Article by Jerry Feng
Edited by Aaron S. Medina
西游记, or Journey to the West, talks about how the monk, Tang San Zang, along with his three disciples, had to overcome a total of 81 trials on their pilgrimage for Buddhist scriptures. During the Spring Festival of 1986, the first 11 episodes of this classic series were aired through the Chinese government’s national television. As soon as they were aired, the show measured an astounding viewership of 89.4%. It was the first of its kind, with no prior adaptations they could use as reference.
The show’s director, Yang Jie, was determined to portray the original story to the best of her abilities. To show all 81 trials within a 30-hour series was certainly a challenge, so Yang decided to pick out only certain stories from the original novel that were enough to encapsulate the essence of Journey to the West. Each episode had an individual story as they tried to avoid repetitive plots, but Yang ensured that they were still connected together.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of all the producers and casts, the story was practically brought to life. Hundreds of characters that were only described with mere words in the novel were given their own souls and personalities in this TV adaptation.
However, what many people are probably not aware of is that the process of producing this classic was a journey in itself, with its own “81 trials”. Over the 6 years spent in producing the first 25 episodes, from 1982–1988, one camera and one video tape recorder were all they ever had.
In the era when special effects were yet to be known in China, the crew had only heard of the blue screen. They tried filming with trampolines and skateboards in front of blue cloth, and eventually had to fly to Hong Kong in order to learn the wire stunt, which was needed for their characters to fly. But even so, with special effects that pale in comparison to the ones today, this show remains unsurpassed in the history of Chinese television. In the hearts of many, no remake ever done was able to quite measure up to the impacts of this version.
Yang believed that Journey to the West is about a journey. Hence filming only in the studio was not enough. For that, she led a team of six on a two month journey to explore over 60 places across China, where they eventually filmed at.
Due to budget constraints, Yang was forced to cut down 5 episodes from the original plan of 30 in 1988. Fortunately, in 1998, she was finally given another chance, with a much bigger budget funded by the government to fulfill her dream of filming the remaining episodes that they were previously unable to finish.
This Spring Festival marks the 35th anniversary of this masterpiece. It has been replayed on TV for more than 3000 times since its debut, and it continues to be played during the summer and winter breaks of China even until today.