June 2018
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Plays that Bustle with Noise and Excitement

The Monkey King in a shadow showOld timers in Beijing liked to visit temple fairs in a bygone era. They were held at different locations in the city during the Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year, bringing great joy to children and adults alike. Peddlers sold a toy called the Golden Cudgel, a weapon used by the Monkey King, the hero in the classic novel Pilgrimage to the West. Children would buy a cudgel home and wield it the way the Monkey King was supposed to do. Of course, children could also tell one or two stories about the Monkey King and mimicked his habitual act of ear tweaking and cheek scratching.

The Monkey King is a popular opera character in China. Every Chinese likes this intelligent, resourceful, daring and just spirit, whose name is Sun Wukong. Children use the Monkey King mask and his golden cudgel to mimic his many feats.

Foreigners interested in Peking Opera are usually invited to see a Monkey King play. They will be dazzled by a group of hyperactive actors jumping and making summersaults like monkeys on the stage. The actor playing the omnipotent Monkey King will invariably leave a deep impression on the audience. The monkey play in Peking Opera comes from kunqu opera, which originated in Suzhou, east China. Today, usually male actors play the role of the Monkey King.

A performer needs to master a whole set of monkey-playing skills, portraying the Monkey King’s breadth of vision as well as his resourcefulness, liveliness and adroitness. A few Peking Opera actors made their name by playing the Monkey King. They include Yang Yuelou (1844-1889) and Yang Xiaolou (1878-1938), who were father and son, Li Shaochun (1919-1975), Li Sun Wukong, the Monkey KingWanchun (1911-1985) and Ye Shenzhang (1912-1966). During 1937-1942, Monkey King plays had their heyday in Beijing.

Often the Monkey King was staged in several theaters at the same time.  Some theatrical companies even specialized in staging Monkey King plays, offering shows in series. In 1926, Peking Opera actors Yang Xiaolou and Zheng Faxiang staged Monkey King play in Japan. At the time, plays such as Havoc in Heaven (nao tian gong) and Water-curtained Cave (shui lian dong), both are episodes of Pilgrimage to the West featuring the Monkey King, were popular among foreign audiences.

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