Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Year of Fire Monkey: Fun Facts and Thoughts

 The Most Adapted Monkey of All Time 
I wrote about the Fun Facts and Thoughts about the Chinese Year of the Goat last year, I thought I would keep up the tradition until all 12 Chinese zodiacs are covered. Let's continue with the Chinese Year of the Fire Monkey.

google doodle, chinese new year, 2016, year of the monkey
Chinese New Year of the Monkey 2016 on Google Doodle

For Chinese and children in foreign lands, the Monkey King is a very popular figure. This is because the Monkey King (aka Sun Wukong 孙悟空 and a number of other names) had been adapted endlessly in Chinese action flicks, TV series, manga, stage plays, comics, and animations (this is where children outside China is most likely encountered). Before Kung Fu Panda, Monkey King was THE Chinese cartoon character that's known and loved outside Chinese societies.

So I'll talk about the Monkey King. It's impossible to avoid. Resistance is futile.

Journey to the West, HK TV series 1996
HK TV Series (1996)

Journey to the West, TV series 2007
Japanese TV Series 2007

Journey to the West, China TV series 2010
China TV Series (2010)

So not surprisingly, the decoration for the Chinese new year this year is going to be filled with the Monkey King and his children.

The Monkey King, Chine New Year decoration, Sentosa, Singapore
Chinese New Year decoration in Sentosa, Singapore

Monkey, Chine New Year decoration, Sentosa, Singapore

Monkey, Chine New Year decoration, Sentosa, Singapore

Monkey, Chine New Year decoration, Sentosa, Singapore


 Hero's Journey to the West 
The Monkey King is the central character in the Chinese classic Journey to the West. This isn't just a Chinese classic, but it's also immensely popular compare to other Chinese classics, for example. He's also a literary character in Chinese culture that crossing from a fictional work to become part of the Chinese mythology.

One reason of its appeal is because this Chinese timeless classic is based on the mythic hero's journey narrative structure that underline some of the best known Hollywood classics like Star WarsLord of the RingMatrix, and Harry Potter (to name just a few). Strictly speaking, Sun Wukong is more like an anti-hero.

A scene from Journey to the West, where Sun Wukong fighting with Red Boy, Diorama from Haw Par Villa, Singapore
A scene from Journey to the West, where Sun Wukong fighting with Red Boy (紅孩兒)
Diorama from Haw Par Villa, Singapore

Well, the word "Journey" in its title gives it away its narrative structure. The "Journey" refers to the journey of a hero (or anti-hero). While Hero is used here to refer to the central character of Monkey King, it actually applies to Monk Tang Xuanzang (唐玄奘) and his 4 disciples (don't forget the horse).

The only difference where Journey to the West is different from Hollywood classics is that it was written in 16th century, and in my view, it's more imaginative and fantastic than the Hollywood classics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Its other appeal is that it's just as entertaining for adults and children alike.


 The Chinese Religious Trinity 
Perhaps, the greatest reason for Journey to the West is its embodiment of the Chinese religions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (aka Daoism).

On the surface, Journey to the West is very Buddhist story because it's about their trek to India to obtain the Buddhist sutras, headed by Tripitaka (aka Tang Xuanzang) Buddhist monk. And many Buddhist deities appear in it. And Sun Wukong is a Buddhist name that given to him by his master Tripitaka.

 A scene from Journey to the West, where Tripitaka being tempted/molested by demonesses, Diorama from Haw Par Villa, Singapore
 A scene from Journey to the West, where Tripitaka being tempted/molested by demonesses
Diorama from Haw Par Villa, Singapore

Just dig a little deeper, almost skin deep, the story reveals a very Confucian moral. On a more narrow focus, one can read the story of Monkey King as a story of rebellious kid, who grows up and learns to conform with his place in the society. Isn't this very Confucianism where everyone should understand its place in society, learning to be a team player? The Monkey King is an unbridled individual, and does whatever he please until he learns that there is a natural order of thing that he must follow. Disturbing this order and he has to pay the price (of being crushed under Five-Finger Mountain for 5 centuries).

The classics shows the ultimate triumph of the collective social being over the unruly, selfish, destructive ego of the young Sun Wukong. For this achievement of maturing and becoming a responsible member of Team Tripitaka, he's awarded in collective approval and respect, recognised in the form of a high official rank in the heavenly kingdom.

The truth is, since the very beginning, the Sun Wukong always seeks social recognition for being the best. Because of his naivety, he does so though individualistic, non-cooperative actions, causing disturbance and chaos in the rigid order of the Heaven, which mirrors an identical hierarchy of the celestial Ming Imperial court down on earth.

Taoist symbol, yin and yang


The struggle between the 2 forces of individualism and collectivism, the dual character of the Monkey King that exists in all of us, etc are the essence of Taoism. Of course, the classics is also peppered with various Taoist deities (which may or may not come from Chinese folklore).  The Monkey King himself is a Taoist deity (even though he interacts though the story with various Buddhist deities). And his magical powers are very Taoist in nature. The harmonious blending of these 3 philosophies/religions - going with the flow - is the very spirit of Taoism where boundaries aren't encouraged to be held rigidly.

In short, this classics embodies the trinity of these 3 Chinese school of philosophies.


 Growing Pains 
As I mentioned before, apart from being about transformation from a Taoist childhood where we lived outside the society and be carefree and do whatever we like until we enter the adult world where we need to take on responsibilities and follow the Confucian social codes.

The popularity of the Monkey King isn't just popular with kids because the story is so action-packed, fantastic, and entertaining, but it's also because there's something that kids can deeply related as they're growing from childhood to Adulthood. The journey to the West is actually the journey of growing up. It just takes Sun Wukong a few thousand years for the transformation while it takes us a little less bit less than that.

Expulsion from Paradise, painting by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836 - 1902)
"Go on! Leave! Take your furs and don't come back, EVER!"
Expulsion from Paradise, painting by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836 - 1902) (French)
Source: igGZ-wF6_0XnlQ at Google Cultural Institute

In the Old Testament, the Garden of Eden also deals with this transformation. In this case, the loss of innocence, and the splitting or detachment with our parental ties. Before they obtain the knowledge (i.e. before they eat the Forbidden Fruit), they feel no shame walking naked in the Garden. The eating of Forbidden Fruit could be considered as the mark of growing up. And as such, they are to be expelled from the Garden, which is a symbol of home/nursery where they're looked after by higher authority (in this case, God). Once you're grown up, of course, you need to leave home and become self reliant, and no longer totally provided by higher authority (your parents).

The Snake symbolises simply negative outside influence (aka Forbidden Fruit): porn, swearing, smoking, etc.

So another way of interpreting the Garden of Eden story is even simpler. Adam and Eve didn't listen to the higher authority - God/mum and dad.  Children, represented by Adam and Eve, defy their parents (represented by God) by listening to heavy metal music, watching porn, etc, and so they got kicked out of the house. Today, the exact opposite penalty will be applied: they will be grounded. Of course, freedom is valued more today while food and shelter were valued more a few thousand years ago when the Old Testament was written.

In short, both of these 2 stories describe growing pains associate with the journey from childhood to adulthood.


 Propaganda Tool 
During the height of the Vietnam War in the 1964, China made an excellent animation film, specifically based on an episode of the Monkey King entitled, "Havoc in Heaven". It was given to North Vietnam  as part of an anti-American propaganda tool, at the time of Ho Chi-Minh when North Vietnam had a close relationship with PRC. This episode has great symbolic meaning for North Vietnam at the time with the Monkey King symbolised North Vietnam while the Heavenly Palace represented the American Empire (or as the American translated it as "The American Imperial Pig" as an anti-propaganda phrase). It showed how the little monkey dare to defy the mighty Heavenly Palace.

Compare that to the Disney cartoons at the same time period before the computer age, this was excellence animation technically with Shanghai Opera provided the background music throughout.



I watched it the 1st time in a cinema in Ho-Chi-Minh City in the 1970s soon after the Fall of Saigon, and when PRC and Communist Vietnam still had a close relationship. They even wrote a song entitled Vietnam China to celebrate that closeness. The lyrics go somethings like, "our people are connected by blood, our countries are connected by mountains and rivers. We're not just brothers, we're comrades."

Not long after I watched this animation and sung that song in school, their relationship turned sour. Chinese Vietnamese were expelled out of the country. Friends and comrades one day, sworn enemy the next. Today, Vietnam has pretty good relationship with USA, of course! More so than with China anyway because of territorial dispute.

USA had normalised relationship with PRC, Vietnam, and in 2015 with Cuba and Iran (because Obama wants to leave some legacy behind). One day, USA would normalise relationship with DPRK. I may or may not see that day, depending on how long I live (I might live forever, depending on the progress of technology, which in term depending on how long I will live).

As my late mother always said, "In geopolitics, there's no such thing as everlasting friends nor permanent enemies."

Next time, when you want to hate the enemies of your countries, think about this.



 The Year of the Fire Monkey 
I'm not an astrologer. If I'm a Chinese astrologer, as far as the world affairs is concerned, I would say something to the effect that the Year of the Monkey is going to be a year of great change and turmoil.

Looking at 2015, it was a very eventful year that full of chaos and uncertainties in the Middle East and global economic/financial sphere. You don't need to be an expert to see that all these events will carry into 2016, and will likely to intensify, and may resolve in 2016.

Yeah, the monkey is on fire! Hence Fire Monkey.

Back to Society Page  
Back to Living and Travel in Singapore Page