‘Journey to the West’ — A Chinese Epic for Western Eyes

‘Journey to the West’ — A Chinese Epic for Western Eyes
Photo Credit: Peachykeen103 @ Flickr CC BY 2.0
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If film adaptations of traditional Chinese tales are to succeed, they must appeal to universal cultural norms.

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In her thought-provoking article about why she believes a new Sino-American film adaptation of “Journey to the West” will fail to connect with Western audiences, Nina Huang argues that the cultural gap between East and West is too great for this Chinese classic to become an international box office success.

However, I would like to question whether this is really the case. Will Western audiences fail to engage with a story that celebrates Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist values? Or instead, could it be that “Journey to the West” is based on the same underlying narrative as the typical Hollywood blockbuster? And if so, does that mean that this latest adaptation is poised for global box office success?

In his 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” American anthropologist Joseph Campbell advanced the idea that all hero myths, including the life of Buddha, folk tales from across the world, and Biblical stories, follow a common narrative pattern. This template was seized upon by Hollywood in an attempt to create films with universal appeal, and it remains one of the most prevalent story models used in the development of Western screenplays.

At the beginning of this “universal story,” a flawed protagonist leaves home to follow a calling. Along the way, they encounter friends and enemies and undergo various trials and tribulations. During a central ordeal, they are forced to sacrifice their ego in exchange for learning how to overcome their flaw. In so doing, they become better-equipped to help others and return home in order to bring about positive change in society.

While critics of Campbell’s approach argue that his composite hero myth, merged from folktales around the world, has lost all meaningful cultural detail, my view is that the underlying, broad brushstrokes of the narrative mirror the universal pattern of the development of morality throughout the course of human life.

As we grow older and learn how to interpret our obligations to others, psychologists have found that our concerns become less individualized and more collective. At the beginning of our lives, we are often driven by self-interested desires for power and freedom, but as we age, these tend to be replaced by more communal goals. While there is distinct cultural variation in the particulars of this journey, the general developmental trend appears to be a cross-cultural and evolutionary universal, supported by neuroscientific research. Since culture always reflects human experience of the world, it is hardly surprising that stories featuring the universal development of our moral reasoning are so prevalent.

In “Journey to the West,” the Monkey King’s character transformation follows this same narrative. Throughout the early part of the novel, Monkey is depicted as impulsive and self-centered, driven by desires for immortality, status, and freedom. After five centuries of imprisonment, Monkey becomes more adept at considering others, and he commits himself to aiding the Monk and his disciples in bringing the scriptures back to China. This, in turn, is an attempt to help society at large.

Although Monkey’s actions aren’t celebrated with the individualistic glory of the protagonist of the American blockbuster, they follow the same underlying moral development narrative, with self-sacrifice for the common good being an integral part of that storyline.

In addition to drawing out this universal element of the storyline of “Journey to the West,” writers of the forthcoming adaptation by Paramount Pictures and the Beijing Ruyi Xinxin Film Investment Company may encounter more challenges in creating a faithful, but internationally appealing, rendering of the Monkey King character.

In my recent research with Professor Rob Ward and Dr. Jamie Sherry of Bangor University in the U.K., we found that Chinese audiences prefer films whose protagonists derive meaning from their dramatic journeys, while North American audiences prefer films featuring protagonists who use their physical prowess in order to help others, but also show at least some fear.

The Monkey King satisfies the checklist for the first three attributes, but his possession of such titanic otherworldly powers means he barely ever shows any fear. This lack of vulnerability in his character is going to need serious consideration in order to engage Western audiences, who expect to identify with their action heroes. After all, where’s the tension and excitement for an audience if they are as sure as the main character himself that he will always achieve his goals?

Ultimately, whether or not we believe that “Journey to the West” is going to be an international box office success is at least in part due to our viewpoint on the world. Either we believe that our daily experience is best understood as a product of culture, or we choose to understand culture as a set of social expectations that guide our universal humanity. One thing is for certain: If China and the U.S. are going to continue to court each other’s audiences in the global cinema market, they must identify and appeal to human psychological universals.

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole