BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en

Monkey: A Folk Novel of ChinaMonkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re familiar with any Chinese folklore, it’s probably this story. But you probably know it as “Journey to the West.” It’s not only been released in numerous editions as a novel, it’s also been adapted for film, stage play, and I’m sure there must be a video game of it out there.

If you’re thinking, “Chinese folklore? Sounds boring.” Think again. This is a superhero story. Monkey, also known as the Monkey-King and “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” is an immortal who has all manner of supernatural powers. He can fly. He can make copies of himself. He can transform himself—either disguising himself as another being or appearing as an inanimate object. He has an iron truncheon that can be the size of a sewing needle or a mile long and which is indestructible. Wielding said staff, he can defeat armies or deities.

In fact, the flaw in this story isn’t a lack of adventure or thrill. On the contrary, it’s one adventure after the next. If anything, the flaw is “Superman Syndrome.” That’s what I call it when the hero is so ridiculously overpowered that even when he’s fighting gods, dragons, or whole armies there’s still no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, the Monkey does eventually meet his match in the form of the Buddha. The Buddha defeats Monkey not in combat, but in a bet. That event shifts the direction of the story. In the early chapters, Monkey is goes about heaven and earth arrogantly wreaking havoc. He’s not altogether detestable. He does have his redeeming traits, but he’s insufferably arrogant and mischievous. After he’s imprisoned following his run-in with the Buddha, a monk is assigned to go to India to bring back scriptures (hence, a “journey to the west”) to China. Monkey is assigned to be the monk’s guardian and along with two others that they pick up along the way (Pigsy and Sandy) the monk is escorted on his journey. The party faces one challenge after the next, and the trip is long and arduous. Some of the challenges require brute force but in many cases they are battles of wits. So while Monkey may be overpowered, he does experience personal growth over the course of the story.

The story is told over 30 chapters, each set up with a cliffhanger. I enjoyed this translation by Arthur Waley. It is end-noted, which is useful given the historic and cultural nuances that may not be clear to readers.

It should be noted that this is unambiguously a Buddhist tale. There is a bias against Taoists and other non-Buddhist religions evident throughout the story. It’s not just the fact that the Buddha easily defeats Monkey when no other deity or group of deities can, there’s a steady stream of anti-Taoist sentiment. So, Taoists and Chinese Folk Religion practitioners be warned, I guess.

I would recommend this book for fiction readers, particularly if you have an interest in the superhero genre or Chinese literature.

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2013 Martial Arts Movies

Chinese classic literature will make a major appearance in martial arts cinema this year, with movies entitled The Monkey King and Journey to the West. Both movies will likely featuring the staff-wielding monkey who made mischief in heaven and on earth. You may be familiar with the tale from Jet Li’s portrayal of the Monkey King in the 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom. Readers can get the jist of the tale by reading the book.

Japanese classic literature will also be addressed, sort of. In the tradition of The Last Samurai, Keanu Reeves will star in movie that has no business having an American lead. It will be some sort of take off on the famous tale, 47 Ronin.

There will also be another iteration of the life story of Ip Man. Ip Man was a Wing Chun grandmaster who, as one can tell from the pile of films about his life, lived a fascinating life. While his fame is eclipsed by that of his most famous student, Bruce Lee, Man was a police officer who had to flee China to Hong Kong because of his support for the Kuomintang.

The sequel to the Tony Jaa film Tom Yum Goong (Ummm, Tom Yum) is due out this year. It will be entitled The Protector 2 in the west. The Thai star is continuing to give Chinese Kung fu cinema a run for its money.

The Grandmaster

Journey to the West

The Monkey King

Tom Yum Goong 2 (aka The Protector 2)
TYG2

47 Ronin