected, in my humble opinion. On with explanations about why I think what I think. . .   

Emile Villa's La Japonaise
What Japonisme was. . . 

The the dubious painting is an example of Japonisme, a somewhat odd aesthetic phenomenon that was en-vogue in France in the 1870's. It resulted in all kinds of odd behaviour such as installing "Japanese rooms" full of faux Japanese motifs, complete with tatami-mats. In such rooms French people would play with tea sets in kimono-esque clothing, essentially pretending to be Japanese. Now, by today's standards, a bunch of white French people pretending to be Japanese people by appropriating a bunch of material culture is pretty messed up and would fall under the cultural appropriation umbrella to be sure (I think nowadays, we would call them weeaboos). However, and as I'm sure most of you can guess, in the 1870's there wasn't exactly an abundance of reliable information about Japan available in French -- I'd wager that you could count the amount of textbooks on one hand. There also wasn't a significantly large population of Japanese nationals or immigrants living in France at the time that one could attempt to associate with. Therefore, the means to meaningfully engage with Japan and the Japanese simply was not available to most people in that space, at that time as a one-way trip to Japan, meant a costly, potentially risky, months-long voyage. 

Alfred Wordsworth Thompson's La Japonaise
Is Japonisme cultural appropriation? 

Japonisme is cultural appropriation in the purest sense -- it is quite literally the appropriation of one people's material culture by another. However, I believe that the conditions of France in 1870's make it impossible to classify Japonisme as cultural appropriation insofar as the term is used today, especially in the space of the United States. Now I understand that the definition of cultural appropriation is in constant contention, but I have seen a definition, the use of which seems to be very wide-spread in relation to U.S. geo-politics at present. It is that cultural appropriation happens when a dominant cultural majority elevates and subsequently co-opts elements from a marginalized minority while continuing to marginalize the minority they've co-opted from. Therefore, for cultural appropriation to occur in all it's heinousness, the presence of a marginalized minority would need to be present to appropriate from. In France, in the 1870's this was not the case, there was no significantly large, permanent and marginalized Japanese population in France in the 1870's. Japanese people did travel to France for education and "cultural experience" but many stayed no more than a few years after which they returned home.              

Mary Brewster Hazelton's La Japaonaise
The "exotic" problematic . . .

The lack of ability to engage with Japan would have rendered Japan as an exotic place to most French people at the time by the very definition of the word -- something strange, unusual or different, not native. Beyond that however, exotic also denotes a kind of mysteriousness or a lack of ability for something to be understandable. It's my understanding that the reason why the word "exotic" is so problematic at present is because we now have a wealth of information on places, previously thought exotic. If you want to learn about China, for example, you can just read a book, you can watch a video in which actual Chinese people introduce aspects of their own country, you can attend a seminar or a class, you can talk to Chinese people (I mean people who are culturally Chinese -- not merely ethnically) about their experiences, it's easy. Ignorance is now a choice, so being content to sit back and refer to something as merely exotic can be seen as laziness at best or self-induced ignorance at worst. The word is not only inappropriate but the information age has rendered "exotic" somewhat of a misnomer. How can something be exotic if the tools for understanding it are constantly at your fingertips? That being said, to Claude Monet in the 1870's and indeed to many of his contemporaries, Japan would surely have been exotic for lack of information and wearing a kimono or drinking green tea, would likely have been thought of as "flirting with the exotic" to some degree. Therefore, the seemingly problematic title of the accompanying talk actually makes sense within context of the exhibit. I mean context is everything . . . isn't it?

Leon Francois Comerre's La Japonaise
Is japonisme a colonial phenomenon? 

Yes and no. Broadly, you could argue it is insofar as colonialism is related to intercontinental trade and that the French had colonies in South East Asia and their dealings with Japan could be seen as part of their colonial legacy -- as the reason they had such a large presence in Asia in the first place. On the other hand the French never attempted to colonize Japan specifically. The influx of Japanese goods to France was mostly the result of the Meiji government opening the country and the formation of a bilateral agreement between the governments of both countries which had French military experts training Japan's armed forces in "modern warfare". It also might be worth mentioning that Japan itself was a colonial power for almost fifty-years, took over much of North and South East Asia and did all sorts of heinous things all while holding a seat at the League of Nations.    

Again, strong accusations launched at the MFA, but to what extent can Japonisme be linked to American imperialism? An interesting question to be sure.


Is trying on a kimono in a museum cultural appropriation?

Fundamentally I don't think so, the exhibit was not barring certain patrons from trying on the kimono. Anyone could try it on and strike Camille's pose (or whatever) regardless of ethnicity. The event was ostensibly inclusive and the kimono itself was made by real Japanese artisans prior to the launch of the exhibit. Trying on a piece of clothing is not intrinsically a case of cultural appropriation, but striking a stereotypical pose with a paper fan with no real knowledge of the historical significance of the pose and clothing itself? Could be (more on that later). After all, people didn't take issue with Iggy Azalea merely because she was rapping. It was rapping with a black Houston accent while obviously not being black or from Houston while being unabashedly racist on her twitter feed, all while being celebrated by the mainstream American music industry that branded her problematic.        
So then what's the problem with the exhibit?

If this exhibit is not about Japan or about Japanese-American experience but simply about Japonisme, this quirky, somewhat obscure, European French fad that probably didn't last much longer than a decade, what's the problem? Why do so many Asian-Americans insist on including this weird French thing into the broader global colonial narrative? Aren't they just overreacting? Isn't this just a knee-jerk reaction to a white woman in a kimono!? Aren't they the racist ones!?!?

By today's standards Japonisme is very problematic, but it sort of still happens . . . Katie Perry at the 2013 AMA's.  
Well, my friends, I'm a firm believer in the old axiom, where there's smoke, there's fire. In my opinion the problem with the exhibit is not so much the exhibit itself but more that it was displayed in the United States of America. Now I'm not America-bashing here, but anyone who knows anything about American history knows that it's full of racial tension -- yes, the same can be said about any country really, but it doesn't make it any less problematic. In America's case, there were several intervals in which Asian-Americans specifically were not only marginalized socially, but also politically and publicly targeted outright (a lot of this happened in Canada too). Rail-road slave labour, the immigration exclusion acts, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- and that's just the stuff you can read about in High School textbooks. This is to say nothing of the myriad hate-crimes and violence endured by smaller groups and individuals throughout American history.

There was once a time, when signs like these were fairly common and our governments enacted policies to make immigration very costly for East Asian peoples.  
Now if this marginalization and discrimination was all in the past, well then you could probably build a stronger case for these protesters simply being a bunch of butt-hurt shit-disturbers. However, it's not that simple is it? Discrimination and marginalization against Asian-Americans continues to this day usually in a much less overt way (although Donald Trump is breaking this trend -- of being less overt, that is). The evidence is all around us. How many Asian-American singers were featured on the Grammy's a few weeks ago? We don't have the "one-drop rule" here in Canada, I'm talking about fully genealogically Asian Asian-Americans . . . not many right? I would offer more examples but you can just look at my older posts, or better yet, go check out Angry Asian Man or Re-appropriate, or Hyphen Magazine and hear it from the horse's mouth. Many of these folks put up with a lot of crap. Large groups of people don't typically come together to complain about something if there really is nothing to complain about . . . I mean that makes sense right!? Protests usually take place because there is a thing that exists that is making many people unhappy. Makes sense to me!

The other thing that I must point out is that many of the protesters were not advocating closing the exhibit outright, but adding context to make it more obvious that Japonisme is this thing that is far removed from the reality of Japanese (or Japanese diasporic experience). Yes, Japonisme isn't so much about Japan (and even less about Asian-American experience) than it is about a quaint segment of the French upper-class, but if the MFA is not making this fact obvious, well then it makes sense sense for people to take issue with the exhibit. I'm still flabbergasted by the frequency with which I encounter North Americans (and not just white North Americans) who have this extremely orientalist and colonialist view that Asia is still this magical, alien, highly exploitable world, full of effeminate men and submissive women that prostrate themselves in the presence of whiteness that is backwards and in need of guidance of some sort (or something not far off). Many of these people have fantasies which they project onto Asia and Asian-people. Many also project them on to Asian-Americans as well, and if these views are incorrect and insulting in the East Asian context, then they are even more insulting to Americans whose parents or grandparents just so happen to have originated from those spaces.

Racist graffiti from a case in San Francisco back in September. While not as common as it once was, the fact that this is still happening in any capacity is as awful as it is ridiculous.  
For comparison, I once watched a video about a gay man explaining his reasoning for boycotting the film adaptation of the famous science fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card that came out a few years ago. Ender's Game is widely considered to be a modern classic of the genre and happens to be a book I quite like. Orson Scott Card, however, is a blatant and outspoken homophobic who has no problem publicly denouncing the homosexual community. The speaker in the video explained that he didn't care if the film or the story it was based on were excellent works, but that he was sick of prominent figures denouncing the gay community. I paraphrase "Let's say there's a famous sandwich shop in your area and you see all these customers enjoying these delicious looking sandwiches from that shop. Now imagine if every-time you went to that shop and put your money on the counter -- the same amount everyone else pays -- they gave you, and only you a literal shit sandwich simply because of who you are. How would that make you feel? Basically, I'm tired of being expected to swallow shit sandwiches and I don't want to support those who expect me to swallow them." Ender's Game as a piece of literature does not promote homophobia or denounce homosexuals but within the larger context of gay rights in the United States, that it is written by someone who vehemently opposes those rights is problematic and cannot be ignored by many individuals within that marginalized community.

I've always liked Gwen Stefani as an artist, but remember that time she used to hang out with that human-prop entourage of Asian women who were (so I've read) contractually obligated not to speak on camera? Yeah . . . I mean this wasn't that long ago.
It's a similar dynamic in the case of the MFA's exhibit. Whether or not the exhibit is actually promoting orientalism, colonialism or cultural appropriation is not really the point. The point is that Asian-Americans live in a country in which they are frequently under-represented or mis-represented in their media, wherein prominent non-Asian-American figures play dress-up and appropriate or even straight out mis-represent the culture of their ancestors (think Katie Perry's "Japan inspired" number at 2013 American Music Awards, Avril Lavigne's Hello Kitty video, Coldplay and Rihanna's Princess of China video, Gwen Stefanie's fetishistic Harajuku fascination etc.), wherein they were historically and are currently marginalized, objectified and fetishized in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to serialized literary fiction. I know from growing up alongside and listening to many of these people's woes for years, that they have to deal with the socio-cultural backlash and subsequent environment that all this orientalist discourse produces on a daily basis and many of them, as I understand, are extremely tired of it. In other-words, they too are tired of being fed shit sandwiches.

Remember that time when Hollywood adapted Memoirs of Geisha, a not-very-historically-accurate story of a geisha written by a non-Japanese person and instead of casting Asian-American actors in prominent roles, they opted to import celebrities from China to star in a film about Japanese people which only had two Japanese people in it? Get's more messed up the more you think about it.  
So while I don't see any inherent issues in the MFA's exhibit on Japonisme and feel that a lot of the anger and vitriol directed at it's content is misguided, I also can't fault a lot of these protesters for pouncing on the exhibit in the manner they did. It just looks so much like all the other crap they have had to deal with up till now and I'd imagine in the minds of the non-Asian, non-Asian-American museum patrons, this exhibit likely reproduced and perhaps confirms a lot of their assumptions about the "mysterious east" being "mysterious". If they showed this exhibit in Paris or even Tokyo it likely would have been a non-issue. America's socio-political climate, coupled with the colonial nature of a lot of western Museum collections (i.e. the MFA boasts a rather large East Asian section full of impressive artefacts, which is well curated, but how do you suppose they got such artefacts in the first place?) and the racially problematic nature of using ethnic dress for "dress-up" (i.e. when non-ethnically Asian peoples, regardless of culture, wear ethnic Asian clothes they are often thought of as being progressive but when ethnically Asian peoples, regardless of culture wear ethnically Asian clothes, they are thought of as being regressive) you get some rather negative reactions. Simply put the MFA's exhibit is a victim of America's social climate, and that's kind of a tragedy.

So there you have it. It's complicated and tragic and it should make you mad or should at least provoke some thought. We do, however, have the power to change this, and wouldn't that be nice if your children's children could go see an exhibit on Japonisme in the United States sans protesters and simply chuckle at this quaint obsession of the past? I think it would. But to do that we need to engage these problems instead of ignoring them. Thankfully that's not what happened here.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ode to the Monkey King


In all the years I’ve been running this blog, I’ve never written or even acknowledged that very significant holiday, Lunar New Year. Now, I shall do this and since it’s the year of the Monkey I've decided I should write about, what else? Journey to the West and its most famous hero, the Monkey King!  

Canada post's Lunar New Year limited edition stamp.
Whether you know him as Sun Wu Kung (Mandarin), Son Oh Gong (Cantonese/Korean), Son Goku (Japanese), Sun Gokong (Malay/Indonesian), Tôn Ngộ Không (Vietnamese), Heng Chia (Thai — Hokkien variant), the Monkey King or simply as “Monkey” there is no doubt that the Monkey King, the main character of Wu Cheng’en’s Chinese literary classic, Journey to West (Xi You Ji, Seo Yu Gi, Saiyuki etc.) has captured the imaginations of children and adults the world over. The character has been portrayed by countless artists in countless mediums. New productions continue to be produced to this day in myriad languages.

Earliest known edition of the text.
For those who don’t know, Journey to the West is a rather lengthy comic fantasy written near the end of the 16th century, chronicling the story of the real-life monk Xuanzang’s trip to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. The book is “based on true events” insofar as Xuanzang was a real monk and that he did indeed travel to India for the purpose of researching Buddhist scriptures; the similarities end there. In Journey, Xuanzang, in English versions referred to as Tripitaka Tang (a translation of his holy name), is asked by the Emperor of the Tang court to travel to India a.k.a. “the western heaven” to retrieve new Buddhist scriptures that had not previously been available to the Chinese, from the Buddha, himself a prominent character in the story. Along his journey he takes on three disciples, the Monkey King — Sun Wu Kung, a monkey made out of stone, with fantastic Taoist powers, Zhu Pa Che (or Piggy/Pigsy) — a former heavenly marshal who was sent to the mortal realm as a pig-man for being naughty, and Sha Wu Jing (or Friar Sand/Sandy) — a heavenly general who was sent to the mortal realm as a water demon for making a mistake one time. (The video below is much a better breakdown of the story from the YouTube channel Off the Geat Wall).



Long story short, the monk is trying to get to India, and the monkey, pig and water guy have to help him get there because they all committed crimes against heaven for which they need to be redeemed and because Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of mercy, said so. Yeah, it’s complicated. Along the journey they are constantly harassed by monsters, spirits and people who usually want to kidnap, eat or marry the monk, because the monk is actually the reincarnation of this super righteous dude, and if you eat him you get immortality and stuff, and some people are just lonely.

So! As you can imagine this story has some pretty wild moments. You have spirits and demons fighting gods and demi gods, each character has a legendary weapon and there are tonnes of magical items. Furthermore, there are magic power battles, some characters can fly, there’s dragons and mythical beasts and prominent figures in Chinese religion are just there hanging out and doing stuff. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you've studied Chinese history and/or philosophy to any degree. It's so much fun in fact, people all over the world are at least partially aware that this story exists, and there have been many adaptations and works inspired by the story.

The cover for volume 1 of the revised, I would say authoritative Anthony C. Yu translation.
The entire tale is one hundred chapters long and English translations are usually comprised of multiple volumes containing twenty-five chapters or around five-hundred pages each, making for a two-thousand-odd page story in total -- it’s fairly long, which is why it’s nice that there’s so much fantastic stuff happening all the time. Despite all this content, the Monkey King is still the most popular element from the story.

The first eight or nine chapters are all about how the monkey king came to be and these chapters are the most heavily adapted, which is a likely contributor to Monkey’s fame. These chapters depict the Monkey King’s creation from a stone on a mountain top, formed when heaven and earth divided (a.k.ak the beginning of the universe) which absorbed all manner of earthly energies and such. One day the rock splits and Monkey pops out and runs around and meets other monkeys, but since he’s made of stone and thus, virtually indestructible, they find him pretty impressive and make him their king. He finds the monkeys a new home by occupying a cave in the Flower Fruit Mountain, on which he was born, and then goes on a pilgrimage to learn stuff about the world because he realizes that mortality is a thing. He eventually finds a Toaist master and learns form him, how to transform, fly, do martial arts, be immortal and just generally be more magically badass.

A Chinese opera rendition of the Monkey king played by the legendary Liu Ling Tong, father of Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who would go on to carry the torch.
Eventually he figures he can make all his monkey friends immortal like him and goes down to the king of the underworld. He finds the king’s ledger and erases all the monkey’s names from it, which means they will never die. He also causes big ruckus and makes a mess of things. He also steals a giant extendo-rod from a dragon king who later petitions heaven along with the king of the underworld. Eventually the king of heaven invites him up and gives him a position looking after horses to keep him busy. He eventually realizes it’s a lowly position and starts tearing the place up as he feels like he’s worthy of more. After causing all kinds of trouble he goes back to Flower Fruit Mountain.

The imagery in the tale is consistently colourful and fantastic and many illustrations of the tale are available, including this one on the wall of a temple. 
Heaven sends deities to rough him up but they are no match for the Monkey King and eventually one of the heavenly officials persuades the king of heaven that they should give him another chance. They invite him up again and this time make him the keeper of the heavenly peach garden (the peaches extend your life). Monkey eventually finds out that he’s not been invited to the queen's heavenly peach party and gets really mad and eats most of the peaches. He also drinks the heavenly wine, eats a bunch of magic stuff and goes nuts. He returns to the Flower Fruit Mountain again but this time heaven is way more upset. They go to war and after a crazy magic battle full of crazy powers and transformations and all sorts of malarkey, Monkey is caught! The heavenly host try to behead him, burn him, do all sorts of stuff, but he’s invincible! Eventually he tries to escape and Buddha shows up and tells if he can jump out of his palm they will let him go. He’s all like “that’s easy!” and then he flies as far as possible but he still can’t escape from the Buddha’s hand. Buddha drops a mountain on him and says “stay there for a few thousand years and someday some monk will come by and you have to help him out” (I’m paraphrasing here). The end (if you ignore the rest of the story — couldn't make this stuff up if I tried, also this is heavily abridged).

This portion of the story has been adapted to everything from children’s books to video games to Beijing opera and one such children’s book was read by 7-year old Alex, which is why the Monkey King is one of my favourite characters in anything, ever.  But now that you know the story (sort of), what makes the Monkey King so endearing and enduring?

For the life of me I cannot remember which children's adaptation of the Monkey King stories I had read as a child (it wasn't this one). I just remember the art was beautiful. 
For me it’s always been that the character wields tremendous, fantastic power, but is so imperfect. He’s prideful, whimsical, tricky and has a quick temper, but also a clear sense of morals, values and comradery. He doesn't easily betray his friends but he can hold a grudge and even be kind of petty. He’s complicated, humane and relatable and much of the story of Journey is about him and his comrades learning how to be better er. . . people? Spirits? Stone Monkeys? You get the idea. Another thing, is that he plays by his own rules and doesn’t value or respect things like money, fame or status. This renders him virtually incorruptible and very flexible — you can offer him all the gold in the world, but the guy is immortal and can visit heaven or the underworld any time he wants and since he’s a monkey, lives off of wild fruit, so money is kind of unnecessary to him. All he really seems to want is respect and I think that’s something we can all relate to. In any case it’s just a good story, and it was one of my early entry points into East Asian culture. It captured my imagination as a child and continues to as an adult.

As I’ve mentioned there have been many adaptations of the story over the years and some have strayed rather far from the original subject matter, using Journey as more of a framework. Of course the best way to get acquainted with the original story is to simply read it in its entirety and there are a few English translations available.

The cover art for the Jenner translation.
The version I read was Anthony C. Yu’s translation which is widely considered to be the definitive translation, supposedly the closest to the Chinese text, and the first to translate all the poems and verses contained in the original. This means it can sometimes be confusing and disorienting as each character has multiple names that are used to refer to them in different situations. The poems and verses which are interspersed throughout the text can also be disrupting to some. Still, it’s very readable and is the most complete experience you can get without learning classical Chinese. This version was also revised in 2012, likely making it even more accessible. The other complete translation is a three volume affair, translated by W.J.F. Jenner, which I’ve heard is written in more colloquial English and with the poems and verses left out, in favour of a more conventional narrative. I’ve never read this version, but I suppose your choice will depend on what you want to get out of the story.

For those of you would just like to get the gist of the tale there are many abridged translations available as well, which can be found by simply searching on whichever on-line book retailer you frequent. These range from abridged versions of the entire tale or simply selected chapters outlining some of the Monkey King’s most famous adventures. In any case, there’s no shortage of literature on 
can peruse.

 Taiwan-based artist, Tsai Chih Chung's adaptation, translated by Alan Chung. I've always loved his illustrations. 
For those of you who are more visual readers there are numerous graphic novel and Manga/Manwha adaptations as well. Osamu Tezuka, the king of adventure Manga (my personal title), wrote Saiyuki a.k.a. Alakazam the Great which follows the monkey kings adventures in Journey. Stories From China: The Monkey King series by Wei dong Chen is a fairly straight adaptation with great art and visuals as well. However, there are myriad graphic adaptations.    

As for other mediums, the Monkey King has had many on-screen incarnations as well. On television many of my Chinese-Canadian friends reportedly grew up with the 1996 Cantonese-language TVB series, starring Hong Kong comedy actor Dickey Cheung as the Monkey King. However, this series seems to have taken many liberties with the original text. The definitive adaptation, that most closely follows the book, is often considered to be the 1986 CCTV series out of mainland China featuring Liu Xiao Ling Tong (a.k.a. Zhang Jinlai) as the iconic hero. Zhang’s family has played the role of the monkey king in traditional Chinese opera for generations and his portrayal in the 1986 series is widely considered to be the gold standard for the role.

The cast of the 1986 CCTV series Journey to the West with Liu Xiao Ling Tong as the Monkey King 
Actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the man who was, quite literally, born to play the Monkey King.
I’m currently two thirds of the way through this series, and he really is the perfect Monkey King. His expressions, movements and speech are just bang-on. Even now Zhang works as a spokesperson for “monkey culture” and as a consultant for those taking on the role. The 1986 show, visually, has not aged well, however, many keyed-in visual effects and graphics were used, that look ancient and kind of ridiculous by today’s standards. Still, if you can look past this, you will be in for a charming and endearing production with great casting that appeals to all ages. 

(In the video below Liu Xiao Ling Tong talks in London, England about the nuances in portraying the Monkey King on screen).



For those who are looking for a more modern update, in 2011 a whopping 66 episode series was released in mainland China, with copious amounts of CG. Visually it’s quite impressive and actor Wu Yue performs admirably as the Monkey King, but he really is no Liu Xiao Ling Tong, which is probably an unfair comparison anyway. In any case, the 2011 series is also very close to the original text and there are several other series that are more loosely based. The Japanese series Saiyuki (or Monkey Magic in North America), which was quite popular, followed the general plot quite closely but used a lot more Japanese motifs and rearranged certain plot points. There was also a 52-episode animated series called Journey to The West – Legends of the Monkey King which was originally produced in China and dubbed into English in 1999. It was also a mostly faithful adaptation. There is also a classic, rather beautifully animated Chinese classic called Monkey King Uproar in Heaven which covers the early part of Journey that I mentioned before. 

Here's a screen shot from Monkey King Uproar in Heaven which is hailed as classic of Chinese animation.
There are many shows that borrowed ideas from Journey as well, the most famous of course being Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball in which the main character has a tail and is named after the Monkey King himself. A lesser-known example (outside of its home country that is) is a Korean animation called Fly! Super Board in which the monk drives around in a dune buggy with a face, the Monkey King flies around on a skate board, Pigsy wields a bazooka, and Sandy is a weird, impish mud creature (it’s pretty wild).

A depiction of Son Goku from Dragonball which harkens back to the character's roots. 
A somewhat more off-kilter depiction of Seong Ho Gong in Fly! Super Board. Can I get this on a t-shirt?
The Monkey King has also made numerous appearances in video games. Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was a more recent release which borrowed the core set-up from Journey and was well received (by critics anyway). Koei’s tactical JRPG Saiyuki: Journey to The West was released on the PS1 in 1999 which is much closer to the original story but again takes many liberties (it is a video game after all). These are merely two games in the sea of Journey related games that are available.
By referencing all these adaptations and incarnations I wish to illustrate just how much of a cultural force, the Monkey King and Journey to The West are and would like to offer some starting points for those who are interested in getting more familiar with this classic Chinese epic in its various forms. The Monkey King is one of my most beloved characters and weather you’re wholly unfamiliar with the tale or love it and wish celebrate it in as many ways as possible, I hope this Lunar New Year’s post gives you something to think about. I wish you much luck in this, the year of the Monkey! Happy Lunar New Year, wherever you are!     
           
A screen shot from Koei's PS1 game Saiyuki: Journey to the West
A number of the series I mentioned in the post are currently available on Youtube right now in their entirety. Here's a few links (with English subtitles). Not sure how long these links will be around for, but try 'em out!

Journey to the West 1986



Monkey King Uproar in Heaven