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Delirious Gallimaufry

On the monkey king.

David Bentley Hart’s most recent books are Roland in Moonlight, Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale (both from Angelico Press), and Tradition and Apocalypse (Baker Academic). This essay originally appeared in the Trinity 2022 issue of The Lamp magazine.

Monkey King:
Journey to the West

By Wu Cheng’en. Trans.
and ed. Julia Lovell.
Penguin Classics. pp. 384, $30

Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules,
Of Hector and Lysander and such great names as these,
But of all the world’s great heroes there’s none that can compare...

. . . To Sun Wukong, Monkey, or rather (as he would have it), the “Beautiful Monkey King” and “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven,” born miraculously from a magic stone on the summit of Flower-Fruit Mountain—the mighty, glorious, mercurial, immortal, and supremely conceited Taoist adept and sorcerer, master of transformations and conjurations, able to ride upon clouds and vault across tens of thousands of miles in an instant—the intrepid, lethal, and invincible warrior whom the gates of hell cannot contain and the armies of heaven cannot subdue—conqueror of wizards, demons, and monsters of every variety—pledged brother of Demon Kings and Spirit Kings and Dragon Kings—valiant paladin (albeit, initially, under duress) of the Buddha Gautama and the goddess bodhisattva Guanyin—and surely the most sublimely impulsive, madly gallant, and guilelessly vainglorious character in world literature. No figure quite like him, I suspect, could have arisen and thrived in any fully explored and charted quarter of the Western canon’s topography. There his only native heath would seem to be a tract of terra incognita somehow simultaneously adjoining the realms of Achilles, Pantagruel, and Mr. Toad (and, now that I think of it, Bugs Bunny). In his native literature, however, he occupies a place of almost archetypal centrality: he is a very specifically Chinese combination of the whimsical, the absurd, the heroic, the wildly fantastic, and what I can only think to call pious irreverence. None of those ingredients is uniquely Chinese, of course; but nowhere else would they have been balanced with one another in quite so magnificent a confection.

The Monkey King’s legend grew, it should be noted, over many years. The fully formed character that much of the world now knows arrived on the scene with the appearance of Journey to the West at the end of the sixteenth century, published in its completed form in 1592; but that book was itself an immense and brilliant synthesis of a long tradition of folk tales that had grown up around the story of a real seventh-century journey by a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar named Xuanzang to India in search of Mahayana sutras to translate into Chinese. By the time Journey to the West was composed, these tales had been growing increasingly fantastic and burlesque for centuries, and had long included a magical and antic monkey in their cast of characters. The novel was published anonymously, probably because vernacular fiction was not a particularly respected genre at the time, but it is now generally ascribed, on slim but not entirely negligible evidence, to Wu Cheng’en—a poet and writer with a dazzlingly admirable record of repeatedly failing his imperial examinations for high office and of quitting an official post he received late in life out of boredom. Whether Wu was in fact the author or not, whoever wrote it had a vast reservoir of popular fables to draw on, sift through, elaborate, and supplement as he chose. It was he, it seems, who hit upon the idea of moving the Monkey King to the center of the narrative, and he who had the genius to create one of the most enthralling agents of pure chaos in literary history. He also produced a work that became not only one of the four (or, arguably, six) recognized great classic novels of Chinese literature, but perhaps the best loved book in the whole of East Asian literature.

In the novel, rather than the real Xuanzang, who must have been a fairly daring and hardy specimen, the monk who leads the expedition is a good, devout, sober minded, but essentially feckless figure called Tang Sanzang—the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit term “Tripitaka,” “Three Baskets,” which is the standard term for various collections of Buddhist sutras. Unlike his intrepid historical model, who in fact made the journey west in defiance of an imperial edict forbidding foreign travel, he sets out with the full blessing not only of the emperor but of Guanyin as well; the latter even acts as his protectress on the way, and supplies him with companions, but for whom he would never arrive safely at his destination. Even so, he spends much of the novel trembling in terror, weeping in despair, and generally dissolving into hysterics over the many predicaments into which he stumbles and from which he is not sufficiently resourceful to extricate himself. 

Mind you, his want of confidence is arguably justified, given the rather variable quality of the small, fractious coterie of grotesques the goddess assembles for him. There is, of course, Sun Wukong, whose bravery is beyond doubt, but who spends a good deal of the first leg of the journey horrifying the monk he is supposed to serve with displays of exorbitant recklessness and violence. Then there is Zhu Bajie, a gluttonous, selfish, indolent, sybaritic, pig-human hybrid, condemned to his present state by the celestial Jade Emperor because in his previous existence as an officer of the heavenly court he had, in a fit of drunken satyriasis, made sexual advances to the Moon Goddess. And then too there is Sha Wujing, another exile from heaven (in his case, for breaking a precious vase) who has been reborn as a merciless anthropophagous demon inhabiting a river full of quicksand, but who nevertheless proves over time to be the kindliest and least prideful of the monk’s companions. Finally, there is Bai Longma, a dragon prince from the Western Sea banished to a mountain stream for destroying a pearl belonging to the Jade Emperor (for which he would have been executed had not Guanyin’s intercession secured a reduced sentence), who spends most of the journey in the form of the monk’s white horse (to replace the one he ate).

In its original form, the novel contains one hundred chapters, and both of the two complete versions now available in English run to four volumes. Obviously, it would be tedious in the extreme to attempt to summarize the plot. Suffice it to say, its various episodes abound in monsters, demons, dragons, as well as villains, adversaries, and allies of every kind, and also magic, supernatural interventions, gods, buddhas and bodhisattvas, Taoist sages, and Confucian bores, not to mention palace intrigues, marital squabbles, daring rescues, warfare, social, political, and religious satire, and (perhaps) some elliptical spiritual lessons, the whole glorious and delirious gallimaufry sprawling across the borders of all the realms of being, terrestrial, celestial, and infernal. There are quite a few poems and religious invocations as well. And there are also one or two longueurs, one has to admit, as is inevitable over the course of a couple thousand pages.

As it happens, though, most Western readers are familiar with the novel only in an extremely reduced form. There was a time when the only access any Anglophone reader without a knowledge of Chinese had to the text was by way of Monkey, Arthur Waley’s splendid abridged translation of 1942. It was this volume that established the rules by which most subsequent translators have wisely chosen to abide. Waley, for instance, gave the book’s main characters the names by which they have been known to English-speaking readers ever since: it was he who first rendered the name Tang Sanzang back into the original Sanskrit Tripitaka, which apparently he thought tripped more lightly off the Anglophone tongue; and it was he also who turned Zhou Bajie into Pigsy, Sha Wujing in Sandy, and Sun Wukong simply into Monkey. He also grasped that the last of these is the true protagonist of the tale, and recognized that by far the most delightful part of the book is at the beginning, in its first seven chapters, which he translated in their entirety.

This part of the book, which is more or less a small novella in its own right, recounts the early exploits of the Monkey King, from his miraculous birth to his imprisonment under a mountain five centuries before Tripitaka’s quest commences. It tells of how he became the king of the monkeys; of how he sought the secret of immortality by studying under a legendary Taoist master; of the “years” of training he received and the numerous magic skills he acquired in what turns out in reality to have been only a brief enchanted trance; of his brash intrusion upon the court of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea and extortion of gifts and honors (including his famous magical fighting staff); of his demonic alliances; of his brief capture by hell and subsequent escape (not before erasing his own name and the names of all his monkey subjects from the register of life and death); of heaven’s failed attempts to control him with appointments to administrative positions in the celestial court; of the havoc he created in heaven, including his plunder—while drunk on the Jade Emperor’s wine—of the Heavenly Peaches of Immortality and his theft of Lao Tzu’s elixirs of longevity; and of the war that ensues, in which Monkey single-handedly defeats all the armies of heaven. Finally, it falls to Guanyin to capture him. Even then, heaven can discover no way to put him to death. At last, the Buddha himself must intervene; he alone is able to subdue Monkey and condemn him to his centuries of penitential imprisonment.

Whether the rest of the novel should be read as the story of Monkey’s reform and redemption is a matter of some debate. His behavior does improve over the course of the narrative. His forced conversion to Buddhism appears to have borne some fruit by the end of the journey; at least, he begins to perform deeds for the sake of others rather than for himself with greater and greater frequency and fewer and fewer complaints. Of course, for most of that time he is required to wear a circlet on his brow which, if Tripitaka thinks it necessary, can be made to cause him excruciating pain. But the monk has fewer and fewer occasions to use it. And, at the very last, Monkey is elevated to the status of a Buddha as a reward for his services: Dòu-zhànshèng-fó, “The Buddha Victorious in Battle.” Even so, he remains almost to the last very much the willful, irascible, impulsive creature he was on first emerging from his magic boulder; the reader is never made to endure the hideous disappointment of seeing him become genuinely—or, at any rate, conventionally—“holy.”

For some of us of a certain age, Waley’s volume constitutes a precious part of our childhoods. I know that for myself it was nearly as significant for the development of my imagination and my sense of the absurd as the Alice books or The Wind in the Willows. Waley chose for the most part to emphasize the drollery of the original novel, and he endowed the tale with a fine, glossy, more or less Edwardian polish. What he produced was an almost perfectly proportioned novel in the English style, written in impeccable prose, uniformly entertaining, pleasantly varying in tone and content, and concluding the action with graceful economy. If Monkey were all one knew of Journey to the West, it would be enough to leave one with a high opinion of the work, and probably quite a lot of affection for it. But, that said, Waley’s version is a judicious distillate of a much larger and far wilder—and at times much ruder—text.

Which brings me to the new translation, by the eminent Sinologist and writer Julia Lovell. Like Waley’s Monkey, Lovell’s Monkey King is a severe abridgement. It too renders the first seven chapters in their entirety. It too has the proportions of a modern Western novel. And it too contains a carefully chosen selection of the original book’s many episodes. At times, Lovell’s choices match Waley’s; but at many others they do not, and this version includes many of the stories that Waley’s omitted. The prose is not as engaging as Waley’s, certainly, but it is for the most part pleasant enough, and is in many respects closer in tone to the rather casual style of the Chinese. It is also truer in many ways to the brusquely demotic entertainment that the novel is supposed to be. At least, Lovell better communicates the violence of the book, in all its often cartoonish (or perhaps Monty Python-esque) excessiveness, as well as certain of the more disconcerting elements of the original, such as Tripitaka’s relentless querulousness and timidity, or Pigsy’s persistent malice toward Monkey, not to mention the extraordinary irreverence with which the book treats all three of China’s major traditions, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Even Guanyin is somewhat stripped of her nimbus, and is occasionally portrayed as a bit petty and spiteful. And the final encounter with the Buddha Shakyamuni himself in India, and with the administration of his mystical sangha, is a far cry from the sort of radiant and visionary experience that conventional Buddhist piety would normally demand.

Lovell’s approach places a particular stress on the more raucous aspects of the novel. In part she accomplishes this through the use of a much more hurried and abrupt prose style than Waley’s, and in part simply by writing in the less conventionally adorned literary language of our time. At several junctures, she tries to communicate the humor of the original elliptically, not by attempting to translate untranslatable jokes, but by substituting anachronistic or jarringly incongruous idioms for them: heaven “runs a cashless economy,” or “Win-win,” or “Eat my staff!” Sometimes this is amusing; at other times, as in the third of the examples just given, it feels more forced than clever and quickly becomes tiresome. But, on the whole, Lovell’s nonchalant terseness is faithful to the spirit of the book in ways that some of Waley’s elegant dilations are not. And hers is a genuinely entertaining work.

That said, Waley’s is still the better book. For one thing, it has the feeling of a unified narrative moving inexorably toward a satisfying denouement. More to the point, it succeeds better at conveying the changing texture of the story. Even if Journey to the West was written very much as a splendidly vulgar entertainment, in an age when and place where even sober prose narratives constituted a suspect genre, it is nevertheless not a book wholly devoid of literary graces. As I said, the original includes many poems and songs, as well as moments of worship and invocation, and even a few exquisite artistic touches here and there. Lovell’s translation tends to denude the narrative not only of its accidental ornamentation, but of its variety and its (for want of a better term) teleological structure. Too many of the episodes feel like mere reprises of those preceding them, going nowhere except onward to yet another episode narrated in much the same style, all of it rendered with a certain monotonous regularity of pace. And then the story seems simply to reach its end, almost out of fatigue rather than narrative logic. So, if one had to decide between the two principal shortened versions available in English—and, of course, there is no reason one should have to do so—Waley’s would certainly be the wiser choice. For myself, though, loving the figure of Sun Wukong as I do, I see no reason why one should not read both.

And then, of course, one should read Journey to the West in its entirety. As I have said, Western letters cannot boast any figure quite comparable to the Monkey King; if one is to encounter him in his full grandeur, then, it is to the unabridged novel that one must go to find him. In English, the best way to do this is to read Anthony Yu’s translation, in its second edition. And then, perhaps, one should read some of the more distinguished supplements to the tale written by later authors, such as Tung Yüeh’s Xiyoubu, from around 1640, the best version of which in English is entitled The Tower of Myriad Mirrors. Then return to Waley and repeat the process. Really, one can scarcely get enough of Monkey, the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. And there are times—both in cultural history and in the course of one’s life—when he seems almost indispensable.