The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of The Journey to the West

Registered by Vasha of Ithaca, New York USA on 4/14/2010
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3 journalers for this copy...
Journal Entry 1 by Vasha from Ithaca, New York USA on Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Yu's own abridgement of his four-volume translation.

Journal Entry 2 by Vasha at Ithaca, New York USA on Friday, February 18, 2011
In the Táng dynasty, a monk named Xuánzàng set off alone, under a political cloud, to seek Buddhist scriptures in India. Seventeen years later, at the end of an arduous, successful journey, he returned to a hero's welcome and spent the last years of his life translating and popularizing the scriptures. That's history; but such a memorable, legend-inspiring accomplishment also became part of the complex, syncretic religious and cultural lore of China, accreting plenty of supernatural elements. Nearly a thousand years later, during the Míng dynasty, a skillful anonymous author (probably identified as Wú Chéng'ēn) shaped a long, adventure-filled, allegorical novel out of this stock, the richness of which is likely to bewilder anyone coming to Chinese writing for the first time.

Xuánzàng, or Tripitaka as he is more often called, may be the virtuous center of the Journey to the West, but readers don't find him the most memorable character in the novel. That honor belongs to Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, a fantastic folkloric figure of outrageous proportions. An indestructible warrior who fights and defeats gods, whose pride and ambition don't stop even at the throne of Heaven, impulsive and arrogant, always quick with an apt insult, he almost shatters the bounds of the novel whose pious pilgrimage he's been recruited into. No god, it turns out, can defeat him save the Buddha; yet when the divine preceptor ordains that he shall act as Tripitaka's protector on the journey, it remains an uneasy partnership, only kept from falling apart by the coercion of a golden fillet around the monkey's head.

The difficult joining of disparate elements is an important theme throughout the novel. The author is introducing arguments in favor of sānjiào héyī, the joining of three religions in one (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism), even though they can only with difficulty be seen to harmonize, as a court historian points out at one point (only to be firmly silenced by the emperor). Though the author takes Confucianism and Daoism seriously, he gives pride of place to Buddhism as the great unifying, peacemaking factor. The repeated invocation of Buddhism to contain turbulent spirits, bring political peace, and act as mediator, contains an unmistakable political message.

The Journey to the West is also a very elaborate religious allegory, drawing from the symbolism of Daoist alchemy and Buddhist scriptures equally; this is the aspect of the book least accessible to outsiders. Although perhaps it is admirable if you wish to draw a religious message from it, from my point of view the religious reshaping of the material almost fatally undermines the novel. Consider: the Buddha has declared that the selfish, turbulent people of China need scriptures for their salvation; but they won't value them if they're just handed over. Thus, they need to have their attention captured and be educated by an exemplary pilgrimage. So, Xuánzàng's journey, so long and so apparently dangerous, is really an act of theater; he is being shepherded at every step by the Bodhisattva Guānyīn, and every event is planned in advance. The monk may often tremble with fright, but he is really in no danger at all; he simply will not be allowed to fail. This, in my opinion, is like seeing the wires behind a puppet show. But I know that there are cultural perspectives from which the simple carrying out of the foreoredained is not only a satisfying narrative, but the only sensible way to think about the world. From a similar perspective, the role of the dragon-horse in the pilgrimage makes sense: although he did nothing but steadfastly carry the monk on his back for so many miles, he achieved immortality just as much as the other members of the party. To do his job, to keep walking ahead, was his merit. And all the others, too, kept walking, though some of them, notably Sūn Wùkōng and the carnal Zhū Bājiè, needed much prodding from the Bodhisattva to do so.

Luckily for the possibility of non-Buddhists enjoying the Journey to the West, it is written with tremendous brio, full of colorful incident, comic situations, snappy witticisms, fierce demons, wild battles, and lush descriptions of scenery. It frequently drops into verse, which actually comes across well in Yu's translation, and enhances scenes like combats. These qualities, rather than its edifying ones, are what has made it widely beloved for so long.

Journal Entry 3 by Vasha at Ithaca, New York USA on Friday, February 18, 2011

Released 11 yrs ago (2/17/2011 UTC) at Ithaca, New York USA

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In transit.

Journal Entry 4 by wingsoffitta1wing at Ávila, Ávila Spain on Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Thanks for sending me this, it looks very interesting.

I had heard about this story from various sources, and so was excited to find this in the 1001-Library.

This is the journey of the monk Xuánzàng who is sent to the West for Buddhist scrolls to bring back to Chang'an (modern day Xian). The journey is full of obstacles, traps and dangers that the travelling band must come through to reach the West.

Xuánzàng's story starts in the second part of the book, from his birth, surrounded by tragedy, to becoming a monk, to being chosen as the Tang Emperor's representive to go to the West. He is a pure man, strictly following the rules, not drinking, not eating meat, not going with women. He is, through the very nature of his insular upbringing, a rather naive man, and it is this naivity that gets him into trouble at times.

The titular monkey is the protagonist of the first part of the book, and, I would argue, the most entertaining character, as we see him evolve, through fair means and foul, from a monkey born of stone, to king of his troop, to challenging the gods for recognition. No one gets away with making the gods lose face, and the Monkey King is punished, and he ends up joining the Monk on his trip west. He doesn't always willingly help the monk, indeed the Bodhisattva often has to check him, like with the band which tightens around his head when he does wrong. He is, however, an invaluable member of the group, he is often the first to see through the Bodhisattva's tests and it is his wiles that many a time saves the monk from disaster. His downfall is his arrogance and acting before thinking, sometimes causing conflict when it was not necessary. I found it easier to like the Monkey, probably because he was the most human, he actively goes after what he wants, and not even the gods can hold him back. The Monk, however, is rather more difficult to like, it is always more difficult to like someone who is so good, as they remind you of your own failings. He can also be rather pathetic, often paralised while the others get him out of another tricky situation.

The third member is Zhū Bājiè, an immortal whose punishment causes him to be reborn part pig, part human. A strong character, who helps the Monkey King in keeping the monk safe. He is easily tempted by the (few) female characters along the journey.

The final traveller is Sha Wujing, again another fallen immortal. He is the quietest member of the group, and does not have the powers of the previous two.

The book is not only a good story, but is also about religion, or should that be religions. As I knew very little about Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, I found the footnotes very helpful. The writer is talking about the blend of these religions in China, with Buddism seen as the most important. There are episodes in the story which discusses, compares, and even pits the religions against each other, with Buddhism coming out on top. This is not a religious tract, and readers with no interest in this side to the narrative will not be put off, as it is still a great story well-told. For me, as an introduction to the three religions, it has inspired me to find out more, as well as giving me cause to reflect on my own values.

Conspicuous by their absence are women, apart from Guan Yin and the monk's mother, there are few women in this book. Unsurprising given the time it was written, but still rather obvious to the modern reader.

The mixture of fact and fiction really makes this book.
This is the abridged version, but the translator lets you know when he has taken parts out. As a reader, the cuts do not interrupt the flow of the narrative. The book is written in a mixture of prose and poetry, the latter really helping to give the story more of an atmosphere. The structure of the book, with its different episodes really makes it possible to hear it being told. The book also works as a window into Chinese culture, with many references to modern sayings, historical figures and more.

This is a book which is easy to recommend, first to those interested in religion in China, secondly to sinophiles, but, perhaps most importantly, for those wanting to read a good story full of colour, drama and great characters.

To be sent to Caroley who chose it from the 1001-Library UK VBB.

Journal Entry 5 by Caroley at Birmingham, West Midlands United Kingdom on Friday, March 18, 2011
Thanks for including this in the VBB Soffitta1. I've been wanting to read this for ages and this abridged copy looks perfect.

Journal Entry 6 by Caroley at Birmingham, West Midlands United Kingdom on Wednesday, August 31, 2016
This has been damaged due to a damp problem in the house so unfortunately has had to be disposed of.

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