Wu Chen’en’s “Journey to the West”


Julia Lovell in the LA Review of Books:

Journey to the West (c. 1580) is one of the masterworks of classical Chinese writing. It recounts a Tang Dynasty monk’s quest for Buddhist scriptures in the 7th century AD, accompanied by an omni-talented, kung fu-practicing Monkey King called Wukong (one of the most memorable reprobates of world literature); a rice-loving pig-spirit able to fly with its ears; and a depressive man-eating monster from a sand dune. It is a cornerstone text of Eastern fiction: its stature in Asian literary culture may be compared with that of The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote in European letters.

The novel commences with a spirited prologue — seven chapters long — recounting the Monkey King’s many attempts to achieve immortal sagehood, in the course of which he acquires knowledge and weapons that will serve him well through the book as a whole: the ability to perform “cloud somersaults” that carry him 30,000 miles in one leap, a gold-hooped staff (weighing almost 20,000 pounds) that can shrink to the size of a needle. He becomes a master of subterfuge by learning to transform himself into 72 different varieties of creature (though his human disguises lack perfect authenticity due to his inability to lose his tail). He studies demon-freezing spells and how to turn each of the 84,000 hairs on his body into other animals (including clones of himself) or objects. Yet time and again he is brought low by his irrepressible love of mischief. Finally, after taking up a bureaucratic sinecure in the heavenly government of the Jade Emperor, he commits the unforgivable crime of gorging himself on the peaches, wine, and elixirs of immortality.

More here.