Tuesday, August 12, 2008

East Meets West: A Christian Take on Journey to the West

As some of my readers may remember back in June I did a post on Monkey: Journey to the West, the contemporary Chinese opera based on the famous 16th-Century Chinese legend. When I saw Monkey back in June at the Spoleto Arts Festival in South Carolina I was blown away. Having been a big fan of the original Journey to the West myth I have almost always been thrilled by anything – from comics to film – that even made reference to Sun Wukung the Monkey King; the tales’ titular hero. That being said it should come as no surprise to anyone that I was naturally quite excited when a friend of mine showed me a graphic novel he had recently picked up which featured the Monkey King as a prominent character.

The graphic novel in question was Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning, critically acclaimed American Born Chinese (2006) which tells the tale of Jin Wang, a teenager living in San Francisco who is ethnically Chinese but was born and raised in America, just like the book’s author. American Born Chinese is primarily a story about the struggle that every teenager goes through in trying to find out who they are. In Jin’s case, coming to terms with what he sees as a conflict between his ethnicity and nationality. It is also a story about racism and a good portion of the book deals with a character called Chin-Kee; the living embodiment of every negative Asian stereotype one can possibly imagine and the novel’s most controversial character. However, in addition to the exploits of both Jin and Chin-Kee, American Born Chinese also stars the Monkey King as the book’s third protagonist and it was this aspect which originally drew my attention to the novel itself and kept it there.

American Born Chinese
actually opens with a retelling of the Monkey King’s origins – ‘born from a stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit’ – before spinning off into the modern-day tales of Jin and Chin-Kee. Periodically, the book’s narrative would return to the Monkey King’s tale explaining how he was the greatest warrior in all the land and master of numerous mystical martial arts from cloud surfing to shape-shifting. Eventually, the Monkey King grows so powerful that he becomes uncontrollable and begins to run amok terrorizing the other gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of China.

What is supposed to happen at this point in the story is that the goddess Guan-Yin calls upon the help of the Buddha. The Buddha appears and challenges the Monkey King to a bet, saying that he can not jump across the entire breath of heaven. Sun Wukung arrogantly accepts the bet and takes a mighty leap, landing 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 the Monkey King takes a leak on the pillars and then leaps back to the feet of the Buddha who then shocks him by revealing that not only did he fail to leap across heaven, he never even left the Buddha’s palm. The five pillars that the Monkey King saw (and soiled) were actually the Buddha’s own fingers.

Now, I say that this is what is supposed to happen because on page 67 of American Born Chinese something rather different begins to happen instead, as can be seen below:

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this sudden abrupt deviation from the original legend. Perhaps I was looking at an alternate version of the tale that I had not heard before but with which the author was more familiar. However, as I stared at the page and the four “emissaries of Tza-Yo-Tzuh” something weird occurred to me. I knew these four creatures from somewhere else, from a different mythological system. The lion, eagle, ox and man (here a woman) were classical symbols of the Judeo-Christian god. They appeared in both the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel (1:10) and the New Testament Book of Revelation (4:7). They were also representative of the four gospels, each one personifying a different aspect of Jesus Christ’s nature: the man his humanity, the eagle his divinity, the lion his regality and the ox his servitude. In fact, to make matters weirder, the same week I was in Charleston to watch Monkey I had toured one of the city’s historical churches and seen these same four creatures carved into the frame of the church’s front door.

Then there was this mysterious Tza-Yo-Tzuh character whose name the page’s footnote told me meant “He Who Is” in Chinese. It was a name that I not only didn’t recognize from the traditional Chinese pantheon of deities, but one which sounded hauntingly similar to the infamous “I Am Who I Am” declaration made by the Jewish god Yahweh in the Bible’s Book of Exodus (3:14).

The next page then introduced me to Tza-Yo-Tzuh who with his flowing red robe, long white beard and shepard’s staff looked like a Chinese version of Moses. I continued to read as Tza-Yo-Tzuh confronted the Monkey King and challenged him to same bet that the Buddha does in the original legend. Like the original the bet plays out the same way; Sun Wukung attempts to leap to the end of the universe, finds the pillars, pees on them and then returns to the feet of Tza-Yo-Tzuh only to discover that he never even left the opposing deities’ hand.

Following this on page 80, Tza-Yo-Tzuh then inform the Monkey King that he is the creator of the universe, of all life, of all things – even Sun Wukung. It was at this point that I knew for certain who this guy was; he was the god of Judeo-Christianity reimagined as a Chinese deity. What confirmed it for me wasn’t simply his declaration of being the maker and shaper of the universe but the fact that he did it by essentially quoting Psalm 139 straight out of the Bible. You can take a look for yourself below:

As I finished the chapter, which ended with Tza-Yo-Tzuh trapping the Monkey King beneath a mountain in the same way the Buddha had in the original myth I decided to flip to the back of the book and take a look at the author’s bio which was printed on the inside flap of the back cover. There I learned that author Gene Yang was not only an independent comic book writer and artist, but also a computer science teacher, a resident of San Francisco, a husband, a father and a Roman Catholic. My suspicions confirmed I immediately returned to reading wanting to see where this decidedly Christian variation on the story of the Monkey King was heading next. In the original myth, the Monkey King is freed from the mountain by the goddess Guan-Yin who enlists him as the bodyguard of the monk Tripitaka who has been sent on a ‘journey to the west’ to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. In American Born Chinese, however, it is the monk who frees the Monkey King after having been tapped by the four emissaries of Tza-Yo-Tzuh and told he has been chosen for a sacred mission of an undisclosed nature. No surprises this time, the entire thing was laced with Christian ideas and phraseology and it had become apparent that the author had decided to almost completely break away from the original Monkey King myth.

Nevertheless, surprises or not, as I kept reading I began to find myself growing more and more irritated with the author’s rewriting of the Journey to the West. Soon irritation turned into anger and I began to find myself upset that Gene Yang would dare to bastardize what was arguably the most important story in the history of China. Wasn’t this book, American Born Chinese, supposed to be about coming to terms with your ethnicity and embracing your native culture? If so, why was Yang rewriting the legend of the Monkey King turning it into something decidedly non-traditional, non-Buddhist, non-Eastern? By this point I was so angry, I was seriously considering not finishing the book at all. I told my friend who had given me the book about the problems I was having with it and he told me to calm down and finish it, that it would all make sense in the end.

Well, he was right.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how American Born Chinese ends because I think everyone should go out and read it for themselves. I will tell you that, in the end, all three characters – Jin, Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King – do end up meeting in a spectacular closing scene. I’ll also tell you that the author makes no apologies regarding his Christian take on Journey to the West. The story remains unabashedly Christian to the end, going so far as to even change the goal of the heroes’ journey altogether:

However, the book is never preachy and at no point – even when I was upset with it – did I feel like Gene Yang was trying to force his faith on me. You see, what I realized in the end was that American Born Chinese is not just about Jin trying to reconcile his Chinese ethnicity with his American nationality, it also about the author trying to reconcile his own ethnicity and nationality with his religious faith, and the way he manages to do so is devilishly clever.

After reading and re-reading American Born Chinese as well as several interviews with the author – including one where he humbly and cleverly defends his right to write a Christian version of Journey to the West – I have come to really love this book and have already recommended it to several people. It is a book that will challenge you on many levels and hopefully lead you to think about some of the bigger and harder questions in life regarding not only the role of faith and myth, but also about racism, ethnicity and nationality and how all these things effect our lives and our cultures.

Also check out Gene Yang's essay on American Born Chinese and his Monkey King fan-site.

All comic pages posted above are taken from American Born Chinese (2006), by Gene Luen Yang, all rights reserved.


Josh Duncan said...

Noticed the same Christian symbolism when I read this book for the first time and after googling it, found your post. I'd love to know more about the interviews you did with the author.

I'm a comic artist myself and am writing reports (in the form of one page drawings) about the books I read for my advanced making comics class with Lynda Barry.

If you are still in contact with Gene Luen Yang, I would love to share my review of his book when I complete it.

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jimf said...

I never read this but have seen bits of it from a copy a friend had and can relate to your feeling partway through the book about how it was frustrating and wrong that Journey to the West was made into a Christian thing. That's part of the reason I never read it. As a non-Christian Chinese-American, I felt it really bothered me and put me right off feeling any kind of sense that the book is relatable.