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Introduction to Wu Ch'Eng-en's Monkey

Jeff Hooks

Arthur Waley's Monkey is an abridged version of Wu Ch'Eng-en's Journey to the West. It is a "folk-novel" rather than traditional literature, a collection of folk tales framed by a journey - a quest narrative. The novel presents the quest for the Mahayana Buddhist texts, a journey from China to India and back again. It is an easy-to-read, but long and detailed book that can be interpreted on many levels.

First, there is the fairy-tale element, and this is an important aspect of the book and the easiest place to begin. I believe that it can be read entirely on this level as a Chinese version of The Hobbit, a fantasy that gives us a glimpse into the Chinese imagination.

However, there's more going on as well, more levels for interpretation. Here are some starting points for you to consider.

The religions followed by the Tang Emperor and his people in ancient China and in the heaven of the Jade Emperor as described in Monkey are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

The power of Buddhism at the beginning of the novel presents a satirical attack on Chinese bureaucracy - and its theological embodiment. Long before communism, the Chinese court was a complex system of hierarchy and this system existed not only on earth but in heaven as well. On this level, Monkey, as a character, is the force that jumps outside the system and confuses and - almost - defeats the restrictions of the hierarchy. Monkey becomes Great Sage Equal to Heaven in the novel. According to Theravada Buddhism, the individual is "Equal to Heaven." He or she is responsible for his or her enlightenment without any supernatural aid or any aid from other people. By following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the individual transcends heaven and earth. Thus, Monkey's near defeat of both heaven and earth may be seen as a parody of Theravada Buddhism, derisively called "Hinayana" (the small vehicle) by the Mahayana (great vehicle) Buddhists.

The character Monkey is also trained as a Taoist in the beginning of the novel. Taoism is the indigenous Chinese religion that springs from the teachings of the Lao Tzu AKA Tao Teh Ching, an anthology of folk wisdom from ancient oral traditions written down during the political turmoil of the Warring States Period. Most of the Taoist beliefs can be seen as coming from ancient nature worship, traditions of the prehistoric Chinese people. The Tao is the "way of the universe," the "natural way." Although an oversimplification, a good handle on Taoism is the cliche "go with the flow." If one cultivates the Tao (eats the right things, does the right exercises, thinks the right thoughts, recites the right magic formulas. etc.) magical powers develop (as well as physical immortality and enlightenment). I think that in many ways Monkey is an allegorical representation of this natural/animal power at the beginning of the novel when he is called Monkey Aware of Vacuity - his Taoist name.

But, don't forget that before Monkey is trained in religion, before he becomes Sun Wu Kong (Monkey Aware of Vacuity) and Great Sage Equal of Heaven, he was the Handsome Monkey King and so is a representation of the monarchy - the emperor and his followers and the system they represent - Confucianism. The King in almost all cultures carries a scepter that represents his power - represented by Monkey's magic cudgel. Although the Monkey King is not literally a father, it doesn't take much Freudian insight to see where the Monkey King focuses his source of power. If this is the emblem of his power, then the king's power is represented as sexual. (In fact, historically one of the Chinese Emperor's main duties was impregnation. The ancient Emperor's every action was recorded and we still have a record of their sexual duties. With hundreds of wives, each had to be serviced according to rank with the highest rank every week, the next rank every two weeks etc. So, the Emperor was active many times a day - it was his duty). So why is Monkey so powerful? Well, what transformation powers does his Iron Cudgel have? Hey guys, jealous?

This presentation of kingship in relation to fatherhood represents a parody of Confucianism in the novel. Confucius taught during the Warring States period as well. His goal was to teach a social system that would bring peace and order to the nation. The method he developed was focused on respect for authority, the authority of the leader and the authority of tradition. The respect for the authority of tradition fits well with the ancestor worship that has roots in prehistoric China. Three levels of respect may be seen as versions of "father" worship: the leader of the family is the father; the "father" of the state is the emperor; and the "fathers" of society - who began traditions - are ancestors. Notice that the respect for traditions are an often-mentioned theme in Monkey, and begins with the respect for the Handsome Monkey King as a parody of this system.

Thus, the story of the Handsome Monkey King and his transformation to Monkey Aware of Vacuity and then Great Sage Equal to Heaven is just the prelude to the real action of the book. However, these three names and the changes that they represent may also be seen as the introductions of three main themes in the novel:

1) The Handsome Monkey King representing a parody of Confucianism,

2) Monkey Aware of Vacuity representing a parody of Taoism, and

3)Great Sage Equal to Heaven representing parody of Theravada

However, after this prelude, the main plot of the novel is the journey to India by Tripitaka seeking the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures during which Monkey becomes a Buddhist disciple along with Pigsy and Sandy. During this journey, the parodies of these traditions are transformed - reformed theologically - and unified under the umbrella of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana is a form of Buddhism that believes that the Middle Path not only causes the release from suffering but also gives almost unlimited supernatural powers to the individual who achieves enlightenment so that he or she can help others reach enlightenment. This enlightened being who helps others to find the path is known as a Bodhisattva (literally "enlightened being"). Today, most Buddhists in the world follow various forms of Mahayana. The Chinese sects of Mahayana combine elements from Theravada Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. So the novel may be seen as an allegorical evolution of Chinese Buddhism and culture.