This is for anyone who has turned on Chinese TV and wondered what (in Buddha’s name!) the monkey, the pig and the monk are actually doing…
I didn’t exist for part of, and was then quite little for the rest of, the 1970s. Which is why all I remember about a TV series about a kungfu-fighting monkey is a kungfu-fighting monkey. So, imagine my surprise when I happened across a Chinese novel, and not just any novel, but one of the four great works of Chinese literature about – you guessed it – a kungfu-fighting monkey.
I then put 2 + 2 together, as countless millions have obviously done before me (you only need to google it to see what I mean) and became slightly obsessed. Since then I’ve been spending my time watching (nb. this is not the same as understanding) the addictively addictive CCTV series.
In fairness, Journey to the West [variously named in English translations, in Chinese simply 西游记|xīyóujì ] is about far more than a kungfu-fighting monkey – it’s about a monk and a pig too. Essentially it is a journey of discovery, the three main characters thrown together to face evil and adversity on their way to locate (and bring back to China) the Buddhist sutras from India.
Any so-called sinophile, worth their weight in rice, should bow down and worship the original CCTV serialisation. CCTV’s 西游记 is a legend in its own lifetime, rarely spending time off the air now, almost 30 years after it was made. The reverse logic by which “cool” is born means that the so bad they’re actually good special-effects, spangly theme tune and 1970s-Made-in-China naivety sign-post a genuine TV classic and if you can handle the fact that it’s in Mandarin – and quite a lot of old Mandarin – it’s a must-see for anyone who wants a piece of popular Chinese culture.
The Monkey [孙悟空|sūnwùkōng]
Intelligent, irreverent and irrepressible, a monkey originally formed from stone and given life becomes learned in magic and kungfu: he is christened 孙悟空. The Jade Emperor of Heaven takes a disliking to this arrogant upstart and eventually calls on Buddha to imprison him under a mountain for 500 years.
孙悟空 spends most of his time fighting demons, making fun of 猪八戒 and laughing at how pathetic and simplistic are his foe.
The Pig [猪八戒|zhūbājiè]
Slothful, lustful and greedy, a pig (who is actually a man who can turn into 36 different things but so much does his real character resemble a pig that it’s too much trouble for him to appear as a man) who once presided over the Heavenly Host (Heaven’s army) was thrown out of Heaven for trying to seduce Chang’E (beautiful woman of Chinese legend who lives on the moon).
猪八戒 spends most of his time eating, sleeping and trying to marry beautiful women, and their sisters, and their mothers.
The Monk [唐三藏|tángsāncáng]
Serious, gullible and compassionate, the monk is the only human on the journey. After being rescued from a river in Moses-esque fashion he was brought up in a monastery. He is devoted to Buddhism and this (complete with his gullibility) makes him the perfect candidate for the mission.
唐三藏 spends most of his time tied-up in caves (by monsters who want to eat him and stay eternally youthful), riding his pony into the distance and murmuring “Emitofo” (a Buddhist mantra).
An English translation of the novel is on its way to me as I write: expect more…
Now, how could you not want to know more about Journey to the West ? Check out:
- Stephen Chow’s 2-part movie spoof: Part 1. Part 2.
- CCTVs classic series available for download here.
- “Monkey Magic” cult English-dubbed Japanese version, download here.
- Listen and learn with ChinesePod’s (upper-intermediate level) podcast.
- I love this site for more amusing, in-depth information, in English.