Thursday, 1 November 2012


Wu Ch’eng-en
Translated by Arthur Waley

"Also known as Journey to the West, Wu Ch'êng-ên's Monkey is one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature, translated by Arthur Waley in Penguin Classics.

Monkey depicts the adventures of Prince Tripitaka, a young Buddhist priest on a dangerous pilgrimage to India to retrieve sacred scriptures accompanied by his three unruly disciples: the greedy pig creature Pipsy, the river monster Sandy - and Monkey. Hatched from a stone egg and given the secrets of heaven and earth, the irrepressible trickster Monkey can ride on the clouds, become invisible and transform into other shapes - skills that prove very useful when the four travellers come up against the dragons, bandits, demons and evil wizards that threaten to prevent them in their quest. Wu Ch'êng-ên wrote Monkey in the mid-sixteenth century, adding his own distinctive style to an ancient Chinese legend, and in so doing created a dazzling combination of nonsense with profundity, slapstick comedy with spiritual wisdom".

My first experience of Journey to the west was the 1970’s TV show monkey, a Japanese take on the tale starring Masaaki Saki in the titular role. The show, when translated into English was done with a self aware, self parodying style. It knew it was over the top kung fu nonsense and it was proud of it.
The original novel from which it came however, is considered one of the great classical novels of China and has survived since the 16th century.

The story is of Tripitaka, a young Buddhist priest charged with travelling to India to find scriptures of Buddhist teachings. Along the way he picks up three disciples, Monkey, the ruler of the kingdom of the water curtain cave who was imprisoned under a rock after causing trouble in heaven, Pigsy a pig demon who has been kicked out of heaven and Sandy, a fish demon of similar predicament. They are also joined by a dragon who turns into a horse.

The book is  highly episodic, every chapter or so Tripitaka is captured by demons or the group meet a stranger with some sort of demonic problem and it is up to monkey to save the day.
Occasionally these chapters feature human foes but more often than not the fiend is some form of animal demon. Some of the chapters featuring humans feel rather like episodes of propaganda, the chapter, for example, where the four come upon a land ruled by a Taoist king who has made slaves of the Buddhists. Tripitaka must then prove Buddhism’s superiority over Taoism in a series of tests (all of which it is perhaps worth noting, monkey cheat in).
The story dates from a time where written novels and the rules of story telling were still somewhat in their infancy, therefore the straight forward style of writing feels incredibly dated, there are none of the flourishes of prose we expect of such novels and the characterisation is occasionally laughable. During a scene were Monkey first learns to fly on the clouds, the students ion his class show no real amazment at this impossible skill, remarking only,
“Monkey is in luck, - one way or another he will always be able to pick up a living”

The main problem with this book was the translation I picked up. Arthur Waley’s interpretation (which features a name change from “Journey to the west” to “Monkey, perhaps to associate itself more with the TV show) is a drastically shortened version of the original tale. In fact the one hundred chapters that make up the book are chopped down to thirty, excising over half the story. This is done to cut down on the repetitious chapters in the middle of the book but even the chapters that remain are heavily altered too, removing much of the descriptive passages.
I was also disappointed to find Sandy, my favourite character from the TV show, practically non-existent in this version, only occasionally piping up with a sentence or two before falling silent for chapter upon chapter.

It is a wonderful story though, albeit one which feels a little barebones in places. It has stood the test of time and while it is not as famous as other classical works like the Iliad and odyssey, I would recommend it. I would love to read it again in an unabridged form and may one day return to review this book as it was meant to be read.

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