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Who is the Monkey King? - for dilettantes

Updated on August 17, 2012

An English translation of Journey to the West

One of a four volume set
One of a four volume set

Is the Monkey King some particularly incompetant leader?

I made it to adulthood without learning of the Monkey King. I occasionally heard a passing reference to this character, such as, "Who does he think he his? Some kind of Monkey King, or something?", which was a bit mysterious to me. I wondered if there was some particularly playful and irresponsible monarch who was dubbed the Monkey King. Or maybe, it was a bit like being vice president; some official with no real power, but a lot of symbolic authority. "Ok, you are lord of all the monkeys."

Would it be appropriate to call Dick Cheney, or Joe Biden a monkey king? As it turns out, no it wouldn't.

The Monkey King (孙悟空) is a character from a fantasy novel written during the Ming Dynasty. Joe Biden and Dick Cheney resemble Jedi Knights more than they resemble the Monkey King, and they aren't terribly likely to start deflecting blaster bolts with an adroit flick of a light saber.

The novel that the Monkey King comes from is titled "Journey to the West" (《西游记》) and is considered one of the four great works of classical Chinese literature. The monkey king is a very powerful creature. He made mischief in heaven, but the lords and armies of heaven were unable to overcome him. Only Buddha was powerful enough to subdue the Monkey King by burying him under a mountain. After 500 years he was released to serve as the protector of a small band of adventurers on a journey to India in order to retrieve original Buddhist scripture.

The movie "Cave of the Silken Web" [Shaw Bros. 1967] depicts a fairly typical episode from this Journey. Some monsters want to eat the flesh of the monk leading the expedition (唐曾) in order to achieve immortality (the motive for much mischief throughout the book). One of the disciples, who rather resembles a pig, (猪八戒) gets the entire group into trouble through his appetite for attractive women and good living. There is a pretty ordinary guy on the journey who doesn't do much special (沙悟净). The Monkey King saves all of their bacon.

There are some famous TV series that attempt to cover the entire novel. But "Cave of the Silken Web" is a relatively quick and easy introduction. I also like it for its use of standard and straight-forward Mandarin.

"Cave of the Silken Web"


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