Monkey by Wu Cheng'en Translated by Arthur Waley

28 Nov 2014

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Monkey was a great read that reminded of Don Quixote. There are a number of parallels. Firstly, both are old. One would probably consider Don Quixote old, being over a hundred years older than the Canterbury Tales, one of the older works in English literature and dating from the early 1600s. Monkey, or Journey to the West as it is more commonly known, was published a few decades before. Both feature adventures of an itinerant traveler interacting with nobility, bureaucrats, and the common people. Both seem more like a set of short stories than one contiguous work. Finally, both used a narrative device where they prepare the reader for the next chapter in the way a bard might, “if you want to find out what happened, then continue on.”

My favorite story was the one in which Monkey (Sun Wukong) vies in a competition with three other immortals. In order to restore their honor, they challenge him to feats which test their immortal prowess. Monkey shows that he is truly powerful by besting all three in a scene that grows more humorous with each feat.

My next favorite scene was the one in which Monkey obtains a position in charge of the Heavenly Peach Garden and eats all the peaches. He winds up going on a gluttonous spree drinking among other things, Lao Tzu’s elixir of immortality.

Although it’s said that the story is an allegory for the transition from Taoist to Buddhist ideology, the most obvious story about this theme is one in which the Three Immortals have caused the enslavement on all Buddhist priests in the area. Monkey’s defeat of the immortals is a triumph of Buddhist discipline over Taoist animism.

The final thing I loved about this book is the exposure it gives to some of Chinese mythology and folklore. I’m an enthusiast of mythology in other cultures, but I am still sorely lacking when it comes to Chinese mythology.

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