Liu Xiao Ling Tong: Monkey King Journeys to Southeast Asia

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Liu Xiao Ling Tong during his interview with China Report ASEAN.

By Wang Fengjuan

Zhang Jinlai, a famous performing artist better known as Liu Xiao Ling Tong, his stage name, is a joy to interview. Famous for his role as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King in a TV series adapted from the namesake 16th-Century Chinese literary classic Journey to the West, Zhang gesticulated wildly with his hands and feet during an interview with China Report ASEAN, almost as if the Monkey King himself had come back to life.

“I’ve traveled to quite a few Southeast Asian countries, and have always been very warmly received by local audiences,” Zhang said. “I feel that masterpieces such as Journey to the West transcend the limits of language and culture. They touch the heart of humanity.”

The TV series Journey to the West and related acts have achieved huge popularity in Southeast Asia, and Zhang has been closely associated with his role as the Monkey King across the world, and has garnered a loyal fan base in Southeast Asia.

The Monkey King Craze

The classical novel Journey to the West was introduced to a number of countries in Southeast Asia long ago, with translated versions to suit local languages. In 1986, Chinese Central Television produced a TV series of the masterpiece, part of which was shot in Thailand. Shortly after its completion, the series aired in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and a handful of other countries, proving popular with local audiences.

Journey to the West has been rebroadcast on television more than 3,000 times in Southeast Asia, more times than in China itself. During the summer holiday season, when children are home from school, Journey to the West regularly features on Southeast Asian TV screens, with an enduring popularity among young people.

At the end of 1998, main characters from the series known as “the monk and his followers” visited Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to participate in a performance commemorating the 22nd anniversary of the city’s renaming. They were warmly received by local fans. After the performance, a number of fans formed a long queue on their motorbikes, with torches in their hands, illuminating the way for the “monk and his followers” to find their way back to their hotel. Zhang remembers fondly the Vietnamese people’s love for Journey to the West.

In 2010, Zhang revisited Vietnam, traveling to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. There, he participated in a book signing of the Vietnamese version of Journey to the West, giving rise to another wave of Monkey King worship. Wherever Zhang went, a huge crowd of fans followed him. Curious bystanders took pictures of him, and a media frenzy closely followed his every move.

“As an actor, I am lucky,” Zhang explained. “I became a household name in Southeast Asia thanks to the TV series. Thirty years after its first broadcast, whenever I travel to foreign countries I still get recognized by people. Sometimes I even feel surprised myself.”

Zhang has spent time traveling in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia. In each place, local people addressed him as “Monkey King” and were delighted to have run into an actor dear to their hearts. Despite his roles in various other series and films, Zhang’s portrayal of the Monkey King will always be what he is best known for.

Zhang’s role as the Monkey King has received high praise, with his excited movements and spirited performance receiving particularly high acclaim.

Borderless Culture of Journey to the West

“For me, the real scriptures are the promotion of the ‘culture of Journey to the West’, allowing more and more people to draw on wisdom and strength found within the story.”

Zhang said that he devoted the first half of his life to perfecting his role as the Monkey King. Now in the second half of his life, he focuses on promoting the “culture of Journey to the West”.

Cultural exchanges are borderless, and anyone can feel like a monk on a journey westward, in search of Buddhist scripture. Travel has always been exciting for Zhang.

“For me, the real scriptures are the promotion of the ‘culture of Journey to the West’, allowing more and more people to draw on wisdom and strength found within the story,” Zhang added.

Why do Southeast Asian audiences love the Monkey King? “The Monkey King is a classic image that embodies a popularized blend of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism,” Zhang said. “The spirit of the Monkey King, that of never giving up, yielding or flinching, but always being cheerful and optimistic, has a lot in common with the Monkey God Hanuman culture that exists in Southeast Asia.”

In an orphanage in Vietnam, Zhang used the Monkey King stories to encourage young orphans: “Sun Wukong came out of the stone. He had no mother or father. However, thanks to his own efforts, he grew up to be the Monkey King.”

In 2005, Zhang was invited to attend a large scale commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Chinese-Thai diplomatic relations. At the gala, he was on stage for a joint performance with the Monkey God Hanuman, portrayed by a Thai actor. That event marked the first time the Monkey King and Hanuman performed together on a stage outside China. After the performance, Zhang bought a replica copper mask like that worn by Hanuman, and he still keeps it as a way to remember the show.

 

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H.R.H. Princess Sirindhorn of Thailand posing with the crew of the Journey to the West TV series.

 

The Monkey King has crossed cultures as well as national borders. In July 2013, Truong Tan Sang, Chairman of the Vietnamese Socialist Republic, wrote an inscription in a copy of the novel Journey to the West given to Zhang, wishing him success and the ability to leap like the Monkey King in his career as a performer. On May 23, 2014, then-Myanmar Vice President Sai Mauk Kham met with Zhang in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, speaking highly of his artistic success that transcends language and politics. In April 2015, Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, autographed Zhang’s new book, beaming as he spoke about the Monkey King’s popularity in Vietnam.

In Southeast Asia, Zhang has built a bridge for art exchanges, while promoting friendship between China and Southeast Asian countries. He has been honored with various titles, including Cultural Exchange Envoy for Telling Chinese Stories, Permanent Honorary Chairman of the Thai-Chinese Cultural Exchange Association, Promotional Ambassador for Vietnamese-Chinese Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Goodwill Ambassador for Myanmar-China Cultural Exchanges.

“These titles are an affirmation of Journey to the West, which provides me with a motivating force,” Zhang said.

To promote the culture of Journey to the West, he has held lectures at more than 400 universities and 300 primary and secondary schools around the world. The lectures received particularly enthusiastic responses in Southeast Asia, according to him, due  to the region’s longstanding cultural links with China. Zhang said that he hopes the friendly relations and close cultural ties that exist between China and ASEAN nations can continue for generations, bringing benefit to people across the region.
 

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