Monkey: A Journey to the West is Book #989a on the 1001 Book List and this review was first published in October 2012.
I think I need a short disclaimer before I start this review. When I was a child we were lucky enough to have the Japanese television show Monkey shown here. And as an adult I still have some videos (yes, those funny things that old people used to watch or record on before DVDs) from that series. Therefore when I came to reading the book version I happen to own, I also brought pre-conceived notions of what it was going to be like.
Like all pre-conceived notions, some were reinforced while others were altered beyond recognition. So, I will start with some basic background information.
Journey to the West is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, but in the west it is often referred to as Monkey. Two of the other three Chinese classics also feature on the 1001 List – Book 997 a. The Water Margin and Book 998 a. Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The work is definitely picaresque. Monkey is nothing, if not a rogue. It is an allegory of the journey to enlightenment as well as an adventure story, a fictionalised version of an historical event and a folk tale all wrapped up in one. So you get mythology, fantasy and adventure.
The main characters are Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Kuan Yin. They have a variety of proper Chinese names, but for simplicity we will stick with the colloquial version for the review.
Monkey is a divine being created from a stone egg. He awakens and begins his adventures in annoying everyone and everything from the celestial palace downwards. He learns the Taoist arts, especially transformation, combat and immortality. He is even cheeky enough and clever enough to insist on a great name for himself, “Great Sage Equal to Heaven”, which takes him in to conflict with the Taoist deities. He is violent and uses force as one of his means of achieving his goals. Eventually he is trapped and subdued by Buddha for this and is put under a mountain for hundreds of years.
After we get to know Monkey through his growth and increased roguery we are introduced to each of the pilgrims, starting with the monk, Tripitaka. TheBuddha instructs Kuan Yin to find someone in China to travel to the west in order to collect the Buddhist sutras to take back and enlighten the east. Hence the story’s name –Journey to the West. Tripitaka starts his journey along the Silk Road between China and India, and we begin a series of adventures most of which involve devils and demons rather than real people.
Monkey is the first of the disciples to appear at this stage of the story. Then comes Pigsy, who was previously the Marshal of the Heavenly Canopy but was banished for misbehaviour with the moon goddess during a heavenly banquet. He embodies the insatiable appetite, and while a reliable fighter is also fairly lazy and tries to avoid working if he can.
The third disciple is Sandy, a river ogre, who was previously the celestial Curtain Lifting General and was banished for dropping and breaking a crystal goblet belonging to the Queen Mother of the West. He is the straight man for both Pigsy and Monkey in the satire.
The fourth disciple is a son of the Dragon King of the Western Sea, who is sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. He is a fairly minimal character as he generally appears as the white horse that Tripitaka rides.
After a series of trials, tribulations, adventures, fighting, subduing and a variety of cunning subterfuges, the travelers eventually reach Vulture Peak, where Tripitaka receives the scriptures from the living Buddha. The return journey is glossed over and each of the five pilgrims receives rewards for their efforts.
I read the version of Journey to the West retold by David Kherdian, but I would suggest doing some research on which edition, and telling, is the most fluid reading. I found this telling to be a bit dry, despite all of the goings on and the wonderful reproduction woodblock images from an 1830s Japanese version. You may also be wise to invest in some paper and a pen to keep all the key deities in order, and perhaps Wikipedia open, if you are not familiar with the different gods of the Taoist pantheon.
What I did find extremely charming is the descriptive names and titles. For example:
“The Jade Emperor was sitting on his throne in the Treasure Hall of Divine Mists in the Cloud Palace of Golden Arches, surrounded by his immortal ministers, civil and military.”
“It is located in India, where the Buddha dwells, in the Great Temple of Thunderclap of the Great Western Heaven.”
or referring to six heavily armed bandits,
“If you really don’t know who we are, we will tell you. We are called Eye that Sees and Delights, Ear that Hears and Grows Furious, Nose that Smells and Covets, Tongue that Tastes and Desires, Mind that Conceives and Lusts, and Body that Supports and Suffers.”
It is fair to say that the allegory is reasonably visible throughout even without a great deal of understanding of Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist philosophy. However, I think it quite likely that the ease of reading and enjoyment will be determined by the translation you choose. I didn’t find it particularly onerous reading, other than getting to grips with who is who amongst the Jade Court and how they all fit in. But then I was predisposed to like it. If you have an interest in Eastern philosophy then it is a must read.