Among the souvenirs Winnie brought back from China on her recent trip was an 11-disk set of DVDs containing the Chinese classic series “Journey to the West.” Now, as part of our evening routine whenever Winnie and I are both home, we watch one or two episodes. Although it’s only in the Chinese national language (no subtitles) I am able to mostly follow the action with Winnie’s help explaining the dialog. Watching these series has becoming a lot of fun.
From the ever-wonderful Wikipedia, a brief description of “Journey to the West”:
Journey to the West (traditional Chinese: 西遊記; simplified Chinese: 西游记; pinyin: Xīyóujì; Wade-Giles: Hsiyu-chi) is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Originally published anonymously in the 1590s during the Ming Dynasty, and even though no direct evidence of its authorship survives, it has been ascribed to the scholar Wú Chéng’ēn since the 20th century.
In western countries, the tale is also often known simply as Monkey. This was one title used for a popular, abridged translation by Arthur Waley. The Waley translation has also been published as Adventures of the Monkey God; and Monkey: A Folk Novel of China; and The Adventures of Monkey.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the legends around the Buddhist monk Xuánzàng’s pilgrimage to India during the Táng dynasty in order to obtain Buddhist religious texts called sutras. The Bodhisattva Guānyīn, on instruction from the Buddha, gives this task to the monk and his three protectors in the form of disciples — namely Sūn Wùkōng, Zhū Bājiè and Shā Wùjìng — together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuánzàng’s horse mount. These four characters have agreed to help Xuánzàng as an atonement for past sins.
Some scholars propose that the book satirizes the effete Chinese government at the time. Journey to the West has a strong background in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology and value systems; the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas is still reflective of Chinese folk religious beliefs today.
Part of the novel’s enduring popularity comes from the fact that it works on multiple levels: it is a first-rate adventure story, a dispenser of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India stands for the individual journeying toward enlightenment.
The series itself was filmed by CCTV, the Chinese national television network. For myself, part of the charm of this series is the apparent lack of advertising interrupting the drama – each episode is about one full hour long.
The Wikipedia describes the series we’re watching as “a 1986 Chinese live action TV series made by CCTV adapting the majority of the literary classic Journey to the West. The show became an instant classic in mainland China and is still being praised as the best and the most authentic interpretation of the original novel.” The later episodes were filmed in a 1998 “part two.”
The DVD series Winnie bought appears to be a “collector’s edition” as it starts out on disk one with an apparent commemorative discussion and clips of the movies.
For me, what makes this series so much fun is the “Monkey King” himself. The series starts with the birth of the Monkey King from a pile of rocks along a shoreline (representing the five elements). From there, he quickly becomes the King of the monkeys. After a while, he decides he wants to become immortal. He travels for a long while on his search and discovers a monk who teaches him all kinds of neat tricks such as flying and how to change into 72 different forms. Monkey King raids an undersea kingdom and steals a rod that can become any size or length, and uses it as a quarterstaff weapon and becomes invincible in combat. He also discovers the fruit that makes him immortal. At this point, he gets banished by his teacher for being too wild, and immediately becomes even wilder.
Think; hyperactive 16 year old that is immortal, can fly, change him into nearly any shape and size, and can beat anyone in combat. Yeah, we’re talking pretty wild.
At this point Monkey King starts really irritating the Gods. He wrecks a big party the Gods were planning, whereby the Gods send an army down to get rid of him. Monkey king vanquishes the army. About this time, the Gods figure The Buddha is the only one able to control the Monkey King. Buddha stops by to talk, whereby Monkey writes graffiti on his hand and pees on Buddha’s leg (I am not making this up). Buddha apparently decides he’s had enough and traps Monkey King in a cave, with his head sticking out, for 500 years to let him cool off a bit.
The story picks up 500 years later when a scholar, sent on a quest to find truth, finds the Monkey king and helps free him, whereby Monkey Kings joins him as protector. They pick up a few more characters along the way.
The other main characters are Pig, a former God who was changed into a pig shape when he was thrown out of heaven for making a pass at the Moon Goddess, daughter of one of the senior Gods (yes, it was a really bad idea). The fourth character introduced is Friar Sand, another God kicked out of heaven for breaking a rather valuable piece of glass belonging to the Queen Mother God. The scholar losses his horse to a water dragon, that is then transformed back into a horse, now with magic powers, and given back to the scholar to ride.
We finished watching episode 10 last night. Most of the episodes we\’ve seen involved meeting up with demons who want to eat them, or other bad people that the four (five including the horse) have to find ways to defeat. Monkey gets banished from the group when he kills three demons disguised as people. Scholar later asks forgiveness when he learns what the creatures were Monkey King killed, a rather touching scene. Overall, I can tell that Monkey King is the main character, with Pig as comic relief and Friar Sand the straight man.
We’re planning on watching the full series. Winnie also brought back a four volume English translation of “Journey to the West” that I plan on reading at some point during or after we finish the DVD series.
Welcoming in the Year of the Monkey : Welcoming in the Chinese New year of the monkey. Full disclosure – in the Chinese Zodiac, I’m a Monkey person. I think the moniker fits nicely.
The End Is Here : My nearly twenty-year odyssey to read the entire “Wheel of Time” fantasy Science-Fiction series comes to a close.
Bringing In The Year Of The Horse : Another celebration of the Chinese New Year, this time the year of the Horse.