Monkey by Wu Ch'êng-ên.

Illustration of the birth of Monkey from E.T.C. Werner's
Myths and Legends of China (1922)
Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China is an abridged translation of Wu Ch'êng-ên's Journey to the West (西游记). Monkey was translated by Arthur Waley and published in 1942, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in that year, but Journey to the West is far older, written in the 16th Century (Ch'êng-ên lived from 1505 - 1580) during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644).

The novel begins with the birth of Monkey:
"There was a rock that since the creation of the world had been worked upon by the pure essences of Heaven and the fine savours of Earth, the vigour of sunshine and the grace of moonlight, till at last it became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg, about as big as a playing ball. Fructified by the wind it developed into a stone monkey, complete with every organ and limb. At once this monkey learned to climb and run; but its first act was to make a bow towards each of the four quarters. As it did so, a steely light darted from the monkey's eyes and flashed as far as the Palace of the Pole Star. This shaft of light astonished the Jade Emperor as he sat in the Cloud Palace of the Golden Gates, in the Treasure Hall of the Holy Mists, surrounded by his fairy Ministers. Seeing this strange light flashing, he ordered Thousand-league Eye and Down-the-wind Ears to open the gate of the Southern Heaven and look out. At his bidding these two captains went out to the gate and looked so sharply and listened so well that presently they were able to report, 'This steely light comes from the borders of the small country to Ao-lai, that lies to the east of the Holy Continent, from the Mountains of Flowers and Fruit. On this mountain is a magic rock, which gave birth to an egg. This egg changed into a stone monkey, and when he made his bow to the four quarters a steely light flashed from his eyes with a beam that reached the Palace of the Pole Star. But now he is taking a drink, and the light is growing dim.'"
Sun Wukong and the Moon Rabbit 
by Yoshitoshi (1889).
Monkey goes on to accompany Tripitaka on a pilgrimage: Tripitaka is a monk based on Hsüan Tsang (玄奘), a monk who lived in the 7th Century (602 - 664) who walked from China to India for the Buddhist sutras (roughly the guide or rules of Buddhist life). In Monkey Buddha requested that a pilgrim would travel to Tianzhu (India) to obtain these manuscripts and Tripitaka volunteered, taking with him the three disciples he met on his journey: Monkey (known also as Sun Wukong), Pigsy (Zhu Bajie), and Sandy (Shā Wùjìng). Together they travel to the west - India - and we follow their grand adventures and battles with fairies, ogres, gods, and monsters as they seek the manuscript and, among other things, liberate a captive princess.

It's a mix of philosophy, comedy, satire, fantasy, mythology, politics, adventure, drama, and everything else in life almost! It is too an allegory, and we see through the literal journey the spiritual journey of each character as they learn about life and spiritual matters. It's a fascinating tale, not always easy, but Monkey is truly dazzling and rich, and it's not surprising that Journey to the West is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature (the other three being Water Margin by Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn and Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Sānguó Yǎnyì of the 14th Century, and Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin of the 18th). I do think I would benefit from a second read of Monkey a few years down the line (or even tackle Journey to the West): it's not been easy to really fully grasp it and sum it up, or keep track and understand the vast array of characters, so for now: I loved it, and I'm happy to have finally read it.

Further Reading


  1. Mrs M and i have both read "Journey..."" and the Waley translation as well... Waley's career was as a translator specializing in Chinese historical literature; he was an extraordinary scholar and author with a definite knack for the right phrase at the right time...
    anyone with an interest in Eastern culture should find Monkey a lot of fun... there's even(at least one) a movie based on the tale...

    1. I'll have to look for the film, I think I'd enjoy it! And Journey - going to keep an eye out for it :)

  2. I read this years ago as a kid when my Mom got be this large color book with the adventures. I remember loving it. I must revisit it soon!

    1. I'd love an illustrated version :) And it certainly doesn't disappoint, such a good read!


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