During the Tang Dynasty 1,300 years ago, a gentle, good-looking young monk walked to India on a quest to obtain sacred Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China.
Along the way, he met with many trials and tribulations, including demons intent on eating him alive.
It’s a true story, although the literary version made the demons corporeal and added epic adventures.
Monk Tang’s tale is told in the legendary Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” published in the 16th century by poet-author Wu Cheng’en (aka the “Sheyang Hermit”). It is an adventure story entwined with wisdom born of 5,000 years of civilization, and one of China’s four great classic novels.
Known for their colourful characters, stories from the novel are among the ancient Chinese legends and tales that inspire Shen Yun Performing Arts, a New-York based classical Chinese dance and music company that has enjoyed global popularity since its inception in 2006.
A Sacred Journey
Monk Tang set off alone on his dangerous journey and faced many tests—hunger, exhaustion, impassable mountains and rivers, and the lure of lust, fame, and comfort. He was also beset by demons who believed the monk’s flesh offered immortality.
Against all odds, Monk Tang succeeded. But how did he make it through?
Monk Tang was basically defenseless against the demons, but as fate would have it, a team of disciples joined along the way to assist when help was most needed. One after another, the Monkey King, Pigsy, and Sandy joined his quest.
The Monkey King was the most capable yet undisciplined and hard to control; Pigsy was lazy, gluttonous, and lustful; and Sandy was dedicated though taciturn and reserved.
The demons would manifest as an elderly man needing help or as an alluring young woman, and often the Monkey King was punished by Monk Tang after killing such demons, as he was the only one in the group who had the magical skills to see through the disguises and not be deceived by the demons’ tricks.
Despite being on the brink of dissolution many times along their arduous journey, the team endured and eventually achieved its mission after a total of 81 tribulations.
The novel has many morals that remain relevant today, including how a team can achieve an impossible goal.
In the story, all the disciples were seemingly more talented than their master, yet they were lacking two very important characteristics that their master possessed: vision and perseverance.
The story reveals that great teamwork employs the full strengths of all members while making each individual’s weaknesses inconsequential.
As is the case with many great literary works, readers of “Journey to the West” appreciate the novel for different reasons. Some enjoy its abundant action and humour, while others find insight for self-improvement in real life.
But given the subject matter, and the true life journey the real Monk Tang took to India, the story has a deeper meaning: It tells of the process by which the characters obtained the Tao, or reached spiritual enlightenment, by overcoming numerous trials and hardships. These are not only physical ordeals but more critically challenges that temper the heart and will, allowing those who forbear to reach a higher realm of awareness.
Telling the Story Onstage
“Journey to the West” is a magical story of impossible feats and profound wisdom. Bringing this to life on stage requires an innovation in performing arts and the very best of an ancient tradition.
Classical Chinese dance was born millennia ago and enriched dynasty after dynasty. It is an art form that includes flips, spins, high-flying jumps, and tumbling. With these techniques, a skilled performer can give the Monkey King his due capability, but how to travel 60,000 miles in one somersault; fight demons on the ground, in the sky, and underwater; and depict the 72 transformations of the Monkey King?
Aiding the storytelling are Shen Yun’s groundbreaking digitally animated backdrops, which serve to extend the action beyond the stage. Dance and scene are synchronized together with an orchestra that includes classical Chinese instruments, creating an experience unlike anything else in the world today.
A story from “Journey to the West” will be featured in the Shen Yun 2017 season, along with ancient myths and legends and the profound cultural and philosophical values of the Middle Kingdom’s 5,000 years of civilization.
Shen Yun will have their Canadian opening performance at Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario on December 29. For more information, please visit ShenYun.com/GTA.