You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Journey to the West’ tag.

70986f6430aeb560662519e54902caa5.jpg

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).

6b812ae1tb5c108f11981&690.jpg

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.

3992288-7739189328-The_m.jpg

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.

sun-wukong

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.

monkeyking1

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.

screen480x480.jpeg

To celebrate getting through tax day last week, I am writing about Diyu, the Chinese underworld.  Although it shares many features with other underworlds (torture, damned souls, and animal headed monstrosities), the “Dark Mansion” is truly hellish because of its sprawling bureaucracy.  Featuring baffling rules, repeated performance evaluations, multiple redundant authorities, and numerous different levels with obscure links to one another, Chinese hell will be instantly familiar to all office workers.

"You've filled out a section incorrectly. Report dowstairs for boiling."

Although upright souls can be reborn after death or proceed to paradise (or even find immortality and apotheosize to godhood!), the average sinful person must make their way through the different levels of the afterlife by petitioning officials and serving time in various torture chambers.  Fortunately, the authorities of the Chinese afterlife are extremely venal.  Influence can be bought (and progress towards rebirth can be earned) for “hell dollars” which are burned by pious relatives on earth.

My favorite Chinese underworld story comes from Journey to the West, an epic poem from the Ming Dynasty.  It features Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, one of China’s most powerful and gifted rulers with his own fascinating (real) history.  The mythical story of his journey to the underworld begins when Emperor Taizong falls sick due to a magical illness.  This mortal sickness was visited upon the Emperor by the ghost of a powerful river dragon who nursed a grievance.  Fortunately one of Emperor Taizong’s courtiers was friends with an underworld official Cui Jue.  When Emperor Taizang died from the ghost dragon’s curse, the courtier sent a letter to the underworld official who in turn used his influence to allow Emperor Taizong to make a tour of hell and then return to the world of the living.  As a result of his trip, which brought spiritual and karmic debts, Emperor Taizang was forced to commission the “journey to the west” undertaken by a virtuous monk and his 4 disciples which is of course the true subject of the epic.  The Emperor’s journey and a more complete recounting of the events surrounding it can be found at this wonderful site.

The Chinese deities of Hell are like the powerful people of this world, trading favors for political and financial gain.  A devout Chinese Taoist who has lived a less than blameless life can expect to be the plaything of officialdom throughout this life and for many, many lifetimes to come.

"This system works really well."

*Forgive me for simplifying the tangled mythological/political web of eastern beliefs and for mangling the Chinese words and names in this article.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31