The Monk and the Monkey

Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu – This classic of Chinese literature, first published in the sixteenth century, is quite loosely based on the real-life pilgrimage of the seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang from China to India to retrieve scriptures. Many legends developed regarding this journey, the most famous being that he was accompanied by several supernatural disciples who had to atone for their sins. The novel focuses not on the monk himself, who’s presented as a paragon of virtue but quite naive, but more on the disciples, particularly the Monkey King Sun Wu-k’ung.

Indeed, there are seven chapters of his adventures before the monk is even introduced. He’s a comic relief character, but also someone who undergoes character growth. He’s a mischievous trickster, and I have to suspect part of his appeal is that he totally goes against the desire for order that we usually think of when considering China, causing chaos just because he thinks it’s fun and in order to obtain recognition. Placated somewhat when he receives the grand-sounding but meaningless title of Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, he eventually rebels openly against the supernatural authorities. He resists all efforts to subdue him until the original Buddha traps him in a mountain for 500 years. Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, frees him and allows him to accompany the monk, here called Tripitaka (Sanzang in some translations). He provides brain, brawn, and magical power along the way, but retains some of his mischievous spirit.

The second disciple is Chu Pa-chieh, a pig-demon driven by gluttony, laziness, and lust. A celestial general in his past life, he was transformed to his current grotesque form as punishment for trying to sexually harass Chang’e. He’s also a fighter and a magician, and at first he tends to try to sabotage Wu-k’ung, but they later learn to work together.

The third companion is known as Sha Monk, a sand-demon from the Flowing-Sand River, and is much less developed than the first two.

There’s also a dragon who, after devouring Tripitaka’s horse, is turned into a horse himself. The journey to India takes fourteen years, which is more or less accurate to the historical Xuanzang’s pilgrimage. It only took him about a year to reach India, however; the extra time was spent studying with various Buddhist masters in the area. In the story, it takes all this time just to get to India, suggesting they took directions from Moses. At the end, it’s revealed that they covered a total of 108,000 miles, which means they must have taken the most circuitous route possible. The plot largely consists of the obstacles the travelers come across on their journey, often in the form of demons living in mountain caves who want to eat Tripitaka’s flesh in order to expand their own lifetimes. They play tricks that the monk frequently falls for, and Wu-k’ung has to bail him out. It gets pretty formulaic after a while, although there are multiple variations on the theme.

The story is interesting from a religious and mythological standpoint, presenting a world presided over by many different deities. While promoting Buddhism, other belief systems are acknowledged as well. Wu-k’ung gains his abilities through Taoism, but is unable to overcome the nastier aspects of his character. It’s only when he embraces Buddhism that he achieves the merit he’s always desired. The ruler of Heaven is the Jade Emperor, and Lao-Tzu himself features as a prominent immortal, but it’s the Buddha who appears to be the most powerful. There are appearances by many different mythological figures, including the Moon Rabbit I wrote about before and the dragons who rule the oceans.

Picture by Kuren
This edition was published in four volumes, and while I have to wonder why the library system wouldn’t let me request individual volumes online, that doesn’t relate to the work itself. While it gets slow in spots, overall I quite liked it. It helps if you have an interest in mythology, I suppose.

Picture by Darth Design

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Buddhism, China, Chinese, History, India, Magic, Monsters, Mythology, Religion, Taoism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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