“Monkey King: Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Julia Lovell

Monkey King: Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en, Julia Lovell (trans) (Penguin, February 2020) Monkey King: Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en, Julia Lovell (trans) (Penguin, February 2020)

Centuries ago, in an empire far far away, an anonymous journeyman scribe authored and assembled a picaresque that became one of China’s most revered and influential literary works. “Assembled” because Monkey King, or Journey to the West (c 1580), is in substantial part a collection of the folk tales of many previous centuries, based on the legendary journeys of a T’ang Dynasty (618-906) monk, Tripitaka. And “anonymous” because, as scholar and eventual Ambassador to the United States, Hu Shih, suggests in his introduction to the venerable Arthur Waley translation of 1943:


… it was such a disgrace for a man of literary reputation to produce a novel in the vulgar tongue [i.e. vernacular Chinese vs the classical written form] that the story was published anonymously.


I open this review with a hat tip to Star Wars, in part because trying to offer a plot synopsis of Monkey King in a thousand-word essay would be like trying to capture Lucas’s oeuvre within the same confines—the result would be something bloodless and boring like “A band of unlikely, supernatural and flawed heroes join forces for a quest seeking the Holy Grail of their era, sacred Buddhist sutras far away in the West. They encounter spectacular and fantastic dangers, yet survive and return with their treasure, and attain immortality.” But such a reduction does reveal Monkey King to be another rendition of what Joseph Campbell calls the monomyth, the hero’s journey—Luke Skywalker is but a recent version. Lovell’s introduction to her just-released version provides a succinct plot summary of Monkey King, along with an (unsurprisingly masterful) overview of the work’s place in East Asian and diaspora culture:


… a cornerstone text of Chinese fiction, and an index to early modern Chinese culture, thought, and history: its stature in East Asian literature may be compared with that of The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote in European letters.


These centuries-old canonical works may evoke mildew and dust. But for East Asian cultures, Monkey King has contemporary currency beyond even The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings, to which works it bears more than a passing resemblance—Star Wars, as above, comes to mind, along with myriad comic book and anime epics. In the late 1970s, Japan’s NHK made a TV series version of Monkey King, which became enormously popular in Japan and spawned a mainland Chinese TV version a few years later that one can still see on Saturday morning children’s television in greater China. Also a few years later, the BBC subtitled the Japanese version and broadcast it throughout Britain and the Commonwealth. In a December interview with the LA Review of Books, Lovell describes the first contact she had with Monkey King, during her childhood Saturday mornings in provincial England.


I would sit in front of the TV mesmerized by a show called Monkey … even though the production values were low and the dubbing was clumsy, the characters and situations were so hilariously eccentric that it became a cult cultural phenomenon for me and for many of my generation in the UK. . . . the extraordinary fantasy sequences, the rebellious irreverence of the character Monkey, the out-there monsters and demons, and the Kung Fu fighting sessions. I actually rediscovered that old Japanese TV show with my teenage son last year, and I was struck by how he, too, was immediately entranced and entertained by it.


Gene Luen Yang contributes a foreword to this new version—he’s the author/artist of the best-selling American Born Chinese (2006) and was later named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position granted by the Children’s Book Council. Yang connects the dots between the superheroes in Monkey King and superheroes more familiar to modern Western children:


Superman, Spider-Man, and Captain America were simply Western expressions of everything I loved about the Monkey King. Superman’s epic battle with Doomsday echoes the Monkey King’s epic battle with Red Boy. Spider-Man’s struggle against his own ego in the bowels of a pro- wrestling arena echoes the Monkey King’s struggle against his own ego in the bowels of a mountain of rock.


Lovell and her publishers have obviously aimed this new English version of Monkey King at a younger, 21st century audience. But is a new version necessary? For eighty years now, the Waley translation and abridgment has been the standard text, other than the complete translations, which run to four volumes. In her introduction, Lovell suggests two justifications for a new single volume translation/abridgment. “First, language changes.” Indeed, and succinctly put. She also suggests that, inevitably for an abridgment, the choice of what not to translate is as important as how one translates.


In places, therefore, this version might read as a reworking as well as a translation; my hope throughout has been to communicate to contemporary English readers the dynamism, imagination, philosophy, and comedy of the original.


A comparison between Waley’s and Lovell’s versions of the original chapter 98 illuminates this difference in approach. In this chapter, the merry band finally reaches their goal, the Buddhist temples where the sutras may be found. First Waley’s version, which follows a paragraph-length, meandering introduction to the chapter.


Finding hospitality each night and starting again at dawn they journeyed for many days till they came at last within sudden sight of a cluster of high eaves and towers. “Monkey, that’s a fine place,” said Tripitaka, pointing to it with his whip. “Considering,” said Monkey, “how often you have insisted upon prostrating yourself at the sight of false magicians’ palaces and arch impostors’ layers, it is strange that when at last you see before you Buddha’s true citadel, you should not even dismount from your horse.” At this, Tripitaka in great excitement sprang from his saddle and walking beside the horse was soon at the gates of the high building. A young Taoist came out to meet them. “Aren’t you the people who have come from the east to fetch scriptures?” he asked. Tripitaka hastily tied his clothes and looking up saw that the boy was clad in gorgeous brocades and carried a bowl of jade dust in his hand. Monkey knew him at once. “This,” he said to Tripitaka, “is the Golden Crested Great Immortal of the Jade Truth Temple at the foot of the Holy Mountain.” Tripitaka at once advanced bowing. “Well, here you are at last!” said the immortal. “The Bodhisattva misinformed me. Ten years ago she was told by ….”


Here is Lovell’s translation, from the first sentence of her chapter.


Everyone they met hummed sutras as they walked and lavished the pilgrims with food. After another week’s travel, a vertiginous complex of towers and pavilions rose up before them. “For the last fourteen years,” Monkey told Tripitaka, “you’ve been asking me how much farther. Now we’ve reached the Buddha’s Western Heaven and you don’t even get off your horse.” The startled Tripitaka tumbled to the ground as quickly as he could. At the compound gate, the pilgrims were met by a young Taoist gatekeeper— a boy of exceptional beauty, dressed in a brocade robe. “Are you the scripture seekers from the east?” While Tripitaka brushed the dust of the journey off his robe, Monkey made introductions. “This is Great Golden-Head, custodian of Jade-Truth Taoist temple at the foot of Soul Mountain.
      “That Guanyin has a very loose notion of time.” The boy laughed. “Much longer than a decade ago, she told me to expect you in a couple of years. We meet at last!”


While Waley’s translation may be closer to the original, Lovell’s is not only twice as economical, it is also idiomatic for a 21st-century reader. “That Guanyin [Boddhisatva] has a very loose notion of time” evokes far more that Waley’s version—Lovell is focused on solid, modern storytelling, not mere fealty. Smaller matters such as more frequent paragraph breaks than in the Waley version ease the reader’s eye as well.

Discussing the work’s relevance in modern Asia, Lovell describes how the leaders of the New Culture Movement in the early 20th century “embraced Journey to the West as a revolutionary precedent for the vernacular fiction they yearned to popularize.” We learn that Mao used the character of Monkey to fire up his Red Guards from 1966, saying, “We need more Sun Wukongs [Monkey’s official name] … to disrupt the Heavenly Palace.” Another reworking of Monkey King, this time from Hong Kong in 1995, also became a cult classic, totemic for the anomie and irreverence of mainland Chinese millennials at the turn of the new century.

At the close of her interview in the L.A. Review of Books, Lovell says,


And all the main characters snark and grumble at each other all the time—they’re not saints or paragons. I absolutely loved spending time with this cast of characters.


“Snark” is not a word that Waley would likely have used, but is one that tells us we’re in the capable hands of a translator of our era.

All who have loved Robin Hood, or Tolkein, or JK Rowling, or the superheroes Yang pings in his foreword, will find similar friends in Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy (the Friar Tuck of Asia) and Sandy. Thanks to Lovell’s engaging translation, it’s a fair bet that many more in the Anglophone world, especially the younger generations, will gain these friends, along with a greatly enhanced understanding of China, a partial reversal of cultural flow that’s long overdue.

Van Fleet’s first book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a scrapbook history of the city from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015. Resident in Japan for the decade of the 1990s, Van Fleet has lived in China since. He is steadily producing episodes of his multimedia project, Quarreling Cousins: China and Japan from Antiquity to the 2020s. He serves as Director, Corporate Globalization, at the Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.