The Monkey King is one of ancient China’s most memorable characters, in part because of his inner journey from arrogant trouble-maker to selfless leader. William Li, one of Shen Yun Performing Arts’ lead dancers, has found his adventures portraying legendary figures like the Monkey King to be similarly transformative, though his starting point couldn’t have been any more different.
“I used to be very shy,” Li says humbly, after I complimented him on his performance of Journey to the West’s charming trickster. “If I walked by somebody, I would be reluctant to wave or say hi. But throughout this process of dancing and being on stage, I’m more confident and open to other people.”
Born in Bangkok, Li moved to Canada in 2000, when he was just 7 years old. Growing up in the West, he knew very little about his Asian heritage. But six years later, he’d see a performance that moved him so deeply, he’d decide to follow a new path in life.
“When I watched Shen Yun, I was first introduced to characters like Yue Fei, a general in Chinese history,” he says. “It was my first time seeing guys doing Chinese classical dance on stage, and I thought it was very heroic.”
Seeing his newfound passion, Li’s parents sent him to Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York, the world’s premier training centre for classical Chinese dance. His understanding of the heroism, honour and virtue he saw in that first Shen Yun performance would soon deepen as he began embodying China’s most iconic historical figures.
In 2009, in his first Shen Yun piece, Li played Ji Gong, an eccentric monk from the Southern Song Dynasty, who taught the young dancer about sacrifice. Ji Gong possessed supernatural powers but often acted wildly, and his actions were frequently misunderstood, even by those he was trying to help. In Li’s dance, Ji Gong abducted a newly married bride, which turned the village against him.
“Everyone chased after him — they all thought he was insane, crazy, a bad person, a villain,” says Li. But the crazy monk ran from the town so that the people would chase him, as he had foreseen the rockslide that would crash down and destroy the village.
“He didn’t care about what other people thought about him,” says Li. “He chose to do the right thing in order to help everyone else, even when everyone thought he was a villain.” Sacrificing ego and reputation to help others inspired Li, a lesson that became a metaphor for his life.
“For us, I feel like everyone who can make it this far as a dancer or as an artist, they’ve all had to sacrifice a lot in order to get here,” he says. “As I kept on dancing, it grew more interesting to me because I could see the depth of it. Even if I have to do the same movement but as a different character, it feels very different.”
The yun, or inner bearing of the character, differs greatly from Ji Gong to the Monkey King to a general, which, in turn, impacts the audience differently.
In classical Chinese dance, the movements of female dancers typically appear soft and graceful, full of dignity and elegance. Male dancers, on the other hand, are strong and vigorous, with aggressive tumbling techniques that didn’t come easily to Li.
“When we first got into tumbling, I was very nervous and scared,” he says. “You fail a lot at the beginning, but through repetition and practice, you do it so much that your body knows the feeling automatically. It’s almost instinctive.”
That amount of training took great sacrifice, as Li had very little leisure time, with even his weekends dedicated to his art. But mastering the physical techniques was a prerequisite for him to be able to fully express the complexity of the character’s inner nature.
The sacrifice and devotion of the legendary general Yang Liulang of the Song Dynasty moved Li, and he decided to portray his story in the third NTDTV International Classical Chinese Competition.
“While he was defending his kingdom, Yang Liulang’s whole family was executed by a corrupt official,” Li says. But he goes to war and defends his country anyway, since it’s his duty as a general. Since Li wanted to be authentic on stage, he dove deeply into the inner fiber of these noble warriors, inspiring an inner fortitude that propelled him further as a dancer.
As Li grew as a performer, he was asked to teach at the Fei Tian Academy in Taiwan and then later in New York, experiences that were fulfilling in a different way than performing.
“When I teach, I always think about how my students are responding, and it’s really made me more aware of what they’re feeling or what they’re doing,” he says. “At the beginning, I taught people who didn’t know how to dance at all. But over two years, they became good enough to go to Shen Yun. I’ve really seen them grow, and as a teacher, it’s something that’s really rewarding, to see your students improve.”
Li relates to the old adage, “If you want to learn about something, you read it. If you want to know it, you do it. And if you want to master it, you teach it.”
He says, “Teaching definitely improves your own dancing. It’s 100 percent true, because once you teach, you have to really think about how every movement works, the motion of it and how to use force and the route that your movements go. You have to be very precise, very clear. It forces you to think about things that previously you hadn’t even thought about.”
The teacher-student relationship is always intertwined, as one can always learn from the other. But to keep on learning, Li believes humility is an essential virtue.
“Even if you’ve been dancing for five, ten or 20 years, you just have to be able to take it all in — even from someone who has only danced for two years,” he says. “If you’re watching them dance, you might be able to improve because you notice he does this move well, or maybe he doesn’t do it well but neither do I.”
For those children who want to become dancers, Li sincerely advises them to “definitely keep working very hard, because the results take a long time for you to see. You can’t give up halfway. It takes a lot of dedication. You will have to make a lot of sacrifice, but if you endure it, it’s worth it.”
“During curtain call at the end of the show, where you see the audience smiling and clapping and applauding — that is probably one of the best feelings for me. You can tell they loved the show,” Li says. “It’s something that nobody else can experience unless they go through that process, the training, the hard work.”
Translated by David Lee Photography by Larry Dai