Monkey sometimes confuses Western readers because it's so different in form and substance from the major western epics or mythical and religious stories, such as those of the Homeric poems or the Bible. They're tragic. Monkey, by contrast, is comic. Western tales have mostly noble human characters, usually princes. By contrast, Monkey has few human characters. Moreover the main human character, the monk Hsuan Tsang (also called Tripitika), is the very opposite of a prince. He’s a saint who has taken a vow renouncing both riches and power. Moreover, to be frank, he’s a fool. Western stories that feature evil monsters take these monsters seriously, even when (as is the case in the Odyssey, medieval tales of dragons, or modern myths like the Lord of the Rings cycle) there’s some doubt that they’re real. But the "scary" monsters in Monkey are clearly meant to be laughed at, even when they brag about having eaten large numbers of human beings.
To make it more approachable for the Western reader, the text of Monkey can be understood as an eastern equivalent of either (a) a European fairytale or (b) a modern animal cartoon from, say, Looney Tunes. (I happen to think Bugs Bunny is quite reminiscent of the title character of Monkey, and Pigsy has more than a little in common with Porky Pig too.)
It may seem strange to think of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig as the heroes of a classical epic. But Monkey is an epic because it has a more serious purpose than Looney Tunes do, despite its comic animal characters and grotesque situations. Monkey is an allegory for every man's spiritual journey from birth through life to death. The purpose of the story is to show how we attain wisdom through pursuit of a purpose in life, thus becoming ready for death and for an afterlife as spiritual rather than material beings. But how can such a high purpose be served by a story that seems as if it’s not meant to be taken seriously? The answer lies not in Chinese history or culture,...
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