BEIJING >> The performing monkey masters of Xinye County have been praying at their Monkey King shrine that the Lunar New Year, bringing in the Year of the Monkey on Monday, will also bring back good times for their disappearing vocation.
Hundreds of buskers from this rural part of Henan province in central China roam the country to perform streetside shows with chattering macaques who wear red vests and impertinent scowls. Their grizzled masters hope that this simian-themed year will encourage new respect and audiences for their centuries-old tradition, which has been hounded to the margins of society by the police, city inspectors and disdainful urbanites who prefer smart telephones to clever monkeys.
“I already went to the Monkey King shrine this morning to burn incense sticks, and I wished for a bountiful year for us and our monkeys,” Zhang Junran, president of the Xinye County Macaque Arts and Breeding Association, said Sunday.
“Things are looking up. Many, many zoos and tourist sites have been calling to make bookings,” Zhang said, shouting into his phone while on the road to rehearsal for a big show on Monday featuring 30 monkey troupes. “Audience attitudes have clearly changed. They used to see us as beggars and grifters, something shameful. Now they’ve begun to see us as part of a glorious tradition.”
For the macaques, however, their turn on the Chinese zodiac cycle of 12 animals may not be an unmitigated blessing.
These days, they are trained to ride little bicycles, shoot hoops, strut on stilts, brandish knives and generally make lovable monkeys of themselves through a tough regimen that has caused animal rights advocates to howl about physical abuse and mental distress. Photos from Xinye show macaques chained and huddled fearfully in barren cages. Even Zhang said trainers had to end their old, harsh ways to win over new audiences.
“There are opinions about the best way to train a monkey,” he said. “In Xinye, many buskers are poorly educated and have lacked awareness of animal welfare, so we need to improve the monkeys’ conditions and treat them in a more civilized way.”
But several trainers in Xinye said outsiders were wrong to believe that monkeys were prepared for the rigors of life on the road through beatings and berating. They said the grimmest photos from Xinye showed monkeys that are bred by the hundreds for medical labs, not those trained for a year or two before taking to the professional stage.
“To train a monkey to perform complicated tricks, above all you need patience,” Zhou Chengyu, a monkey master from Xinye, said by phone. “We treat them as more important than our children,” he said huffily. “If our monkeys don’t eat and are unhappy, then our children can’t eat, either.”
The monkey masters of Xinye have their own plentiful complaints about abuse.
They exude pride in preserving a tradition that, by their extravagant estimate, goes back 2,000 years and inspired one of China’s great classical novels, “Journey to the West,” whose hero is the unruly, magical Monkey King, Sun Wukong. The buskers see themselves as one of the last preserves of ancient China’s “jianghu” (meaning “rivers and lakes”) tradition of itinerant hawkers and performers who bucked conventional respectability in a subworld with its own argot, rules and customs.
But the monkey show tradition has withered under the strictures of contemporary China. It was nearly obliterated under Maoist collectivization, and — after reviving in the 1980s — is under assault from urban administrators and police officials who loathe dirt and disorder and often treat the traveling performers as embarrassing yokels. Urban audiences have pilloried owners accused of abusing the creatures.
The number of buskers from Xinye has fallen to about 600, down from 10,000 and up in the 1990s, said Zhang, the association president.
“We used to go to every town, going from south to north across the year,” said Liang Yixian, a former performer from Xinye who has switched to breeding and training monkeys. “Nowadays, wherever we go, the urban management guards keep an eye on us. They don’t like us and our monkeys and always make us move on. How can we make a living this way?”
In 2014, the Xinye monkey buskers made headlines nationwide after four were jailed in northeastern China and prosecuted for illegally transporting wild animals. After a welling of sympathy for the men, their convictions were quashed. Still, a life on the road tethered to a pack of noisy, needy macaques does not appeal to many younger people, and the tradition remains in peril, the trainers said.
Zhang brimmed with ideas about how to use this year to renew what he considers an art form.
“We must bring in the new while preserving our traditions,” he said, mentioning uniforms and gentler language to persuade audiences to part with some coins.
Time is precious, he said. In less than 12 months, it will be the Year of the Rooster.