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Monkey King swings into New York exhibit

Updated: 2012-03-17 07:44
By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York ( China Daily)

For hundreds of years, Chinese children have grown up with the Monkey King, the epic tale of a young, mischievous primate born from stone and possessing supernatural powers.

After being imprisoned under a mountain as a result of impudence against the deity Buddha, he later accompanies a monk on an adventure-filled spiritual quest to India to find Buddhist sutras.

Naturally, as children's stories go, he learns a few lessons along the way.

Now, a new exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan attempts to teach kids about China through this timeless story about teamwork, cleverness and the importance of behaving.

Monkey King swings into New York exhibit

A Monkey King exhibit attracts a child at the Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York. Provided to China Daily 

Monkey King: A Story from China is on exhibit at the museum for the second time after a tour of seven cities around the United States over the last eight years.

Andy Ackerman, executive director of the museum, told China Daily that the curators worked with New York City's Flushing community to develop the idea for the exhibit.

"We asked one simple question: If you're growing up in China, or you're Chinese American, how do you learn about your own culture? And the Monkey King came up over and over again. We talked to people about their memories of learning the story as children, and how they then taught their kids about it."

Some of the videos from those interviews are included in the exhibition. The museum also sent a team to China to view cave etchings of the legend, and consulted Chinese scholar Anthony Yu, who translated the original text of Journey to the West, the 16th century novel by Wu Cheng'en, on which the legend is based.

The Monkey King has been adapted into movies, cartoons and comics. The way in which children have experienced the story has carried across generations, Ackerman said.

"The best part of the exhibition has been seeing the sharing among generations when families come to view the exhibition," Ackerman said. "That's really cool, to see grandparents, parents and kids, taking it in together."

The exhibition, which is for ages 4 and up, leads children first through the story of the Monkey King's misbehavior and background, and then on the journey to India.

Although the story itself has many religious undertones, the museum chose to present the details in a non-religious context, said Kristin Lilley, art director at the museum.

"Religious values come up with cultural values, because they're often intertwined," she said. "We're not talking about religion directly, but we talk about the importance of respecting an authority figure, and behaving, and how you cooperate, and so on."

The exhibition showcases a number of values including persistence and respect of authority, Lilley said.

"Kids are naughty all over the world, and so teaching that there's a value in behaving will hopefully be a great lesson for kids to learn," she said. "It's a long journey, so not losing perspective about getting to the end of your journey and not giving up - that's all part of it. A lot of those are values you want kids to learn, whether they're learning about Chinese culture or just learning about being good kids."

Lilley believes the exhibition highlights certain differences between Chinese and Western values. She pointed to a previous exhibition about Greece, in which the value was placed on an individual hero. Odysseus is the only one in a crew to return home, and he is lauded as a hero for surviving - whereas in the Monkey King story, the value is placed on teamwork and keeping every member of the team safe, she said.

She also pointed to the value placed on age and longevity in the Monkey King, a contrast to the Western focus on youth and vitality.

Additionally, the exhibition attempts to address some of the things American kids are generally less knowledgeable about, Ackerman said. One display features a screen in front of which kids feel as though they are flying through the clouds above China, and learn about geography in the process.

Being knowledgeable about other cultures is increasingly important, Ackerman said.

"If you don't develop the skills early on to embrace the way other people think, you're going to be at a tremendous disadvantage," he said. "The importance of being a world citizen is absolutely critical, today more than ever. In order to understand other cultures, you have to start young."

Children today are more aware of China than they used to be, he said. "But that's partly because of how little they knew about China before," he said.

Elementary schools are much more focused on teaching history from diverse perspectives, and the Internet has changed the average child's worldview.

"Geography's not a boundary anymore and language isn't either, so the boundaries that are in my brain don't exist in a 5-year-old's brain anymore. These changes are happening fast, and you either embrace it or you fight it," he said.

"We embrace it - but that doesn't mean that you should lose all the amazing qualities of traditional cultures either. That's what this exhibition is attempting to celebrate."