Sunday, December 5, 2010

Meet the Monkey

So, you may ask, who is this Monkey King she's so obsessed with?  Well, I'll tell you what I know:

The Monkey King, aka Sun Wukong in Mandarin Chinese, is a popular folk character from Chinese Buddhist mythology.  His adventures began with a real historical event.  During the Tang Dynasty (c. 618 - 907), a monk variously known as Xuanzang or Sanzang traveled to India to acquire copies of the Great Vehicle Buddhist sutras or scriptures, with the encouragement of the Tang Emperor Taizong.  Buddhism was already well entrenched in China at that time, but only really known through the Lesser Vehicle scriptures.  I'm not going to try to explain the difference, because I'm no Buddhist scholar.

During the 16th Century in the Ming Dynasty, an author called Wu Cheng'en transcribed a version of stories that already existed about how the monk traveled to India, accompanied by a group of magical companions.  One of these companions was Monkey.  Monkey is a special case.  He's not really a god (or at least he didn't start out to be) or a monster or demon.  He was born from an egg that emerged from a rock.  He became king of the monkeys of the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers, learned the secret of immortality from a Taoist Immortal, and then decided that he ought to have more kingly raiment.  So he went to the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea and demanded that the Dragon King give him gifts.

To get rid of this annoying guest, the Dragon King finally gave him a magic staff that had once been used to hold the Milky Way in place. (Don't ask what happened to the Milky Way after the staff was removed from the Dragon King's palace.  I don't know.)  Equipped with the staff, armor, and magical cloud-stepping shoes, the Monkey King's ego got bigger and bigger.  When the Dragon King complained to the Emperor of Heaven about the Monkey's rude behavior, the Jade Emperor decided to offer Monkey a post in the celestial hierarchy, to keep him out of trouble.  Pestering the Dragon King wasn't the only thing Monkey had done to make a nuisance of himself; he'd also died of old age, but when taken to the Underworld he crossed his name off the Roll of the Dead, as well as the names of all of the monkeys of the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers.  Many complaints had been lodged against him in the Heavenly Court.  So the Emperor wanted to keep him close.

Monkey was delighted at first to be given a position in the Heavenly Court.  But when he eventually realized that Protector of the Horses wasn't a very important post, he was offended.  He made a fuss, fought with the Heavenly army, and was finally offered a more prestigious role as overseer of the Heavenly Peach Orchard.  Unfortunately, being a monkey, he didn't have a lot of self-control, and he quickly ate up most of the Peaches of Immortality.  When the Jade Empress wanted to have a Peach Banquet, Monkey was embarrassed that he'd eaten the peaches, but instead of apologizing and humbling himself before the Emperor, he tried to hide his crime and escape from Heaven.  In the process he also managed to get drunk and consume all of Lao Zi's pills of immortality as well.  Then he fled back to his mountain.

But he'd caused so much uproar in Heaven by this point that the Emperor couldn't let it go.  An army of celestial warriors was sent to subdue the rebellious monkey.  They failed to corral him, so the struggle escalated as divinities of greater and greater power were summoned to help.  Finally the Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin came to lend her aid.  She called on Tathagata Buddha for assistance.  In his wisdom, the Buddha challenged Monkey:  if Monkey could leap out of the Buddha's palm, he would be set free.  Monkey didn't realize that the Buddha's palm was infinite, so he was unable to succeed at the challenge.  Buddha then trapped him beneath a mountain for 500 years as punishment for his misdeeds.

At the end of the 500 years, along came the Tang monk seeking the scriptures.  Guan Yin persuaded Monkey that if he would convert to Buddhism and protect the monk on his journey, he would be released from his imprisonment.  She also provided the monk with a magic circlet that would bond itself to Monkey's head and control him, since she obviously knew that Monkey couldn't be trusted to cooperate.  To further aid the monk on his journey, she persuaded several celestial beings who had been exiled to earth as punishment for various infractions to act has his servants and companions (and in one case, his mount).

Along the way there were lots of local gods and minor celestial beings looking after the monk in addition to Monkey and his pals Pigsy (Zhu Bajie) and Sandy (Sha Wujing).  This was a good thing, because even though Monkey was very powerful, equipped both with his incredible enlarging/reducing staff and his ability to change shape and duplicate himself, there was only one of him. The rest of the protectors weren't nearly as powerful.  The monk was in constant danger, because his dharma-infused flesh was very desirable to monsters and demons who believed that consuming it would grant them immortality.  Monkey spends the rest of the lengthy book fending off monsters or rescuing the monk from them.

The book, Journey to the West, is intended to teach some Buddhist parables, but since the first seven chapters are about Monkey and how he gets into trouble, it largely becomes his story.  Consequently he's become immensely popular throughout Asia.  There have been numerous movies and tv series about him, as well as puppet plays, Beijing opera, and other entertainment.  He's a fairytale hero, a superhero, and a kind of minor deity.  I think he's a character who deserves more appreciation from Western audiences.  There's a whole tradition of fantasy literature in Asia that we're missing out on.  I just want to make a tiny effort toward rectifying that by making other people aware of its existence. 

And Monkey's just a lot of fun.  I'm looking forward to putting on his persona as well as his clothes.

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