Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Monkey Rides Again

As in my other articles on Chinese literature, I find myself using a book that transliterates according to Wade-Giles, though the standard today is pinyin. I am aware that this author is today more commonly called called Dong Yue than Tung Yueh, the pilgrim’s name is Xuanzang rather than Hsüan-tsang, and the beneficent bodhisattva is Guanyin, not Kuan-yin. The fact that I have retained the Wade-Giles spellings for my discussion will, I hope, confuse no one.
As the reader will see, numbers in brackets refer to endnotes; those in parentheses to pages of the Asian Humanities Press edition of the Tower of Myriad Mirrors.

Patricia recently decorated our potted rosemary bush for Christmas, hanging on its fragrant foliage a few painted paper decorations we had made ever so many years ago to adorn a tiny hillside shrub I had brought inside during the winter we spent in Ibiza. As this was our first pause after months of traveling, we relished the pleasures of olive oil, cheap wine from the barrel, socializing with the other drifters on the scene, and watching the three kings arrive in the harbor by boat. Since the town had long been a favored resort for the British and the Germans, it offered such amenities as breakfasts with sausages and eggs and a hole-in-the-wall used bookshop operated by an English lady who sat among the piles of books, warm with layers of wraps and the occasional sip of strong spirits.

Here I came upon a Penguin edition of Waley’s abridged translation of Wu Cheng-en’s [1] sixteenth century novel Journey to the West, titled Monkey. We read the book aloud, entranced with its energy, fanciful folk-tale narrative, and theme of enlightenment. We invented comic voices for the trickster Monkey, the appetitive Pigsy, and the dull and often helpless monk they accompanied. The characters became favorites of our own, and we were to find that virtually every East Asian knows the stories of the great Monkey King, Sun Wu-kung.

Just as in Europe, the Chinese novel was long considered subliterary by mandarin critics, and, just as in the West, this rejection by the literary establishment freed the genre to be lively and unconventional. Each of the “four great novels” is rewarding reading, but there can be no doubt that Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West is the most accessible and rewarding for Westerners. Delightful as it is deep, the book fully justifies the mandarins’ condemnation of it as popular, arising as it did from a mass of folklore and inspiring numerous sequels, animated and print cartoon versions, films, television shows, and dance programs.

The most important literary sequel, written about fifty years after Wu’s book by Tung Yueh (pinyin Dong Yue), is Hsi-yu pu (pinyin Xi ou Bu), The Supplement to the Journey to the West. [2] Tung was a Zen monk whose narrative approach in his addition to Monkey’s saga differed markedly from Wu’s. The original novel, like early European fiction, emphasized plot rather than description, characterization, or even theme. The organization of its episodes tended to the paratactic with each chapter a link in the chain, often quite similar to others. The movement toward enlightenment, toward the goal of the Buddhist scriptures provides the only structure.

Apart from that general drift, which corresponds to the movement westward, the incidents seem arranged in no particular order, drawn from a general fund of motifs like those in Propp’s analysis of the Russian fairy tale. [3] To Tung, Wu’s monkey depended too much on his physical and magical superpowers. The monsters, demons, and other adversaries the travelers encounter may be read as metaphors for ignorance, wickedness, and error, but Tung spotlighted the connection to Everyman’s psychomachia. He redirected the thematic emphasis toward the psychological, portraying Sun Wu-k’ung’s fundamental adversary as desire figured as the Ch’ing fish. In the “Answers to Questions” Tung appended to the book he criticizes the “merely” physical powers Monkey has been shown possessing, saying the whole story is a “dream of desire.” (193) and that “to empty and destroy desire one must first go inside desire.” (192) Only then can one truly recognize that “all the causes of the world’s emotions are floating clouds and phantasms.” (23)

The mastery of ego and desire has unmistakably great significance in Buddhism and in the Monkey novels, but what moist distinguished Tung’s book is the striking development of another theme: the ambiguous character of reality. As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is not different from Void.” To dramatically enact the provisional nature of the phenomenal world, Tung employed a series of narrative devices more familiar from modern fiction than from the seventeenth century.

For one thing, the whole story is a dream. [4] Within the dream, doubles of various characters appear, notably Monkey himself, confusing identity further. Time loops about so a character might encounter himself at an earlier or later time. The most extraordinary device, the one that lent Lin and Schulz their title, is “the tower of myriad mirrors,” a sort of hallucinatory fun-house offering any number of alternative realities, an arrangement that could have been a story in Borges’ Ficciones.
On Tung’s first page, Hsüan-tsang is complaining like an impatient child, anxious over their long and arduous journey, and Monkey responds with full confidence in his physical powers. They enter a picturesque spot where fallen flower petals cover the ground and bamboo leans across the path, when suddenly they see a lovely peony bush. A lyric effusion follows, describing the bush with all the refined aesthetic appreciation and extravagant terms of a Chinese man of sentiment, concluding with a comparison to the lovely Yang Kuei-fei, a consort often blamed for the fall of her emperor, a clue to the treacherous potential of such sensual pleasure. (24)

Monkey exclaims over the bright redness of the flowers, only to be reproved by his master who flies in the face of common sense and denies their redness. Perhaps because Hsüan-tsang presents his case clumsily, Monkey remains unconvinced leading the monk to declare that is Monkey’s mind, rather than the peonies, that is red, that is to say, passionate. The remainder of the plot portrays Monkey’s wandering in delusion, “confused as though there were a knot in his mind” (140), “tangled up with the Demon of Desire” (138) until the climactic battle, where, despite “the confusion of banners” (181), he takes a step toward enlightenment. Realizing the deceptive nature of “the five banners, the chaos of colors” the Mind-Monkey manages his “emergence from the monster.” (182) The Ch’ing-fish is ultimately explained as Monkey’s counterpart and complement (184). In the very last analysis, after all, what strikes one as misleading and vicious is, after all, part of the system, no more value-laden than positive and negative charges or matter and anti-matter. It sounds very like grace when the reader learns that “the mind that saves the mind is the mind outside the mind.” (130)

The critiques of desire and of everyday reality may both seem purely skeptical and destructive, but Tung’s hero and his book are also buoyed by exuberant celebrative affirmation. This is expressed in religious terms by the reassurance that “Everybody is a Buddha” (120) and in rhetorical terms by catalogues such as the children’s list of fanciful colors (27). [5] Linguistic horse-play erupts as well in parodies such as a parody charge to the general (45), vituperative curses (53), and the satire of the examination system. (Ch. 4)

The high spirits, often resembling Menippean satire, approach the carnivalesque [6] sublime in which violence and suffering are submerged in a great laugh of acceptance. Thus, Tung’s book opens with Monkey’s killing a flock of children (Ch. 1) and then worrying, not about the evil act he has committed, but rather how he can evade punishment from his master. He mischievously tricks Beautiful Lady Yü’s husband into killing her (76) and enjoys torturing Ch’in K’uai mercilessly (Ch. 9). From the Buddhist perspective it is a matter of “a false Beautiful Lady Yü” killing “a false Beautiful Lady Yü.” (81) We are here beyond good and evil.

Monkey, like China, has three teachers: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

To avoid the “mournful wind and bitter rain” of sorrow, one musty vanquish desire; however, this is not a stern and self-denying decision, but rather a return to one’s own true self. Tung quotes Mencius with approval: “There is no other way of learning than just to seek your strayed heart.” (192)

1. An indifferent student, Wu took a degree only in middle age and eventually became a hermit. He was poor and is thought to have been critical of the rulers of his day. He and his Monkey King became exemplary for Mao who, for instance during his contention with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, declared “The local areas must produce several more Sun Wukong to vigorously create a disturbance at the Palace of Heaven.”

Though Waley’s book is a masterpiece of translation, there are at least two complete versions: The Journey to the West translated by William John Francis Jenner from Foreign Languages Press Beijing and The Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu from University of Chicago Press.

2. I read the translation by Shuen-fu Lin and Larry Schulz titled The Tower of Myriad Mirrors from Asian Humanities Press.

3. Morphology of the Folk-Tale.

4. Compare, for instance, the dream motif in Chuang Tzu, as well as Piers Ploughman, The Book of the Duchess, the film version of The Wizard of Oz, etc.

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