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Yang Jie, the renowned Chinese director of the 1986 TV adaptation of Journey to the West, passed away on April 15 at the age of 88. The death of Yang, whose work has influenced generations in China, triggered contagious nostalgia and stirred up a huge sensation.
Zhang Jinlai, who was known by his stage name Liu Xiao Ling Tong and portrayed the classic character Monkey King in the series, paid tribute to the director on his social media account: “Upon hearing the news of the respected director Yang’s passing, I am shrouded with shock and sorrow. It is a big loss for China’s television industry. We will always remember you and wish you a peaceful journey.”
Three decades ago, the TV series Journey to the West, based on one of China’s four great classical novels of the same name, directed by Yang and produced by China Central Television (CCTV), reached almost every small screen in China. The series became an overnight success after it premiered on CCTV and was later exported to countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, Japan and Cambodia. According to a survey from HunanTV.com, the show had an average viewer rating of 87.4 out of 100 in China in 1987. Now, it has been rebroadcast more than 3,000 times and reruns can be seen every year to this day. However, such overwhelming success never comes easy. With a tight budget and poor logistical support, Yang and her production team spent six years making the 25-episode series.
“Keeping the Essence”
Yang was born in 1929 in Macheng, Hubei Province. She became a newscaster in Qingdao, Shandong Province, before transferring to China National Radio in 1954. In 1958, she began working for CCTV. By 1981, her expertise in opera ultimately led to her being chosen to direct a big-scale TV adaptation of the classical novel Journey to the West.
Published in the late 16th Century, Journey to the West is a mythological Buddhist-themed adventure inspired by the legendary pilgrimage of Tang Dynasty (618-907) Buddhist monk Xuanzang. Accompanied by four disciples¡ªMonkey King Sun Wukong, pig monster Zhu Bajie, river monster Sha Wujing, and a dragon prince who transforms into a white horse the monk rides¡ªXuanzang encounters numerous challenges while traveling through Central Asia to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist sutras. To many in the West, the novel became known as Monkey thanks to Arthur Waley’s 1942 abridged translation.