Learn about a traditional Chinese folk tale and a Chinese American artist's interpretation of it. Students will discuss and interpret the artwork, then visualize and illustrate their own environment for the story.
Language Arts (from the National Council of Teachers of English)
- K-12.9 Multicultural Understanding: Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- K-12.12 Applying Language Skills: Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Visual Art (from the National Art Education Association)
- Content Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes
- Content Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other arts
History (from the National Center for History in the Schools)
- Topic 4, Standard 7: The history of peoples of many cultures around the world
- Students will learn about a traditional Chinese folktale and a Chinese American artist’s interpretation of the story.
- Students will visualize and illustrate an environment for the story.
- Ten-yard roll of paper at least 10" wide
- Paint in assorted colors
"Monkey" English by Xu Bing (PDF)
folktale, interpretation, environment
Xu Bing (born 1955) left his home in China in 1990 to live in the United States. He is very interested in cross-cultural communication, and his artwork almost always involves some form of written language.
Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, at the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery, is based on a Buddhist folktale from China. It is an installation of word shapes, each one a representation of the word monkey, rendered in over a dozen languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and English.
The words resemble monkeys with long tails and arms that link together. The linked monkeys stretch more than eighty feet, from the skylight to the gallery’s lowest floor, where the final monkey hangs poised above a still pool, hoping to catch the moon.
One day, a group of monkeys were playing in the trees. Suddenly, one monkey looked down into a well and saw the reflection of the moon in the water. He became worried that the moon had fallen, so he called his friends to help him get the moon out of the well.
The monkeys linked themselves together with their arms and tails until they formed a long chain. When the monkey at the bottom of the chain reached into the water to grasp the moon, he was startled. The water rippled. There was no moon to grasp!
Watching this, another monkey looked up into the sky and saw the moon there. The monkeys realized that the moon had not fallen into the water at all. The moon in the well was just an illusion.
1. Before reading the folktale aloud, talk with the students about what they visualize as they listen. Remind them to consider colors, objects, actions, and gestures. Review the story to identify any unfamiliar vocabulary.
2. After reading the story, ask the students to share details about the environment that they imagined. Prompts might include:
- Other than the monkeys, what things did you "see" in the story? (Well, trees, moon, etc.)
- Did you imagine anything else?
- What colors did you "see"? (Color of the moon? The sky? The trees?)
3. As the students share their details, write them on the board or a piece of chart paper for reference in Part Two.
1. Present images of Xu Bing's Monkeys Grasp for the Moon at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. (An interactive version can be viewed here). Explain that this is one artist’s interpretation of the story, and that they will interpret both the story and Xu Bing's work.
2. Begin by reviewing the list of details gathered in Part One, Step 3.
3. Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Give each group a sheet of white paper approximately 10" wide x 50" long, pencils to sketch an environment for the monkeys, and paints to finish the picture.
4. Give each group a set of copies of Xu Bing's "monkey" word shapes in the different languages (do not include English). Have the students cut them out and arrange them in their painted environment to create an illustration of the story.
5. Have the students compare their artworks with Xu Bing's and identify the similarities and differences.
1. Have the students get into small groups or pairs and give each a copy of the English version of Xu Bing's "Monkey" word shape. Ask them to examine the image and to try identifying and labeling the letters of the word. They should also look for any embellishments to the letters and consider what these might represent.
2. As a class, discuss each group’s discoveries. There may not be agreement on where each letter appears.
3. Choose animal folktales from other Asian cultures for comparison and contrast.
For additional teaching resources visit www.SmithsonianEducation.org