Once a king, always a king
Zhang grew up with monkeys and studied the habits of monkeys day and night.
“We had more monkeys than humans in our house,” he recalled.
Following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandfather and his father, he comes from a family of performers who have reenacted the epic across four generations.
It was to have been the destiny of Zhang’s elder brother to take on the mantle of Sun Wukong, until he died tragically of leukemia in 1966.
“Before he passed, he told me that when I played the role of Monkey King, I would see him again,” Zhang said, still obviously moved to this day.
When China Central Television (CCTV) set out to make a TV series of “Journey to the West” in the 1980s, Zhang was offered the lead.
As one of the four classics of Chinese literature, the story is a greatly embellished recounting of a real pilgrimage made during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) by Buddhist monk Xuanzang, as he traveled to the “West,” which is in fact India, in search of some sacred scriptures.
Based on the monk’s own account, the novel adds elements taken from folk tales and the writer’s imagination. With a dragon-prince in the form of a white horse as his steed, Xuanzang is accompanied on his quest by three disciples, Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), Zhu Wuneng (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (a water buffalo).
Born from a stone, the Monkey King has many superpowers. Incredibly strong and fast, he is a shape-shifter capable of taking on 72 different forms. He is a great fighter and each of his hairs can be transformed into weapons, animals or other objects.
He is cursed by a short temper and, ironically for Zhang, has highly acute vision.
Zhang has been severely shortsighted since childhood and had to come up with his own ways of practicing the role by staring at the sunrise for example, or rolling his eyes to follow a moving ping-pong ball while keeping his head perfectly still. He would peer into the darkness at the glimmering tips of incense sticks.
Shooting at a location in the mountains one day, when a wild monkey came across Zhang in costume and saluted him, he knew he made it. If a real monkey thought he was one of them, how could the audience fail to like him as the Monkey King?
It took 17 years to complete shooting the 41 episodes over two series. Since then, Zhang has devoted himself to promoting the spirit of Monkey King and of Chinese culture in general. The acclaimed actor has given lectures in hundreds of schools and universities at home and abroad. Last year, he was the first TV star from the Chinese mainland to speak at Oxford University.
“Sun Wukong is loyal, brave, smart, unyielding and eternally optimistic. These are some essential aspects of the Chinese character. ‘Journey to the West’ is always enchanting and inspiring,” he said.
Now, Zhang’s team is partnering up with Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures to make a 3D movie version of the epic for the global audience, with Zhang in the lead role. The new movie aims to stick as closely as possible to the 1986 CCTV version and will feature some other members of the original cast.
“No Chinese film has ever made a genuine worldwide impact, like ‘Titanic’ or ‘Avatar.’ Monkey King has the potential to do exactly that,” he said.
Unlike the other Chinese literary classics, “Journey to the West” is easy to follow and suits all ages. The film and TV industry has already milked millions out of the story, but many productions featured dreadful storytelling, cheesy costumes or laughable special effects. Some were mere spoofs of the original story.
As the Year of Monkey approaches, numerous new productions will be trying to cash in. Zhang feels that classical literature and broader Chinese traditions deserve more respect. “A nation without culture is awful. A nation that fails to carry forward its culture is pathetic. A nation that tramples on its culture is shameful,” he said.
Zhang recently directed a commercial for PepsiCo’s annual celebration of the Chinese New Year. The ad is actually a 6-minute mini-epic that tells how Zhang followed his family tradition to become the Monkey King and has already clocking up millions of views online.
“The success of the ad shows the vitality of Chinese mythology and culture. Not only does it sell Pepsi, but it is a timeless story,” Zhang said.