Nostalgia for Monkey sweeps China as original TV director dies


Beijing: A wave of 1980s nostalgia for the Monkey TV series wasn’t confined to Australia this week.

In China, there has been an outpouring of grief at the news that pioneering TV director Yang Jie has died at the age of 88 in Beijing. 

While it was a Japanese TV show that brought Monkey Magic  to Australian screens, the Chinese version has been seen by billions of people worldwide since it first went to air in 1986.

The year was 1981, China’s television was changing under Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, and state television station CCTV had one instruction to the young female director Yang Jie, tasked with bringing a Chinese literary classic to the screen: Make it better than the Japanese series.

Journey to the West (Xi You Ji) took the same name as the classic 16th-century Chinese novel written by Wu Cheng’en. It is based on the real story of monk Xuanzang’s journey to India to fetch Buddhist scriptures in the Tang Dynasty.

On Friday, Beijing’s city newspaper devoted three pages to the history of the epic series, to coincide with Yang Jie’s funeral. It was attended by some of China’s most famous actors, who made their names on the TV show.

Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, Horse and Tripitaka are household names for generations of Chinese families.

Lead actor Zhang Jinlai, who played Monkey (known as Sun Wukong in China), said on social media this week it was Yang Jie’s TV series, that had brought Monkey King into so many people’s lives.

The Beijing News interviewed former production staff who recalled the spectacular action series was filmed with only one camera, with a tricycle  used for tracking shots. A table was placed on it to balance the camera, with a chair for the cameraman to sit on. To shoot underwater scenes, a fish tank was placed in front of the camera.

Most of the supporting actors were dancers, not martial arts experts, and so had to be trained to perform the many fighting sequences.

For flying scenes, athletes were hired to jump on trampolines with the camera pointing up. The cast and crew travelled across China because Yang Jie wanted “real” scenery.

On Chinese social media, tens of thousands of people shed tears at her passing, and recalled the joy the TV show had brought to their childhood.

The 25 episodes took six years to make, but have been re-screened 3000 times in China. The series continues to be shown every year, and was dubbed into Nepali in 2016.

Zhang Jinlai travelled to Nepal for the launch last year, telling the Himalayan Times his Monkey King had been seen by 6 billion people worldwide over the past 30 years.

Those are big shoes to fill for the Australian and New Zealand co-production The Legend of Monkey, now being shot in Auckland.