Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Beijing Opera: The Monkey King

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In the most recent entry to this blog, guest poster Jeff Raz left us off in Japan, so while we're all there let's just hop one country to our left and pay a visit to China and the Beijing Opera. (Or as we called it back in the good old days, Red China and the Peking Opera.)

If you're not familiar with the monkey king, be prepared to be blown away. The monkey king is a trickster character from Chinese folklore, what Joanne Woodward, host for this presentation, describes as a combination of Robin Hood, Zorro, Superman, and Charlie Chaplin.

The origins of the monkey king are obscure but the figure gained widespread recognition in the character of Sun Wukong in the epic Chinese novel, Journey to the West (1590s). The figure reappears in countless fables in China and other Asian countries, and even in a 2001 television mini-series and in this BBC commercial for their 2008 Beijing Olympics coverage, entitled Journey to the East, presumably because here, instead of voyaging to India, the monkey king is traveling back to Beijing to get to the Olympics.

While the Beijing Opera version of the monkey king is not what any Westerner would think of as opera, it is a highly stylized form, lacking scenery and with combat scenes that are closer to dance than to stunt work. The level of acrobatic skill, however, is incredibly high and the action full of physical comedy.

This entire piece, including the Joanne Woodward introduction, comes to about 32 minutes, and when you capture that much video on the Mac it segments it into 2-gig files. Rather than patch it back together, I've kept it segmented for easier downloading. The first video is just the introduction (4 minutes); the actual piece starts in the second clip, and the action accelerates as the piece goes on. Enjoy!

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