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date: 25 February 2021

(p. 647) Afterword (尾聲): chinese cinema as monkey’s tail

(p. 647) Afterword (尾聲)

chinese cinema as monkey’s tail

If the story of Chinese cinema begins on Dingjun Mountain, we might say that it hangs its tail on another summit—that of Fruits-and-Flowers Mountain, the home lair of the Monkey King. Born from an egg harbored within an immortal stone created in primordial chaos, the autochtonic protagonist of the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West (西遊記) arrives on the scene fully formed, beastly yet not quite. Of ambiguous biological and cultural origin (certainly there seems to be a family resemblance to the Hindu monkey-deity Hanuman), Monkey is not of any particular place and consequently has proven to be infinitely adaptable—his story capable of effortless travel to other times, places and contexts. Indeed, the endless versions, rewritings, and reinventions of Monkey’s tale circulating both within and beyond Chinese cultural borders would provide a fruitful field of study in their own right. Our enduring fascination with Monkey, however, begs the question: What is the function of a Monkey tale?

Sun Wukong 孫悟空, or Monkey for short, is a paradigmatic trickster figure, capable of transforming each of the 84,000 hairs on his body into clones of himself, and of using his repertoire of seventy-two transformations to metamorphose into an array of other animals and physical objects. With his preternatural powers of transformation, self-replication, and illusion, Monkey is the best metaphor for the art and technology of mechanical reproduction—in other words, he is cinema’s perfect spirit animal.

Moreover, Monkey’s aura of radical undecidability—simultaneously beast and deity, king and rebel, native and foreign—renders him uniquely plastic and capable of playing a critical role in some of the foundational moments in Chinese cinematic history. For instance, after watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) upon its premiere in Shanghai in 1939, Wan Guchan 萬古蟾 and Wan Laiming 萬籟鳴 (half of the legendary quartet of Wan brothers who are essentially synonymous with the history of Chinese animation) decided to offer a homegrown answer to the foreign classic. The result was China’s first feature-length animated film: Princess Iron Fan (p. 648) (鐵扇公主, 1941), produced by Lianhua Studios during Occupation-period Shanghai and based on an episode in Monkey’s adventures (and his battle with the titular princess) in Journey to the West.

If Monkey’s tale facilitated the birth of the Chinese animation industry, it also served Japan’s twice over, both in its prewar and postwar incarnations. The immediate and wide-reaching success of Princess Iron Fan left a deep impression not only on its domestic Chinese audiences, but on the Japanese Imperial Navy, which promptly commissioned ambitious animation projects of its own aimed at bolstering the patriotic spirit of Japanese children—resulting most notably in Seo Mitsuyo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (Momotarō no Umiwashi, 1943) and Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (Momotarō Umi no Shinpei, 1945), the latter of which is recognized as Japan’s first feature-length animated film. Among those who watched these unabashedly propagandistic yet lyrical and delicately drawn animations of patriotic monkey-soldiers coexisting happily with colonized simian jungle natives was a Japanese youth by the name of Osamu Tezuka 手塚 治虫. Tezuka, who would subsequently become better known as the creator of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan atomu) and other iconic characters, is revered as the “God of Manga” and as the fount from which the explosive and enduring transnational success of postwar Japanese anime has sprung. In an early memoir, he recalls being moved to “uncontrollable weeping” in the theater by the “lyricism and child-like spirit” of Seo’s film and describes this encounter as the precise moment he found his artistic calling: the rest, as they say, is anime history.

Late in life, however, this memory of seeing the propaganda film is replaced with Tezuka’s ecstatic recollection of a young man’s self-discovery as an artist through his first encounter with Monkey on the screen. In this way, the problematic and war-tainted origins of Japan’s most successful postwar product, anime, is made less controversial by being resituated within a shared classical Chinese cultural tradition. Indeed, in 1988 an ailing Tezuka made a pilgrimage of his own—journeying west to China to meet up with his longtime idol, Wan Laiming, one of the original directors of Princess Iron Fan. Upon his return to Japan, Tezuka promptly began drafting the script for an autobiographical anime feature titled Boku wa Son Goku, or I am Son Goku, in which the figure of Monkey bookends the artist’s own life. First, after a screening of Princess Iron Fan, the Monkey that Tezuka is idly sketching late at night comes to life and exhorts the young and diffident Tezuka to pursue his artistic dreams, while the film’s climactic final act features the older Tezuka’s journey to China, where he is able to meet and confide to “Wan Sensei” that he, too, had his own Monkey tale. Completed posthumously by Osamu Productions in 2003 based on the sketches and script the artist left behind after his death in 1989, I am Son Goku seems a deliberate affirmation on Tezuka’s part of his (and postwar Japanese anime’s) descendance from Monkey, and not from those other politically suspect monkeys that ought to have already been forgotten and effaced from cinematic history.

There are Monkeys for every season and every ideological wind. Monkey was a favorite of Chairman Mao, who proclaimed him a rebel hero who “dares to act and dares to stand up for things,” and who tacitly encouraged the equivalence made between Monkey and himself in films and stage adaptations in the 1950s and 1960s, most notably the Wan (p. 649) brothers’ 1961 animation of Monkey’s origin story and triumph over heavenly bureaucracy in Havoc in Heaven (大鬧天宮). And Monkey’s transnational and transmedial transformations are ever proliferating, capitalizing on the latest developments in cinematic technology’s ability to fully express Monkey’s superpowers and acrobatism, but also because Monkey is seen to be China’s most marketable brand, and the best means of global conquest by the Chinese film industry.

To think of Monkey as a figure for the taxonomical field of Chinese cinemas is a reminder not to lose sight of the guileful, illusory, and ever-mutating nature of the beast: any attempt to pin it down would be eluded and shape-shifted away. There is always another story of Monkey waiting to be told, just as there is always another way to rethink and recategorize the texts, commodities, and artifacts that are labeled and circulated under the signs of either Chineseness or cinema.

What is the function of a monkey’s tail? In biological terms, prehensility is actually a New World evolutionary adaptation, where having a lengthy, flexible tail that can grasp and manipulate objects provided an adaptive advantage in the densely wooded South American rain forests. Monkey’s own tail, however, carries a rather different significance. Given that Monkey’s identity straddles the boundary between beast and divinity, it is perhaps not surprising that the conjuring trick he finds most challenging is that of fully transforming himself into human form. His telltale simian tail—the only part of him that resists change and concealment—always gives him away. The Monkey King’s tail, therefore, is both part of and persistently outside of all Monkey tales already in circulation: it is the trace of the untameable, unassimilable, vestigial remnant, that which vexes, betrays, and provokes the telling of yet another version of the tale.