Book Review – Monkey by Wu Ch’eng-en: A Timeless Adventure
The latest addition to The Folio Society’s Spring Collection is the highly anticipated edition of Monkey, a classic Chinese novel. This new edition promises to be an exceptional visual and literary experience, featuring captivating illustrations by Chinese-American artist Mu Pan and a specially commissioned fold-out map that will take readers on an unforgettable journey.
Mu Pan’s artistic style draws inspiration from folk art, Chinese scroll paintings, and Japanese prints. His seven stunningly detailed and exquisitely executed colour drawings in this edition bring to life the fantastical adventures of the novel’s characters. Mu Pan’s talent for timeless visual storytelling makes him the perfect artist for this edition of Monkey, and his illustrations will leave readers spellbound.
In addition to Mu Pan’s illustrations, this edition of Monkey includes a specially commissioned fold-out map to take readers on a thrilling journey through Monkey’s adrenaline-filled adventures. The map is a testament to The Folio Society’s commitment to creating visually stunning and engaging editions of classic literature.
Moreover, this edition features a new introduction by Chinese history expert Frances Wood. Her introduction is both a celebration of the novel and a fascinating overview of ancient Chinese literature and Monkey’s place in it. With her expert insights, readers will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of this classic Chinese tale’s cultural and historical significance.
A Timeless Tale of Adventure and Enlightenment
In the vast landscape of classic Chinese literature, Wu Ch’eng-en’s “Monkey” (also known as “Journey to the West”) stands out as a timeless tale of adventure, spiritual growth, and the pursuit of enlightenment. The novel, originally published in the 16th century, remains relevant to modern audiences thanks to its richly layered narrative, vivid characters, and deeply rooted philosophical themes.
Arthur Waley’s translation makes this masterpiece accessible to English-speaking readers, capturing the essence of Wu Ch’eng-en’s storytelling and bringing its enchanting world to life. We explore the many facets of “Monkey” that make it an enduring work of literature and a rewarding reading experience.
A World of Myth and Magic
“Monkey” transports readers to a realm where the supernatural and the human intertwine and where gods, demons, and humans coexist. At the heart of the story is the mischievous Monkey King, Sun Wukong, a powerful and cunning figure who defies the cosmic order and must undergo a transformative journey.
Wu Ch’eng-en creates a richly imaginative world filled with magical creatures, divine beings, and epic battles. The novel draws from various sources, including Chinese folklore, Buddhist and Taoist teachings, and historical events. This amalgamation of influences lends the story its unique flavour and timeless appeal.
The Quest for Redemption
The central narrative of “Monkey” follows the pilgrim Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, as he embarks on a perilous journey to retrieve sacred scriptures from the West. Along the way, he encounters the unforgettable Monkey King and other memorable characters, such as the river ogre Sandy and the gluttonous Pigsy. Together, they face many trials and tribulations, from battling demons to overcoming their flaws and weaknesses.
The epic journey serves as an allegory for the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, with each character’s personal growth mirroring the progression of the pilgrimage. As they confront their inner demons and learn to work together, they also discover valuable lessons about compassion, perseverance, and the true nature of enlightenment.
Intricate Characterisation and Timeless Themes
One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its richly drawn characters. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, emerges as a complex and compelling figure, torn between his desire for power and his inherent sense of loyalty and righteousness. Tripitaka, the monk, embodies the virtues of patience, humility, and wisdom, while Pigsy and Sandy represent the struggles with human vice and frailty.
Through these characters, “Monkey” explores universal themes that resonate with readers across time and culture. The novel delves into the nature of power and authority, the importance of self-awareness, and the transformative power of personal growth. By weaving these themes into a fantastical narrative, Wu Ch’eng-en invites readers to contemplate the more profound significance of the story and its relevance to their own lives.
The Art of Storytelling
Wu Ch’eng-en’s narrative style is characterised by its engaging blend of humour, wit, and lyrical prose. The novel is filled with amusing anecdotes, clever wordplay, and moments of genuine poignancy. By embracing the full spectrum of human experience, from tragedy to comedy, “Monkey” strikes a delicate balance that enthrals readers.
At its core, Monkey tells the story of the pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who embarks on a journey from China to India in search of sacred scriptures. Tasked by the Buddha to complete this voyage, Xuanzang must navigate treacherous terrain, confront demons, and overcome countless obstacles. Along the way, he enlists the help of three eccentric characters: the powerful and mischievous Monkey King, Sun Wukong; the gluttonous and loyal Pigsy, Zhu Bajie; and the stoic and steadfast Sandy, Sha Wujing. Together, they form an unlikely team bound by a common purpose: to fulfil their divine mission and find redemption.
Allegory and Symbolism: Unraveling the Layers
One of the most striking aspects of Monkey is its rich allegorical underpinnings. The novel operates on multiple levels, inviting readers to uncover its deeper meanings. On the surface, it is an entertaining adventure story brimming with humour, action, and suspense. Yet, when examined closely, the narrative reveals itself as an intricate exploration of spiritual growth, self-mastery, and enlightenment.
Each of the four main characters represents a different facet of human nature. Xuanzang embodies discipline and devotion, as his unwavering faith guides him throughout the journey. Sun Wukong, with his boundless energy and cunning, symbolizes the untamed mind that must be controlled to achieve inner peace. Zhu Bajie, driven by his voracious appetites, represents our base desires, while Sha Wujing, a creature of calm determination, signifies the inner strength required to persevere.
These characters, through their trials and tribulations, exemplify the process of self-cultivation and spiritual growth. Their journey is, in essence, a metaphor for the individual’s quest to attain enlightenment and escape the cycle of suffering.
A Complex and Enigmatic Hero
Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is undoubtedly the novel’s most memorable and dynamic character. He is born from a magical stone and possesses immense power, intelligence, and agility. Yet, these abilities are accompanied by a fiery temperament and a penchant for mischief. Wukong’s antics often land him in trouble, but they also reveal a character driven by a desire for freedom and recognition.
Wukong’s complexity lies in his dual nature: he is both a hero and a trickster, a loyal servant and a rebellious force. This duality reflects the novel’s central theme of self-mastery, as Wukong must learn to harness his powers and submit to Xuanz. Tripitaka, in contrast, serves as the moral compass of the story, providing the necessary counterbalance to Monkey’s impulsive nature.
Pigsy and Sandy, while initially appearing as comic relief, evolve into complex characters in their own right. Pigsy’s gluttony and lust are tempered by his dedication to the pilgrimage, while Sandy’s stoic demeanour belies an undercurrent of self-doubt and a desire for redemption. These four protagonists form a unique and dynamic ensemble, each complementing and challenging one other in their journey toward enlightenment.
Themes: Duality, Transformation, and the Path to Enlightenment
“Monkey” is rife with themes that resonate across cultural and temporal boundaries. One central motif is the duality of human nature, as embodied by the novel’s main characters. Sun Wukong, for example, is both hero and a trickster, embodying both admirable and fallible qualities.
Cultural Significance: A Window into Ancient China
“Monkey” is an entertaining and captivating narrative and a rich and vivid exploration of Chinese culture, religion, and history. Through the fantastical world of the novel, Wu Ch’eng-en presents a snapshot of the values, beliefs, and social structures that shaped ancient China. In addition, readers are introduced to the intricacies of Chinese mythology and the pantheon of gods and deities deeply embedded into the culture. Overall, this latest edition of Monkey by The Folio Society promises to be a feast for the eyes and mind, with its captivating illustrations, stunning fold-out map, and insightful introduction by Frances Wood. It is a must-have for any lover of classic literature and an exceptional addition to any collection.
The Folio Society’s edition of Monkey, written by Wu Ch’eng-en and translated by Arthur Waley, features stunning artwork by Mu Pan and a new introduction by Frances Wood, along with a foldout map, making it a beautifully reimagined version of one of the Four Great Chinese novels, priced at £75.00. To order or to find out more information, go to their website.