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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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