Monkey Journey to the West

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Monkey: Folk Novel of China

Wu Ch’êng-Ên’s Monkey: Folk Novel of China has been enormously popular among the Chinese. It is a 16th century adventure novel about a spiritual journey of four protagonists. The story is captivating as it offers a riveting plot full of symbolic characters and events. One of the attractions of Monkey: Folk Novel of China is the trickster character of Monkey. As a typical trickster, he is sly and smart, prone to defying the authority and rules. Among the other monkeys, he has achieved the highest status and was voted King, which made him realize how limited his possibilities are. Eventually, he finds himself on a journey with an historical figure, Tripitaka, who is based on the Chinese monk Xuanzang. He travels to India to learn the authentic Buddhism. While only small parts of Xuanzang’s real journey were depicted in the novel, its motif remained the same. The writer included many diverse characters there, not only from China but from Europe, too. Alongside Monkey in Wu Ch’êng-Ên’s novel, the rebellious, cunning, and loyal archetype of trickster is also explored in the characters of the folkloric Puss in Boots and Don Quixote.

As an archetype, a trickster is a character that is clever and witty but who can achieve his own goals by tricking people and/or other beings into doing what he wants. In addition, it is impossible to guess the trickster’s true nature by his appearance. Monkey corresponds to this archetype as he is thin and seemingly fragile, and he is dressed in a plain monk’s robe. In the sixteenth century, it was a typical look for a traveler. However, Monkey’s wit allows him to defeat Tripitaka’s enemies. In many cases, Monkey saves his master by fighting monsters and other antagonists. He has no qualms when he needs to kill someone and he is ready to do anything it takes to help his master. As compared to the Puss in Boots, both Monkey and the cat can be loyal servants and use their wit to help their masters. When Puss in Boots meets the king, he is cunning to an extent that by introducing him to the peasants and field workers, he manages to raise his master to the level of a noble.

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Tricksters might vary in their attitude to power, which is proven by examples of the explored characters. Puss in Boots seeks to help his master to become powerful. However, it is not entirely self-sacrificing as the title and the lands make his master rich and in turn, Puss in Boots is well-fed and has a place to live. Meanwhile, Monkey initially seeks acknowledgement and mundane attributes of high status. When the Jade Emperor grants Monkey a title, he is immensely happy (Wu, 2007, p. 45). The whole ceremony and court life seem important and desirable to Monkey, even though when he first saw the Emperor, he behaved rudely as he was not familiar with proper rituals. In his excitement and greed, he does not realize that his title, which implies being the protector of the horse, is meaningless. However, within the microcosm of the court, even such a shallow title is a milestone and other officials present a yellow rope to Monkey as a present. Eventually, Monkey realizes the silliness of the whole affair and does not want the title anymore. It shows the growth of him as the trickster character.

Tricksters can trick others into doing what they want by taking other shapes or by persuading others to do it. Similar stories happen both to Monkey and Puss in Boots. Monkey uses his transformative qualities to help his master. At one instance, one of Tripitaka’s companions is caught by an elephant demon. Monkey turns into a fly, flies to the demon’s cave, and saves him. Puss in Boots has a similar episode where he decides to steal the giant’s house for his master. He cannot change his shape but decides to play with the giant who is proud of his ability to turn into whatever he wants. Puss in Boots asks him to assume different personas and eventually, he challenges the giant to turn into a mouse. When the giant complies, Puss in Boots attacks and kills him.

Another important characteristic of tricksters is their constant challenging of authority. Tricksters hate being governed by rules and constantly try to overstep the boundaries. At one point, Monkey is on the verge of demolishing the Heaven Palace and the Buddha Patriarch has to interfere. When the Patriarch says that Monkey is “an animal”, Monkey boldly replies, “This year, the Jade Emperor’s turn; next year, mine” (Wu, 2007, p. 74). However, it is not necessary for a trickster to challenge the authority directly and aggressively. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose prototype is still commonly used in modern media, does it with laughter and tongue-in-cheek expression. The whole collection of Don Quixote’s adventures is an unending challenge to authority in various forms enhanced by jokes to the point where it is not noticed easily.

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On the other hand, life has many boundaries that are difficult to ignore, and one of them is death. Monkey is aware of his fear of death and for this reason, he wants to overcome it. He does not want to be mortal as other people whereas there are immortals who live forever, which means that the boundaries of life are flexible. The Monkey King says, “But the time will come when I shall grow old and weak. Yama, King of Death, is secretly waiting for me” (Wu, 2007, p. 14). Monkey is shaken by it and for this reason, the immortality becomes his goal. Being distrustful of authority, Monkey is careful even with the Patriarch. To the question of which of the three hundred and sixty schools of wisdom he would choose, Monkey asks, “But should I live forever?” (Wu, 2007, p. 21). He realizes that he can be tricked into doing something useless and reasons that if the School of Silence, the School of Action, and the School of Magic Arts do not give him immortality, he does not want to practice what they have to offer.

Don Quixote’s fight with windmills can also be regarded as a quest to overcome mortality. Upon seeing the windmills, Don Quixote’s imagination turns them into giants who have to be defeated. If Don Quixote respected the authority, he would quickly realize that the giants are much stronger than him and he has to submit. However, he believes that it is better to die than to submit himself to an unknown authority. To the audience, it seems absurd as they realize that the giants are only in Don Quixote’s imagination whereas the windmills are unable to harm him. Nonetheless, Don Quixote rejects any compromises and continues his quest, which is similar to Monkey’s journey.

A trickster is a type of a morally ambiguous character that lets the authors explore their creativity and allows the readers to stretch their imagination and see the common events and people from unusual sides. Any culture has its tricksters in old and modern literature, often reworking the characters from the past and inserting them into the modern narratives. Because of wit and intelligence, the archetype of trickster is immensely popular among readers. It explains why Monkey: Folk Novel of China, Don Quixote, and fairy tale tricksters still interest people and continue being discussed.

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