287. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en c. 1582.

“I can ride through the air like lightning; I can make myself invisible; I can ascend to high Heaven or descend into the depths of the earth: I can walk in sunlight or moonlight without throwing a shadow; I can go through metals or stones; water cannot drown me, fire cannot burn me”

Monkey, Journey to the West, page 22.

Thoughts : When I was in high school, one of the coolest shows on TV was Monkey, or as it is known in some countries, Monkey Magic. This Japanese-made spoof of the 19th century Chinese classic, with its catchy opening theme song, and over the top acting and situations was impossible not to like.

The original classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West, was itself a fictional and fanciful version of a real-life pilgrimage of a Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, to India to fetch a true copy of Buddhist scriptures to inform and guide the religion’s growth in China. The fantastical version has three immortal spirits who have each been banished from Heaven for various misdeeds cajoled into accompanying and protecting the monk on his pilgrimage : a stone monkey god (Sun Wukong/Monkey), a pig spirit (Zhu Bajie/Pigsy) and a sand demon (Sha Wujing/Sandy). The first half of the book is a history of Sun Wukong’s adventures, where through his arrogance and disrepsectful attitude he brings chaos to Heaven, and is eventually pinned under a mountain for 500 years. The monk releases the Monkey, and the second half of the story is a string of encounters with bandits and demons, who all seem to want to eat the monk, thereby gaining immortality.

There are several translations into English. My read was the translation by Timothy Richard, a 19th century English missionary who embraced the various Eastern religions as valid rather than disregard them in Christian zeal, and several times in his version of Journey to the West, showed a view of united Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. While Richard keeps some of the flavour of the journey as an allegory for spiritual growth and attainment of enlightenment, partly by including some of the poetry, the actual adventures and battles are all too often abbreviated to summaries that would embarass even Wikipedia in their brevity and lack of detail. Which is a great shame because of course, shallow me just wanted to read the biffo. Maybe I should have instead dug out Arthur Waley’s translation “freed from all kinds of allegorical interpretations … simply a book of good humor, profound nonsense, good-natured satire and delightful entertainment”. After all, when you have a Monkey God who can grow to gigantic size, fly on his own cloud, create clones of himself and transform his appearance, not to mention is a pretty handy martial arts expert with his magic fighting staff, it seems a great pity not to dwell on his powers.

Source :  Journey to the West : the Monkey King’s Amazing Adventures by Wu Cheng’en, retold by Timothy Richard, with an introduction by Daniel Kane, published by Tuttle Press, 2008.

Digressions/diversions:   Well, of course I had to revisit the TV series …

Personal rating: 5/10 for the book.  6/10 for the TV series 😉


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