January 11, 2024

#08-375: Monkey

Left to right: Horse, Sandy, Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy (Wikipedia)

Note: Great books often lend themselves to a deeper way of reading. Let's see how that works with this popular Chinese novel.

Get Ready: Are you familiar with the Chinese novel (or Japanese TV show) about the Monkey King?

I was 41 when I moved to Asia, and considered myself well-read. But one day I was in a department store in Japan and saw four little pencil sharpeners. One was an anthropomorphic pig; another a sort of watery-eyed old man; another a young monk; and the last a cute little monkey with a band around his head.

"Who are they?" I asked my friend Reiko.

"You're kidding!" she replied. "You don't know about The Journey to the West?" I didn't, and I was chagrined.

Every kid in east Asia was familiar with Xi Youji (its original Chinese name) or Saiyuki (in Japan). And many adults even in the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia knew it from the popular Japanese TV show "Monkey Magic" (dubbed in English)--which was never broadcast in the U.S.

In the show, the characters were (mostly) given names that were easier for English speakers.

  • Sun Wukong (Jp. Son Goku), that crazy critter whose name means "Monkey Aware of Emptiness," was called simply "Monkey."
  • Tang Sanzang, the monk, was "Tripitaka," the name of the three-part collection of Buddhist scriptures (in Chinese, Sanzang means "three baskets"; Jp. Sanzo Hoshi or Genjo Sanzo).
  • Sha Wujing (Jp. Sa Gojo), named for the flowing-sand river where he lived, is "Sandy."
  • The irascible pig, Zhu Bajie (Jp. Cho Hakkai, "Pig of the Eight Precepts") is just "Pigsy.
  • Although the horse Bai Long Ma (Jp. Gyokuryu; "White Dragon Horse") was originally a dragon, his English name is simply "Horse."

Now, here's a stumper I used to ask my students: Who is the protagonist of The Journey to the West? In reply, they all called out "THE MONKEY!"--but I had to tell them they were wrong.

He's certainly the most famous figure in the book--and the most fun. But it's Tang Sanzang who is given the task of fetching the scriptures from "the West" (India). That makes him the protagonist.

In fact, there is a psychological way of reading the text that would tell us:

  • Sun Wukong is Tang Sanzang's mind, which needs to be controlled (by chanting a sutra to tighten the band around his head);
  • Sha Wujing is his spirit, which is often associated psychologically with water (remember, he hails from a river);
  • Zhu Bajie, in true pig-like fashion, represents his bodily appetites; and
  • Bai Long Ma is the physical body that carries the monk through the world.

I have read and reread the book's hundred chapters since then, and I consider it essential reading.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. anthropomorphic
  2. chagrined
  3. critter
  4. dubbed
  5. hails from
  6. irascible
  7. precepts
  8. stumper
  9. sutra
  10. well-read
  1. a difficult question
  2. comes from
  3. familiar with many books
  4. in the form of a human
  5. easily angered
  6. rerecorded with new voices (doubled)
  7. rules
  8. a Buddhist scripture
  9. embarrassed
  10. an animal (creature)

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 11, 2024

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. i; 3. j; 4. f; 5. b; 6. e; 7. g; 8. a; 9. h; 10. c