Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, translation by WJF Jenner

After spending over 2,000 pages with a trickster god, I find myself wondering what the appeal of the trickster god is. I don’t think I like tricksters.

Clever underdogs, yes. Arrogant tricksters? Not so much.

This post talks about my impressions after reading a complete translation (and a modern retelling) of the classic Chinese story of the Monkey King and his companions.

Visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English for a complete list of translations:

» What’s the best translation of Journey to the West?

Underdogs and Tricksters

Clever underdogs need you cheering for them, or their confidence will flag and they will fail. They enact poetic justice by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Even their opponents can respect their success.

Some tricksters play tricks for an audience—in which case they expect you to cheer for them—but some play tricks just to amuse themselves. What they enact is not so much justice as it is fun. For them, that is; not for whomever they tricked.

Among American cartoon tricksters, Wikipedia lists Bart Simpson, Buggs Bunny, Felix the Cat, Jerry of Tom & Jerry, the Pink Panther, and Woody Woodpecker. To the extent that I know any of these characters, I don’t particularly like them; I didn’t watch those shows much.

Norse god Loki is a trickster; I’ve seen him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; he pretends to be King Odin. That trick works particularly well if Loki has given you reason to believe he’s dead.

Brer Rabbit is an African-American folkloric trickster figure featuring in the animated “Uncle Remus stories” that were part of the controversial 1946 Disney film Song of the South. In one story, Brer Fox uses a tar baby (a sticky doll) to trap Brer Rabbit, who gets away by using reverse psychology: After Brer Rabbit begs the fox not to throw him in the briar patch, that’s exactly what the fox does. Disney’s “Splash Mountain” ride splashes down into this briar patch—or rather, it used to. They changed the theme of the ride due to concerns about the racist overtones of the source material.

And speaking of minority race issues in America, there’s Kokopelli, a Native-American flute-player, trickster, and/or fertility god or something, depending on whom you ask.

Nasreddin is a trickster figure in Central Asian folklore. I have a short book of stories about him, which I’ve read, but he’s not terribly familiar to me.

Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream playfully causes some of the chaos that forms the plot of the play.

The legendary Odysseus is a trickster. The Greeks saw him as a  clever hero, and I was taught their view of him. The Romans ascribed the same cleverness to Odysseus, but saw him in a negative light. Maybe, if I revisited the stories, I would too: the Romans saw deception as bad, regardless of its purpose or target. I’m on board with the idea that the ends don’t justify the means.

On the other hand, when Odysseus escapes the cyclops Polyphemus, and Brer Rabbit escapes Brer Fox, perhaps it would be fair to say the other guy started it. In such cases, by all means, deceive your enemy and save your skin. But the MO of trickster gods in general seems to be that they go looking for trouble.

Certainly that’s what Monkey does at the beginning of Journey to the West.

Structure and Characters of Journey to the West

Whoever calls it a novel is being generous. Journey to the West is almost entirely episodic, like the popular TV show it eventually became. The complete translation thus contains a lot of redundant passages reminding the audience who Monkey is and what the travelers are supposed to be doing on their journey—and also reiterating what happened in the last chapter.

It’s a bit tedious. And it takes a long time to get going.

Chapters 1 to 7 tell Monkey’s backstory. Monkey is magically born from a rock. He assembles a kingdom of monkeys in a lovely cave and presides over feasts. He cultivates magical powers. He acquires an absurdly strong magical weapon. He goes to hell and erases himself and his monkeys from the book that says when they have to die. He goes to heaven and gets a government job. He steals and eats some extremely special peaches, which he’s supposed to be protecting. He gets a different government job. He steals and consumes some magical alcohol and pills. The divine authorities try to kill him in various ways but fail. He demands an impressive title. He gathers supporters and wins a war against all the deities he offended with his misbehavior. Finally, he is confronted and defeated by the Buddha and trapped under a mountain for hundreds of years, fated to wait there until he’s needed for a spiritual quest.

Chapters 8 to 12 tell the backstory of Monkey’s master, Sanzang, the virtuous monk, and explain why the eponymous journey is necessary: The Tang Emperor died (temporarily), and while in the underworld, saw unredeemed souls suffering, and promised to help them. With the help of the goddess Guanyin, he commissioned Sanzang to go to the Western Heaven (somewhere in India) and fetch some important Buddhist scriptures that will spread salvation and free souls from suffering in the underworld and across China.

After we learn Sanzang’s story, he kinda fades into the background. It’s not his story, it’s Monkey’s. Sanzang seemingly can’t do anything for himself, and on the journey is constantly getting kidnapped or tricked and almost eaten by evil spirits. That’s why Guanyin arranged for Sanzang to meet with four traveling companions: Monkey, Pig, Friar Sand, and a Dragon transformed into a white horse.

Chapters 13 to 22 tell how Monkey, Friar Sand and Pig become disciples of Sanzang.

Monkey has to be rescued from under a mountain, where he was imprisoned by the Buddha for his outrageous behavior. The pilgrimage to India is a kind of penance for him: to redeem himself, he agrees to become a Buddhist monk and generally behave himself on the journey. However, as Monkey is powerful and impulsive, Guanyin puts a golden band on his head and teaches Sanzang a prayer that makes the band tighten painfully. This punishment, or a reminder that Sanzang can inflict it, is occasionally needed to keep Monkey in line.

It’s a well-known convention that the protagonist of a movie should do something, such as rescue a cute animal, that gets the audience on his side.  But  Monkey doesn’t “save the cat.” His early actions and attitude didn’t seem particularly admirable to me. If I’d been introduced to him at the start of Sanzang’s pilgrimage, when he was the “victim” of long imprisonment and newly subjected to the tyranny of the golden band, I would probably have liked him better and been more invested in the story.

Moreover, I’m firmly of the opinion that prequels should be read AFTER the main story. I can’t care much about a story’s backstory until I know the story itself. Thus I’m perpetually annoyed by publishers who number The Magician’s Nephew ahead of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And thus I felt impatient reading about all the trouble Monkey caused before he became a disciple of Sanzang.

Pig, Friar Sand, and the Dragon are, like Monkey, chosen by Guanyin to convert to Buddhism and help Sanzang to earn forgiveness for past misdeeds. Pig is always hungry and lazy, and sometimes gets distracted by attractive women. Monkey plays lots of tricks on him. Both Monkey and the narration frequently call him an idiot. Friar Sand is really quite cooperative: he fights Sanzang’s enemies, carries the luggage, and obeys various instructions. As best I recall, the Dragon remains a seemingly normal horse in every adventure except one, where he transforms, talks to other characters, fights an enemy, and sustains an injury.

Chapters 23 to 100 tell the group’s adventures on the way to fetch the scriptures, including a brief ending describing their success, return, and rewards.

Oh and by the way, the narration is frequently interrupted by poems (most of which don’t rhyme in English). Sometimes the poems are narration describing scenery, and sometimes they are dialog spoken by the characters. They might be two lines long, or two pages.

Adventures on the Journey to the West

Abridged versions and retellings can pick and choose which adventures to include, because there are a lot of them, and they’re mostly unconnected. Also, some of them are kinda similar. There are adventures in the wilderness, and adventures in big cities.

At the start of a wilderness adventure, typically Sanzang says, Oh, look at that attractive place! Let’s go there and rest. Monkey sees that it’s an evil place but fails to convince him to avoid it. Sanzang winds up prisoner. Monkey, Friar Sand, and Pig might be captured too, but Monkey usually escapes. He transforms to spy on the kidnappers and frees the others and/or goes and gets supernatural help. The demon or evil spirit is killed or revealed to be a disobedient heavenly servant, who is forgiven and returns with his or her particular god.

At the start of an urban adventure, typically the group expresses the intention of presenting their passport for inspection by the local ruler and then leaving when it has been stamped. But some evil influence is affecting the region’s government, and whatever the problem is, it has to be noticed, investigated, and straightened out before the group can proceed. Sometimes the pilgrims have to sneak away because their hosts are reluctant to let them stop celebrating their victory.

The details of the adventures convey (repeatedly) how powerful Monkey is, how greedy and lazy Pig is, how hapless Sanzang is, and how fated they all are to suffer (but not die) on their journey. Monkey’s behavior gradually improves.

I found it gratifying when the disciples were able to rectify some sort of problem, but I found many of the conflicts gruesome. My delicate sensibilities do not care to hear exactly what happens when some little devil gets hit on the head with Monkey’s near-invincible stick.

A more minor complaint is that it’s frustrating when the group (primarily Sanzang) doesn’t listen to Monkey, whose eyes magically see through most deceptions. Or when Monkey deliberately fools or betrays one or more of his companions (usually Pig), just for the fun of it. As readers, we know what the characters should do all in those situations; but for pages on end, they just… don’t do it. It’s like watching those characters in horror movies who go around opening doors in abandoned buildings when anybody with an ounce of common sense would turn and run the other way. In every case, the characters ultimately learn that nothing good can come of such behavior—but the characters in horror movies learn a lot faster.

Benefits of Reading Journey to the West

It took me a long time to get through because of the length, the structure, and the characters. I just didn’t find it engaging. I persisted partly out of stubbornness, I suppose, but also because I think this work is important.

Journey to the West is one of the four classic works of Chinese fiction. I wanted to know what’s in it, and now I do.

  • Now I know what Monkey is like, and why he has that thing on his head, and what he and his stick can do, and where he got it.
  • Now I know about Monkey’s companions and their characteristic strengths and failings—Pig’s in particular.
  • Now I know about Monkey’s enemies and allies, and how both are part of the process that leads the pilgrims to the truth they seek.

But mainly what I take away from the experience of reading a long piece of period writing such as this one or the Tale of Genji or The Dream of the Red Chamber is knowledge about the time in which it was set. Spending hundreds of pages in these worlds is like traveling in time and space. Through reading, we can learn about places we’ve never been and times we can’t go.

Moreover, exotic times and places give us perspective on more familiar ones. For example, passports are older than you might think, but in a world where mere mortals can speed through the clouds to cross oceans and continents almost as fast as Monkey, their use has changed a lot.

Versions of Journey to the West

There are only two complete English translations, but there are about five zillion adaptations. Not just abridgements, but also comics, graphic novels, cartoons, American movies, Chinese movies, television shows (including Dragonball), plays, operas, you name it. Heck, there’s a Lego set depicting, among other things, the peach garden that Monkey stole from, and the oven the gods tried to kill him in.

Hard to see clearly in this photo. Pretty impressive in person. The sign in the center says the price is 1599 yuan (over US$200).

I read the complete translation of Journey to the West by WJF Jenner and the retelling by Julia Lovell.

Jenner Translation of Journey to the West

It’s complete. It contains a translation of all 100 chapters of the original text of Journey to the West. It spans 2,346 pages.

It includes the poems. Some short poems rhyme in English. The longer “poem” passages are actually something called “parallel prose”.

It was published by Foreign Languages Press, a Chinese publisher, in 1982–1984, and is still in print if you know where to look. I read a four-volume paperback copy.

It took forever.

The text I read must have been reproduced by optical character recognition at some stage, because it has some distracting typos. I noticed mistakes such as a sentence that had “cat” instead of “eat” because of the visual similarity between ‘c’ and ‘e’, or a pair of words like “at tack” that, in context, clearly should have been printed as “attack”. During some parts of the book, the typos felt awfully close together, but I didn’t bookmark them and can’t easily find any of them now.

There is a 22-page introduction by Professor Shi Changyu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which deals with the history and symbolism of the story. There is also a 23-page translator’s afterword that talks about the structure, development, and appeal of the story and its characters.

There are a few short endnotes occupying one or two pages in each volume. This is not the version to read if you want explanations of exotic words and historical context; instead, read Anthony Yu’s scholarly rendition.

What needs explaining? Oh, any number of things.

Jenner’s translation is meant to be engaging and accessible, but there are a lot of phrases that I found confusing, or at best, mysterious, either because of the translation or because the idea itself is foreign to me.

What is an immortal of the Great Monad? A Vairocana mitre? Water deer? Muntjacs? Why are the disciples referred to sometimes as, for example, the Mother of Wood and the Lord of Metal? What might be the duties of a Curtain-lifting General?

Monkey’s weapon is an “as-you-will cudgel.” I’ve elsewhere heard it called a “wishing staff,” which in my view better describes both its versatility and its length.

After seeing it a few times, including in Chapter 89, I finally looked up “beetling scar.” It’s a description of part of a mountain landscape, and just means there’s an overhang.

In Chapter 6, Monkey fights Erlang, who wields a “two-bladed trident.” So… does it have two points or three? Hm.

In Chapter 63, the bird monster Monkey fights is described as having feet “as sharp as book−shaped blades.” Maybe ‘book’ means ‘scroll’? But I assume that the bird has sharp talons, and I can’t see how a book (in any shape or form) represents sharpness. There must be something I’m missing.

In fact, I’m sure there’s a LOT I’m missing. There’s all sorts of symbolism and allegory, possibly some political critique, and a lot about Taoism and Confucianism as well as Buddhism. But you don’t actually have to care about all that; you can read the story as an adventure, which is what Jenner seems to have intended.

Lovell Retelling of Journey to the West

When reading Les Miserables, another famously long example of world literature, some people skip Victor Hugo’s descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo and the Paris sewer system because they think these passages don’t contribute anything important. I think that’s a mistake. However, although I am generally a proponent of always reading the whole thing, which is in fact what I did in this case, repetition is a pretty solid justification for at least a bit of rewriting in the case of Journey to the West. You can definitely be forgiven for not wanting to re-read the exact same plot details two pages after having read them.

Lovell’s Monkey King is a MUCH shorter version of the Journey to the West. It contains 36 chapters (339 pages), and doesn’t just omit whole chapters but rewrites chapters to condense the story, although omitted adventures are sometimes briefly mentioned. There are few poems.

Monkey King was published by Penguin in 2021 and is widely available in a variety of formats, including a premium clothbound hardcover edition. I read it on the Kindle app on my phone.

This magical wizard rectangle gives me access to a lot more books than I could normally carry in my pocket. It’s even more convenient than a Kindle, because I’m already carrying it everywhere.

Lovell updates the language to make Monkey’s story more relatable. For example, the narration compares him anachronistically to “a wrecking ball.” Later, Monkey, having been scolded by the Tang Priest many times for being too violent, wonders to himself on one occasion: “To smash or not to smash, that is the question.”

Did I like Lovell’s Monkey King better than Jenner’s Journey to the West?

The updated language feels a little too hip, but it’s undeniably a much more economical telling. I don’t imagine most people can allocate the time needed to read either of the complete translations. Reading this one, you definitely get the basic idea, and enough of the detail, and it’s only one-fourth the length.

But do I like it better? Not really. It’s still the story of a trickster. YMMV.

Visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English for a complete list of translations:

» What’s the best translation of Journey to the West?