The Monkey King comes for a visit in Journey to the West

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore received an introduction to Chinese opera on Friday evening when the International Beijing Monkey King Peking Opera Troupe came to perform. The show, entitled Journey to the West, was part of a tour hosted by Cornell University to help share the increasingly rare art of Beijing/Peking opera with the Western world. Beijing/Peking opera is an ancient craft, combining song, dance, acting, acrobatics, and martial arts. All of the performers are highly skilled and have to go through a great deal of preparation—generally ten years of training are required before the performers actually get to go on stage.

Journey to the West was broken into three acts, and each act was actually a play or excerpt of a longer play. All three centered on the Monkey King, in honor of 2004 being the Year of the Monkey. The first piece was The Dragon King’s Palace, followed by The Iron Fan Princess. The show concluded with Havoc in Heaven. Since the first two shows were performed solely in Chinese, a brief plot summary was given before each show, as well as quick tutorials in some phrases that were used often in the show. The finale had some translated lines, but a plot summary was still given to help the audience better understand the action occurring on stage.

The stories were only a small part of the finished product. The entire show was accompanied by a four-person orchestra playing the traditional instruments of Chinese opera, and this music was often added to by the performers’ singing. There was also a fantastic visual element. The set was sparse, usually consisting of only a decorated backdrop, but all of the performers had intricately painted faces and were garbed in elaborate costumes. The costumes were obviously designed with a delicate balance of appearance and functionality in mind: they were beautiful, but still allowed the actors to perform astounding amounts of acrobatics. The astounding acrobatics were easily the audience’s favorite portion of the performance; each impressive feat was met with a hearty round of applause. Many of these moves occurred during the stylized fight scenes, which were filled with perfectly timed leaps and rolls.

Among the highlights of the performance were the many dances, the various twirling and balancing routines using staffs and other weapons, an amazing sequence where one actress kicked away staffs being tossed towards her by two other actors, and a sword fight that led to another actress bending backwards until she almost touched the floor and then quickly righting herself with ease. Overall, Journey to the West was a stunning showcase of troupe members’ skills, training, and versatility, as well as a wonderful introduction to the tradition of Beijing/Peking Opera.

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