Inspired by the brilliant `Ming’ exhibition at the British Museum, this week I’m choosing a Chinese Fantasy novel with an irresistible central character – a naughty monkey who wants to live forever. Monkey’s story was written down in the 16th century, probably by a poet called Wu Ch’eng-en. The original title of this novel is `The Journey to the West’ but I’m specifically recommending the abridged translation by Arthur Waley which is just called `Monkey’. You can get this in paperback or as an ebook. There have been numerous adaptations of `The Journey to the West’ including a jokey Japanese television series `Magic Monkey’, which was a surprise hit in the late 1970s. This kitsch classic, available dubbed on DVD, is still fun to watch. Set in Tang Dynasty China, `Monkey’ tells how a priest and his three monstrous disciples made an epic trip to India to fetch some Buddhist scriptures. You may think that sounds worthy and dull. Don’t worry, `Monkey’ is riotously entertaining.
`Monkey’ literally starts with a bang as a magical monkey bursts out of a stone egg on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This stone monkey soon becomes king of the local monkeys. He seems to have everything a monkey could want but King Monkey knows that one day he will weaken and die and then be born again in some other form. He yearns to cheat Death and `live forever among the people of the sky’. Monkey seeks out a Taoist holy man who who teaches him how to ride clouds, transform himself into 72 different things and change every one of his 84,000 hairs into a warrior monkey. Next he forces the local Dragon King to give him a magical weapon, an iron club that can be as big or small as Monkey wishes. When the Judges of the Dead eventually come for Monkey, he’s ready for them. He makes so much fuss about dying that the Jade Emperor who rules the sky agrees to admit Monkey to heaven as a minor Immortal.
Monkey isn’t content with a lowly job in the Jade Emperor’s stables and continues to make trouble even after he’s awarded the grandiose title `Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. When he eats the Peaches of Immortality, which he’s meant to be guarding, and steals the Elixir of Long Life, brewed by Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism, Monkey becomes almost indestructible. Whole armies fail to subdue him but he’s finally caught by the Buddha of the Western Paradise and imprisoned inside a mountain.
Five hundred years later, Buddha decides that the people of China are in desperate need of spiritual enlightment. He sends the compassionate Kuan-yin to China to find a priest brave enough to travel to the Western Paradise in Gandhara and fetch the scrolls which contain Buddha’s teaching. She chooses a virtuous priest with an unusual family history who takes the name Tripitaka. It’s clear to Kuan-yin that unworldly Tripitaka will never survive his dangerous journey without supernatural help, so she picks three extraordinary disciples for him. Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey are all monsters who have been thrown out of heaven for bad behaviour but now they have a second chance. Tripitaka is destined to suffer 81 tribulations on his journey, including dragons, ogres, demons and ghosts. Can Monkey get his new Master all the way to the Western Paradise and achieve true Enlightenment?
`The Journey to the West’ is a marvellous literary mish-mash -an intricate quest story spanning the human and divine worlds, told in both prose and poetry (Waley doesn’t translate much of the poetry). It is part satire and part religious allegory, and incorporates a wealth of myths, folk tales, ghost and horror stories. In modern terms you might call it Dark Comic Fantasy; if you enjoy Pratchett’s Discworld novels you will probably find Monkey’s adventures appealing. There is a lot that seems surprisingly modern about Wu’s narrative. He plays with the conventions of traditional story-telling ( another disaster has to be arranged for Tripitaka at the last minute when Buddha notices that the priest hasn’t had the correct number of adventures); he throws together characters from different eras, cultures and belief-systems (the Buddhist goddess Kuan-yin arrives for a dinner-party with the Queen Mother of the West from traditional Chinese religion and the Taoist Immortal, Lao Tzu and only intervenes in the struggle to overcome Monkey when she discovers that `no drinks are going’); he makes grand and powerful beings such as Dragon Kings and Emperors speak in everyday language (`You lying quack,’ bawled the Dragon King `Your divining is a fraud and all your talk is lunatic twaddle.’), he affectionately addresses his central character as `Dear Monkey’ during moments of high emotion and he provides a teaser at the end of each chapter to keep his readers turning the pages (`If you do not know how the Emperor came to life again, you must read what is told in the next chapter.’)
The tale of Tripitaka is based on an actual journey along the Silk Road made by a monk who lived in the 7th century CE but you don’t need to be any kind of expert on Ancient China in order to enjoy the novel. Many of the things that Wu pokes fun at, such as useless government officials in pointless jobs and greedy priests and pompous or fraudulent holy men, have equivalents in most cultures. Wu didn’t let himself be constrained by real geography when writing about Tripitaka’s journey. Instead, he created a series of Fantasy kingdoms inhabited by creatures from the darkest corners of the Chinese imagination. The dragons, ghosts, and demons encountered by Monkey and Tripitaka don’t necessarily behave in the way that their Western equivalents would. The underwater domains of various dragons are described in delightful detail (one Dragon King has shrimp soldiers, whitebait guards and crab generals) but the dragons themselves don’t fare too well – one gets beheaded for not making enough rain and another is humiliatingly transformed into a horse for Tripitaka to ride. The ghost stories inset into the main narrative are pleasingly unpredictable. Let’s just say that you can’t always rely on the dead staying dead. Tripitaka and his disciples get to fight a wide range of monsters and demons. The key to defeating these monsters often lies in discerning their true forms and discovering their stories. If you want to find out how a pet goldfish was able to terrorize an entire district you’ll have to read `Monkey’.
Waley’s sparkling translation is a joy to read but he did leave out many of Tripitaka’s adventures on the road to Gandhara, including some of the naughtier encounters with seductive demons. If you fancy tackling all one hundred chapters of `The Journey to the West’ (after all it’s not much longer than `The Lord of the Rings’) try the four-volume translation by Anthony C. Yu. If, like me, you are an arachnophobe, you may want to omit the chapter about the cave of the spider demons. Waley’s short version will still give you a clear picture of the four leading characters – Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey. The virtuous Tripitaka is a bit of drip, as Monkey is fond of pointing out. Tripitaka’s standard response to dangers and difficulties is to burst into tears but he’s terrific at meditation and scripture-reading. It’s a nice irony that Tripitaka forces Monkey to be non-violent by reciting the pain-inflicting `Headache Sutra’. Pig-faced Pigsy is a creature of insatiable appetites who was expelled from heaven for groping one of the celestial maidens during a Peach Banquet. He’s a formidable fighter who wields a magical muck-rake and constantly quarrels with Monkey. Reformed water-ogre Sandy is a rather self-effacing monster who wears a necklace of skulls as a reminder of his cannibal days.
Monkey himself is a `little guy’ who acquires superpowers – leading to some cracking battle scenes. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm and for much of the book he refuses to let anyone tell him what to do. In a culture which values deference, politeness and concealment, Monkey says exactly what he thinks and feels and he’s recklessly rude to everyone from woodcutters and monks to kings and deities. Monkey’s faults are mainly loveable ones. He does get too big for his `cloud-stepping shoes’ and his desire for instant gratification often lands him in trouble – it wasn’t smart of the Jade Emperor to put a monkey in charge of a peach-orchard. Monkey may be vain and impatient but during the journey to Gandhara he frequently battles monsters in order to save innocent or oppressed people. He is beginning to display the most important of Buddhist virtues – compassion. Some of the satire on religion in `The Journey to the West’ is still quite shocking. When the four pilgrims finally reach the Western Paradise even Buddha’s most famous disciples are on the take, demanding a bribe before they will hand over the scriptures. Wu does not mock the Buddha’s teaching, only the people who fail to live up to its spiritual ideals. His novel can be seen as a plea for religious tolerance. He allows `Dear Monkey’ to explain to a foolish king that China’s three great religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) are really one and that wise or holy men and women should be revered whichever group they belong to. By the end of the story, Monkey almost lives up to his once ridiculous title of `Great Sage’. Wu ends his book by wishing that anyone who reads it may be `born again in the Realms of Utter Bliss’. With a promise like that, how can you resist trying `Monkey’? Until next time…