Monkey, or Journey to the West
By Wu Cheng’en (trans. Arthur Waley)
Review by Milly (Chinese)
I began my own “journey” through the wonders of Chinese literature when I picked up Monkey, or Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (translated by Arthur Waley). I decided to read this novel when I was preparing to apply to read Chinese at Oxford, as part of the course is Classical Chinese, but it really is a truly enjoyable book for anyone, whether you’re interested in China or not.
In all honesty, before I started reading it, I secretly expected Monkey to be a slow, densely written folk story that has no bearing on the real world, past or present. But nothing could be further from the truth!
Monkey follows the story of the Monkey King who is on a quest for immortality, trying everything he can to find it and getting into all sorts of mischief along the way. Feisty, hilarious and very human, Monkey is a character that everyone can relate to, which is amazing considering he’s a monkey with magical powers! After ruining a banquet in Heaven for the Heavenly Jade Emperor, Monkey is trapped under a mountain by Buddha and is only released after he agrees to accompany the Buddhist monk Tripitaka on his journey to the West (or modern-day India) to bring sacred Buddhist texts to China. With the promise of immortality at the end of their journey, Tripitaka and Monkey set off, meeting all sorts of colourful characters along the way, including Pigsy, a greedy pig who Monkey revels in teasing, and Sandy, a depressed River demon, along with many emperors, dragons, monsters and monks.
While all of this sounds quite far-fetched, the pages of Monkey contain the full extent of human experience – action, adventure, friendship, and subtle but cutting political satire, projecting the actual Imperial Court of Ming China onto the Court of Heaven. But the brilliant thing about Monkey is you can read it on two levels – either simply as an incredible adventure story that shows the importance of second chances, or looking deeper into the real meaning of the story and its significance in Chinese culture.
Reading Monkey also gives you an unparalleled insight into Chinese thought and culture. So much is said about China in the news today, but many people find it difficult to understand why the Chinese do and think about things differently. I would say the best way to understand China is by exploring its literature – reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Monkey encouraged me to read around more, such as the short stories of Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature.
If you push your boundaries when it comes to reading I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the gems you can discover, even in a book you would never usually dream of reading.
Monkey, or Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (trans. Arthur Waley)