nthposition online magazine

Monkey’s biographer writes from Beijing

by Stephen Chan

[ opinion | places - october 07 ]

There are three versions of the Monkey King on Chinese television. And a fourth as rather bad animation on the aircraft channels. None of them is good, but one of them has actors who believe their subjects. They are all about Monkey and his two companions - of whom one is a humanoid pig - escorting a pious and naïve monk across the Himalayas to India to discover the Buddhist scriptures. He must battle legions of demons all the way, and thus face a different demon king every day on the never-ending television renditions of the epic journey.

But Monkey is doing this as recompense. It is his purgatory. A thousand years ago - maybe it was ten thousand years ago - he rebelled against Heaven. And failed of course. He was first pinioned under a mountain for a thousand - or ten thousand - years, then offered the chance of forgiveness but only if he played his leading part in bringing the scriptures back to China and thus converting the vast nation. Well, not really converting the nation. People, and monks, were Buddhists by intuition. They needed only schooling - rigour, guidance, and prohibitions. Monkey established the forbear of the Party, and was inducted into Heaven for his pains - and probably those of the Chinese people today. Watching any one of the Monkeys on television, and his running around on clouds, one hopes that today at least a demon king might finally teach the simian rascal a lesson. Like smash his simpering hairy face in. Crush his smug temples. Ram his golden quarterstaff up his ass until it shoots out of his gaping mouth.

For two days Beijing has been cloaked by desert dust, exhaust fumes, and a pharmaceutical haze. The streets are scrubbed and trees and flowers have been planted and manicured everywhere - but it’s a truly filthy city in which the Olympic athletes will have to run. You can’t drink the water, you can’t breathe the air. You swelter in the summer heat and it’s not dry heat; the humidity is composed of the chemical wash that bathes the skin like an irradiated glow. And when will the Party bosses, gliding by in their air-conditioned black Lincolns, windows smoked and with privileged number plates, do something about it? It is the vengeance of the demon kings, as day succeeds day, and the visitor chokes to death and the resident thinks foulness is normal.

And, if you’re a rich resident, the escape is in glamorous nightclubs, architect-designed and with no expense spared (since it will be recouped from your bill). If you’re less rich but a certain sort of scholar - one whose research echoes and flatters the Party line - your life is a succession of conferences with banquets to impress the foreign delegates; and constant travel to their countries where the conference is reciprocated; and you write many conference papers which are published as monuments to Partyism, and declare yourself Great Sage just like Monkey, add gloss to scripture and think in your prescribed travels that you are learning about the world. And, if you’re poor and bring your cot out to sleep on the footpaths at nights - your room airless and without air-conditioning - you will soon be able to see the world’s athletes pounding the marathon streets and suffering in a way for which all that training in high mountains and thin oxygen never prepared them. Oh, there’ll be thin oxygen alright. And much by way of cocktail besides. But I don’t think the Politburo has run many marathons lately. No one on the Central Committee would last a Long March today. All is well with what they see of their ordered world as they drive sealed and smoothly by.

When Monkey brought back the scriptures he was made a member of the Central Committee of Celestial Buddhas. He was called Victorious in Strife. He was issued his limousine and asked to stop his cloud-soaring. Promoted and grounded he sold the rights to his image to competing television channels and retired to live off his royalties by a lake and a large dam. His two companions were made Vice Ministers and given villas with small but shapely pavilions. Of the naïve monk, of him, his piety and sincerity, no more has been heard. Gifted by the Buddha with foresight, he asked to be retired to the distant, walled-off Monastery of the Original Faith of Equal Austerity. There, at least, he breathes clean air.