Tuesday, April 28, 2015

X is for Xi You Ji - also known as Journey to the West (Epics from A to Z)

Come on, guys. Everybody knows the Monkey King, right?... Right?...

Origins
Journey to the West is one of the three great Chinese epics. It has existed in the oral tradition for hundreds of years, and it was also published in book format at the end of the 16th century. It takes place during the Tang Dynasty. It is an epic, mythical journey built on top of the historical event of Buddhism being brought to China.

The Heroes
The main hero of the story is supposed to be Xuanzang, a holy monk that is tasked by the emperor to travel to India and bring back the holy scriptures of Buddhism. He is very holy, very polite, very pure, and not exactly the survivor type. Here is the thing: Any demon who eats him gains immortality. That makes traveling for years through demon-infested lands a tad bit difficult.
Here is where the real hero (by centuries of popular vote) comes in: In order to protect the holy monk, bodyguards are ordered to accompany him. First and foremost, there is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, the archetypal Trickster, who once broke havoc in the Heavens, ate the peaches of immortality, crossed his name out of the Book of Life and Death, robbed the treasury of the Dragon Kings, and defeated the celestial armies... until they dropped a mountain on him. A couple of centures later he was freed to help Xuanzang on his quest. In order to keep him in line, Sun Wukong is crowned with an iron band that the monk can tighten with a special prayer - he is, for all intents and purposes, leashed to him until the end.
The other bodyguards are Zhu Baije, most commonly known as Pigsy or Monk Pig, and Sha Wujing, or Friar Sand. Both of them used to be heavenly generals before they were exiled to Earth for various sins, and became demons; they both join the monk's quest seeking redemption. Pigsy it not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and gets in trouble almost as often as he argues with Sun Wukong. He fights with a rake. Friar Sand is more quiet and obedient, and also less powerful than his companions.
In addition to the three misfits, there is also a hidden fourth companion: Yulong, a dragon prince, who is sentenced to be Xuanzang's steed in the form of a white horse.

The Highlights
I know I say this a lot, but it is really impossible to list all the highlights. The entire story is exciting, colorful, and all-around epic.
My favorite chapter is probably the one where the team encounters a den of female Spider Demons who capture the monk with silk threads they shoot from their belly buttons. It is a delightful mix of awkwardness (Xuanzang is kind of scared of women to begin with), terrifying magic abilities, and insect-involved fight scenes.
Another great moment is when Xuanzang and Pigsy accidentally drink from a spring in Women's Country, and they both become instantly pregnant (best monk freakout ever). In order to dissolve the magic pregnancy, they have to drink from another spring, protected by a demon. Sun Wukong takes the matter into his hands... after laughing his ass off.
Another famous moment of the epic is the tale of Princess Iron Fan, whose fan Monkey needs to steal in order to make a path across a mountain of flame. She proves to be a worthy opponent in a fight, together with her close-knit family of demons.
I also love the end of the story, when Sun Wukong asks to be released from the headband... just to find it is already gone.
Really, honestly, I could go on forever and ever. At one point I even ran a blog about this epic together with another storyteller, writing about our favorite scenes.
Just... go read the books.

Adaptations
Journey to the West literally has thousands of adaptations in cinema, TV, theater, song, and games. Monkey keeps popping up everywhere. Remember Goku in Dragon Ball? How about Jet Li in the Forbidden Kingdom? Some of my favorite takes on the story are the Japanese manga/anime Saiyuki, the post-apocalyptic video game Enslaved (with the talent of Andy Serkis bringing Monkey to life), Stephen Chow's recent movie adaptation (in the vein of Kung Fu Hustle), and, more recently, Zen Cho's short story Monkey King, Faerie Queen. Once you know the story, you'll see it everywhere!

21 comments:

  1. I first encountered the Monkey King in Laurence Yep's Dragon series (the first book is "Dragon of the Lost Sea"). Good books.

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  2. Ooh, fascinating stuff!

    Elizabeth Mueller
    AtoZ 2015
    My Little Pony

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  3. Amazing story..

    http://serendipityofdreams.blogspot.in/

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  4. If this blog has taught me anything, it's how few epics I have actually read or heard of. I had no idea there were so many.

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  5. My god! I can't believe you actually dug up an epic starting with X!!

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  6. I remember watching Monkey as a child and I now have the whole series on DVD - I love how silly it is in places. Saiyuki is also great :). I love sound of the pregnancy story and can just imagine how much Sun Wukong laughed :)
    Tasha
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

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  7. My brother and I loved Dragon Ball Z! It's interesting to know that is an adaptation of the Monkey King Story.

    AtoZ blogger
    http://livewagbark.com/

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  8. SUCH FUN FINDING OUT WHAT PEOPLE HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT FOR x IN THE a-z challenge

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  9. Very interesting Chinese hero for X, I was delighted to meet Xuanzang!

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  10. I loved watching Monkey as a child. I rarely understood the deeper meaning of the story, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was only as an adult I began to understand the symbolism and meaning.

    TD Harvey
    A to Z participant
    http://www.tdharveyauthor.com

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  11. Talk about having a handicap. This fellow was dealt a whopper. I loved this story.

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  12. I loved watching Monkey as a child. I rarely understood the deeper meaning of the story, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was only as an adult I began to understand the symbolism and meaning.

    TD Harvey
    A to Z participant
    http://www.tdharveyauthor.com

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  13. SO very cool!

    This has been a great blogging challenge.

    --
    Tim Brannan, The Other Side Blog
    2015 A to Z of Vampires
    http://theotherside.timsbrannan.com/

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  14. I read stories from Journey to the West to my two children from a very early age. Now that they are a teen and tween, I should ask them what they remember. I'm sure they will recall Sun Wukong, Pigsy, and Friar Sand; Xuanzang, not so much.

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  15. Another great, in depth post - love it! I can't believe that tomorrow's the penultimate day - where did the time go, and what will we do with ourselves once it's over?

    Fee | Wee White Hoose
    Scottish Mythology and Folklore A-Z

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  16. They sound like an interesting cast of characters. A lot of villains trying for redemption.

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  17. I remember watching the anime on TV when I was a kid. One of my favourite stories.
    But hey, the original sounds awesome! :-)

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  18. I remember watching the anime on TV when I was a kid. One of my favourite stories.
    But hey, the original sounds awesome! :-)

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  19. I feel like I need to read this now, so I can also be privy to all the Monkey references in the world.

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  20. Going to have to get this one from the library. I think we have it.

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  21. I really want to read this, but it's one of those tales I'm considering reading abridged to start out with, since I tend to go unabridged and take years to read stories to their completion... what I'd really LOVE is an illustrated version!!

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