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Creative adaptation of classics key to spreading Chinese culture

Author  :  ZHAO MIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-09-04

China’s television series Journey to the West debuted in 1986 and has been aired more than 3,000 times.Photo: CHINA DAILY

As the representative Chinese classic, Journey to the West has been adapted and disseminated across media for hundreds of years, spanning the fields of opera, painting, film and television, animation, games, and online literature. In recent years, China has committed to promoting Chinese culture on the world stage, launching a creative reimagining of Journey to the West overseas every year. The work demonstrates some common features of Chinese classics, and its rich and successful creative adaptations provide a reference for new cross-media narrations of other classics.

Diverse elements

Different cultural groups not only have different languages, customs and ways of thinking, but also have distinct themes, symbols, forms and ideologies within their storytelling. However, the classic novel Journey to the West has achieved communication across time, space and media, winning a large audience and occupying a stable and large market.

To start with, the novel contains many creative elements, such as multiple themes, abundant characters, attractive plots and wild imagination, which helps it generate popular multi-dimensional interpretations and incorporate profound Chinese cultural traditions. By virtue of its classic storytelling and a large fan base, the fiction has become the most valuable resource in the current Chinese cultural industry, spawning films and TV dramas, stage plays, games, animations, theme parks, and other cultural products. Diversified presentation methods have created huge economic value and social benefits for the industry. 

Next, the relatability of its themes and its widely recognizable creative symbols are hard to miss. According to Russian formalist scholar Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale, there are 31 elements or narratemes (narrative units) that comprise the structure of many of the stories. Each element is given a symbol, thus allowing a story to be described by a sequence of those symbols. These elements are closely related to a nation’s culture and indeed reflections of people’s ways of thinking, cultural concepts and values.

The audiences’ reading and acceptance of a story starts with the smallest narrative units, so differences in cultural elements are an obstacle in intercultural communication. In this light, the advantage of Journey to the West lies in the common universal themes it portrays about the fate of human beings. For example, the central word in the novel is adventure, and in individual chapters, freedom versus rules, revenge, trials, self-improvement and other themes are touched upon. 

Some themes such as human emotions in Journey to the West transcend the historical context and leave room for re-creation and derivation in modern times. Creative adaptation of the classic keeps extending the premise of the novel and refreshing the derived themes. For example, in the Hong Kong fantasy-comedy Chinese Odyssey starring Stephen Chow and the 2018 Chinese mainland film The Monkey King 3, romance becomes an indispensible part of the heightened fantasy actions.

As a tale of fantasy, the masterpiece depicts hundreds of magical weapons, spells, kungfu, gods, goddesses and demons along pious Tang monk Xuanzang’s journey to the west. None of these elements are repeated or even bear similarities. It is also an epic of social customs from the Tang dynasty. As Xuanzang and his disciples travel across famous mountains and rivers and read the customs of the world, a picture scroll of a prosperous empire is unrolled to readers. At the same time, the work reflects the integration of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. 

Thus, it can be said that Journey to the West is a story with abundant and vivid Chinese symbols, combining Oriental legend, traditional history, religious stories and other Chinese elements. For overseas audiences, it is memorable and novel.

A microcosm of the times

As a retrospective of the 20th century, reimaginings of the Journey to the West are prolific and encapsulate the cultural change of the times.

In the 1920s and 30s, movies were first introduced to Shanghai, soon becoming an important source of entertainment. Among a wave of action and romance movies, the classic was adapted to cater to the tastes of ordinary people. The battle of the gods and demons became secular and the message was delivered with entertainment, winning the public, but also provoking literary critics. Nevertheless, the tendency toward secularization and entertainment in film adaptation, despite controversy, has become mainstream in Hong Kong and Taiwan since the 1950s. 

In the 1940s and 50s, the adaptation of the novel took on political significance. Amid the playful, fantastic world of imagination, reflections on the changing social reality could be embedded. In China’s first animated feature film The Princess of Iron Fan in 1941, the coordinated effort of Xuanzang and his disciples was emphasized to encourage Chinese people to unite, resist and defeat the Japanese invaders. In 1945, Zhang Guangyu’s Xiyou Manji or Manhua Journey to the West contained criticism of the corrupt government.

In the 1960s and 70s, Hong Kong’s growing urban experience and aesthetics opened new avenues for creative adaptation. Many female images began to be boldly highlighted. In The Land of Many Perfumes, the female replaces the male as the protagonist and center of the narrative. Such a reimagining from the female perspective took on an apparent feminine style.

In the same period, however, the mainland was a different picture. The Monkey King was the dominant figure in the narrative in films, dramas and comics, forming a masculine style. A good example would be the Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon, a drama film aired in 1960 in mainland China.

In fact, the Monkey King, the fighting hero, has most often been the center of adaptations. A series of works such as Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon not only won international awards, but expanded the influence of Chinese films. Authors of adaptations at that time conveyed well-integrated mainstream values of the period.

In the new era

Since the reform and opening up, the reconstruction and deconstruction of Chinese classics have become two major trends in film and TV drama adaptation. Traditional dramas that reconstruct the classics and promote a positive spirit can be called formal drama, whereas the deconstruction of classics often tends to produce comedy and entertaining content. CCTV’s version of Journey to the West in 1986 is a representative of formal drama. It followed the principle of “being faithful to the original content, prudent in renovation” and promoted the fighting spirit and the heroic personality of perseverance and courage in the face of hardships and challenges, injecting excellent traditional cultural energy into the contemporary revision and inspiring generations of audiences.

On the other hand, the fantasy-comedy represented by Chinese Odyssey spread the secularization and entertainment tendency of Hong Kong film and TV drama. It reimagined the past and present lives of the characters, and it turned the solemn themes of the original works into something laughable. Its wide popularity is by all means related to the rise of mass entertainment culture and postmodern culture, and its nonsensical storyline is indeed creative and attractive. In the end, the wild imagination and romanticism of the Monkey King aligns with the life experiences and psychological needs of contemporary youth. 

A century of creative adaptation of Journey to the West has accumulated a wealth of creative cases, a model for the creative reproduction of all Chinese classics. The utilization and development of this well-known classic will serve as a significant reference for the creation and narration of other Chinese stories.



Zhao Min is from the School of Literature at Fujian Normal University.



(Edited and translated by YANG XUE)









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