Andrew Merrills on Wu Ch’êng-ên, Monkey

Monkey Business

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Television in the 1970s and 1980s was educational. Bergerac taught us that Jersey was a seething cauldron of crime; Grange Hill introduced a generation of children to sausages and heroin. And Monkey? Monkey taught us all about the frenzied delights of classical Chinese literature, even if it took some of us a while to realize it.

If somehow you missed the brief terrestrial appearance of Monkey, it takes a bit of explaining. The series was a Japanese production, dubbed (presumably deliberately) into comically bad English, and replete with incredibly clunky special effects and fight scenes. It featured a man-monkey who zoomed around a lot on supercharged clouds, a man-pig who was both fantastically greedy and creepily lascivious, a lugubrious man with a skull necklace, who argued with the man-pig, and a woman – or was it a man? – who played a monk who rode on a horse called ‘Horse’. It opened with a weird song and seemed to make absolutely no sense. It was brilliant.

But it wasn’t half as brilliant as the text which inspired it. Journey to the West was written in the latter part of the sixteenth century, at the height of the Ming dynasty, by Wu Ch’êng-ên, a poet, writer and sometime court functionary. It is worth stating at the outset that it is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature (along with The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Dream of the Red Chamber and All Men Are Brothers). This is something to bear in mind while you’re reading the work too: it’s always reassuring to feel that you’re engaging with one of the Great Works of World Literature when you’re giggling at the manic adventures of the mischievous Monkey king, and humming the theme song of a ’70s martial arts TV show to yourself. Monolithic classics simply aren’t meant to be this much fun.

At its heart, Journey to the West is a pilgrim narrative. Its

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About the contributor

Andrew Merrills normally lives in a world of books in the middle of England, but he occasionally undertakes ambitious pilgrimages for the good of his soul.

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