from Mary : My “Norwegian Woods” story…

Growing up in Southeast Asia, you wouldn’t think that American Cowboys & Indians would be, as my kids would say, “a thing,” but it was. My dad grew up in 1930s and 40s America, in the West. Out where real cowboys lived. Out where members of the local Utes tribe came into town on weekends. He grew up watching double-feature movies and loved the Westerns. He still does.

My family moved back to the United States in 1970 — I would be coming here for the first time. We took a month to make the trip, stopping at places throughout Europe that my mother had always wanted to visit. That included Oslo, Norway. I was young enough I don’t remember a lot of things from Oslo except that I’d never seen such clear blue skies in my life. And that the motel where we stayed outside of Oslo had a pond out back. There was a raft made from logs tied together and long pole for pushing yourself around that pond. One day my dad suggested all four of us kids head out to play.

Suddenly, we were all rafting along the Missouri River — heading west. “The West” was the far side of the pond — complete with stand after stand of birch trees.  Once we arrived there we kids split up — half of us to be cowboys, the other half to be Indians.

I’ve often wondered what other motel guests thought when they heard whoops and “hee-aws” coming from out back. As for me?  I was the beautiful Indian Maid gleefully throwing stick arrows at her brother, the rascally Cowboy Dave.

— Mary Wright

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Cowpokes for Christmas

Recently I spent the night at my daughter’s house in Nyack, NY, for a belated holiday get-together we hadn’t been able to get together until well into the New Year. Nelly usually goes down for the count right after wrangling my two grandsons, Eli (9) and Noah (5) into bed, so she had thoughtfully prepared a special activity to keep me occupied so she could collapse: a plastic tub full of old photos. Some years before I’d passed on to her the mantle of family archivist (she has a bigger attic), and this tub was part of the collection. Wise Nelly: I was pawing through it for hours.

I was also thinking about the American Myth part of our play, Journey from the East, and hoping I’d find some vaguely remembered pix of me playing cowboy when I was a kid. Man, did I hit the mother lode! For Christmas the year I was Noah’s age and my sister Lynn was 3, we BOTH got Wild West outfits — she got to be sharpshooter Annie Oakley, while I was given an entire Hopalong Cassidy rig (which included not only the chaps, the shirt, the double six-guns, & the hat, but also, oddly, hair training lotion). Here we are:

In front of a Christmas tree, a 3-year-old girl in an Annie Oakley outfit opposite her 5-year-old brother got up as Hopalong Cassidy

Annie Oakley meets Hopalong Cassidy

Note the difference in our expressions; if this were a real shootout in Tombstone, I know who’d be bitin’ the dust the next second, and it ain’t the one on the tricycle!

The West has had a powerful hold on the imagination of grownups as well as children in this culture, and not just in the twentieth century, and not just in the U.S., either. So the next few blogPosts will explore this idea from a number of different angles.

To begin with, it occurred to me that there just might be others in our extended gang of Touchstone Pilgrims who might have similar stories — and maybe even photos — that they’d be willing to share, so I put out a general call for stories of their experience of the Old West myth, and any treasures they may have hiding in a plastic tub or shoebox somewhere… Let’s see what turns up!

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Horsey and Sandy Join the Pilgrimage

To complete the roll call of Pilgrims in the classic Chinese Journey to the West, we need to introduce Sandy and Horsey, as they are called in English versions of legend. Today’s post will start with Horsey, (Yulong in Chinese, meaning “rain dragon”), then finish up with Sandy, (Sha Wujing in Chinese, meaning “Sand Awakened to Purity.”

Yulong, the White Dragon Horse (aka Horsey)

Yulong, son of Dragon King Ao Run, is the least well-known of the Pilgrims in Journey to the West, since for the most part he serves merely as transportation, the White Horse that Tang Monk Xuanzang rides for most of the way. Horsey, as we call him in English, is actually only the third son of Ao Run, who rules the Western Sea, as one of the Four Dragon Kings who govern the four oceans thought to bound ancient China in the cardinal directions to the North, South, East, and West.

Dragons play a major part in Chinese myth and legend: they dwell in royal courts made of crystal beneath the waves, where they command armies whose brigades and divisions are made up of the many different creatures who live in the sea. They are also in charge of the weather, and create great storms and whirlwinds, sometimes appearing to mortal humans as waterspouts and maelstroms.

Photo of a Dragon King in his temple.

Dragon King in his temple

In ancient times many villages had temples dedicated to their local Dragon King, where they made sacrifices in order to persuade their powerful deity to send good weather for their crops — not too much rain so as to flood, but not so little as to create a drought.

Interestingly, dragons of Western myth tend to resemble lizards, while those of the East are more often winged serpents, when inhabiting their “natural” form. But Chinese dragons can change their shape at will — into, say, a Lordly White Horse, as with our Pilgrims, but they can also take human form, in which they often appear with a dragon head wearing a crown.

Being the third son of a king isn’t necessarily a great thing for a dragon to be, living on hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs, and with no hope of inheriting very much in the future, which may explain why Sandy “acts out” so badly when Monkey and the Tang Monk first encounter him. But once again, Guanyin has been there before them, and when he finds out who they are, Horsey becomes the most steadfast of the Pilgrims on the Journey to the West.

Sha Monk, Monk Sand, or Sandy

Of all the pilgrims, Friar Sand most resembles his Master Xuanzang in, well, monkishness. Like Pigsy — but NOT like Monkey, who was a party-crasher in heaven — Sandy was a high-ranking officer in the Celestial Army, a Curtain-Lifting General, whose position of honor was to attend the chariot of the Jade Emperor in the Hall of Miraculous Mist. (Wouldn’t you love to live in a place with a name like that?) But one day, in a fit of rage (his defenders say it was an accident), he smashed a crystal goblet belonging to the Queen Mother of the West (also known as the Perfected Marvel of the Western Florescence and the Ultimate Worthy of the Grotto Yin), and this called down upon him 800 blows with a rod by her infuriated son the Jade Emperor, who then exiled him to the mortal realm. There the disgraced former general was incarnated as a hideous man-eating sand demon. And every day, seven swords flew down from heaven to stab him in the chest, which is why he took up living in the middle of the Flowing-Sand River in order to protect himself.

Drawing of Friar Sand with his crescent-moon staff and necklace of skulls

Image of Sha Wujing

His appearance is truly hideous: a huge red beard, a bald pate, and a necklace of skulls. The skulls came from nine monks who had previously tried to make the Journey to the West to fetch scriptures: even though they begged Sandy for mercy, he devoured them anyway, sucked the marrow out of their bones, and threw the leftovers into the river. All the bones sank, but the skulls floated, so Sandy played with them and finally fashioned jewelry out of them.

When Guanyin was sent by the Buddha to find bodyguards for the Tang Monk on his Journey to the West, she enlisted the monster, gave him the name Sha Wujing, and, as she had done with Monkey and Pigsy, gave him a promise of redemption at the end of the Journey.

Sandy carries a Staff called Yueyachan, which has a crescent moon blade at one end and a spade on the other. He knows 18 transformations (to Pigsy’s 36 & Monkey’s 72), and fights best in water, even though Pigsy can outlast him in a test of endurance, and Monkey can defeat him on land or in the air. Also unlike them, Sandy doesn’t have superpowers or superfaults either. He is polite, obedient, and rather intellectual like his Master — perhaps Guanyin felt the group needed one more-or-less normal person!

The Flowing-Sand River in which Sandy lives before joining the Journey is also the boundary of the known world in the story. When Sandy joins the Pilgrims, the Journeyers cross the frontier into the wilderness — where, as we know, pretty much anything can happen…


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Pig of Power!

One of the first monsters encountered by the Monk and Monkey in the classic novel Journey to the West is a chimera, part pig and part human, who cannot survive without eating ravenously — and indulging his other fleshly desires as well. Like Monkey, this beast had also run afoul of the authorities in Heaven, where he once held the office of Marshal of the Canopy, commander of the 100,000 sailors in the Navy of the Milky Way. The other gods called him “Heavenly Tumbleweed,” presumably because he had a tendency to ramble into precincts where he wasn’t exactly invited to go. During one celebration, he drank too much and made an indecent pass at the Moon Goddess; the Jade Emperor was so infuriated that he banished Tumbleweed from Heaven, to be reincarnated on earth — in some retellings, the poor amorous immortal was sentenced to 1000 lives, each of which would end in a love tragedy.

Drawing of Pigsy with his nine-toothed rake.

Illustration of Zhu Bajie, aka Pigsy

Worse and worser: during his transmigration from deity to human, there’s a technical error at the Reincarnation wheel, and the former Marshall Canopy ends up in the womb of a sow, and thus is born Zhu Ganglie, “strong-maned pig” — or Pigsy to his friends (except he doesn’t have any yet, only victims). After years committing one atrocity after another, he is finally saved by Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, who intervenes and converts him to Buddhism, promising that his sentence will be commuted if he assists Monkey in protecting the Tang Monk on the Journey to the West. In honor of his conversion, Guanyin bestows upon him the title Zhu Wuneng, or Pig Who Rises to Power!

According to Lehigh professor Norman Girardot (who has been a mentor to us from the beginning, and who led the original project to build the Harmony Pavilion where our play will be performed), if Monkey symbolizes mind and imagination, then Pigsy represents the body and its powerful hungers and drives, against which the poor “idiot” — which everyone, including the author, calls him — is pretty much powerless. The Monk Xuanzang gives him the nickname Zhu Bajie, or “Eight-Precepts” Pig, to remind him of the eight kinds of food he’s forbidden to eat as a good Buddhist. Pigsy’s conversion, however, is never quite effective in keeping him out of trouble, especially when his appetites come into play, and he must be rescued himself more than once; in the end, however, his tremendous physical strength, courage, and excelling good humor more than make up for the inconvenience he creates.

Pigsy’s signature weapon is a nine-toothed Rake, and he is also capable of 36 transformations (in contrast to Monkey’s 72). But he’s especially good at fighting in water, which is not Monkey’s best element. Best of all, he’s a tolerant, soft-hearted optimist, and this really complements the emotional makeup of the group. And even though he and Monkey are always squabbling, Pigsy really does look up to Sun Wukong as to an older brother.

Welcome, Pigsy! In an upcoming post, we’ll meet our last two Pilgrims, Sandy and Horsey.

— BBly

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Adapted From…

Journey-to-the-west-1986Since its 16th-century publication, Journey to the West has been a massively popular cultural phenomenon in China, spawning approximately a quadrillion retellings and adaptations (it’s true – I got that number from the dramaturg). A popular TV version was produced for a 17-year run and still airs today. Film adaptations date back to 1927. Countless works of Beijing Opera feature Sun Wukong, and dozens of other art forms reference the story.

Wherefore the massive popularity? Is it perhaps safety in sequels, refuge in remakes? One interviewee from last year’s story gathering mentioned his frustration with Chinese cinema not taking more risks or exploring new ground, due to fear of the censors. Maybe — but still, there’s something innately self-popularizing about the story of Journey: ridiculous humor, crazy action sequences, a classic story of a hero’s journey, and a lasting resonance of humility and transcendence.

For today, I want to look past the Beijing Opera, films, and TV shows (of which there are many) and talk through some recent, slightly more off-the-beaten-path adaptations.

MI0000823461MUSICThis album was part soundtrack, part adaptation-of-soundtrack for Monkey: Journey to the West, a stage musical created by Wu Cheng’en (author of the 16th-century novel), Chen Shi-Zheng, Damon Albarn, and Jamie Hewlett. The play was generally regarded as visually stunning but underdeveloped in terms of character arc and cohesion of story (Lisa and Jp saw the 2013 tour that came to Lincoln Center and gave that production a thumbs down). The soundtrack strives for a wide range of sounds, employing classic Beijing Opera instrumentation but also including an eclectic mix of C-pop, electronica, folk, and modern experimental music. Albarn says: “It’s very much a modern piece, it’s not trying to evoke the time of legend at all. It’s very much in sort of downtown Beijing, Shanghai or Tokyo. It’s very much the modern Asia: slightly kooky, very colourful, quite sexy, but still a quite sinister place.”

American Born ChineseGRAPHIC NOVEL – Last season, Touchstone board member and all-around awesome person Alexis Leon introduced me to American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and it was a total game-changer for me personally. The Monkey King’s headlong pursuit of increased power and personal betterment unfolds alongside the story of a Chinese-American youth struggling to carve out a place and identity for himself. It’s absolutely beautiful. When asked about the cultural relevancy of the Monkey King across cultures and years, Yang responds: “In a very real sense, the Monkey King is universal. He’s been around a long, long time, and I think he’s sturdy enough to follow us wherever we go, to embody whatever philosophies and beliefs we arrive at.”

631597a7db9df21746620c504acd95ecANIME – Man, if I could spend a whole blog post on this one. Alakazam the Great, one of the first Japanese anime series to be released in the US, was a riff on the Monkey King. The original classic Dragon Ball manga/anime (also Japanese) is definitely a Monkey King riff, with its monkey-tailed protagonist, Son Goku (the Japanese transliteration of Sun Wukong). American-made webseries/anime RWBY features a character with parkour/martial arts and a monkey pendant… named Sun Wukong. The list goes on. I suppose Monkey – as a mischievous, acrobatic, magic-and-superpower-wielding demigod on a quests – fits right in with plenty of anime genres.

enslavedheroVIDEO GAME – (okay, I confess, this was the first category I thought of when brainstorming modern adaptations of Journey…) We’ve got Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a story of a war-torn, post-apocalyptic world which sees a tough loner named Monkey playing escort duty for a nineteen year old girl named Trip (a.k.a. Tripitaka). It diverges enormously from the source material, but it shares some character names, several of Sun Wukong’s accessories, and thematic elements of interdependence. Also, the game features more robots than in the original Chinese text. The game received mostly positive critical reception, with special notice going to its excellent visuals and strong storytelling. There’s also Ether Saga Odyssey, an MMO set in Journey‘s mythic world and featuring demigods, animal spirits, and dragons. And for the younger kids, there’s The Journey to the West: The Birth of the Monkey King, a multi-lingual
eBook/phone game learning aide (available for $2.99 on the Apple Store).

You get the idea – Journey to the West and Sun Wukong the Monkey King are huge cultural celebrities. This April, Touchstone is proud to add Journey from the East to this smorgasbord of Journey adaptations. We don’t have giant robots or C-Pop, but we think it’ll be a worthwhile addition to the list, and we can’t wait to share it with you.

— Emma Chong

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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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The story’s getting around!

A few days ago, I discovered that Gamut Theatre’s Popcorn Hat Young Acting Company will be presenting an adaptation of our favorite Chinese classic, Journey to the West, this weekend at the Sunoco Performance Theater in the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, 222 Market St., Harrisburg PA.

Popcorn Hat Players do Journey to the West

Popcorn Hat Players perform “Journey to the West” this Saturday in Harrisburg!

For more information, visit“.

Break a leg, Pilgrims!!


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