Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monkey: Journey to the West

Earlier this month (June 5th) I had the privilege of viewing what might quite possibly be one of the most amazing (not to mention unique) operas ever to debuted on the east coast; Monkey: Journey to the West.

Part of South Carolina’s massive multi-cultural Spoleto Arts Festival, Monkey: Journey to the West was conceived by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng with art direction and music by notorious Brits Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett (Gorillaz). Told over the course of nine acts (total running time two hours) and performed completely in mandarin by a live Chinese cast of multi-talented actors and actresses and incorporating brief animated sequences, Monkey: Journey to the West was like nothing I have ever seen before on stage.

However, while Monkey: Journey to the West may be very new to the United States it is a story that is very old in the East. Originating as a Chinese legend combining the mythologies of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism as well as the real life exploits of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664 A.D.), Journey to the West was first written down in the 16th-Century by an ex-vice magistrate of the Jiangsu Providence named Wu Cheng-en (ca. 1500-1582). In it unabridged written format Journey to the West is exactly one-hundred chapters long.

Based on an ancient Chinese legend, Journey to the West tells the story of Sun Wukung; the Monkey King. Born from a stone egg atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Monkey – as he is often called for short – is faster, stronger, and smarter than all the other monkeys and quickly becomes their king. He also receives a special magic bō staff from the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea which allows him to become the mightiest warrior in all of China.

Monkey’s exceptional physical, mental and spiritual prowess, however, soons leads to unbridled arrogance and pride. Scaling the Mountain of Five Elements – home of the Chinese pantheon – Monkey crashes the Queen Mother of the West’s peach banquet, eats all the best peaches of immortality and basically makes a general mess of things. Monkey then declares himself the ‘Great Sage Equal of Heaven’ before the gods and demands to be honored as such. Incensed at Monkey’s boasts the gods and saints of heaven try to put a stop to his antics but each fail.

Finally, as a last resort the gods call upon the help of the Buddha who challenges Monkey to a bet, saying that Monkey can not jump across the entire breath of heaven. Monkey arrogantly accepts the bet and takes a mighty leap. He lands at what he believes to be the far end of heaven where nothing exists except for five mighty pillars. To prove that he has actually been to the edge of heaven Monkey takes a leak on the pillars and then leaps back to the feet of the Buddha who then shocks Monkey by revealing that not only did Monkey fail to leap across heaven, he never even left the palm of the Buddha. The five pillars that Monkey saw (and soiled) were actually the fingers of the Buddha.

Having lost the bet, Monkey is imprisoned beneath a mountain by the Buddha where he remains for five hundred-years. He is finally released when the goddess of mercy, Guan-Yin, chooses Monkey to serve as the bodyguard of a young Buddhist monk named Tripitaka who has been chosen to make a pilgrimage to the west (India) and retrieve the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China.

Monkey agrees to accompany Tripitaka, but as a precaution Guan-Yin places a magic golden headband on Monkey’s head that will inflict migraines upon the sentient simian at Tripitaka’s discretion should he get out of hand. As Monkey and Tripitaka set out on their journey they are joined by two more traveling companions; Pigsy, a lethargic womanizer who was cursed with the physical attributes of a pig after he made unwanted advances towards one of the Jade Emperor’s daughters, and Sandy, a water demon who was thrown out of heaven after breaking one of the Jade Emperor’s prized vases.

Together, this unlikely team of monstrous misfits seeking redemption accompany and protect the pious, thought often naive, Tripitaka on his fourteen-year-long trek to India. Along the way they encounter numerous threats and obstacles including dragons, man-eating demons, a town full of people who detest monks, a valley of volcanoes, seductive spider-women, and much more.

Finally, the four companions reach India and the Mountain of the Buddha where they are receive the Buddhist scriptures and are bestowed various redemptive honors by the Buddha himself. In particular, Tripitaka and Monkey are each granted the status Buddha; Monkey becoming the Buddha Victorious in Battle.

Monkey: Journey to the West was the headlining show at this year’s Spoleto Festival, and once word got out proved to be the hottest ticket as well. The show I saw was defiantly a once in a lifetime experience and something I would recommend to anyone who was presented with the opportunity to see it. The Journey to the West has been one of the most influential myths in the history of China where Monkey is seen as a cultural hero. The tale has also proven influential in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan and became of favorite of British kids growing up in the 70s and 80s (like Albarn and Hewlett) when it was turned into a popular live action TV series by Nippon Television. Most recently the legend was used as the basis for the 2008 martial arts fantasy film The Forbidden Kingdom staring Jet Li as the Monkey King.

Monkey: Journey to the West is currently playing in London at the Royal Opera House.

At Top: Original promotional artwork for the opera by Jamie Hewlett.

Center: Buddha's bet with Monkey as depicted in the opera.


Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China, translated by Arthur Waley (1942)
About A Little Monkey: The Origins of Journey to the West, by Karen King (2008)
Land of the Dragon: Chinese Myth, by Toney Allen and Charles Phillip (2005)
Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology, by Philip Wilkinson (2006)
Monkey King: Journey to the West, by Diane Wolkstein (2009)

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