Young Adult Lit/Crit

February 1, 2008

Legend of the Monkey King

Filed under: "American Born Chinese" — sunyprof @ 1:00 pm

After our discussion tonight I wanted to share more information about the rebellious Monkey King. In what ways does this added information enrich your reading of the novel and the discussions you had last night? How does Yang work with this centuries’ old figure? Do you think he is using the political connotations clear in the legendary MK’s stand against the feudal rulers of old China? In what new ways? To what end in ABC?

Also take a look at the many images of Monkey King available on the internet. KES

Monkey King

“Monkey King”,or known to the Chinese as “Journey to West”,written by Wu Ch’eng-en(1500?-1582),a scholar-official, is one of the renowned classical Chinese novels about an allegorical rendition of the journey, mingled with Chinese fables, fairy tables, legends,superstitions, popuar beliefs, monster stories as well as whatever the author could find in the Taoist and Buddhist religions.

It was based on a true story of a famous Chinese monk, Xuan Zang (602-664). After years of trials and tribulations, he travelled on foot to what is today India, the birthplace of Buddhism, to seek for the Sutra, the Buddhist holy book. When he returned to China ,or the Great Tang as was called that time, he started to translate the sutras into Chinese, thus making a great contribution to the development of Buddhism in China.

Monkey King is an indeed rebellious extraordinary being, born out of a rock, fertilized by the grace of Heaven, Being extremely smart and capable, he learned all the magic tricks and gongfu from a master Taoist,being able to transform himself into seventy-two different images such as a tree, a bird, a beast of prey or a bug as small as a mosquito so as to sneak into an enemy’s belly to fight him inside or out. Using clouds as a vehicle he can travel 180,000 miles a single somersault and a huge iron bar that supposedly serves as ballast of the seas and can expand or shrink at its owner’s command as his favorite weapon in his later feats. He claims to be the king in defiance of the only authority over heaven, the seas, the earth and the subterranean world — Yu Huang Da Di, or the “Great Emperor of Jade” in Chinese.

That act of high treason, coupled with complaints from the masters of the four seas and the hell, invites the relentless scourge of the Heavenly army.After many showdowns,the emperor had to offer the monkey an official title to appease him. Enraged he revolted, fighting all his way back earth to resume his own claim as a king after learning that the position he held was nothing but a stable keeper.Eventually, the heavenly army subdued him, only after many a battle, with the help of all the god warriors. However, having a bronze head and iron shoulders, all methods of execution failed and the monkey dulled many a sword inflicted upon him. As a last resort, the emperor commanded that he be burned in the furnace where his Taoist minister Tai Shang Lao Jun refines his pills of immortality. Instead of killing him, the fire and smoke added to the monkey a pair of firy golden crystal eyes that can see through what people normally can not. He fought his way down again.

Finally, under Buddha’s help,the monkey was suppressed under a great mountain known as the Mount of Five Fingers and he could not move. Only five hundred years later, there came to his rescuer ,the Tang Monk, Xuan Zang, whom we mentioned at the beginning of the story. The Monkey King become the desciple of the monk and escort him with Buddha’s arrange to insure that he could make for the West to get the sutras, along with two other desciples they later came across, (actually also arranged by the Buddha). One is the humorous and not uncourageous pig transgressed from a heavenly general for his crime of assaulting a fairy, and the other a used-to-be sea monster. There started the four’s stormy journey west which was packed with actions and adventures that brought into full play the puissance of the monks’ disciples, the Monkey King in particular.

The story of Journey to the West is divided into three parts: (1) an early history of the Monkey spirit; (2) pseudo-historical account of Tripitaka’s family and life before his trip to fetch the sutras in the Western Heaven; (3)the main story, consisting of 81 dangers and calamities encountered by Tripitaka and his three animal spirit disciples – Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy.

The average readers are facsinated with the Monkey King, all prowess and wisdom, while many critics agree that the protagonist embodies what the author tried to convey to his readers: a rebellious spirit against the then untouchable feudal rulers.Anyway,with its attracted story and its special feature of language, the novel will certainly stay.



  1. Thank you, Karen, for the images and additional information on the Monkey King.

    In considering Yang’s use of the Monkey King in AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, I think it works well for two distinct audiences. First, for readers unfamiliar with the Monkey King, the story is still relateable, applicable and useful in illuminating the other two stories of Jin and Danny. It is not necessary to know the history of the Monkey King or his role in Chinese culture in order to understand the novel. Yang’s explanation is more than sufficient to this end. The themes of the three stories and the novel as a whole are universal.

    However, for an audience of Chinese readers for whom the Monkey King is a familiar character, Yang’s use of the parable is effective in an additional way. I think that using a figure from Chinese culture to explicate the challenges facing American Born Chinese (and, really, any group of immigrants) makes his argument against self-loathing and shame because of one’s racial identity strongly directed towards Chinese Americans. Because of that connection with the Monkey King, perhaps Chinese-American readers feel the stories of Jin and Danny more personally.

    Yang begins with the story of the Monkey King, thereby immediately situating the reader in Chinese culture. Depending on the reader, this may be a foreign or familiar place, but either way, it effectively presents the universal desire to belong.

    Comment by sostrom — February 2, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  2. As I stated in class, I had no idea that the Monkey King was such a major part of Chinese culture. All of this information adds so much more to ABC. It’s really incredible how dense this work truly is. I’ve been reading it since last Fall and new concepts and ideas keep emerging (as we could see through our discussions on Thursday). I’d certainly place ABC right up there with the Watchmen as far as great comic books go.

    Also, I received your e-mail about the manga, but the link didn’t lead me to any titles. Can you please tell me what that was all about, because I would certainly be interested in finding some new manga that we could use in class. Thanks, Karen, for ABC. It’s one of the best books I’ve read.


    Comment by traverse02 — February 2, 2008 @ 11:56 pm

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