Monkey King

If you go to the Red Woods, you need to know Paul Bunyan. If you go to Mexico, you should know Catrina. And if you go to China, you should know the Monkey King. Otherwise you may find scenes like this, and there are a lot of them, confusing (and China already has enough things to confuse you):

Aviva West's photo of characters from Journey to the West.

Characters of Journey to the West. Photo by Aviva West.

So what do we have here? A marching monkey wearing a tiger skirt, a Pig-Man (or Man-Pig?) and a couple of monks. Not your usual group of travelers. And they weren’t just casual tourists. Rather they were on a mission – to travel to the West (India, in this case) to obtain the sacred Buddhist texts and bring them back to China.

Their story was inspired by a historical event, a Chinese monk named Xuanzang did travel to India collecting Buddhist artifacts around the year 630. However, Journey to the West was not written until the 16th Century. That nine hundred years was plenty of time for history, myth and legend to percolate together into a fabulous adventure story.

Cast of Journey to the West

Xuanzang – The monk Xuanzang (sometimes called Tripitaka), is the character seated on the white horse (who like any good steed is also a dragon-prince). Xuanzang is a man with a purpose, bent on bringing the Sutras back to China. But he’s just a man – no special powers, which is why he needs some eccentric friends to help him.

Monkey King – The most important of these disciples is the Sun Wukong, better known as the Monkey King. Monkey is strong and clever. He has magical powers and can transform into other things. But while he scores high for ability, he’s also kind of immature, cocky and mischievous. Basically he fits the mold perfectly for the mythological archetype of a trickster.

Pigsy – Zhu Bajie, aka Pig or Pigsy, is not quite as powerful as Monkey, but is equally entertaining. Like Monkey, he has magical powers, can transform into different things and has a knack for getting into trouble. In Pigsy’s case, that trouble often comes from flirting.

Sandy – Loyal and logical, Sha Wujing, or Friar Sand or Sandy, is the straight man, there to make everyone else’s eccentricities the more obvious.

The four of them have a variety of mishaps and adventures on their way to India (think Wizard of Oz). They eventually achieve their goal of securing the Buddhist texts and bringing them to China, but a lot (too much to tell in a travel blog) happens in between.

Peter Vanderheyden's photo of an ad for Monkey King the musical.

Monkey King in popular culture. Photo by Peter Vanderheyden.

Find Out More…

The original text of Journey to the West is attributed to Wu Cheng’en and was published during the 16th century. Since 16th century, Chinese transcripts are difficult for most of us to read, Arthur Waley’s 1942 translation, called Monkey, is probably a better bet.

But you can also meet Monkey in the movies (and according to the photo I found on Flickr, in the theater). I stumbled upon The Lost Empire  one  lazy Sunday when I needed a TV movie to distract me while I folded laundry. But there’s a whole list of Monkey King movies.  Charismatic Monkey-men are inspiring.

It’s Weird that It’s West

For most of us travel blog readers, going to India would be a journey to the east, but it all depends on your perspective. (I’ve always wondered why the three “western” religions come from a place we call the “Middle East”.) It’s good to be reminded that its all relative.




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