2016: The Golden Monkey 金猴, a Year to Remember

This Year of the Monkey which begins on 8 February 2016 marks the anniversary of a number of significant moments in modern Chinese history. Geremie R. Barmé, Emeritus Professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, Founding Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World and creator of The China Story Project, reflects on China’s last century and the upcoming year of the Golden Monkey.

— The Editors, The China Story Journal, 7 February 2016


'The Monkey', an copy of a Jesuit-designed foundation sculpture from the Garden of Perfect Brightness, eighteenth century Beijing, by Ai Weiwei's Workshop
‘The Monkey’ by Ai Weiwei, a copy of one of the twelve Zodiac Animal fountain sculptures designed by court Jesuits for the Qianlong Emperor’s Western Follies 西洋樓 in the Garden of Prolonged Spring 長春園, which itself is within the Garden of Perfect Brightness 圓明園 complex in Beijing (laid waste in 1860 and again in the 1890s). The heads, long ago plundered by invaders and court eunuchs, have been a source of controversy in recent years. Ai Weiwei commissioned copies of the Zodiac Animals in different materials and has featured them in various installations and exhibitions since 2011. Photograph: Geremie R Barmé, Melbourne 2016

In the spirit of the unruly Sun Wukong 孫悟空, the Monkey King of Wu Cheng’en’s 吳承恩 classic novel Journey to the West 西遊記, I acknowledge some of the events spanning the last one hundred and ten years that may, or may not, be commemorated during 2016. They include:

  • 1906: The dying days of the Manchu-Qing dynasty saw, among other things, the abolition of the keju 科舉 examination system and formal discussions by the court concerning the creation of a constitutional monarchy
  • 1916: The end of the short-lived reign of the Hongxian 洪憲 Emperor, Yuan Shikai 袁世凱, who bequeathed Beijing the modern seat of government at Zhongnanhai (which he named China Palace 中華宮); the journal New Youth 新青年 launched an anti-Confucian campaign the effects of which are felt into the 1980s and beyond
  • 1926: The Northern Expedition that would unify Republican China in an unsteady coalition and help pave the way for the ninety-year split between the Nationalists (Guomindang) and the Chinese Communist Party
  • 1936: The death of the writer and ‘Soul of China’ 中國魂 Lu Xun 魯迅; China’s ignominious participation in the Berlin Olympic Games; the Communust Party Red Army’s Long March comes to an end; and, the Xi’an Incident 西安事變 that forced Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government to form a patriotic united resistance against the invading Japanese
  • 1946: The failed reconciliation between China’s political parties and a renewed civil war which continues to this day. The short-lived flourishing of independent newspapers and journals
  • 1956: The Hundred Flowers Movement when Mao Zedong and his colleagues supposedly ‘enticed snakes out of their holes’ 引蛇出洞, thereby encouraging intellectuals and others to critique the Party in the guise of reform. The resultant anti-party clamour lead to a nationwide purge of independent expression. A handful of ‘Rightists’ from this period have not been rehabilitated
  • 1966: The formal inauguration of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the uprising of the Red Guards with the support of Mao Zedong
  • 1976: The death of Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and Mao Zedong; the Tangshan Earthquake; a military coup involving the detention of the Gang of Four, or the ‘Wang Zhang Jiang Yao Anti-Party Clique’ 王张江姚反党集团 and the elevation of Hua Guofeng 华国锋 as the nominal head of a party-state junta
  • 1986: The highpoint of China’s 1980s’ renaissance: attempts made to commemorate the Hundred Flowers Movement were crushed; at the end of the year students demonstrate in Shanghai and other cities in support of media freedom. This is the prelude to the fall of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in early 1987 and the purge of liberal thinkers and activists from the Party then and again in 1989
  • 1996: The first democratic election held in Taiwan for president of the Republic of China (Lee Teng-hui was inaugurated as the ninth president of the ROC, and its first democratically elected head of state)
  • 2006: The inauguration of the party’s ‘Eight Do’s and Eight Dont’s’ 八荣八耻 ethics and values campaign. Over the following decade this would form the basis for the party-state’s anti-Western ‘Core Socialist Values’ 社会主义核心价值
  • 2016: The year that marks all of these and many other anniversaries will be a time during which the international press carries the usual reports about The Other China: muffled protests, gagged dissent, further restrictions on academic honesty, frustrated commemorations and sullen silences. Meanwhile, the ebullient media of Official China will extol the unparalleled rule of the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping.


Huang Yongyu's 1980 Year of the Monkey stamp (detail)
Huang Yongyu’s 1980 Year of the Monkey stamp (detail)

Since the 1980 Year of the Monkey, the Chinese postal authorities have issued an annual Zodiac Stamp 生肖邮票 to mark the Lunar New Year. Such stamps were produced in Japan from 1950 and, as the Chinese postal authorities noted, Hong Kong had also long been issuing Zodiac Stamps. When a delegation of philately cadres returned to Beijing from the British territory in 1979 they set to work on their own series. They invited the renowned artist Huang Yongyu 黄永玉 to create an image for the stamp. Huang’s political fortunes were at something of a peak. Within a few years he was embroiled in controversy when the independently produced film ‘Bitter Love’ 苦恋, which was partially based on his life story and his love-hate relationship with the Communist Party, was denounced by none other than the Grand Architect of China’s reforms, Deng Xiaoping.

Huang, like most of his friends and colleagues, was still enjoying the euphoria of life after the end of the Cultural Revolution (he only returned to Beijing with his wife Zhang Meixi 张梅溪 from rural ‘joy through labour’ after the ouster of the ‘Gang of Four’ in October 1976; for details of his fate in the Cultural Revolution, see the film Morning Sun 八九点钟的太阳). He produced a woodcut of a rather querulous-looking monkey (the artist is also famous for his more upbeat 1960s’ woodcut of the hapless party martyr Lei Feng 雷锋). On 15 February 1980, a reported 500 million ‘Monkey Stamps’ 猴票 were issued with a face value of eight fen 八分钱. In 2011, stories circulated that a sheet of Monkey Stamps in good condition could fetch as much as 12000 yuan, over 120,000 times the original face value.

The year 2016 marks the thirty-sixth year since that first Zodiac Stamp was issued. Running in cycles of twelve, this year is the fourth Year of the Monkey since 1980 (the others were in 1992 and 2004). To celebrate the anniversary, Huang, now ninety-two years old, was invited to create a second Monkey Stamp.

2016 Year of the Monkey Zodiac Stamp, designed by Huang Yongyu
2016 Year of the Monkey Zodiac Stamp, designed by Huang Yongyu

Apart from being born in the 1924 Year of the Monkey, the artist has quite a history with the animal and for a time in the 1980s he had a pet macaque. Two decades earlier, in the early 1960s, he was known for his ‘Animal Crackers‘ series: playful one-line aphorisms linked to a painted bestiary of his invention. They too included a monkey:

Huang Yongyu, The Monkey, from A Can of Worms. See: http://www.morningsun.org/multimedia/
The Monkey from Huang Yongyu’s A Can of Worms 罐齋雜記, translated by Geremie R Barmé. See: http://www.morningsun.org/multimedia/

It is not only thirty-six years since the monkey was first celebrated in the form of a national stamp. The year 2016 also marks half a century since Mao Zedong famously remarked: ‘I possess some of the spirit of the tiger and some of the monkey… .’ Although he thought the dauntless tiger spirit was dominant, his last decade often revealed his unsettled monkey heart as he disrupted the party-state that he had created with his comrades. Today management shills in China may well laud Mao’s approach to ‘disruptive innovation’ avant la lettre, but in practice the wiles of the Monkey King were calamitous.

In mid 1966, a poem Mao had written about the Monkey King in Journey to the West was being widely quoted by restive young people and rebels. The poem had originally been composed in response to a verse written by the pro-party intellectual Guo Moruo 郭沫若 and it accompanied a photograph that Mao’s wife, Li Jin 李进/ Jiang Qing 江青, had made at a theatre production featuring Monkey called ‘Sun Wukong Thrice Beats the White-boned Demon’ 孙悟空三打白骨精. The poem was also an allegorical comment on the politics of the day and it contained an oblique critique of Soviet revisionism, what Mao called ‘a miasmal mist’ 妖雾. (Ironically, ten years later, the same poem would be used to attack Jiang Qing herself, who was now dubbed by Guo Moruo and others the ‘White-boned Demon’ 白骨精 who had helped orchestrate the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.)

Titled simply ‘Reply to Guo Moruo, Inscription on a Picture Taken by Comrade Li Jin — a lüshi‘, Mao’s poem read:

A thunderstorm burst over the earth,
So a devil rose from a heap of white bones.
The deluded monk was not beyond the light,
But the malignant demon must wreak havoc.

The Golden Monkey wrathfully swung his massive cudgel
And the jade-like firmament was cleared of dust.
Today, a miasmal mist once more rising,
We hail Sun Wukong, the wonder-worker.


(For Guo Moruo’s original poem, see here.)

By 1966, Mao, like the fictional Monkey King, was determined to ’cause a great uproar in heaven’ 大闹天宫 himself and he took as his target the deadening bureaucracy that had taken over the revolution, both in the Soviet Bloc and in China itself. Mao’s poem also inspired a small group of restive teenagers at the middle school attached to Tsinghua University 清华附中 in Beijing. In late May 1966, these students gathered at one of the Western Follies in the Garden of Perfect Brightness near their school. They swore an oath to protect Mao Thought and act as the Chairman’s ‘Red Guards’ 红卫兵.

The following month the Red Guards issued a three-part manifesto titled ‘Long Live the Proletarian Revolutionary Spirit of Rebellion’ 无产阶级的革命造反精神万岁! The first section of their declaration of war on the established order ended with a strident call to arms:

Revolutionaries are Sun Wukong Monkey Kings,
their cudgels are powerful,
their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent,
for they possess Mao Zedong’s great invincible thought.
We wield our massive cudgels,
display our supernatural powers and
use our magic to turn the old world upside down.
We smash it to pieces, pulverise it.
We create chaos and wreak extreme havoc, the worse the mess the better!

Long Live the Proletarian Revolutionary Spirit of Rebellion!



'Uproar in Heaven' 大闹天宫 was a popular animated feature film in the early 1960s that also inspired the Red Guards' 'Right to Rebel'
‘Uproar in Heaven’ 大闹天宫 was a popular animated feature film in the early 1960s that also inspired the Red Guards’ ‘Right to Rebel’

Mao approved of these sentiments and the Red Guard Movement was born. Thereafter, the Monkey Kings rampaged.

In May-June 2016, there is unlikely to be any positive commemoration of the Red Guard Monkey Kings, the Right to Rebel or the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s ‘monkey spirit’ in the Chinese media. Just as, in 1986, attempts by leading Chinese journalists and writers to commemorate the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement (when people throughout the country spoke out against Communist Party autocracy) were stymied, it is likely that throughout 2016, the Xi Jinping-style brute repression of independent rights lawyers, civic activists, dissidents, bloggers and outspoken writers and thinkers will intensify.

This Year of the Monkey has been over a century in the making.

'Three Dont's', by Huang Yongyu
‘Wise Monkeys and the Three Dont’s’ 三非禮: 不見、不聞、不言, by Huang Yongyu.