Monkey/Journey to the West by Wu Ch’Eng-En – Book Review

Basic Information

Monkey/Journey to the West, authored by Wu Ch’Eng-En and translated by Arthur Waley. The particular version I have is the Penguin Classics edition (Penguin Classics are AWESOME. Love them). Ordered off of Fishpond.

Price

Because it’s a Penguin Classic you can probably get your hands on a copy for $12-20NZD depending on where you shop.

Why I Chose To Read This Book

As a child my mother used to show us old Chinese cartoons of the adventures of the Monkey King/Sun Wukong. These cartoons were always illustrated/animated in quite an odd and vivid fashion, and therefore were quite striking. For this reason the cartoons have etched themselves into my memory until now, so I felt the urge to read the original novel from which they came. Wouldn’t mind re-watching some of those cartoons, they are quite good – Monkey is a very dynamic and interesting character, which probably accounts for why he’s stuck around in the minds of so many people after so long (Journey to the West was first published in the 16th century in China), giving rise to different creative manifestations wherein his legacy lives on. Which leads me to my next reason…

…GOKU! If you were a strapping young lad growing up in the 90’s you were probably lucky enough to be watching Dragon Ball Z (and are probably now watching Dragon Ball Super. If you aren’t watching Dragon Ball Super right now, what are you even doing with your life? New Dragon Ball episodes by the original creators being created every week!).

Sun Wukong from Journey to the West inspired Akira Toriyama when creating the globally revered character of Goku in the original Dragon Ball series. The very first season of the original Dragon Ball series, in fact, is a light-hearted re-telling of the original Journey to the West story with the character of Goku taking the place of Monkey. From there, Toriyama continued to develop Goku and the Dragon Ball universe in other directions, but never made away with the passion for battle and cheeky attitude that are the trademark characteristics of the Monkey King.

…then Goku comes in, goes Super Saiyan, and fucks shit up. #Boom

The other reason why I wanted to read this book was the mythological aspects of this book. I’ve always been attracted to mythological stories and stories of legendary characters, and, for reasons mentioned above, Sun Wukong definitely classes as a legendary character of Chinese literature. There were also elements in the stories I had heard about (and remembered from my viewings as a child), which were mythological in that the stories were tied to real places that exist in China today. I love myths that are tied to existing places in reality – it adds a depth to the story which transcends the purely mental plane. This aspect of the book I enjoyed a lot.

Overview of the Book

Buddha notices that the nation is not in a good state (*badum-tss*). The moral fibre of the people is not all that sturdy, so he decides that the people need some enlightenment. This enlightenment takes the form of some religious scriptures ordained by the heavens that hold the key to people’s salvation, which are to be collected from India and brought back to China. The only problem being the person that goes on this quest to get these scriptures must be a holy man of good religious and spiritual stature; pious, righteous, and committed to the Buddhist way of life through and through. There just so happens to be a religious man that fits the bill: Tripitaka. He is asked to go on the journey, and he accepts.

Along for the journey are three characters that are tasked with protecting Tripitaka along the way: our old mate the Monkey King/Sun Wukong, Pigsy (who looks like a pig), and Sandy (who just looks really ugly) – 3 deities that have been trapped on Earth in mortal form for previous misdoings in Heaven. Monkey was just generally quite mischievous, battle-hungry, and liked to cause havoc so the heavens banished him. Pigsy was a bit rapey & ate too much so the heavens banished him. And I forgot what Sandy did that got him into trouble – I suppose he was just really ugly, so the heavens banished him.

There was also a horse but he’s just an ancillary character for transport purposes (happens to be a deity too but whatever, so are most of the characters in the book).

The majority of the book tells of their journey to collect these scriptures. The battles, challenges, setbacks, and events along the way.

Context

This book was originally written in the 16th century in Ancient China. It forms one of four classical novels that are widely accepted as being seminal texts in pre-modern Chinese Literature & fiction. The other three central texts being:

  • Dream of the Red Chamber – by Cao Xueqin
  • Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh) – by Shi Naian
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms – by Luo Guanzhong

As mentioned above, this was the very first appearance of the popular character Sun Wukong in any text. From this text the character has been extracted, transformed, and adapted many times into many forms within Asian and now even Western culture.

What I Liked About The Book

I really liked the amount of battles in the book. Even though the English translation doesn’t really go into details about the battles themselves (all it really says is something along the lines of ‘wow how they battled! On and on it went for 72 bouts, until finally the enemy was worn out from beatings at the hands of Monkey’s cudgel’), my extended viewings of Dragon Ball Z as a child provided the necessary basis to fill in the imaginary blanks, which made reading about the battles a bit more interesting.

I literally pictured those battle scenes in DBZ where you can’t see them because they’re moving too fast, and all you visibly see are the sonic booms everywhere. To be completely honest a couple of times I was reading and then got so into the imagined battles that I’d look up DBZ fights on YouTube to complete the picture/experience, and ended up watching for hours.

I then would realize it’s about 3AM and I literally progressed about half a page in the actual book. Not ideal.

Would be interesting to see if the original Chinese version of the text had details about the battles themselves, or whether it too is as brief as in the English translation.

I really liked reading the first section of the book. This was dedicated entirely to the birth and early exploits of the Monkey King character. So it was Sun Wukong in his natural element: battle-hungry, actually hungry, mischievous, constantly searching to become stronger, and very up himself with regards to his stature & strength. It gave me a lot of contextual knowledge and deeper appreciation for the different motivations behind why Goku did certain things in DBZ. I really liked the fact that I was reading the backstory to Goku’s original incarnation.

I really enjoyed the mythological aspect of the text. At the end of some of the adventures, the text would read something like: “and today this mountain still stands in China, forever symbolizing Monkey’s triumph over such and such”, which I think is really neat. I also loved the detail in which the hierarchy and government of Heaven was constructed. In the text Heaven is not some arbitrary place where things go and that’s that; there’s a governmental structure to it, there are officers, there are ranks, there are jobs, there are royal stables with divine horses, there are gardens with eternal life peaches etc. – the tangible element of the heavens was a unique touch that I haven’t come across in my readings to date, it was brilliantly done.

What I Didn’t Like About The Book

There were too many names to keep track of. I have trouble as it is keeping track of anywhere north of 6 western names at a time, but at any one instance there could have been as much as 12 Chinese names to keep track of in the story. Which was rather difficult and made following the plot a little troublesome.

A linked issue is that, due to the detailed nature of the Heavens and all the ranks, there were also a lot of deities to keep track of. What didn’t help was that the text would often interchange between the name of the deity and their rank when referring to the character as if there was nothing to it. I can’t keep track of 8 deities with 2 names for each, and then 12 mortal characters on top of that at any one time!!! Last week I performed a magic trick for someone I didn’t know, and after asking for their name, had to – at several points in the 2 minute performance – ask them to remind me what their name was. My short term memory is not up to scratch by any means, which meant reading this was a bit of a battle.

I resolved to rename each of the random characters that popped up either as simple Western names like Bob, or just simply: “that guy that was talked about 2 pages ago”. Things went a lot smoother after that.

Personal Reactions

I found the way of writing quite unique. It was very dramatic, but in an old fashioned kind of way. And uniquely Chinese I suspect, too. Because I recognize some of the dramatic storytelling elements in the way that my mother used to tell us ancient stories as children.

For example: when riding into a battle, instead of launching into the details of the battle, a lot of the time the text would start off with something along the lines of: ‘Dear Monkey!’, or ‘Look at him go!’. Which was a bit jarring to read initially. What do you mean ‘Dear Monkey’? Are we writing him a letter? ‘Look at him go’, where? I’m looking right here at this book.

I fully admit that it might be because I’m used to Western novels, and it might be perfectly ordinary for Chinese novels, but I did find that quite an odd reading experience.

I suppose it must be our equivalent for someone to take a play of Shakespeare’s, translate it word for word into Chinese, and then plonk it in front of a Chinese person to read. There’s bound to be elements of the writing that will totally fly over the person’s head and leave them a bit lost for words as to how to react, which we just take for granted as we’re used to English Literature. I reckon I’m just experiencing the same thing in reverse with regards to this book, which is fine.

Something I noted while reading the text was that the really religious characters in the text, the ones who are actively practicing Buddhism, were sometimes regarded as being “not of the world” – as if they were sort of dead to the world, and they also had special privileges. For example they were always automatically granted lodge in any home that they come across on the path of their travels. I found that quite bizarre. It made me think of a few friends of mine who like to frequent meditation camps (which sounds really awesome actually), and they are not contactable for the duration of the camp. No phone, no email, no internet, not even standard snail mail. It is like they’ve just left the world momentarily.

That really makes me sound unhealthily dependent on modern communication technology, doesn’t it?

Guess I am. I can’t live without memes. Once – I lost internet for 3 days and had to exist on shitty memes that I’d create on Microsoft Paint, whilst crying pitifully at how dank they were. A fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy – they were dark times indeed.

Rating

Overall, really enjoyed this text. Portions of it were difficult to get through, but in the scheme of things those sections weren’t too bad. I’m glad I got to the end of it and didn’t abandon it halfway through like I sometimes tend to do. Feels good to get to the end of something once in a while.

I give it a 3/5

*Goku flies in and turns Super Saiyan ready to attack*

Ok – 3.5/5 🙂

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