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The Monkey King
A Superhero Tale of China


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Here is the note that appeared in my mini-novel.—Aaron

Monkey is the most popular figure in all Chinese literature, loved for centuries by young people and adults alike. His story is found in a classic sixteenth-century novel, The Journey to the West (Xi You Ji or Hsi Yu Chi), as well as in countless later adaptations, from Chinese opera to comic books.

The novel, written anonymously but often attributed to the humorist Wu Cheng’en, is an epic comic fantasy of 100 chapters. My retelling covers only the first seven chapters, which form a kind of prelude. The bulk of the novel recounts the journey of the Buddhist monk Sanzang to collect sacred scriptures from Buddha in the Western Paradise, aided by Monkey and several other magical creatures.

Monkey’s adventures provide a breathtaking, whirlwind tour of Chinese mythology, with its rich amalgam of Buddhist and Taoist elements. Here are notes on some of these.

Jade Emperor, Heaven. Though the Jade Emperor is ruler of Heaven and Earth, he is not so much a supreme God as a supreme administrator. In fact, he is outranked by the three top divine beings of the Chinese pantheon, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius—who are themselves subject to higher universal forces.

The Chinese Heaven is modeled closely on the government of the Chinese emperors. In other words, it is a bloated bureaucracy, crammed with innumerable officials with pompous titles, with a finger in every possible earthly activity.

Lao Tzu, Immortals, Patriarch Subodhi. Centuries before Taoism was established as an organized religion, it existed as a spiritual discipline similar to the yoga systems of India. (Tao is pronounced “DOW,” rhyming with “cow.”) The followers of this branch of Taoism, represented in the story by the Patriarch Subodhi and his disciples, were ascetics living in mountain hermitages. These ascetics aimed to become “Immortals” by developing conscious spirit bodies that could transcend death. But for most Chinese, this was simplified into the belief that Taoist masters achieved physical immortality.

The founder of Taoism is said to be Lao Tzu, who became known as a divine being. He is thought to have lived around the 5th or 6th century B.C., though we cannot be sure he actually lived at all. He is also supposed to have written the Tao Te Ching (“Book of the Way”), the primary text of Taoism and the most famous of all Chinese classics.

In Taoist literature, secrets of spiritual discipline were often coded in the metaphorical language of alchemy. Most Chinese, though, took this language literally. And so Lao Tzu and other Taoist figures were thought of as master alchemists, producing “Elixir of Life” and “pills of immortality.” Cinnabar, or mercuric sulfide—which I’ve used for the name of Lao Tzu’s palace—was a prime ingredient in such “alchemy.”

Buddha, Bodhisattva, Western Paradise. Buddha, or the Buddha, is the title given to Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, now revered as a divine being. He lived in India from around 563 to around 483 B.C.

The title means “Enlightened One” or “Awakened One.” As such, it is often applied by Buddhists not only to Siddhartha but to all who attain his state of mind—a state that is said to bring a perception of the true nature of reality and a release from the need for additional lives. Bodhisattva is a related title for one who has become enlightened but remains on earth to help others toward that goal.

The Western Paradise is where good Buddhists are taken after death—a congenial place where they can progress more rapidly toward becoming Buddhas themselves. This is the teaching of the “Pure Land” school of Buddhism, which predominates in East Asia. In The Journey to the West, the Western Paradise is also the present home of the Buddha and seems to be somewhere in India.

Kwan Yin (or Kuan Yin, or Guan Yin). The Bodhisattva Kwan Yin, commonly called the Goddess of Mercy, is China’s favorite divine being—much more widely loved and worshiped than the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Jade Emperor, or any other. Her name means “heeding the cry.” She hears and helps all those who cry out to her in need, and also delivers babies to their mothers.

Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. In Chinese mythology, dragons are in most cases benevolent. They live underwater and are found in every good-sized lake and river. They can also fly, as they do while performing their main job, which is to bring rain.

There are four dragon kings, headed by the one in the Eastern Sea. Their magnificent palaces and treasure hordes are legendary.

Yama, Judges of the Dead, Land of Darkness. The Land of Darkness is the Chinese Hell. It is not underground but in a kind of parallel dimension. When people reach their fixed times of death, demon officials arrest their spirits and bring them before Lord Yama, the First Judge of the Dead. If their good deeds balance or outweigh their evil ones, they are sent directly to the Tenth Judge for rebirth. Otherwise, they must first pass before the other judges for punishment of various kinds of wrongdoing.

Especially good spirits might be brought to the Land of Darkness only briefly or not at all. They might be sent to Heaven to receive official posts, or to the Buddhist Western Paradise, or to Mount Kunlun, home of the Taoist Immortals.

Lady Queen Mother. In The Journey to the West, the Lady Queen Mother is the wife of the Jade Emperor and lives in Heaven. Elsewhere she is often known as the Queen Mother of the West, ruler of Mount Kunlun, home of the Taoist Immortals. In either case, she tends the orchard where the Immortal Peaches grow.

My retelling simplifies and shortens Monkey’s tale but broadly follows the original story line. The translations consulted were:

Monkey, by Wu Ch’êng-ên, translated by Arthur Waley, John Day, New York, 1943; reprinted by Grove, New York, 1958. Abridged.

The Journey to the West, translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago, Chicago and London, 1977. Four volumes.

Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, translated by W. J. F. Jenner, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1982. Three volumes.

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Book cover: The Monkey King
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The Monkey King
A Superhero Tale of China
Retold from The Journey to the West

By Aaron Shepard