By James Trapp

03 February 2016 - 14:25

'It is likely that the Monkey King started his life as a foreign import.' Photo (c) Yun Huang Yong, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adpated from the original.
'It is likely that the Monkey King started his life as a foreign import.' Photo ©

Yun Huang Yong, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adpated from the original.

You may have never heard of him, but Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, has been adored in the world’s most populated country for centuries. And he’s been introduced into Western culture, too. On the cusp of the Year of the Monkey, James Trapp of the Institute of Education Confucius Institute examines the Monkey King's roguish charm.

Who is the Monkey King?

Cloud-leaping, shape-shifting, demon-killing and magic staff-wielding, the Monkey King is perhaps the most enduring figure in Chinese literature and folklore. He is the ultimate bad boy made good – he causes havoc in heaven, uproar under the sea, returns from the dead to continue his mischief, and even survives the fires of heaven. He is so powerful, only the Buddha can subdue him, but in the end, he finds redemption as the faithful servant and protector of the saintly monk Xuanzang, who is on a pilgrimage to collect scriptures.

Where did the Monkey King come from?

Sun Wukong first appears in The Journey to the West, one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature. It was written by Wu Cheng'en in the second half of the 16th century CE and tells a fictionalised, romanticised version of Buddhist monk Xuanzang's real-life pilgrimage from China to India in the seventh century. However, the book is more than a fictionalised travelogue – it is one of the great fantasy novels of world literature. It is a wonderful blend of historical fact, folk beliefs and Daoist and Buddhist traditions, held together by the figure of the Monkey King.

It is likely that the Monkey King started his life as a foreign import and was probably inspired by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. In the Ramayana, an epic poem written in the fourth century BCE, Hanuman is a monkey general who volunteers to help the god Rama rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. The similarities in both storyline and attributes between the two monkey immortals are striking. The suggestion of foreign influence on one of China's great folk heroes only serves to demonstrate the ability for Chinese civilisation to absorb influences, experiment with them and turn them into something uniquely and unmistakeably Chinese.

Why is the Monkey King's appeal so widespread and enduring?

In many ways, the Monkey King is the archetype of the folk hero, or in modern terms, the superhero. There is no single Western equivalent of the Monkey King – perhaps a combination of Robin HoodHell Boy and Shakespeare's Puck.

The landscape of The Journey to the West, with its demons and animal spirits, is an early form of magical realism. Sun Wukong can change his shape at will and shrink his magic staff to the size of a needle, so he can keep it behind his ear – helping to cement his position as one of the world’s first superheroes. The martial arts elements of the story combine a sense of discipline and application with the sort of heroic skill that made films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such a success and have been a gift to film-makers over the years.

Despite his superpowers, at the heart of the Monkey King's appeal is his human fallibility – he is greedy, selfish, and prone to sudden changes of mood and outbursts of exceptional violence. He defies divine authority, laughs at attempts to be controlled, and leaves chaos in his wake. But we know that there is fundamental good within him. He is the misbehaving child who only needs a firm hand and a sense of purpose to come good.

Before becoming Xuanzang's disciple, the Monkey King causes havoc throughout the universe, while seeking what he believes to be due recognition as The Great Sage Equal of Heaven. His behaviour stems from feeling misunderstood and frustrated rather than from malice. He used his magic powers to defy, humiliate and conquer anyone and anything the gods threw at him. However, once the Buddha and Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy bring him under control, he is given discipline and purpose. Occasionally, these behaviours have to be reinforced by using an iron band around his forehead that Xuanzang can make shrink by reciting a mantra given to him by Guanyin. But overall, the Monkey King's previously destructive energies are turned to good in protecting his new master on his pilgrimage. He makes mistakes along the way. With firm but sympathetic guidance, however, he is good in the end – supremely so, to the point of achieving Buddhahood.

Where can one see the Monkey King on film?

It is his universal appeal that has enabled Sun Wukong's ongoing popularity and adaptability. The Monkey King is well-known in China through film, television, and in novel adaptations of The Journey to the West. He is also known as a free-standing character and is often used in advertising of all kinds. However, he is not confined to his native China, and appears, for example, in diverse media from Japanese woodcuts of the 19th century, to an operatic stage adaptation by Damon Albarn. The Monkey King is the most popular character of all time in Japanese manga comics and has been adapted for Japanese television. 

Monkey Magic, a Japanese adaptation of the novel was subtitled by the BBC and shown on UK television in the late seventies and early eighties, attracting a cult audience of UK school children. The Monkey King also re-appeared on British screens during the Beijing Olympics when he featured in the title sequence.

Film adaptations of the Monkey King story continue to be made. Tian Xiaopeng’s Monkey King: Hero is Back, was the highest-grossing animated film in China last year. It has been seen by many as an indigenous response to the Kung Fu Panda films, which many Chinese people severely disliked, viewing them as a Western exploitation of Chinese culture.

A Western version of the Monkey King story has been rumoured for some time. British novelist Neil Gaiman announced he was writing a script and was said to be collaborating with Guilermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and James Cameron (Titanic). But with a Chinese-American co-production also in development, it will only be a matter of time before another release.

Chinese New Year is on 8 February 2016. To learn more about the Monkey King and Chinese New Year, download the Year of the Monkey resource pack for schools.

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