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Magic Monkey’s Journey to the East

23 December 2006

In the world of the Chinese literature, there are four books regarded as the noble classics: The Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), Three Kingdoms (三国演义), Water Margin (水浒) and Journey to the West (西游记).

The mural of the Journey to the West (玄奘取经图) created during 14th century, about two hundred years before the creation of the novel.
The mural was discovered in 2003 at Jishan County (稷山县), Shanxi Province (山西)

The Dream is about teenage love affairs, but beneath this superficial storyline, it is a truthful and comprehensive mirror of the Chinese culture and society. Its towering achievement in novel writing, arguably, not only tops all Chinese story-telling literature before it – though many Chinese critics think that Golden Plum (金瓶梅) is older and better than Red Dream - but also shadows those coming after, with Four Generations Under One Roof (四世同堂), Camel Taxi Man Xiangzi (骆驼祥子) by Laoshe (老舍), Family Trilogy (家春秋) by Bajin (巴金) and more recently A Forsaken Capital City (废都) by Jia Pingao (贾平凹) closely following its footsteps but still, in one way or other, not quite getting there.

Kingdom and Margin, though do not share the same literary high ground with the Dream, have always enjoyed greater popularity among China’s male readers. The former is like illustrated footnotes to Sun Tzu’s (孙子) Art of War (孙子兵法), and the latter the first and the best martial arts story.

A popular proverb reflects the diverse fan-bases of the above three classics: Do not let a young man read Water Margin (少不读水浒) (for he could become more rebellious); do not let an old man read Three Kingdoms (老不读三国) (for he might be more scheming); do not let a girl read Dream Chamber (女不读红楼) (for she may lose herself in a romantic fantasy world).

As for the Journey, seemingly it is suitable for a general viewing with no ranking restrictions ever being recommended. China has a rich heritage in Daoist-fantasy lingerie literature, with the most notable works including Ranks of the Immortals (封神榜), In Search of the Sacred (搜神记) and The Chat Room (聊斋 a Chinese equivalent of X-Files). The Journey perfectly follows this line, just it is a Buddhist fantasy, and its central character, the Monkey King Sun Wukong (孙悟空), isn’t a Chinese native, but an immigrant from India. So for him, the pilgrim journey was less an adventure to the west but more a road to home.

An Indian god with many hands

Last Sunday, December 17, the Monkey King returned to the East for a ten-month business trip. When he emerged out of box, it came as a big shock to the hosts in Beijing’s Capital Museum for the uncanny resemblance to his earthly embodiment in China.

It is revealed that he made his first appearance in the Indian mythology, in which he was a superman and supermonkey all in one. Since he travelled to China, this monkey faced human bodied hero grew into a Chinese kung fu master specialised in combat stick play, and an enthusiastic promoter of "pseudo science", keeping showing off his supernormal abilities whenever he had a chance.

Some time ago, there were debates about the Monkey’s POB (place of birth), with suspected locations ranging from Gansu, Jiangsu, Henan to Shandong. Maybe the Monkey meditating in an Indian museum caught a drift of the arguments and decided he didn’t like it. So when the chief of the Beijing museum went to India to collect the exhibition items arranged beforehand, he made himself visible to the guest. The Chinese chief did not disappoint him, immediately putting forward a request for the Monkey to be included in the show.

The Magic Monkey in Meditation

It could also be the Monkey’s way to urge the Chinese nobilities, like Confucian, Li Shizhen (李时珍 the author of Herbal Medica 本草纲目) and Qu Yuan (屈原, an patriotic Chinese poet, the cause of the Dragon Boat Festival 端午节), to show up in a certain country on the planet and tell ‘em to respect other people’s origin of POB.

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