The Journey to the West
October 9, 2002 11:31 PM   Subscribe

The Journey to the West is one of China's most popular literary classics. This site illustrates one section of this important story, the birth of the Monkey King, with 100 beautiful images. You can also take the time to read selections from several other Chinese classics, notably The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Tale of the Water Margin and one of my all time favorites, The Romance of the Western Chamber. These works, and others on the site, are important in their own right, but are also significant because they are source material for Chinese film, TV and especially for Jingju, which Westerners call Beijing opera.
posted by Joey Michaels (16 comments total)
Mmmm I love Monkey. That was one of my favourite shows. I used to watch it everyday after school. Pigsy, Sandy, they were all so cool. I used to want a talking horse and a pink cloud too.
posted by Jubey at 11:37 PM on October 9, 2002

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Romance of the Western Chamber were also the source for a *lot* of art painted on porcelain during several dynasties in China--Ming and Qing dynasties for example.

I love how they employed storytelling in their artwork on porcelain--some of the painting is absolutely incredible. They would also have to use scenes from these stories because they were popular motifs with the consumers including scholars and wealthy upper class--and sometimes they fell back on reproducing scenes on their porcelain that slyly, almost transparently worked around the political edicts of not being too representational of the current emperor's reign. Unwittingly the chinese porcelain exported to Europe helped spur the Chinoiserie craze, and soon Germany, France and England were making porcelain plates, cups, bowls, salt cellars etc with decorations one can trace back to some of these stories.

My cat's nickname is The Monkey King. :-)

Great links, thanks.
posted by Kato at 1:19 AM on October 10, 2002

Nice post!
posted by rushmc at 5:13 AM on October 10, 2002

Thanks, pretty much the rest of the day will go to waste now!
I used to watch Monkey on UK tv when i was younger, so this post will probably keep me occupied for weeks...
posted by iain at 5:28 AM on October 10, 2002

The Monkey King was also the original inspiration for...god help us all...Dragonball.

No, not the cpu. Well, okay, the cpu too, but mainly that show where the cast goes "Nnnnnnnnnnnnggggghhhh!" for episodes on end.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:12 AM on October 10, 2002

beijing opera, ugh! :(:( i know it's an ancient musical form and tradition and stuff, but this about sez it all:

"In the ancient times, Beijing Opera was performed mostly on open-air stages in markets, streets, teahouses or temple courtyards. The orchestra had to play loudly and the performers had to develop a piercing style of singing, in order to be heard over the crowds." [emphadd]

like you really better like the story if you're going to listen to it!
posted by kliuless at 7:50 AM on October 10, 2002

Thanks, Joey Michaels. When I was teaching college in Taiwan, one thing that amazed me was how ubiquitous these stories were -- everybody knew and referred to them. Once when I somehow got into a discussion of the "return to the mainland" (very cautiously -- this was back in the days when the KMT ran a vicious one-party state with zero tolerance for dissent) somebody said "It's like when Liu Pei went south..." and there ensued an animated discussion; it took me awhile to realize they were talking about the Three Kingdom period, almost 1,800 years before! A very different sense of time and history; I felt like a short-sighted and ignorant barbarian.

On preview: kliuless, Beijing opera does sound awful to untrained ears, but if you hear it enough, it starts to sound normal. (That's when you know it's time to head back to the States....)
posted by languagehat at 8:06 AM on October 10, 2002

Great TV, wonderful literature.
There are several good fan sites for the NTV series that screened in Australia and the UK, but my favorite version of "Journey to the West" is a Chinese cartoon produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studios in the early sixties. Though sometimes criticised for the extent of its abridgement, Waley's translation is particularly accessible and highly recommended.
While the historical journey and teaching of Hsuan Tsang is a great story, Wu Ch'eng-en's portrayal of Sun Wu Kong represents "the restless instability of genius" -- a universal inspiration. Remember, the nature of Monkey was IRREPRESSIBLE!!
posted by stinglessbee at 8:21 AM on October 10, 2002

Beautiful. I started Water Margin once (under the title "Outlaws of the Marsh"). Fascinating but didn't have the time to finish it. Maybe I'll have another go.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2002

A Bay Area cartoonist named Gene Yang has been putting out an amazing comic called American Born Chinese that combines the Monkey King legend with semi-autobiographical work. It's housed at Modern Tales, so it requires a[n entirely affordable] subscription to view it in its entirety, but I couldn't recommend it more highly. (The most current installment is available for free, so go peek.)
posted by poseur at 9:27 AM on October 10, 2002

kliuless: like you really better like the story if you're going to listen to it!

Musical taste is, of course, subjective. I recall a time when American legislators figured out one way to get kids to stop loitering in certain subway stations was to play classic music. Then, of course, we tried to annoy Noriega with Western pop music. My point is that jingju music is considered to be lovely by a goodly number of human beings. Not everyone in China likes jingju (anymore than everyone in America likes country music), but I daresay it is one of the more popular forms of music in the world (based solely on the population of China).

Dismissing jingju for being piercing is like dismissing jazz for being disjointed, IMO.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:23 AM on October 10, 2002

Where the heck is Bruce Lee? Hong Kong? An hour after you read you are ready to read again.
posted by Postroad at 12:01 PM on October 10, 2002

Fabulous link. Great comments. Well, there goes the rest of the workday.

I recall a time when American legislators figured out one way to get kids to stop loitering in certain subway stations was to play classic music. Then, of course, we tried to annoy Noriega with Western pop music.

Here in Seattle, there's an infamous McDonald's smack in the middle of touristland which has been called "the most dangerous intersection of the city" (by a white cop who apparently had never been past Pioneer Square). In order to drive the teenagers who hang around outside away, the McDonald's blasts loud, obnoxious music. The teenagers usually retaliate by turning up their boom boxes. There's also a drugstore on University Ave which blasts classical music at the teenagers hanging around outside, but they usually seem too stoned to mind.

What was blared at David Koresh? No music, I don't think. I remember alarm clock noises and rooster crowings played at incredible decibel levels. Perhaps Beijing opera would have been less alienating. No one was apparently in the mood for Mozart.
posted by redshoes3 at 1:32 PM on October 10, 2002

yeah, my friend's mom likes it a lot! and she can sing it pretty well, too :D like i don't like it at all (so awful) but i could tell moms had skillz! sorry to generalize my personal musical tastes :D
posted by kliuless at 1:43 PM on October 10, 2002

Fair enough, Kliuless! I should work harder to control my knee-jerk defense of jingju music. I recognize that, to many people, it sounds like a cat being strangled in a drawer full of pots and pans. :D
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:48 PM on October 10, 2002

This is sweet. It also reminds of something that I had made a mental note of exploring (after reading a mention of this in "Diamond Age"): the archetypal trickster figure which appears throughout history in virtually every culture.

Has anybody read "Trickster Makes This World" by Lewis Hyde? I haven't, but I'm wondering if I should order it since it pops up so often on searches for "trickster"...
posted by taz at 4:25 AM on October 11, 2002

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