Ancient Monster Epic Claws at Popular Imagination
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2016-03-31 12:03:47

When it comes to blockbuster hits, millennia-old classical texts don’t necessarily come to mind as prime source material. Yet the fantastical creatures depicted in the 2,000-year-old epic “Shanhaijing,” or the “Classic of Mountains and Seas,” have captivated the attention of Alibaba Pictures, China’s largest filmmaking company. 

The buyer has big plans for Man Huang Ji, a modern six-volume book series whose name translates to “Savage Wilderness,” and which tells the tale of a group of mythical leaders who ruled northern China in the third millennium B.C.

Alibaba wants to take a “Harry Potter” approach to Man Huang Ji, with plans to transform the tale into five successive movies. Man Huang Ji’s author, Hu Geng, likes to compare his work to the West's “Lord of the Rings” fantasy series by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“It’s time for foreigners to know what the real Middle-earth is like,” says Hu, referring to the mythical setting of Tolkien’s fantasy series. He explains that his own series contains a version of ancient China inspired by and based on the “Classic of Mountains and Seas.”

Publicity poster for Man Huang Ji, to be released in 2016 by Alibaba Pictures. @阿里影业 from Weibo

Publicity poster for Man Huang Ji, to be released in 2016 by Alibaba Pictures. @阿里影业 from Weibo

Man Huang Ji is just the latest of a growing number of film projects to draw inspiration from the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” world of monsters and strange creatures. Demon enthusiasts got a similar dose of monster mania with last year’s blockbuster hit “Monster Hunt,” which broke Chinese box office records at the time with 2.4 billion yuan ($370 million) in ticket sales. The tale depicted a group of humans living together with monsters and drew extensive inspiration from the mythical beasts of the “Classic of Mountains and Seas.”

Hu recalls that when he started writing his series in 2001, few popular literary and artistic works were taking the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” as their source material. In order to create an acclaimed piece of fiction from an ancient work that lacks any clear plot, he used a technique he calls “reinventing tradition.” Around the characters and beasts that roam the text’s mythical lands, Hu has woven an entirely new storyline of heroism and romance.

Consisting of 18 volumes, the classic is famous for its descriptions of a magic world of immortals, ghosts, and other supernatural beings, leading scholars to say it represents the highest level of imagination among ancient Chinese people. Yet despite this, few would argue that the text is a page-turner.

Like other ancient Chinese classics, the work’s name is far better known than its content. The book reads more like a dreary geography text than a scintillating tale of adventure and fantasy. Demons, monsters, and magical creatures — as fascinating as they might sound  are just described with fragments of information scattered between lines of plain narration and thick description. Moreover, their names are almost all derived from Chinese characters so ancient and archaic that they can only be recognized by classical Chinese scholars. 

Many such scholars suspect the book wasn’t written for entertainment purposes at all, but rather was the product of a power consolidation under the command of a ruler more than 2,000 years ago. One school of thought hypothesizes that the text is a geographical survey commissioned by an unnamed ruler of the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago. According to this argument, the findings of a survey of the terrain and resources of the ruler’s territory were eventually compiled into what became the “Classic of Mountains and Seas.”

While Hu argues that his approach of “reinvention” is entirely his own, other modern interpretations have tackled the problem of the text’s dryness in much the same way, pulling out only the most colorful and fantastical details and placing them in entirely new contexts. Around the same time that “Monster Hunt” was devouring screens in 2015, another animated hit inspired by the classic was also drawing big crowds. 

That film, “Monkey King: The Hero Is Back,” was a retelling of the Chinese classic “Journey to the West.” It included a new main villain, Hundun, whose likeness was taken directly from the classic’s second volume, which described in some detail a fat beast with no face but six legs.

It’s time for foreigners to know what the real Middle-earth is like.

The sudden appearance of popular contemporary works inspired by the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” has rekindled interest in the classic in its original form. In an interesting twist to the story, some enthusiasts are trying to verify the authenticity of information contained in the classic. 

Online, for instance, hardcore fans have created their own “Classic of Mountains and Seas” section in Baidu’s Tieba, one of China’s largest online forums for a wide range of interest groups. A visit to the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” section on Tieba shows that the latest and most popular posts are from those searching for hidden truths in the work.

Discussions in this forum describe a world made up of a vast expanse of land divided into five areas and surrounded by seas — a hypothetical picture fans say fits perfectly with contemporary continental drift theory. They also claim that there is evidence that all the mythical animals in the classic existed on earth at some point in time. For example, the winged, beaked inhabitants of the southern nation of Huan Tou, they say, are in fact none other than today’s penguins.

If this view sounds extreme, consider some of the community’s other participants, who believe the classic proves that China is a civilization originally from outer space. “Otherwise, how could you explain the battle scenes in which both combatants wield weapons exactly like ‘Star Wars’ lightsabers?” wrote one forum user.

Eccentric netizens might make up the bulk of “believers,” but a handful of serious scholars also see some truth in the classic’s texts. One of these is Ye Shuxian, president of the Chinese Association of Mythology and co-author of “The Cultural Explanation of Shanhaijing.” In the 2,200-page book, Ye argues that the work is at least partly genuine and contains within it a secret key to a lost civilization of ancient China.

In the same camp as Ye is photographer Zhou Yulong, who has spent five years creating images of a variety of the mythical beasts described in the original work. While the images are clearly the work of an artist rather than a photographer, Zhou strives to inject a distinct sense of realism into his work.

The 'bibi,' a creature of the 'Classic of Mountains and Seas,' recreated by attaching the wings of a crow onto the back of a fox. Courtesy of Zhou Yulong

The 'bibi,' a creature of the 'Classic of Mountains and Seas,' recreated by attaching the wings of a crow onto the back of a fox. Courtesy of Zhou Yulong

To this end, Zhou has gone to great lengths. In one image, he attached real eagle wings onto the back of a stuffed boar, which he then photographed among the dunes of Dunhuang in northwest China. “If I were not a photographer, I would be an archeologist,” Zhou said. Such dedication to the realism of his work is matched only by his belief in the verity of the text. 

The eagle-winged boar, a headless monster that sees through its nipples and eats through its navel, a nine-tailed fox — the cast of fauna in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” is an impressive one. Zhou genuinely believes they all existed, although he concedes that some may have died out.

(Header image: The 'dijiang,' a creature of the 'Classic of Mountains and Seas,' recreated by attaching the wings of an eagle onto the back of a boar. Courtesy of Zhou Yulong)