Journey Through a Monkey’s Eyes
Journey to the West, considered to be one of China’s four great works is a fiction that many people in the East are well acquainted with. Even if you have not heard of it the impact on popular culture that this work has makes its presence known in the monkey trickster archetype. Journey to the West grew in popularity and influence over its considerable time span because it was written with the action and drama of a timeless nature. The titular character SunWukong, embodies the spirit of adventure and struggle, whether it is the inward struggle to attain enlightenment, or the outwards acts of mischief and violence. He carries the stigma of coming from earth as the product of heaven, and he acts as a bridge between what an animal and a human is. To call Sun Wukong just a monkey would be a folly, to cross him based on that opinion is a disaster. He is a character that manages to usurp gods, and cross the path to true enlightenment by the end of the tale. Sun Wukong and his origin carry with it the answer on what makes this book universally endearing.
Before his stint on Heaven’s most wanted list Sun Wu Kong was born from an egg. Not an egg from anything mundane mind you, but from a stone that had collected more heavenly energy in its sacred structure, than any other object. His birth came as a whim from the heavens as a product of the eternal energy of heaven, yet Sun Wukong set his sights to rebel against the customs that dominated heaven save for the notion of immortality. The beginning of the tale recounts how he managed to gain the powerful artifacts and abilities, which would later serve to protect his comrades and entertain the audience. Upon reaching what he thought to be the zenith of any mortal Sun Wu Kong, ascended to heaven and demanded his place among the ranks of the Gods. Out of spite and contempt for these aspirations the Jade Emperor saw fit to giving Sun Wukong the title of stable keeper. Quickly realizing that he was being mocked, Heaven managed to gain the attention of Sun Wu Kong’s greatest vice, his pension for rebellion and mischief. This attitude of rebellion continues through much of the beginning of the novel, which amounts to him conquering almost the entirety of heaven before the Buddha himself was called upon to intervened in order to prevent Sun Wu Kong from disturbing the Universe itself. Despite his eventual defeat, the trait that he was born above all others was a need to attain greatness would not fade, and in a way he becomes closer to his original state of purity that was lost when dwelling on the earthly realm as his journey to enlightenment progresses.
Sun Wukong’s fiery aspirations originates long before his story became a legend in China, and his inspiration hails not from China but from the myths of India. Specifically he is based off of Hanuman, who in Hindu mythology was “The monkey king who’s devotion to Rama is held as to what a model of what human devotion to God should be” (Lutgendorf 217 ). However this devotion had to be earned through strife, much like how Sun Wukong had to mature his aspiration towards the heavens through his journey. In Buddhism, the strain towards enlightenment is the primary tenant of the religion. Sun Wukong is seen as admirable by this definition because striving toward greatness speaks to others of a form of progress towards a better future. The spirit of wishing to attain more is a base of human nature, and Sun’s wish can be related to by anyone who has wished that their fortunes can change. More importantly his ability to create this change through his own personal growth endows him with more depth as a real personality that has captured the attention of so many people.
By the end of his personal journey the audience can see how Sun Wukong has changed from being causing disaster to bringing fortune to people. Upon reaching their final destination to receive the scriptures he sees the state of the people in poverty and offers a blessing, “I guarantee that the families in your village will have many sons and grandsons, flourishing livestock, wind and rain at the right time year in and year out, and rain and wind year out and year in at the right time.” (Wu 1390). Sun Wukong manages to show the aspect of humility to the people that he once considered beneath him to help, and that growth shows the mark towards Buddhism for the character.
From a personal perspective, Sun Wu Kong, and by extension Journey to the West holds a sentimental value to me. I have always been infatuated with Eastern culture since my childhood, so it comes as no surprise that I discovered one of the many adaptations of Sun Wu Kong, through my experience with reaching into this culture. What struck me first was the endearing strength that these adaptations possessed, and as I grew the wonder of what inspired these characters came to action. What I discovered was a character who has many of the traits that defines youth. Whether it be mischief, boundless energy or the tendency to act first and think later; I was drawn to Sun Wu Kong as a figure that I looked up to because of his strength and perseverance against what fate dealt him. As I reflect upon my childhood experience now, the thoughts of why I was drawn to him so readily have become clear to me.
This rise in popularity of Sun Wukong by principle of his struggles, and unique method of dealing with his ordeals in such a fantastical way guarantees the entertainment of the audience. At the time that Journey to the West was envisioned many stories made in china followed the rule of Avant-Garde literature or as described “fiction about fiction” (Zhao 91). Journey to the West is one of the great classical works that has over time have became an all-inclusive role in Chinese culture. While it is true that this novel was created upon an amalgamation of lore, the originality of the character in Sun Wukong and his companion’s forged a popularity in early China. With the adaptation of the Buddhist teachings into a gripping story; the way that the mythos was transformed from the original source allowed for the work to gain an identity outside of the meta-fiction. Where as time progressed many individuals have been inspired by the influence of this work, in return the novel has transformed into a Meta fiction of its own by the value of popularity and time. This occurs till the point where the literary field concerning this piece has become saturated on a global scale.
On the topic of Sun Wukong in the culture of the world, the character has been inducted canonically as referenced by western authors. This claim to the mischievous monkey has propagated into what is called “The Monkey Tradition” (Pearson 355). What has drawn people toward the character in China can apply equally to the western audience, in that despite the mischievous nature of the monkey, the fierce pride that it can exhibit, and how it strives towards a goal is an admirable tale. Particularly it is noted that one of Sun Wukong’s most endearing points is the “rambunctious behavior in heaven as his maturation into a heroic Buddhist disciple” (Pearson 357). With this it makes sense as to why his struggle is seen as so palatable to different cultures. In essence Sun Wukong as a character is maturing in the way an infant does into adult hood. With this growth come all the stages of his character traits, from being mischievous and wanting as a child, to reaching wisdom during his metaphorical adulthood. This duality of his person over the journey is a major factor to why people care for the title as a whole. As much as the story is about retrieving the artifacts Sun’s journey to mature into an adult mentality becomes just as much a center of the story.
The composition of a monkey tradition in culture, is accentuated with the monkey taking the role of the trickster archetype in fiction. The characters that are established in this tradition are often protagonists who take characteristics from Sun Wukong. “The monkey is wily ruthless, selfish” (Casal), is a proper way to describe all these characters, as they often make trouble for their own amusement. However such characters are not necessarily antagonistic in nature, and if they are considered a goodhearted protagonist these qualities are developed to be more sympathetic In Asian culture popular series such as Dragonball and One-piece draw direct influence from Sun Wukong, for the use of their title characters. While these characters are by all means a trickster to those who they dislike, too the people that they come to trust inspire a fierce loyalty, as demonstrated between Sun Wukong and the monk. For western examples, apes such as curious George embody the idea of curiosity and mischief, but in a way the gives a sense of comedy to the world around them. In each story that the little ape acts out he learns something about being more human, much like Sun Wukong does. These tricks and behaviors that are seen in the monkey archetype seek to bridge the gap between a human and a character by bringing the more humanistic side of apes and monkeys to the stage as the example. This bridge is established through the similar traits of humans and animals, but in a way that allows for the characters to grow onto the audience by sake of humor and wit that both species share. More so than just due to the cultural impact, on a personal level the humor of the story comes as the bridge for the interaction between the characters and the audience.
Namely Sun Wukong and Pigsy’s characters “make up and ideal comic pair” (Zhou 72). This role of comic relief in a classic is a balancing element to the more serious perils and topics of the novel. By placing the characters into situations that both offer a real tension, but does not lose sight of the lighter elements of the story there can be a degree of empathy by this shared humor. In this balance the dichotomy of characters becomes central to the success of the novel in reaching the audience. The idea that balancing tragedy with mirth, is not a new subject to literature. However, given that there is evidence of a finely crafted balance in Journey to the West, as a testament to the survivability to a timeless sense of humor, gives credence to the work as being worthy of a masterpiece.
A key reason for why the narrative transferred over so well into the west is the way that the characters embrace“ the more abstract notion of travel as crossing boundaries” (Wills 192). The story is more about overcoming inner boundaries rather than physical ones, and this appeal to freedom has had a crucial impact on the religion of China. Journey to the West is important for this notion, as the depiction of Buddhism in the novel, had a great impact similar to propaganda for the faith as it grew in popularity. Over the centuries following the integration into the culture of China, the western influence towards trade resulted in western culture to learn of the novel. Yet it was not until the mid-20th century that the book was translated into an English version. The fact that Journey to the West holds such influence today is a testament to the appeal of the novel to break boundaries as the characters do themselves. The delayed translation due to the isolationist tendencies of China serve as a reason why this ancient text has taken so long into modern time to circulate into culture fully. Because of the focus towards the inner conflict of the characters rather than the physical world, the culture shock is lessened because emotions in the end are easy to grasp despite cultural barriers.
Even though the story was created on the tenants of Buddhism, there are still overarching universal morals within. This heightens the value of the text as a moral center. As the main moral is the maturation of the characters, the heightened focus on Sun Wukong makes more sense. Balancing the nature of human growth within animalistic characters can increase he empathy for the audience from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. Given that he had the most room to grow among the characters by going from a criminal of heaven to achieving the role of Buddha for his inner revelations is the attainment of his goal of greatness. The fact that the story does not punish those who wish to be great, but rather the way they choose to attain it shows the strong morals from Journey to the West that allowed its narrative and the Monkey king himself to reach around the world.
Casal, U.A., “Far Eastern monkey lore”, M.N. Vol. Xii, 1956 pp13-49. Chamberlain, B.H Kojiki (transl, of),2d ed. With annotations by W.G. Aston, Kobe.
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