ALEC FARMER WRITES – Monkey King: Journey to the West (2021) is a translation of one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature. The book has its origin in China’s Ming dynasty from author Wu Cheng’en, and since its inception, the story of Sun Wukong, Tang Sanzang, and his disciples’ journey from China to India has been read countless times all over the world. The book has been dissected by myriad academics, theologians, and literary critics through the years. The effects of this novel on Chinese and world literature are immeasurable. Of course, this begs the question, why am I reviewing this book in 2021?
The translation of Monkey that I and many English readers are familiar with would most likely be translation entitled Monkey: A Folk Tale of China, which was first published in 1942. While still a masterclass in storytelling and translation, the novel may not appeal to all modern audiences. Those wishing for an updated translation of this classic need to look no further than 2021 translation. This translation by Lovell infuses contemporary English dialogue and vocabulary into the story to turn Monkey King: Journey to the West into a very different reading experience than what many English readers may be familiar with (trust me though, that is a good thing).
For anyone unfamiliar with the story of Monkey King: Journey to the West, it follows Sun Wukong (translating roughly to “monkey awakened by emptiness”) – a monkey born from a magic stone who in the novel’s prologue wreaks all kinds of havoc across Earth and the Heavens in his search for immortality, power, and recognition. However, the main narrative of the novel occurs several hundred years after the prologue when the Chinese Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (also known as Tripitaka) is appointed by the goddess Guanyin to travel to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts.
Sanzang is accompanied by Sun Wukong as well as three other loyal subjects who all are promised redemption from previous errors by Guanyin if they succeed. Throughout their journey, they encounter all sorts of demons, monsters, and other tribulations that stand between them and their goal. The story is a treat for anyone familiar with Chinese history and culture with the novel featuring a multitude of Confucian and Buddhist readings. I only recently became well-acquainted with the story of Chang Er, the goddess of the moon – therefore, seeing her and many other Chinese gods referenced was quite exciting and created greater personal meaning for the story being told.
Wu Cheng’en supposedly wrote the original novel during the Ming dynasty when there were several major religions present in Chinese society. The traditions of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are represented in the story. The titular Sun Wukong works perfectly for author Wu Cheng’en as a vehicle for expressing Confucian ideals as Sun Wukong appears first as an antithesis to basic Confucian ideology.
Sun Wukong’s disdain for Confucian ideology reaches a climax when he pees on the hand of the Buddha. A striking visual for sure, one that represents Sun Wukong’s innate tendencies to break Confucian beliefs. It is no coincidence then, that Sun Wukong begins his path to understanding Confucian ideology through the instruction of the Buddhist deity Guanyin as Wu Cheng’en uses this novel and its characters to discuss these intersecting ideologies in China – a concept which Lovell translates perfectly.
Monkey King: Journey to the West feels like the culmination of Julia Lovell’s work as an author and translator. Lovell has translated several major Chinese novels over the past twenty years and has had several published non-fiction books on pre-modern and modern Chinese history and culture. Her most recent non-fiction book being Maoism: A Global History. Lovell’s dedication to learning about Chinese culture, language, and history allows her translations to be both innovative and faithful.
In the introduction to the novel, Lovell speaks to the craft of translation, specifically on how one can move certain ideas, rhythms, and humor across languages. Nothing that Lovell writes in Monkey King: Journey to the West feels out of place or simply put in there to satiate the modern reader’s desire for a contemporary book. Rather, the voice that Lovell brings to her translation is an attempt to recreate the feelings evoked from the original novel for its intended audience.
Even if you are completely unaware of Chinese mythology, history, and culture – as I was when I first read Sun Wukong’s journey – the story is still an engaging piece of literature filled with numerous adventures taken by a loveable cast of characters. The story’s structure can be likened to many on-the-road narratives where the band of heroes has the overarching objective to reach the sacred Buddhist texts, but each chapter introduces a new set of challenges for them to overcome.
As anyone familiar with road narratives may know, it is the interactions the heroes face on their journey that allow them to evolve as characters. This idea is prominently displayed in the book’s protagonist, Sun Wukong. The reader watches as his thirst for dominance dissipates. As stated, this character arc draws major attention to be read through a Confucian lens. However, whether or not you have any prior knowledge of Confucianism, the episodes that occur on our heroes’ travels are filled with adventure and humor that can be enjoyed by all.
Lovell utilizes contemporary English for much of the dialogue which is paired with fast comedic timing to heighten the comedy for modern English readers while also staying true to the meanings and story of the original novel. This was most noticeable, for me, in the characterization of Monkey, Sun Wukong. While Monkey is by nature a mischievous and fun character to follow, it is through Julia Lovell’s translation and voice that I found myself captivated by his quick wit. In a sequence where the Buddhist deity Guanyin comes to aid the band of heroes Lovell writes,
“Guanyin immediately flew into a rage. “‘How dare the demon impersonate me!’ She threw her vase into the sea. Even Monkey was taken aback to witness her temper. ‘Shame about the vase too,’ he noted regretfully.”
While a quick line, it exemplifies how witty Monkey is as a character, something which is inherent to the story. It is through Lovell’s unique voice that I became emotionally invested in the friendship developed between the monk Tang Sanzang and the monkey Sun Wukong. It was also through Lovell’s translation that I found myself laughing at the interactions between Sun Wukong and the stubborn disciple, Pigsy.
There were so many lines said by Sun Wukong that caused me to chuckle. One of these moments being after explaining the plan for dealing with a princess who had fallen in love with Tang Sanzang, Sun Wukong states that she and the royal family will “be unharmed and you’ll preserve your primordial chastity. Win-win. This stratagem is called “Escaping the net through a sham marriage,” a humorous line that speaks volumes to the life and individual voice that Lovell breathes into this translation.
Monkey King: Journey to the West is not a new story, and its structure and characters have been told and retold many times and in many different forms over the past several centuries. The adventures that these characters undertake are still enjoyable to this day. As discussed by many authors and literary scholars, the journey of Sun Wukong has inspired storytellers from both China and around the world to create road narratives structured similarly to Wu Cheng’en’s masterpiece for several centuries. Monkey King has also been adapted in many other formats such as stage plays that have been put on around the world or the film and tv adaptations such as A Chinese Odyssey (1995) and the contemporary The New Legends of Monkey (2018). However, even while looking back at all the movies, TV series, and adaptations I have seen of Sun Wukong’s story, Julia Lovell’s translation of the Chinese text feels fresh while still being a faithful telling of one of the greatest Chinese novels ever written. For those who have never been exposed to the story of Sun Wukong, this is an amazing place to start – and for those who are familiar with this story, Julia Lovell makes it easy to become engrossed in it all over again!
New AMI book reviewer, Alec Farmer, recently graduated from LMU with a degree in Film and TV Production and a minor in Asian and Pacific Studies. He has studied contemporary Asian literature and cinema.