Book Title: Monkey: Folk Novel of China
Author: Wu Cheng-en (Original), Arthur Waley (Translator)
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Mythology
Page Count: 320
Format: Audiobook (library)
Reading time: 13.5 hours
Date Finished: 1/21/17
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My impressions: I first learned about Monkey when I was in college and my roommate mentioned to me that it was required reading in a course he was taking and that it was also a sort-of inspiration behind Dragonball Z. (He also mentioned that his professor had told him that children in China would often look out the windows of airplanes excitedly to see if Monkey was flying next to them on a cloud. I’m not sure if that statement is true or not, but it did stick in my memory.) Since it was a required reading book, Monkey was available in my college bookstore for a low price thanks to all the used copies, and I nearly picked it up, but never did. And up until that point, most of what I’ve known about Monkey has been what I’ve read online about the broad strokes of the story or summarized in other stories like the Monkey segments of American Born Chinese.
For those who don’t know, Monkey is a translation of the comic Chinese novel epic Journey to the West, but it’s abridged to include around 25% of the total content, and doesn’t include any of the poetry or singing. It was translated by Arthur Waley in the mid-2oth century to bring the story to the Western world, and from what I’ve read, it’s a faithful translation that captures the spirit of the story quite well, even if it is missing large chunks of the narrative. It’s like reading a version of The Lord of the Rings condensed down from three novels into a book roughly the size of The Hobbit – it could be done, but you’d miss a lot of the elements that the original author intended the reader to experience.
I decided to give the book a shot this month in audobook form (read by the delightful Kenneth Williams, who goes out of his way to give the characters distinctive voices and whose narration has a strong, British storytelling style), and I absolutely loved it. The first two and a half hours were entirely about the godlike Monkey, who studies to become an immortal and then takes on the title of “The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” in defiance to the dragon kings and the Jade Emperor. Monkey causes a lot of trouble as he refuses to submit to any of the established spiritual authorities. Monkey is eventually stopped by the Buddha, who traps him under a mountain and forces him to wait for 500 years until a monk is sent to make him into a disciple. The story then goes into a fairly dull origin story for that monk, who comes to be known as Tripitaka, and also offers some background for Monkey’s fellow disciples, Pigsy, Sandy and the white horse, before it gets them all well on their way on a journey across China to reach India in the West and retrieve holy scriptures to bring salvation back to the East.
Once the quest gets going, the structure plays out episodically: Tripitaka and his disciples are impeded by some evil they encounter and must find a way to overcome it before they are allowed to progress. (As monks, they have a sacred burden to defeat any evil they encounter in Buddha’s name.) Often, the obstacles in their way are in some way related to a challenge set by Buddha or a minor deity; in one story, a particularly vicious monster is a goldfish that escaped from a Bodhisattva’s pond, while in another, an emperor who returns from death to face an imposter discovers the false emperor is an agent of Buddha carrying out divine retribution for a wrong the true emperor committed.
Initially, Monkey is quite powerful and wants to smite anyone who threatens his master, but Tripitaka’s pure spirit is horrified by Monkey’s lust for violence, and he and the Bodhisattva Guanyin (also known as the Goddess of Mercy) trick Monkey into wearing a magical headband that allows Tripitaka to give him severe headaches whenever he defies orders or gets out of control.
Monkey needs this control, because he’s extremely powerful; he can transform into just about anything (or any size), he’s a master martial artist, he wields a magical iron cudgel that can change in size and kill with a single blow, he’s capable of turning his hairs into duplicates of himself or into useful items, and he can somersault up into heaven and travel great distances in a single bound. He’s also extremely clever, a masterful sage with a head for great wisdom, and he’s unafraid of anyone he encounters. His biggest weakness is limitation – he hates to sit still, to be forced to act against his own self-interest or to be told he has to abstain for the greater good. Much of his development in the story is about overcoming these weaknesses. He’s essentially the ego of the party, and by far the most prominent and interesting character.
Pigsy is a comic character who’s the inferior of Monkey and quite prone to stupid acts of lust and greed. He fights with a rake and can be formidable against mortals, but he’s not much help against deities and dragons, who can easily trick him or redirect him with little effort. He’s essentially the id of the party.
Sandy is a nearly silent character who’s about equal with Pigsy in ability (both are former river spirits), but who more closely resembles a monk and who spends most of his time protecting Tripitaka. And Tripitaka himself is just a monk who is pure-hearted and good, but who’s not very capable and who relies on his disciples, magical horse and all the strangers they encounter for just about everything. Tripitaka provides direction and a moral compass, but he also despairs quite easily when things don’t go his way. Together, he and Sandy form the super-ego of the party.
Despite the formulaic storytelling that emerges midway through the book, I found the entire thing eminently enjoyable because I realized that it was supposed to be light-heated and entertaining, not unlike reading a collection of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge adventures where fairly cartoonish characters do amusing things as they trek around the world. Even when the deities of Chinese mythology show up, they’re often caricatures who are prone to mortal complainings and over-the-top reactions. Monkey and Pigsy also have frequent spats that lead to humorous moments; in one chapter, Pigsy and Monkey play an escalating prank war on each other that results in Monkey being forced to bring a dead man back to life without visiting the world of darkness, a nigh-impossible feat even for Monkey.
The audiobook version I listened to is no-frills; there’s no introduction, no music, no chapter breaks and no footnotes or anything else outside the text itself. But it was a great way to experience the story because the reader really seemed to be enjoying himself, and he gave particularly strong life to Monkey. It also made the unfamiliar names and terms from Chinese culture and mythology a little easier to handle (though they’re not always pronounced correctly). I’d recommend the audiobook edition if you don’t have a lot of patience for older styles of writing, but do enjoy hearing a good story. This one’s fantastic.