Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.
One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)
From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring convincing interpretations to the plot and characters.
Key to understanding China
Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.
Still the best: 1986 (TV series)
- Year: 1986
- Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
- Subtitles: Chinese and English
- Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.
Reading Journey to the West
I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.
Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.
1996 (TV series)
1999 (TV series)
2000 (TV series)
2010 (TV series)
2019 (TV series)
Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube
Did I miss one of your favorite adaptations of Journey to the West or am I being too harsh? Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Graded Chinese readers
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7 thoughts on “Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)”
Thank you for this! I am just now exploring the story through Arthur Waley’s “Monkey” and the 1986 series. What did you think of A Korean Odyssey, the kdrama version from a few years ago? I thought Lee Seung Gi was a wonderful Great Sage.
Thanks for letting me know about the Korean series! Haven’t watched it, but I’m curious to see their take on it. Waley’s abridged version is still one of the best, I guess.
What do you think of the English subtitle translation of Journey to the West(1986)? too poor, right?
Hard for me to judge, it’s definitely not the most modern translation. Can you give some examples of poor translations?
While no doubt extremely inferior, I became interested in Monkey from the Japanese version that ran from 1978 to 1980. I was in the Navy from 1976 to 1984 and Yokouska Japan was a frequent port. Despite not being able to speak or read the language I very quickly became a fan of Anime and Manga. I still have 50 comics I can’t read. And also I watched many Japanese programs, including Monkey and early Super Sentai! I fell in love with both because they could still be followed. I especially loved Monkey as he not only used martial arts, which I was also into, but he used magic! Well, despite the dated special effects I had to learn more about this guy. And I wish I had seen the 1986 Chinese version as many people have told me it’s even better. I have been searching the internet for years now trying to find Region 1 DVDs of either series.
Thank you for the amazing story! You must be talking about “Saiyūki”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey_(TV_series) & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQEIVOKUXTw. I wasn’t aware of this Japanese version, thanks! : )