Monday, April 1, 2013

Review of "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng’en

One of the four great novels of Chinese classical literature, Journey to the West is also one of the greatest fantasy novels the world has ever known.  The story rooted in real history, promulgated and perfected on street corners, and finally put into written form sometime in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en, the novel is as much a cultural record of Buddhism’s transition to China as it is a delightful adventure of humorous and imagination proportions impossible to conceive in the West.  There is simply no comparing Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.

Journey to the West is the story of the monk Tang Sanzang, his small band of loyal disciples, and the journey the group takes to Vulture Peak in India to obtain a copy of the holy Buddhist sutras for the Chinese emperor.  This premise is only an umpteenth fraction of the story, however.  Implied in the title, it’s the getting there that’s of utmost importance.  One adventure happening after another, the five “man" band of Sanzang, Sun Wukong, Pig, Friar Sand, and their faithful horse get into scrapes and escapades like no other.   

And the fun all begins with the Monkey King.  Cheeky and clever, most often too much for his own good, Sun Wukong is also known as “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven”.  The result of a raid on the heavens, the gods decided to appease Sun by giving him the special name rather than deal with his trickery any further.  Only Buddha able to control him, he is locked under a mountain and there found by Tang Sanzang near the start of the story.  Promising to behave and help the pious monk if he is released, Sun thereafter puts all of his wiles and supernatural tricks to use assisting the quest for the Buddhist scriptures.  Master of the “Flying Cloud Somersault”, wielding the “As-you-will” cudgel, and able to perform 36 transformations by chewing and spitting out one of his hairs, the Monkey King is the most well-known, if not the greatest of characters from Chinese literature, and the star of the show.

And all the Monkey King’s skills and wits are needed if the group are to escape the 108 (a sacred Buddhist number) trials and tribulations encountered on their way to Vulture Peak.  Adventures as picaresque as an be, the Bull-nose Demon, the River of Pregnancy, the evil Daoist Monks, the eating of the man-fruits, and escapades on and on test the faith and perseverance of the group.  Split apart, captured, threatened, and tempted, the group deserves the reward waiting at the end of their cross country journey.

But beyond the storytelling, what makes Journey to the West so great is the sheer quantity of imagination.  Fantasy of the most colorful and exotic, the names, the scenarios, the humor, the character behavior—all are presented in a fashion unlike any other book the Western reader typically encounters.  Each adventure has its own identity—the following chapter headings hopefully giving some indication: “False and True Combine When the Jade Hare Is Captured”, ‘The Tang Priest Confesses in Dark Essence Cave”, “The Mind-Ape Is Jealous of the Mother-of-Wood”, “Monkey Makes Havoc in the Wuzhuang Temple”, “The Demon King Returns and the Way Is Preserved”, “Monkey Tries the Second Time to Borrow the Plaintain Fan”, “The False Monkey King Copies a Document in the Water Curtain Cave”.  And this is only the tip of the iceberg—Monkey’s monarchy on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit may be enough for one book.

Downsides to the novel, there is only one: it’s longer than 99.9% of books published.  At almost 2,400 pages, it requires a serious investment of time.  Given the episodic nature of the storytelling, however, it is a book which can be picked up and put down with nothing lost.  The number of main characters small and their quest unchanging, there’s little to lose setting the book aside for a bit.  Thus, readers expecting a grand climax will be disappointed.  Like the title and ideology purport, it’s the journey rather than the destination that matters.  That this journey is filled with the peak of imaginative delights should be more than enough to keep the reader motivated, even if sporadically.  (For those looking for something shorter, Arthur C. Waley did abridge the novel into a version called simply Monkey.  Thus, if the length is imposing but story seems interesting, you may be interested in his translation.  Just do not expect the fully exotic flavor exuded by the unabridged.)

In the end, Journey to the West is not only a Chinese classic, but a world classic.  Among the top works of fantasy ever written, the book is unparalleled imaginative entertainment, as well as a deep look into Chinese culture.  (There is nobody in China who will not smile when you utter the name of the Monkey King.)  Sun Wukong the focus of the story, his antics will have readers laughing with delight at the trouble he gets himself into and clever manner in which he and the band of disciples escape.  Given the singular personalities of the others on the quest, their interaction while questing to acquire the Buddhist scriptures only makes the story more original.  (Zhu Baijie, or “Pig” may be the second most famous character in Chinese literature.)  Though extremely lengthy, the rewards of the picaresque episodes are more than enough to give the book value as a whole—it’s position in Chinese history cementing the thought.  It comes highly recommended for anyone interested in a new take on fantasy; Journey to the West is impossible to disappoint.

(For those interested, I have written an essay entitled "The Mythopoeic Fantasy of Journey to the West: China’s Monomyth" which applies Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces to the Chinese masterpiece.  It can be found here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment