Review Monkey King: Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en

Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, in a new translation by Julia Lovell, is an acknowledged classic not only for children but adults too. Its release by Penguin Classics is timely since views of China in the West have grown increasingly negative, with tensions heating up over the crushing of human rights in Hong Kong, the Uighur genocide and the activities of technology companies like Huawei. Violent attacks on Asian Americans have gone up since the start of the pandemic a year ago. Public officials representing the United States and China squabbled openly at official talks held this month in Alaska.

According to The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity, more than 40 million people of Chinese origin live outside mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau forming one of the biggest diasporic populations in the world. Cultural understanding is preferable to culture wars . . . It’s better to be enriched than impoverished, right?

Chinese culture is one of the world’s oldest cultures. Confucianism goes back over 2000 years and is still the main source of values, learning and social etiquette in mainland China. It is both a national philosophy and a religious system of beliefs which stresses the importance of respect for rulers, family and social harmony. Kung Fu, tea and fireworks came to British shores from China. Sales of Chinese antiques have been booming since before lockdown. English and Mandarin Chinese are the two languages spoken by the greatest number of people in the world.

The recent publication by Penguin Classics of Julia Lovell’s new translation of Monkey King: Journey to the West is timely and gives a welcome lift from the pandemic blues. Published anonymously in the sixteenth century, it is attributed to being the work of a ghost writer, satirist and poet, Wu Cheng’en; the son of a silk shop clerk. A cultural and religious travelogue comprising a mosaic of fables, fairy tales, legends, superstitions, popular beliefs, monster stories, and Taoist, Buddhist and Chinese beliefs, this fantasy novel encapsulates the mythic seduction of the East.

There is something touchingly teenage about its hero, Sun Wukong, a wise and mischievous monkey. Creative, ingenious and fun, he is far too cheeky for his own good. He is also greedy, selfish, moody, angry and leaves chaos in his wake. He feels misunderstood and frustrated. He is defiant and uses magic powers to stand up to divine authority; mocking attempts to be controlled. But he is not malicious or bad, just very naughty! He is the archetypal superhero and his journey is the ultimate Quest story.

Monkey King is allegedly the most popular book in East Asia. It has spawned all manner of comics and cartoons, paintings, films, literary spin offs, stage plays, films, TV series, video games, music, dance . . .

The trailer for Damon Albarn’s operatic stage adaptation  

I have mastered seventy-two transformations. I can cloud-somersault, turn invisible, and apparate. I can soar to Heaven and bore down into the earth. I can saunter across the sun and moon without casting a shadow; I can pass through metal and stone. Water cannot drown me, fire cannot burn me. Is there anything I can’t do?

An extremely intelligent, lovable rebel, born out of an egg-shaped rock, Monkey is initially taught magic tricks and martial arts by a Taoist master. He calls himself “the Great Sage equal to Heaven,” and dreams of becoming immortal. His roguish charm, prowess and ability to shape shift enable him to wreak havoc wherever he goes. He causes so much trouble under the sea at the Dragon King’s court; in Hell, where he “makes a shambles of the wheel of reincarnation”; and in Heaven – where he stuffs himself with the Jade Empress’s immortal peaches and drinks five calabashes of the Jade Emperor’s immortality elixir – that he is exiled back to Earth.  Monkey and his simian army battle the forces of Heaven successfully. Only the Buddha can vanquish this “problem monkey”: he is imprisoned under a mountain with “only iron pellets to eat”.

Five hundred years on, Monkey is offered his freedom if he agrees to be the disciple and bodyguard of a vegetarian monk, Tripitaka – based on the historical Buddhist monk Xuan Zang – who is travelling west on horseback on a mission to bring back the sutras of salvation from Thunderclap Monastery on Soul Mountain in India. (In reality, on his return, Xuan Zang translated the Sutras into Chinese thereby contributing to the development of Buddhism in China.) As the Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, bring Monkey under control, he gains a sense of purpose and is more disciplined.

At first, when our shape-shifting hero is released, he does not look his best: “his eyes blazed above hollow cheeks, his head was carpeted with lichen, grass and moss; wisteria was growing out of his ears.” He joins fellow miscreant-pilgrims the water monster Sha Wujing (Sandy) who has eaten more people than he can remember, and the pig monster Zhu Bajie (Pigsy).

Their fabulous supernatural pilgrimage is populated by dim-witted kings and princesses, demons, tigers, dragons, wolves, leopards, goblins, cannibals, vertiginous mountains each with their resident monster, and other horrors. All are encountered and survived thanks to trickery, witchery, magic, and much rumbustious camaraderie and hilarity. Monkey and Pigsy form the perfect squabbling double act, reminiscent of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

On returning to the others, Monkey cleverly offered Pigsy two choices of task: either begging for food for Tripitaka or patrolling the mountain. Remembering what had happened the last time he was sent foraging, Pigsy opted—albeit grudgingly—to go on reconnaissance. ‘Useless Tripitaka!” he muttered to himself as he trudged off. “Scheming Monkey! Miserable Sandy! You’re all fine and dandy, while I wear out my feet on this cursed mountain’.”

Monkey given the Reggae Drum ‘n’ Bass treatment by LaChips

There are extraordinary descriptions of fearsome demonic battles, puckish antics, beautiful gardens, banqueting in imperial palaces, gorgeous cities of the living, gruesome cities of the dead . . . “Eighteen-Story Hell, a honeycomb of torture chambers, injustice cells and fiery pits” . . . and the Mother-and-Child river in the Land of Women which brings on labour if you drink its water.

A fabulous piece of fantasy writing, I got lost in the world of Monkey King and was transported in a way I have not been since I was gripped by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit many, many moons ago. The translation flows along effortlessly and is a wonderfully easy read, with idiomatic expressions used well and where appropriate. What bliss, to get immersed in a wild and wonderful otherworld!   

Do the three pilgrims and Tripitaka in search of enlightenment achieve their mission? Buy the book, read it and see . . .

The new Penguin Classics clothbound hardback edition is beautfiully produced, with head and tail bands, endpapers, and a ribbon marker.

Julia Lovell is Professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her recent books include The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China and Maoism: A Global History.  The foreword is by Gene Luen Yang, MacArthur-Award-winning author of the graphic novel American-Born Chinese which is inspired by this fantasy epic.

Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en | Translated, edited and introduced by Julia Lovell. Foreword by Gene Luen Yang | Penguin Classics 11 February 2021 Hardback 384 pages EAN/UPC 9780141393445 £22

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Published by

georgia de chamberet

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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