Three decades ago, TV director Yang Jie created the Monkey King, the first, if not only, hero of millions of Chinese children.
Aged 88, the director passed away on Saturday. "Together with her, my childhood is gone," said a web user Gudurenaixing on Sina Weibo.
Innumerable people are grieving Yang, whose 25-episode TV adaption of "Journey to the West" in 1986 has for decades remained the best adaption of the classic fiction and one of the most watched TV dramas.
AS DIFFICULT AS THE PILGRIMAGE
Yang was born in 1929 in Macheng City in central China's Hubei Province. She worked as a newscaster in Qingdao, Shandong Province, during wartime, announcing liberation of the city in 1949.
She became a TV director in 1980, and began her working on "Journey to the West."
"It was as difficult as the pilgrimage to the west," she once said in an interview.
The story, based on the real pilgrimage of Buddhist monk Xuanzang in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to central Asia and India, is a myth of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy.
The project sounded ambitious but, at a time when China just started reform and opening up, Yang's team was short of money.
Salaries for actors and actresses were low. Even Zhang Jinlai who starred as the Monkey King and Ma Dehua who acted as Xuanzang's disciple Zhu Bajie, received only 80 yuan (about 11.6 U.S. dollars) for each episode.
The work was hard and they each played several characters. Zhang Jinlai also acted as a female match-maker. Ma Dehua acted as a foreign ambassador, a monkey, a bandit and an official.
At first they didn't know how to make people "fly in the sky."
"We asked film-makers from Hong Kong, and were told they used wires," Yang once recalled. They soon started learning the technique and almost all the main actors had the experience of falling off.
With only one camera, they spent four years crossing half of China to complete the first season. Yang planned to make 30 episodes, but after the 11th, the money ran out. The team borrowed money from railway authorities to complete another 14 episodes.
"Nothing we did was for fame, or profit," Yang said. "It was art."
REMEMBERED THROUGH GENERATIONS
"Thank you for bringing us our most valuable collective memory," said a web user Longchengbukuaixiaotang on Sina Weibo.
Like him, many Chinese are reminiscing as they mourn Yang.
Actor Wang Bozhao, best known for his role as the white dragon horse in the TV series, said: "Yang Jie, my favorite director and teacher, has passed away. But 'Journey to the West' will accompany us forever. When we watch the TV series, we do and will remember her."
"She was my teacher in art and life. Without 'Journey to the West', audiences would never have seen the Monkey King in the screen. Farewell, my dear director," commented Zhang Jinlai, who played the Monkey King, on his Sina Weibo account.
Shi Han, writer and publisher, told Xinhua that Yang did not seek attention, and when people talk about her, they are actually looking back at their own childhood.
"The Monkey King is a symbol deeply branded on the hearts of our generation," Shi said.
The TV series is still aired each year during the summer vacation and today's kids still rank it as one of their favorite programs.
"The love for Monkey King and for the TV series shall be passed down to the next generation," Shi said. "Together with her extraordinary work, Yang will be always remembered, always."