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Legends rich with tales of monkey business
By Zhang Qian

MONKEYS, like humans, have a range of facial expressions. They can look cute and cuddly, ominous and angry, intelligent and knowing. But what they don’t look like, in the minds of many people, is the CCTV version. The monkey mascot for this year’s China Central TV’s Spring Festival Gala has a green, yellow and red head decorated with two ping pong ball-like cheeks and fuzzy wisps of what look to be brown fur.

Named Kang Kang, the caricature has been drawing widespread online criticism since it was released a few weeks back.

“I always thought my zodiac sign was a cute and smart animal,” said a netizen who goes by the name of Pipijiang. “But this doesn’t look much like a traditional monkey to me. I am hesitant to tell anyone I was born in the Year of the Monkey because now I will be teased.”


Traditionally, the monkey — hou in Chinese — is considered clever, agile and active. More or less, it’s an animal people adore.

Just consider Sun Wukong, the Monkey King in the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West,” written by Wu Cheng’en in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). That is probably the most famous monkey in China.

The Monkey King, born of stone, has been the superhero of generations of Chinese children. He is strong and fast, and wields a golden cudgel that weighs 6,750 kilograms. He can assume 72 different shapes, and his piercing eyes bore through any demon’s disguise. Three magic hairs bestowed on him can be transformed into anything he needs. The Monkey King is faithfully accompanied on his heroic journeys by the legendary Buddhist monk Xuan Zang.

This story has been replayed on stage, on screen, in opera, in cartoons and even in musicals. The CCTV-version of the tale has been aired more than 3,000 times since it was created in 1986. Actor Zhang Jinlai, who played the Monkey King in the series, is popularly considered the best Monkey King portrayal ever. His probable no-show at this year’s Spring Festival CCTV extravaganza has disappointed many people.

“The Monkey King is brave, powerful, smart, unyielding and loyal,” said Helen Zhao, 32. “He was my hero in childhood. I can’t image a celebration for the Year of the Monkey without him.”

Not all monkeys are so illustrious, as Chinese idioms remind us.

Mu hou er guan (沐猴而冠), or “monkey with a hat,” is a phrase often used to describe silly people in good appearance. Sha ji jing hou (杀鸡儆猴), or “killing the chicken to warn the monkey,” expresses the idea of making an example of one person to warn others.


Shu dao husun san

(树倒猢狲散), or “monkeys flee when the tree falls,” is used to describe members run away when the family or situation falls. And shanzhong wu laohu, houzi chen dawang (山中无老虎, 猴子称大王), or “the monkey proclaims itself king when there are no tigers in the mountains,” is often used to describe incompetent people who take on significant positions in a vacuum of better talent.

Though monkeys and tigers are not friends in the wild, they seem to have been compatriots in legend. It’s said a monkey once saved a tiger from a hunter’s trap. According to folklore, the monkey parlayed that rescue to muscle its way into the 12 zodiac signs.

According to legend, when the Jade Emperor decided to select 12 animals as zodiac signs and grant them god titles, the monkey asked the tiger to recommend him as one of the animals. Repaying the debt for saving his life, the tiger praised the attributes of the monkey to the ruler.

The emperor agreed to include the monkey in the zodiac list, but the tiger later rued his involvement and felt disgraced to be alongside the supercilious monkey in the chronology of years.

People born in the Year of the Monkey are believed to bear some of the monkey’s characteristics. They are said to be clever, agile, active, curious and warm-hearted. On the downside, they are said to talk big and sometimes behave in a self-centered, jealous and hypocritical manner.


Monkey people are considered quick learners. They are versatile, with outstanding talent in language and social activities. They can be good performers, writers, diplomats and lawyers. They may be labeled “cutthroat” in business, but they are adept at accumulating wealth.

Famous “monkeys” include poet Cao Zhi of the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), who is known for completing a poem within a walk of seven steps. Then there is Wu Zetian from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the only female emperor in Chinese history.

Also born in the Year of the Monkey were Zuo Zongtang from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a leading advocate of Westernization, and Yang Wei, the gymnastics all-around champion of the 2008 Olympic Games.

In terms of overseas notables, those born in the year include Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Taylor, Celine Dion, former French president Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.


The Chinese consider the monkey a lucky symbol, which explains its inclusion in artworks and architecture decorations.

The word for “monkey” in Chinese is a homonym with a word meaning “noble rank” and thus is regarded as a good sign for promotion in China.

The image of a monkey riding a horse symbolizes mashang fenghou (马上封侯) is said to indicate that someone will attain nobility status soon. The pattern of a monkey reaching for a stamp hung on the tree is an auspicious sign that someone will be grant high status in the government or army.

The Chinese also like the image of a big monkey carrying a small monkey on its back, which is said to indicate promotion to higher status for generations to come.

The monkey is also widely viewed as a symbol of longevity because its favorite fruit is said to be the peach.

According to legend, the Queen Mother of the West had two magic treasures ­— an elixir that bestowed immortality and a peach that prolonged people’s lives.

In the “Journey to the West,” the Monkey King smashes one of the Queen Mother’s peaches because he wasn’t invited to a royal banquet.

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