By Liao Bowen
On stage in an auditorium at Beijing Shichahai Sports School, an actor portrayed Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, the main character in the 16th-Century Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, winking and waving his weapon, the Golden Cudgel. Suddenly, he leaped up and balanced firmly atop a rod protruding from the floor.
“This is the Monkey King,” a Cambodian defense official in the auditorium exclaimed. “I’ve seen the Chinese TV series Journey to the West, and the Monkey King is very similar to the figure Hanuman in Khmer literature.”
Shared Cultural Elements
The divine monkey Hanuman is a central character in Ramayan, an ancient epic originating in India. The brave and smart character can ride on magic clouds and has immense strength. In the poem, Hanuman plays an important role in helping the divine prince Rama win battles against his adversary and rescue his wife Sita.
Hanuman and the Monkey King share several similar traits. The former is capable of shapeshifting, while the latter can transform into 72 different forms. Both are revered heroic figures shaped as monkeys, and they protect others under threat from demons. This relationship has helped Cambodian audiences better understand the plot of Journey to the West and appreciate the virtues of the Monkey King.
In fact, the Monkey King is cultural element shared by China and Cambodia. Some say that if you introduce Chinese peaches to a Cambodian, instead of explaining that it is a type of fruit from northern China, it would be better to say that it is one of the monkey’s favorite foods.
In August 2014, a program called “Chinese Theater” produced by China’s Guangxi Broadcasting Service premiered on the National Television of Kampuchea (TVK) in Cambodia. At first, episodes mainly focused on Chinese history and culture and China’s economic development. After famous period dramas such as Journey to the West were warmly received by local viewers, more and more Chinese TV shows started airing on TVK.
Period dramas adapted from Chinese classics like Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms paved the way for more Chinese TV series to air overseas. Now, 60 percent of dramas airing on TVK are Chinese productions, while Cambodian and Western programs each account for 20 percent. Industry experts believe that shared cultural elements are a key factor boosting the popularity of Chinese TV shows in Cambodia.
On January 30, 2017, the Chinese TV series Eternal Love, adapted from a popular novel of the same name, hit the air in China and quickly attracted a huge domestic following. In May of the same year, a trailer was released for a version dubbed in Khmer, to be aired in Cambodia.
Chinese period dramas aimed at teens like Nirvana in Fire and Eternal Love are popular with young people in Cambodia, who are fascinated by the beautiful scenes, attractive stars and romantic stories that captivate their imagination.
Cambodian college student Phou Maly is a big fan of Chinese TV programs, and she participated in the 9th “Chinese Bridge” Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students, a language contest sponsored by China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International. “I love all Chinese TV, whether period dramas, cartoons or reality shows,” Maly exclaimed. “I particularly like My Fair Princess. When I was young, I always turned on the TV as soon as I got home from school.” In addition to TV dramas, she also watches Chinese celebrity reality shows such as Up Idol, Where Are We Going, Dad? and Keep Running.
Most Cambodians watch Chinese TV programs for entertainment, but for students like Maly, it is also an important way to learn the Chinese language. According to her, as a supplement to teachers in class, she studies pronunciation by watching Chinese TV dramas.
In the process of language learning, Maly has progressed from the phase of understanding China through Khmer to introducing Cambodia in Chinese. She hopes to help more Chinese people better understand her motherland through platforms such as the “Chinese Bridge” Competition.
The year 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of China-Cambodia diplomatic ties. To foster friendly exchange between people of the two countries, a documentary titled Home in Green Hills and Clear Rivers, jointly produced by China’s Guangxi Television (GXTV) and TVK, is soon to be released.
According to Qin Tong, deputy director of GXTV International Channel and director of the film, the 60-minute co-production is scheduled to premiere on July 19, the day celebrating the 60th anniversary of China-Cambodia diplomatic relations, in both countries. Featuring stories of seven people, the film illustrates Cambodia’s achievements in agriculture, infrastructure, economic development and improving living standards in recent years.
When the documentary was screened for approval by TVK, everyone in attendance applauded as the final credits rolled. TVK Director-general Khim Vuthy praised the film for its sound effects, smooth narration of seven stories and faithful representation of the lives of ordinary Cambodians. The production team traveled deep into many different locations in Cambodia, and their cameras recorded the daily life of local residents and illuminated the accomplishments of China-Cambodia cooperation in agriculture, tourism, infrastructure construction and environmental protection. “I think the film will boost Cambodians’ sense of national pride and help viewers better understand cooperation between the two countries,” said Vuthy.
One of the seven stories in Home in Green Hills and Clear Rivers follows A Hai, a Cambodian who works for a hotel in the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort, part of a tourism project funded by a Chinese enterprise in Cambodia’s coastal province of Koh Kong. The development of beautiful beaches in the province has greatly improved local standards of living over the past six years. Because he can speak fluent Chinese, A Hai works as a seafood buyer and an interpreter and earns a salary of US$600 per month, much higher than other employees in the hotel.
In the eyes of A Hai, Cambodia and China are close friends. He attributes his comfortable life now to friendly cooperation between the two countries. After working in Dara Sakor Seashore Resort for six years, A Hai has earned enough money to build a 200-square-meter house. He teaches his daughter Chinese every chance he gets. By working with Chinese people, he has become more and more aware of their aims in his country. “I believe that Cambodia has benefited greatly from China’s development and the cooperation between our two countries,” declared A Hai near the end of the film.