Ep. 017: The Monk and the Monkey King

One of the most popular stories in East Asia

An Old Guy Learns Something New

One day, at the age of around 42, and considering myself pretty well-educated, I was in a department store in Tokyo when I saw four small figures (which were in fact pencil sharpeners). One was a monkey with a band around his head; another was a man with the head of a pig; a third was a kind of scary-looking guy with long hair; and the last was a saintly Buddhist monk.

I had no idea who or what they were, and passed on.

It was weeks later that I learned that these were the four main characters from one of East Asia's most popular stories--known even in England and Australia, where an originally-Japanese show broadcast from 1978 to 1980 had been translated into English by the BBC, a production known simply as Monkey or, after its theme song, Monkey Magic.

Known in English as Journey to the West, the original novel's Chinese title was Xi You Ji; it was known in Japan by the Japanese pronunciation of the same three characters, Saiyuki. Thereafter, in keeping with the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, I was to see signs of these four characters everywhere.

Xuanzang's Journey to India

A statue of Xuanzang stands in front of Daci'en Temple in Xi'an, China; the Great Wild Goose Pagoda is in the background

The real story begins with a 7th-century Chinese monk named Xuanzang. Dissatisfied with the Buddhist scriptures available at the time, he undertook a 17-year journey to India--violating the Emperor's ban on foreign travel--following in the footsteps of a much earlier pilgrim, Faxian, who had made the trip in the early fifth century.

Upon his return to the capital of Chang'an (modern Xi'an), Xuanzang was showered with honors, and set up a translation workshop to bring into Chinese the 657 Sanskrit texts he had brought home with him. He built Daci'en Temple in Xi'an, with its Great Wild Goose Pagoda (Da Yan Ta), which stands today as a monument to his work, even housing some of the original palm leaf manuscripts he brought back. Like Faxian before him, Xuanzang left a journal of his travels, The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.

Journey to the West

This statue of Genjo (Xuanzang) at Jion-ji temple in Japan resembles the many that I saw in China

Fast forward to the 16th century, when one Wu Cheng'en (it is argued--the book was actually published anonymously in 1592) wrote his novel Journey to the West, which is counted as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. (The other three are the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber.)

From its inception, the book was wildly popular, poking fun as it did at religion and imperial politics (in the guise of the Heavenly Court). Some of the episodes, derived in part from authentic experiences of Xuanzang, are quite scandalous. Natural phenomena in Xuanzang's journal become demonic attacks, and good fortune is portrayed as intervention by the Buddha or by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

In the Chinese college where I taught for a decade, I used to ask my students, "Who is the 'hero' in Journey to the West?" and they would call out in unison, "Sun Wukong!"

Sun Wukong is the "Monkey King" whose antics led to Monkey being the title assigned to both the television production mentioned above, and the abridgment of the novel translated into English by Arthur Waley in 1942.

But I argued that the real hero is the monk based on Xuanzang, called in the novel "Tang Sanzang"--the Tripitaka (Buddhist Scripture) Master of the Tang Dynasty--or, more simply, "Tang Seng"--the Tang-Dynasty Monk. It was he who was sent to get the scriptures, and though his companions are more colorful, they can be seen as merely aspects of the Monk's personality.

The Three-Plus-One Companions

Faces of the four near-life-size statues of the characters at Mazu Temple, Shenzhen

Take the Monkey, whose name--Sun Wukong--can mean "Monkey Awakened to Emptiness," a very holy name. But although he is found on folk altars to this day, the Monkey is anything but holy. He is strong and clever--but mischievous. The band around his head was placed there as a means of control: when he gets too out of hand, the Monk chants until the Monkey calms down. Thus, he symbolizes the Monk's mind.

The pig-headed character is Zhu Bajie, whose name can mean "Swine of the Eight Precepts." English translations may call him "Pigsy" or just "Pig." He is lazy, gluttonous, and lusty, and works hard against the plans of the Monkey. I see him as the physical appetites of the Monk, which need moral precepts to moderate them.

The third member of the Monk's entourage is Sha Wujing, called in English "Sand," "Friar Sand," or "Sandy," among others. This is because his name means "Sand Awakened to Purity." He was, at first, a terrible sand demon living in a river of quicksand, whence he devoured passers-by. Found in a river, he was good at swimming, and had a gourd which could be used to cross rivers. This association with water--a universal symbol of the spirit--leads me to believe he is the Monk's spirit.

Intellect, appetite, spirit: and the Monk rides a horse, named Bai Longma, who was once a dragon. This is the physical body of the Monk, that carries him through the world.


Garish statues of Tang Seng's three companions in Dong Hu Park, Shenzhen

Wu Cheng'en's book is made up of 100 chapters. The first seven chapters contain back story on the Monkey; the next five set up the main character, Tang Sanzang, and his task. Most of the remainder contain episodes of varying lengths describing the party's adventures along a fictionalized Silk Road. In most of them, the Monk finds himself in trouble, and the other three characters must get him out--though some of the episodes also describe trouble made by the Monkey.

Here's one story. Early in the book, before he joins the Monk, the Monkey has incurred the wrath of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and the Emperor calls on the Buddha to teach that Monkey a lesson. The Buddha makes a bet with the Monkey. If he can escape the Buddha's right hand, he wins, and takes the Jade Emperor's place. But if he loses, he will have to descend to the world and practice for eons.

Now, Monkey knows he can cover 108,000 miles (or some such distance) in a single jump, so he accepts the bet. Standing on the Buddha's palm, he takes the leap, landing in front of five pink pillars. "I've made it," he thinks, "but to prove it, I'll write my name--and have myself a leak." So he writes on the middle pillar, "The Great Sage Equal to Heaven was here," and then heeds the call of nature at the pillar's base.

Using the same power, he jumps back to the Buddha, who says, "Now I've got you!" And the Monkey replies, "Not so fast there! Why don't you go to the far end of Heaven and see the mark I left." "No need," says the Buddha, "just lookie here." And there, on the Buddha's middle finger, are the words the Monkey had written--and a stinking puddle of monkey pee.

For his insolence, Monkey was trapped under a mountain for 500 years--which is where the Monk found him before they set out. The mountain, made from the Buddha's fingers, is called the Five Element Mountain, those being the materials--Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth--that make up the world in classical Chinese teaching.

The Monk, the Monkey, and Me

A pagoda holding (some of) the remains of Xuanzang at Jion-ji in Saitama, Japan

I'll wrap up by telling you about three of my many encounters with the characters of Xi You Ji through the years.

The first is a rather dark story. My friend Eriko and I went to visit Jion-ji, a temple in Saitama (north of Tokyo). I had read in Michael Plastow's excellent guidebook, Exploring Kanto, that the temple held the remains (knowing what I know now, just some of the remains) of Xuanzang, called in Japan Genjo, though the character in the novel is called Sanzo Hoshi. (I have visited another pagoda with his "remains" at Xingjiao Temple in Xi'an. Those dang things are everywhere!)

The temple's founder, Ennin, had been to Chang'an and seen Xuanzang's temple. When he founded Jion-ji, he named it after Xuanzang's Ci'en-si in Chang'an. ("Jion" is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters for "Ci'en.") There is some trouble with the timeline, which has Ennin founding and naming Jion-ji before visiting Ci'en-si; but never mind.

In the second quarter of the 20th century, Japan committed one of the most heinous acts in their long history: they invaded and brutalized China. One of the spoils of war was the relics (again, some of the relics) of Xuanzang. They were sent to Japan, where at first they were kept in Tokyo. But fearing their destruction in an air raid, the authorities decided to move them out of the metro area, and settled on Jion-ji largely because of its name and associations.

In 1950, a 50-foot thirteen-story pagoda was built to house the remains. Eriko and I saw it on that cold January day in 2000.


A poster for the 1986 production of Xi You Ji, featuring Xu Shaohua as Tang Seng (Wikipedia)

My second encounter with Xi You Ji occurred just over a decade later. A former student of mine, a Shaolin monk, invited me to attend the groundbreaking for a temple where his friend would be the abbot. Unbeknownst to me (as is often the way in China), I would be seated with the dignitaries on the outdoor stage. (Also without my knowledge, I was listed in the program as an "American doctor in Buddhism"--not quite, as I lack the dissertation. This sort of near-miss to make things look good is also very Chinese-y.)

Anyway, there I was on a warm spring day, seated at a long table, waiting for the festivities to begin. And it was a very country place, and people kept pointing their cameras at me! Well, I was sort of used to that, being not-Chinese and all. But then someone approached the shaved-headed Chinese guy sitting next to me, and asked for his autograph! The cameras weren't for me at all!

The man was Xu Shaohua, who had played the Tang Monk in an extremely popular 1986 television series of Xi You Ji. He now lived in Ji'nan, Shandong, just up the road from the temple site in Ji'ning. Born in Qingdao, in the same province, he was not just a celebrity, but a "local boy who had made good."

And me? I was just a fake doctor.


The third and last Close Encounter of the Monkey Kind I had was at a small temple in Shenzhen, where on the grounds were near-life-sized stone statues of the book's characters. It was unusual to see something this whimsical on a Chinese temple's grounds (though Japanese temples often had marble statues of cartoon characters like Doraemon, for the kiddies). The statues reminded me of some garishly-painted plaster statues I had seen at a park in Shenzhen back in 2004, not long after my move to China.

Although the Journey to the West is considered "great literature," through TV and film, toys and public statuary, it is as popular today as any new-fangled story.

And with that, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: One of the most important shrines dedicated to the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, is located in a quiet corner of the "Central Park" of Tokyo. We’ll pay a visit!