King (Sun Wu)Kong

Of all the Pilgrims on the Journey to the West, the most unforgettable is the Monkey, Sun Wukong, also known as the Handsome Monkey King, Great Sage Equaling Heaven, and other somewhat less admiring epithets. As we saw in a previous post, the Tang monk Xuanzang is really out of his comfort zone on this journey through thousands of miles of unknown territory, and needs constant encouragement as well as protection.

Monkey is more than man enough for the job: he’s a demi-god who was born from a large stone that magically developed a womb and gave birth to a stone egg. When the wind blew upon this egg, out came a stone monkey who already knew how to walk — and he immediately started making trouble for anybody who got in his way, even the Jade Emperor in the Western Heaven. Eventually, his behavior got so bad that the Buddha imprisoned him under mountain for 500 years.

Monkey King surveys the landscape.

Sun Wukong, from an early printed edition of the novel.

In fact, Monkey hogs the first seven chapters of Wu Cheng’en’s novel Journey to the West; we don’t even hear about the ostensible hero of the journey, the monk Xuanzang, until Chapter 8, when the Emperor sends him on the pilgrimage to India in order to bring back sacred scriptures. The Buddha — knowing that Xuanzang, though very learned, is unlikely to survive the arduous journey on his own — asks Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, to provide the monk with companions, to protect him as well as to bear him company. Guanyin’s first choice is the Handsome Monkey King Sun Wukong (which means roughly “awakened to emptiness”, the primal state of the universe) because of his cleverness, his immense strength, and his irrepressible energy — three attributes the monk has in very short supply.

Sun Wukong possesses a robust array of super powers — he has a tempered-steel body and golden eyes that can penetrate any demon’s disguise; he can leap thousands of miles on his “somersault cloud”; and he has mastered the 72 Transformations that allows him to turn into anything he likes. Monkey also carries, as his signature weapon, a staff or cudgel, Ruyi Jingu Bang, which weighs 17,550 pounds, but can change size and shape at his command (he usually tucks it in behind his ear, like a pencil), plus three special hairs that, when he blows on them, can take pretty much whatever form Monkey wishes, and in whatever number he requires. These versatile “tools” come in handy many a time throughout the journey, when unexpected challenges appear — such as Ghost Bandits or Pilgrim-gobbling dragons.

Painting of the Monkey King and his dear Monk

Monkey King and his dear Monk.

From the beginning, the relationship between Monk and Monkey is — well, let’s just say vexed, but in time, for all their bickering, they become very attached to each other. It’s safe to say that without Monkey, the Journey to the West would hardly have been possible, or nearly so enjoyable for us!

— BBly

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