Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Invitation to World Literature

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Getting Started

There and Back

The first thing to know about Monkey is that it is a version of a story called Journey to the West. Journey to the West was first published in 1592 with the Chinese title Hsi Yu Ki, (Records of the Western World); this was translated into English as Journey to the West.

We're reading a classic translation of Hsi Yu Ki called Monkey. The English translator, Arthur Waley, chose this title because of the importance of the Stone Monkey King to the chapters he chose to translate (Waley translated only thirty of the original one hundred chapters of Wu's book). When you're looking through this Web site, you'll find both titles used to describe the story (for example, in the works listed on the Connections page). When we discuss the original text, we use Journey to the West; when we discuss the Waley translation, we use Monkey.

The story of the Stone Monkey King who is our hero is very popular in China, and has made its own journey to the West through movies, TV, and books inspired by the story. Western writers from Octavio Paz to Maxine Hong Kingston have written stories that include the Monkey King. And as twenty-first century Western culture continues to embrace supernatural creatures such as vampires, ghosts, and wizards (from Twilight to Harry Potter), the story of Monkey is even more likely to entertain and enthrall American readers, just as it does readers in China.

David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang
Playwright and Screenwriter:

"Growing up in the West you have this notion that Chinese culture is all about selflessness and not living in the material world and having respect for your elders and all that kind of thing, and Monkey is the opposite version of that. He's anarchic he's disrespectful he's selfish, and he's a lot of fun."

Expand each section to read more.

CE 67 Chinese emissaries to India introduce Buddhism to China
630-645 Hsuan Tsang, the Buddhist priest who is the basis for the character Tripitaka, travels a path that would cross modern-day India, Pakistan, and Nepal
960-1279 Song dynasty; Buddhism goes underground in China
1386-1644 Ming dynasty; Buddhism re-established in China as Chan or Zen Buddhism
1592 Journey to the West is published anonymously, most likely by scholar and writer Wu Ch'eng-en
1889 Arthur Waley is born in England; as a young man, he teaches himself Chinese and Japanese and becomes his generation's leading literary translator of both languages
1942 Waley's translation of Journey to the West, called Monkey, is published

Like much Chinese folk fiction of its time, Journey to the West was published anonymously; serious Chinese writers were supposed to write poetry, and those who also wrote folk fiction kept it under their hats. The author of Journey was most likely a man named Wu Ch'eng-en who lived from 1500-1580 and spent his entire life in an atmosphere of reverence for and imitation of classical Chinese writing style (formal poetry) and topics (court life, beautiful objects, almost like a still life that was written instead of painted).

Secretly, however, he was also a fan of the booming folk tale culture in China. Ghost stories, folk songs, adventure stories of judges who solved crimes, and supernatural heroes made up the bulk of this folk literature, which was considered unacceptable by Ming Chinese writers and scholars.

The low status of these stories, however, did not prevent them from being widely read. The large and eager audience for these books helped make Journey to the West a hit, and it has remained a very popular story in China to this day. The book tells the story of the journey of a real Chinese Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang (called Tripitaka) who went on foot to India in the 600s CE to bring back Buddhist scriptures to China.

Building on popular legends, the novel is full of ghosts, dragons, monsters, gods, spirits, animals, and men. Battles rage for days, supernatural powers abound, and there is no sharp dividing line between the real and unreal, as Tripitaka pursues his journey in the company of three faithful companions: Pigsy, a sensual creature, half-human, half-pig; the strongman Sandy; and above all, Monkey, an exuberant, anarchic trickster, around whom most of the adventures revolve.

A little over 300 years after Journey to the West was first published, an Englishman named Arthur Waley published his translation, called Monkey. Much as George Smith, the translator of Gilgamesh, had done forty years earlier, teaching himself to read Akkadian when assigned to clean cuneiform tablets, Waley taught himself Chinese while working as an assistant in the Oriental Prints and Manuscripts division of the British Museum in the 1910s. His abridged translation of Journey to the West, called Monkey, was published in 1942 to great acclaim, and remains the most popular version of the story of Tripitaka.

In Wu's time, proper literature was written in classical Chinese, a formal language reserved for literature that was very different from vernacular or commonly spoken Chinese. Journey to the West uses the common, "vulgar" language. Chinese is made up of characters rather than letters. Each character represents a spoken syllable with a basic meaning. Many words in Chinese require two or more characters to write out. Fluency in Chinese today means knowing 2,000-3,000 characters.

Journey to the West was originally printed on woodblocks. Woodblock printing was developed in China in ancient times. A piece of wood would have characters carved into it, and once the wood was filled with carved-out writing, it was covered in ink and pressed onto paper or cloth to print words. (Paper was one of the great Chinese inventions, and was used there for centuries before it reached the rest of the world.) In contrast to European printing with movable type, which required elaborate machines for printing, books could be produced quickly and cheaply in China, only requiring a skilled carver, some blocks of wood, ink and paper.

Buddha
The Enlightened One, source of Buddhism, is the only being able to subdue Monkey, trapping him inside a mountain for 500 years. Monkey, as escort to Tripitaka, will meet the Buddha again in India and worship him properly.
Hsuan Tsang/Tripitaka
Hsuan Tsang has been brought up an orphan in a Buddhist monastery. As a young man, he learns of his father's murder at the hands of a villain named Liu and hears that his mother is still alive. When he finds her, she gives him a token to take to the Emperor, along with the story of his father's murder. The Emperor is outraged. Liu is killed, and Hsuan Tsang is made a priest in the Emperor's temple, where he is found by Kuan-yin. Kuan-yin renames Hsuan Tsang Tripitaka, and sets him on his journey to the West.
The Jade Emperor
The Jade Emperor is the King of Heaven, whose court is completely upset by Monkey, who gives himself the outrageous title of Great Sage, Equal to Heaven. The Jade Emperor is at last forced to call on the Buddha himself to subdue Monkey.
Kuan-yin, the Great Compassionate Boddhisatva
A Boddhisatva is someone who has achieved enlightenment but chooses to remain on earth in order to help others. A Boddhisatva of great sanctity and magic powers, Kuan-yin is sent by Buddha himself to find a disciple to journey from China to India for scriptures. It was Kuan-yin who predicted Hsuan Tsang's birth, and she tests his virtue before revealing herself to him. She finds Tripitaka's three disciples (Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy), and helps all four pilgrims on their dangerous journey.
Monkey
The Stone Monkey King—the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven—lives for hundreds of years, fighting and tricking all he meets. He finally redeems himself for his many sins in heaven and on earth by ramming a safe path to India through many wildernesses for Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk.
Pigsy
Pigsy was once a marshal of the hosts of heaven, but he had an improper relationship with the Goddess of the Moon. For acting above his station and insulting the dignity of the Jade Emperor (and the Goddess of the Moon), he was banished from heaven and reborn as a pig-like monster. He too is found by the Boddhisatva and promised illumination and rebirth if he helps Tripitaka.
Sandy
Sandy was also once a marshal of the hosts of heaven, driving the Jade Emperor's Phoenix Chariot. In a heavenly banquet he insulted the Jade Emperor by breaking a crystal dish and was transformed into a monster. He recognizes Kuan-yin and promises to help Tripitaka when he arrives at Sandy's river. Sandy is eventually Illuminated by the Buddha for his protection of Tripitaka.
Wen-Ch'iao
Hsuan Tsang's father was killed by Liu before Hsuan Tsang was born. Liu then forced Hsuan Tsang's mother Wen-Ch'iao to marry him. Wen-Ch'iao is forced to set her baby Hsuan Tsang adrift on a river so that her false husband won't kill him. She lives to see her son and true husband restored to her through her virtue.