Monday, February 8, 2016

Ode to the Monkey King

In all the years I’ve been running this blog, I’ve never written or even acknowledged that very significant holiday, Lunar New Year. Now, I shall do this and since it’s the year of the Monkey I've decided I should write about, what else? Journey to the West and its most famous hero, the Monkey King!  

Canada post's Lunar New Year limited edition stamp.
Whether you know him as Sun Wu Kung (Mandarin), Son Oh Gong (Cantonese/Korean), Son Goku (Japanese), Sun Gokong (Malay/Indonesian), Tôn Ngộ Không (Vietnamese), Heng Chia (Thai — Hokkien variant), the Monkey King or simply as “Monkey” there is no doubt that the Monkey King, the main character of Wu Cheng’en’s Chinese literary classic, Journey to West (Xi You Ji, Seo Yu Gi, Saiyuki etc.) has captured the imaginations of children and adults the world over. The character has been portrayed by countless artists in countless mediums. New productions continue to be produced to this day in myriad languages.

Earliest known edition of the text.
For those who don’t know, Journey to the West is a rather lengthy comic fantasy written near the end of the 16th century, chronicling the story of the real-life monk Xuanzang’s trip to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. The book is “based on true events” insofar as Xuanzang was a real monk and that he did indeed travel to India for the purpose of researching Buddhist scriptures; the similarities end there. In Journey, Xuanzang, in English versions referred to as Tripitaka Tang (a translation of his holy name), is asked by the Emperor of the Tang court to travel to India a.k.a. “the western heaven” to retrieve new Buddhist scriptures that had not previously been available to the Chinese, from the Buddha, himself a prominent character in the story. Along his journey he takes on three disciples, the Monkey King — Sun Wu Kung, a monkey made out of stone, with fantastic Taoist powers, Zhu Pa Che (or Piggy/Pigsy) — a former heavenly marshal who was sent to the mortal realm as a pig-man for being naughty, and Sha Wu Jing (or Friar Sand/Sandy) — a heavenly general who was sent to the mortal realm as a water demon for making a mistake one time. (The video below is much a better breakdown of the story from the YouTube channel Off the Geat Wall).

Long story short, the monk is trying to get to India, and the monkey, pig and water guy have to help him get there because they all committed crimes against heaven for which they need to be redeemed and because Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of mercy, said so. Yeah, it’s complicated. Along the journey they are constantly harassed by monsters, spirits and people who usually want to kidnap, eat or marry the monk, because the monk is actually the reincarnation of this super righteous dude, and if you eat him you get immortality and stuff, and some people are just lonely.

So! As you can imagine this story has some pretty wild moments. You have spirits and demons fighting gods and demi gods, each character has a legendary weapon and there are tonnes of magical items. Furthermore, there are magic power battles, some characters can fly, there’s dragons and mythical beasts and prominent figures in Chinese religion are just there hanging out and doing stuff. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you've studied Chinese history and/or philosophy to any degree. It's so much fun in fact, people all over the world are at least partially aware that this story exists, and there have been many adaptations and works inspired by the story.

The cover for volume 1 of the revised, I would say authoritative Anthony C. Yu translation.
The entire tale is one hundred chapters long and English translations are usually comprised of multiple volumes containing twenty-five chapters or around five-hundred pages each, making for a two-thousand-odd page story in total -- it’s fairly long, which is why it’s nice that there’s so much fantastic stuff happening all the time. Despite all this content, the Monkey King is still the most popular element from the story.

The first eight or nine chapters are all about how the monkey king came to be and these chapters are the most heavily adapted, which is a likely contributor to Monkey’s fame. These chapters depict the Monkey King’s creation from a stone on a mountain top, formed when heaven and earth divided (a.k.ak the beginning of the universe) which absorbed all manner of earthly energies and such. One day the rock splits and Monkey pops out and runs around and meets other monkeys, but since he’s made of stone and thus, virtually indestructible, they find him pretty impressive and make him their king. He finds the monkeys a new home by occupying a cave in the Flower Fruit Mountain, on which he was born, and then goes on a pilgrimage to learn stuff about the world because he realizes that mortality is a thing. He eventually finds a Toaist master and learns form him, how to transform, fly, do martial arts, be immortal and just generally be more magically badass.

A Chinese opera rendition of the Monkey king played by the legendary Liu Ling Tong, father of Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who would go on to carry the torch.
Eventually he figures he can make all his monkey friends immortal like him and goes down to the king of the underworld. He finds the king’s ledger and erases all the monkey’s names from it, which means they will never die. He also causes big ruckus and makes a mess of things. He also steals a giant extendo-rod from a dragon king who later petitions heaven along with the king of the underworld. Eventually the king of heaven invites him up and gives him a position looking after horses to keep him busy. He eventually realizes it’s a lowly position and starts tearing the place up as he feels like he’s worthy of more. After causing all kinds of trouble he goes back to Flower Fruit Mountain.

The imagery in the tale is consistently colourful and fantastic and many illustrations of the tale are available, including this one on the wall of a temple. 
Heaven sends deities to rough him up but they are no match for the Monkey King and eventually one of the heavenly officials persuades the king of heaven that they should give him another chance. They invite him up again and this time make him the keeper of the heavenly peach garden (the peaches extend your life). Monkey eventually finds out that he’s not been invited to the queen's heavenly peach party and gets really mad and eats most of the peaches. He also drinks the heavenly wine, eats a bunch of magic stuff and goes nuts. He returns to the Flower Fruit Mountain again but this time heaven is way more upset. They go to war and after a crazy magic battle full of crazy powers and transformations and all sorts of malarkey, Monkey is caught! The heavenly host try to behead him, burn him, do all sorts of stuff, but he’s invincible! Eventually he tries to escape and Buddha shows up and tells if he can jump out of his palm they will let him go. He’s all like “that’s easy!” and then he flies as far as possible but he still can’t escape from the Buddha’s hand. Buddha drops a mountain on him and says “stay there for a few thousand years and someday some monk will come by and you have to help him out” (I’m paraphrasing here). The end (if you ignore the rest of the story — couldn't make this stuff up if I tried, also this is heavily abridged).

This portion of the story has been adapted to everything from children’s books to video games to Beijing opera and one such children’s book was read by 7-year old Alex, which is why the Monkey King is one of my favourite characters in anything, ever.  But now that you know the story (sort of), what makes the Monkey King so endearing and enduring?

For the life of me I cannot remember which children's adaptation of the Monkey King stories I had read as a child (it wasn't this one). I just remember the art was beautiful. 
For me it’s always been that the character wields tremendous, fantastic power, but is so imperfect. He’s prideful, whimsical, tricky and has a quick temper, but also a clear sense of morals, values and comradery. He doesn't easily betray his friends but he can hold a grudge and even be kind of petty. He’s complicated, humane and relatable and much of the story of Journey is about him and his comrades learning how to be better er. . . people? Spirits? Stone Monkeys? You get the idea. Another thing, is that he plays by his own rules and doesn’t value or respect things like money, fame or status. This renders him virtually incorruptible and very flexible — you can offer him all the gold in the world, but the guy is immortal and can visit heaven or the underworld any time he wants and since he’s a monkey, lives off of wild fruit, so money is kind of unnecessary to him. All he really seems to want is respect and I think that’s something we can all relate to. In any case it’s just a good story, and it was one of my early entry points into East Asian culture. It captured my imagination as a child and continues to as an adult.

As I’ve mentioned there have been many adaptations of the story over the years and some have strayed rather far from the original subject matter, using Journey as more of a framework. Of course the best way to get acquainted with the original story is to simply read it in its entirety and there are a few English translations available.

The cover art for the Jenner translation.
The version I read was Anthony C. Yu’s translation which is widely considered to be the definitive translation, supposedly the closest to the Chinese text, and the first to translate all the poems and verses contained in the original. This means it can sometimes be confusing and disorienting as each character has multiple names that are used to refer to them in different situations. The poems and verses which are interspersed throughout the text can also be disrupting to some. Still, it’s very readable and is the most complete experience you can get without learning classical Chinese. This version was also revised in 2012, likely making it even more accessible. The other complete translation is a three volume affair, translated by W.J.F. Jenner, which I’ve heard is written in more colloquial English and with the poems and verses left out, in favour of a more conventional narrative. I’ve never read this version, but I suppose your choice will depend on what you want to get out of the story.

For those of you would just like to get the gist of the tale there are many abridged translations available as well, which can be found by simply searching on whichever on-line book retailer you frequent. These range from abridged versions of the entire tale or simply selected chapters outlining some of the Monkey King’s most famous adventures. In any case, there’s no shortage of literature on 
can peruse.

 Taiwan-based artist, Tsai Chih Chung's adaptation, translated by Alan Chung. I've always loved his illustrations. 
For those of you who are more visual readers there are numerous graphic novel and Manga/Manwha adaptations as well. Osamu Tezuka, the king of adventure Manga (my personal title), wrote Saiyuki a.k.a. Alakazam the Great which follows the monkey kings adventures in Journey. Stories From China: The Monkey King series by Wei dong Chen is a fairly straight adaptation with great art and visuals as well. However, there are myriad graphic adaptations.    

As for other mediums, the Monkey King has had many on-screen incarnations as well. On television many of my Chinese-Canadian friends reportedly grew up with the 1996 Cantonese-language TVB series, starring Hong Kong comedy actor Dickey Cheung as the Monkey King. However, this series seems to have taken many liberties with the original text. The definitive adaptation, that most closely follows the book, is often considered to be the 1986 CCTV series out of mainland China featuring Liu Xiao Ling Tong (a.k.a. Zhang Jinlai) as the iconic hero. Zhang’s family has played the role of the monkey king in traditional Chinese opera for generations and his portrayal in the 1986 series is widely considered to be the gold standard for the role.

The cast of the 1986 CCTV series Journey to the West with Liu Xiao Ling Tong as the Monkey King 
Actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the man who was, quite literally, born to play the Monkey King.
I’m currently two thirds of the way through this series, and he really is the perfect Monkey King. His expressions, movements and speech are just bang-on. Even now Zhang works as a spokesperson for “monkey culture” and as a consultant for those taking on the role. The 1986 show, visually, has not aged well, however, many keyed-in visual effects and graphics were used, that look ancient and kind of ridiculous by today’s standards. Still, if you can look past this, you will be in for a charming and endearing production with great casting that appeals to all ages. 

(In the video below Liu Xiao Ling Tong talks in London, England about the nuances in portraying the Monkey King on screen).

For those who are looking for a more modern update, in 2011 a whopping 66 episode series was released in mainland China, with copious amounts of CG. Visually it’s quite impressive and actor Wu Yue performs admirably as the Monkey King, but he really is no Liu Xiao Ling Tong, which is probably an unfair comparison anyway. In any case, the 2011 series is also very close to the original text and there are several other series that are more loosely based. The Japanese series Saiyuki (or Monkey Magic in North America), which was quite popular, followed the general plot quite closely but used a lot more Japanese motifs and rearranged certain plot points. There was also a 52-episode animated series called Journey to The West – Legends of the Monkey King which was originally produced in China and dubbed into English in 1999. It was also a mostly faithful adaptation. There is also a classic, rather beautifully animated Chinese classic called Monkey King Uproar in Heaven which covers the early part of Journey that I mentioned before. 

Here's a screen shot from Monkey King Uproar in Heaven which is hailed as classic of Chinese animation.
There are many shows that borrowed ideas from Journey as well, the most famous of course being Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball in which the main character has a tail and is named after the Monkey King himself. A lesser-known example (outside of its home country that is) is a Korean animation called Fly! Super Board in which the monk drives around in a dune buggy with a face, the Monkey King flies around on a skate board, Pigsy wields a bazooka, and Sandy is a weird, impish mud creature (it’s pretty wild).

A depiction of Son Goku from Dragonball which harkens back to the character's roots. 
A somewhat more off-kilter depiction of Seong Ho Gong in Fly! Super Board. Can I get this on a t-shirt?
The Monkey King has also made numerous appearances in video games. Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was a more recent release which borrowed the core set-up from Journey and was well received (by critics anyway). Koei’s tactical JRPG Saiyuki: Journey to The West was released on the PS1 in 1999 which is much closer to the original story but again takes many liberties (it is a video game after all). These are merely two games in the sea of Journey related games that are available.
By referencing all these adaptations and incarnations I wish to illustrate just how much of a cultural force, the Monkey King and Journey to The West are and would like to offer some starting points for those who are interested in getting more familiar with this classic Chinese epic in its various forms. The Monkey King is one of my most beloved characters and weather you’re wholly unfamiliar with the tale or love it and wish celebrate it in as many ways as possible, I hope this Lunar New Year’s post gives you something to think about. I wish you much luck in this, the year of the Monkey! Happy Lunar New Year, wherever you are!     
A screen shot from Koei's PS1 game Saiyuki: Journey to the West
A number of the series I mentioned in the post are currently available on Youtube right now in their entirety. Here's a few links (with English subtitles). Not sure how long these links will be around for, but try 'em out!

Journey to the West 1986

Monkey King Uproar in Heaven


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