Decoding Monkey

Monkey 45 (1978) DC title


In her essay Chinese Tricksters, Danita Fleck groups Huang Yong Ping with Xu Bing, Gu Wenda and Song Dong as artists who have “taken on the role of trickster in modern Asian society, and in the worldwide art community, revealing ideas and developments which have been hidden or denied. They add their stories to the long Chinese history of fools, misfits, and trickster characters in  folklore, fables and mythology… The government of the People’s Republic of China and its official press organization have long used the “trickster” label to identify and denigrate any Chinese, or non-native individual or group, deemed to be a threat to the Communist Party…”

It’s in this light that Monkey seems relevant to both Huang Yong Ping’s own work and the role played by artists in China more generally during the past two decades: as Fleck goes on to point out, specifically of Monkey – surely the best known of all Chinese trickster figures – “The monkey king is said to have been born from a stone, fertilized by the wind, rain, and sun, and so contains within himself all of the four elements of the universe. Essentially a troublemaker and opportunist, the monkey is punished by the gods…”

It’s a subtly political resonance that probably isn’t lost on Chinese artists themselves, and there’s something curiously satisfying about the way that the BBC’s promotional animation for its coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – made by Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz – brought together Monkey and Ai Wei Wei’s ‘bird’s nest’ stadium in a way that may (consciously or otherwise) have been a deliberate play on precisely this association:

[play BBC Sport 2008 clip: 2m].

What the Chinese authorities made of this isn’t on record, as far as I know, but Hewlett’s animation draws only partly on the visual look of what is undoubtedly the most famous film version of the Monkey legend, the 1978 Japanese TV series shown by the BBC in a dubbed version a year after its Asian debut. Before moving on to look at the background of this story’s own ‘Journey to the West’, it may be worth comparing Hewlett’s 2008 animation with a 1960 Japanese version – proof, in addition, that the 1978 series wasn’t Japan’s first attempt at bringing one of China’s greatest stories to film.

Saiyuki was made by the Toei animation studio and appears (as Monkey so often seems to) at a time of cultural transition. Since this ‘Saiyuki’ was released in the same year that various future members of The Spiders – a Japanese beat group we’ll hear more about later – first became musically active, there may be a more than passing connection between the 1960 and 1978 renditions. The references here to Disney and Godzilla also suggest that each retelling of Monkey absorbs the cultural ideas of its time:

[play Saiyuki/Toei Studios clip from 3.23]

So who – or what – is Monkey? As Danita Fleck notes, his character corresponds to the profile of the archetypal Trickster. Quick-witted and defiant, full of self-belief and a sense of his own worth, he has a way of causing havoc wherever he goes and bows to no authority. Despite possessing some magical powers, Monkey generally overcomes his enemies through a combination of cunning and brute force, often creating problems for himself and his companions through impulsive curiosity and impatience, then using the same qualities to engineer solutions.

 It’s possible that Monkey shares some distant roots with the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, whose own origin myth suggests that as a child he “believed the sun to be a ripe fruit and so desired to eat it whole”. He too can change his size, from miniscule to the scale of the universe itself, and in one Hanuman story, when the Hindu deity is unable to identify a particular sacred plant, he simply carries the whole mountain back to the battlefield in order to ensure the healing herb is delivered to the one who needs it. These traits seem to support an idea that Hanuman and Monkey may well have grown from the same mythic root, though this is in no way certain.

Step One: The Birth of Monkey 

Both the novel and the TV series begin with accounts of Monkey’s creation. In the novel’s first paragraph, the Jade Emperor is startled by a mysterious light and dispatches two of his guards to open the gate of the Southern Heaven and investigate. They report back as follows:

This light comes from the border of the land of Ao-lai, which lies to the East of the Holy Continent from the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. On this mountain is a magic rock which gave birth to an egg, and this egg gave birth to a Stone Monkey. When he made his bow to the Four Quarters a steely light flashed from his eyes with a beam that reached the palace of the Pole Star. But now he is taking a drink and the light is growing dim…

The rest of Monkey’s origin myth is covered in the pilot episode, Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven, that we’ll see shortly, so I won’t go into detail here. It’s enough to say that the episode ends around chapter 7 of the novel, with our hero beginning a 500 year confinement beneath a mountain: his redemption begins with the arrival of the monk Tripitaka in episode 2, as he takes the first steps on a long road to India – the ‘West’ of the novel’s original title – to find Buddhist scriptures.

Step Two: Enter Tripitaka

As this shows, at some point in their long history the irreverent Monkey stories became entangled with Buddhism. It’s likely that Monkey’s author, Wu Ch’Eng-En, drew heavily on the published autobiographical accounts of real-life monk Xuanzang’s seventeen year pilgrimage to India, begun in 629 with the intention of studying and bringing previously unavailable sutras and Buddhist teachings back to the China of the Tang Dynasty.

This was a dangerous journey, crossing many of the warring states within China, as well as large parts of territory that now lies within the borders of modern day Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and India. In the novel, incidentally, Xuanzang is given the name Tripitaka, though this is an honorary title that was conferred on Xuanzang in his own lifetime, not a name: the Tripitaka are a body of key Buddhist texts and the title denotes knowledge and understanding of these.

That Xuanzang’s adventures in the sixth century are real is indisputable: he (in the guise of Tripitaka) and his sixth century journey to India is one of the two points at which Journey To The West touches on reality.

As evidence, we might note that in 1908 the long-lost Kanishka Stupa – a Buddhist monument in Peshawar – was rediscovered by a British archaeological team largely owing to references in Xuanzang’s description of his visit to the place over a thousand years earlier. There were already legends about Xuanzang’s pilgrimage circulating in his own lifetime, and it’s possible that the links to Monkey were already being woven into these by the time of his death, but it’s worth remembering that his actual journey was no less remarkable than the legends it spawned.

Step Three: Wu Ch’Eng-En

The second point of contact between reality and the story of Journey to the West is the sole responsibility of Wu Ch’Eng-En, a Ming Dynasty bureaucrat traditionally credited as the novel’s author, though all editions published before the twentieth century were anonymous. Wu was briefly a minor official, having passed Imperial examinations only in middle age, but is rumoured to have not enjoyed his work and resigned to spend his later years as a virtual hermit in his home town of Jiangsu Province, writing poetry and fiction – including Journey To The West.

Wu’s distaste for political corruption was not a secret – the book, written in the 1590s, and despite its ancient setting, openly satirises many specific aspects of Ming culture. The Imperial hierarchies in the Heavenly realms of Monkey are essentially Ming bureaucracies and Courts bodily transferred into the clouds, just as corrupt and inept as their earthly counterparts.

Despite this, it’s assumed the book’s anonymity was due not to this vein of satire but instead to the vernacular style of its prose, which was starkly at odds with the prevailing literary models in Wu’s own time, which mostly referred back to the elegance and simplicity of classical Tang Dynasty styles. As a writer it is thought Wu concealed his authorship mainly to protect his literary reputation, as association with such a vulgar work would have undermined his ambition for other works to be taken seriously.

It seems his authorship was an open secret in his home-town and written records link Journey to the West to him as early as the first decades of the 1600s, but the association was not widely known outside. The correspondence of the book’s portrayal of earthly society with Wu Ch’Eng-En’s views of Ming bureaucracy certainly supports his case as  author, though how far Wu created the framework and details of the story we know today, and how far he collated existing oral sources and traditions, is not known.

That his version proved definitive is beyond doubt. This 1965 animated version of an early Monkey scene – in which our hero visits the Dragon of the Eastern Sea to request a weapon – appeared in the Chinese market under the title Havoc in Heaven, and plays a variation, rather than differs substantially, from the  1978 take on the same event we’ll see later in Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven:

[play Sun Wukong: Havoc in Heaven clip 10.48 – 13.45m]

Step Four: Arthur Waley

Arthur Waley is a crucial link in the story of Monkey’s transmission from East to West. Born Arthur David Schloss in 1889 to a family of expatriate Jews in London (his mother reverted to her maiden name, Waley, as a response to the anti-German atmosphere at the outbreak of the First World War), he studied at Rugby and Cambridge.

Although supposed to join his uncle’s export business after graduation, he used his literary contacts to obtain an initially very dull job he once described as“counting German book-plates” in the print room at the British Museum. Fortunately for him, and us, the division of his department into Oriental and European departments in 1913 changed everything: he joined the Oriental prints section and began to teach himself first Chinese and then (a little later) Japanese. While learning the first of these languages, he honed his skills on the translation of poetry and self-published a selection in 1915.

As Waley himself described it: “For a few pounds I had about forty short poems printed, bound the sheets in some spare wall-paper, and sent the resulting booklet to a number of friends as a sort of Christmas card.”

The response to this debut was not, at first, especially favourable but new developments, including the foundation of a School of Oriental Studies in London and a friendship with the recently arrived T.S.Eliot, meant that by 1917 his Chinese translations were appearing regularly in both Ezra Pound’s The Little Review and the Oriental School’s official bulletin. In 1918, this led to the commercial publisher Constable agreeing to produce an anthology made from Waley’s versions, 170 Chinese Poems, a book that has remained in print, in one form or another, ever since.

As the 1920s and 30s went on, there were further opportunities for a writer with Waley’s interests: new styles of poetry like Imagism and free verse had found Chinese and Japanese models of special interest, positioning Waley at the heart of the modernist enterprise while he himself did little more than pursue his own, somewhat eccentric, self-taught path.

It was in this context that in 1940 and 1941, Waley – by his own admission, as a way of escaping the harsh realities of London during the Blitz years – embarked on his translation of Monkey. The atmosphere in which Monkey arrived is summed up in a letter to Waley from Edith Sitwell, written in 1942 after reading her own copy of the published translation:

“I do not know of any work which so abolishes the horrors of this time and our wretched material worries”, she wrote. “One returns to ordinary life (when one has to) feeling entirely at peace . . . How strange it is to come back from Monkey and realize how hideous people are making the world.”

Although a severe abridgement of the original (the 1942 Monkey includes 30 of Wu Ch’eng-en’s 100 chapters: a full version by W.F. Jenner, in 3 volumes, appeared in the early 1980s) Waley’s versions of these previously inaccessible texts were hugely influential.

The impact of this text and other Waley translations on the American writers and artists at Black Mountain College in the late 1930s and 40s – the embryonic Beats, New York avant-gardes and Abstract Expressionists – John Cage, Alan Watts, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Mark Tobey and others – shouldn’t be underestimated. The American 60s owes much to this man who, in 1913, had decided it would be a good idea to teach himself a new language, and despite having few qualifications for doing so, began translating a few Chinese poems into English and binding them in wallpaper.

Step Five: The Spiders

[play The Road To Bali trailer]

If Waley took the East to the West, The Spiders gave the process a curious twist by bringing the Western sounds of 60s beat music to the East, then returning them to Europe, in new shapes, on a successful tour in 1966. The particular significance of The Spiders to the evolution of Monkey lies in the role of Masaaki Sakai – the Japanese actor who played Monkey in the 1978 TV series, and a key factor in its continuing appeal – as one of The Spiders’ two frontmen: Sakai and Jun Inoue were known for clowning around, and even had a routine they called the Monkey Dance, which in turn led to a song, Mister Monkey, released on Japanese Philips in 1966.

There’s no footage of that song being performed live available, so far as I can tell (though this low-resolution sequence ends with a very Monkey-like freakout from Sakai) and it’s not known how much, if anything, Sakai’s past form with monkeying around in The Spiders had on his selection for the role of King Monkey. Sakai’s involvement – and his portrayal of Monkey – was nonetheless crucial to the success of the series, so in the absence of performance footage from Mister Monkey, here’s another television appearance by The Spiders, this time from a show called New Eleki Sound, in which the group participated in a Battle of the Bands with a colourful go-go troupe:

[play The Spiders Kaze Ga Naiteru]

Step Six: Enter The Dragon

After the 1960s, the pace steps up dramatically: Monkey’s long history is becoming increasingly entangled with popular culture, and perhaps the final deciding factor in its journey to the West – or at least, to BBC TV screens – is the success of martial arts films in the UK and US during the later 60s and early 70s. A number of successful Hong Kong films had been imported and dubbed, but the first effort financed by Hollywood – a Bond-like kung-fu movie starring a Chinese superstar named Bruce Lee in 1973 – was, as the trailer for the film shows, a rather nervously marketed thing. Note in particular how the undoubted main attraction, Lee himself, plays third fiddle in the marketing pitch to the American co-stars:

[play Enter The Dragon trailer: 2m]

Of course, after the film’s release, Lee’s profile ensured that similar nervousness would be less apparent on future ventures. Despite Lee’s death before the completion of his next film, the market for martial arts and Asian stories was established.

The immediate precursor to Monkey on British TV was a series called The Water Margin, made in 1973, the same year as Enter The Dragon, by Nippon Television, the company also behind Monkey. Adapted from a classic Chinese novel of warring clans, families and armies and filmed on mainland China, The Water Margin was a high quality but mostly recognisable species of historical costume drama. It laid the commercial ground for its successor, but didn’t prepare audiences for what was to come next.

Step Seven: Saiyuki

What did come next was, as we have seen, a fairly singular story in which an anti-authoritarian, supernaturally gifted Monkey takes on the Heavens, and in penance for this, joins forces with a dragon-horse, a lustful pig monster and a philosophical cannibal to escort a male monk (played in the series by a woman, the late Masako Natsume) to India, across a landscape filled with monsters, demons and spirits. Fighting, innuendo, badly dubbed dialogue and bucketloads of colour, this was something that hadn’t been seen on British TV before, and probably won’t be seen again.

Before going on to that first episode, which takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the first seven chapters of the novel – it’s worth noting, perhaps, that the 1978 Japanese TV version was not the last: in the Asian markets, a whole range of film, TV, computer game, musical, theatrical and comic book takes on the same story have appeared. A (not especially faithful) cinema version with Jackie Chan and Jet Li appeared in 2008 under the title The Forbidden Kingdom and a new TV series, The Journey To The West, was released in Asian markets during the first half of 2011.

To sign off, ahead of our screening of the opening episode of the 1978 Monkey, it may be interesting to look at an excerpt from just one of these later versions, an excerpt from Stephen Chow’s two-part 1995 action comedy A Chinese Odyssey, if only for purposes of comparison, and to prove that Monkey lives on, as a trickster and Great Sage: Equal of Heaven, even if his antics don’t always reach our own screens.

[play A Chinese Odyssey trailer]

The talk was given at Nottingham Contemporary on June 24 2011, and ended with a full screening of Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven: the full series is available on DVD.

The Nottingham Contemporary podcast video of the talk can be seen here. The complete talk lasts around 45 minutes.

Talk reviewed at LeftLion here

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