The lunar new year of 2016, or the Year of the Monkey according to Chinese zodiac, kicked off on Monday, February 8th. This new year is perhaps the most beloved of all to the Chinese, even more popular than the Year of the Dragon, mainly because the humanoid animal ties to the Monkey King, a folklore character and supernatural being that has fascinated the Chinese for centuries. The Monkey’s story was loosely based on the pilgrimage of Xuanzang (玄奘), a monk who took the Silk Road in the early Tang dynasty to obtain original Buddhist scriptures from India. In folk imagination as well as in Journey to the West (西游记, hereafter Journey), a Chinese novel published in the sixteenth century, Monkey is a rebel-turned disciple and escort of a fictionalized Xuanzang, who is destined to conquer eighty-one ordeals before attaining Buddhahood. Hero and trickster rolled into one, brave and defiant, funny but flawed, Monkey has been a perennial source of inspiration for every medium and format of literature, art, and entertainment ranging from shadow plays to children’s literature to video games. Journey has also circulated widely in Japan and other East and Southeast Asian countries. To celebrate the Year of the Monkey, we gingerly awakened more than a dozen monkeys from the stacks of the Cotsen Children’s Library and invite them to greet the world–gingerly, because, if you are familiar with Journey, Monkey is known to wreak havoc when rubbed the wrong way.
Monkey King From the Chinese Collection
Monkey (lower left) as depicted in an illustrated version of the Journey published in the early Republic of China. Other figures in the picture include his master Xuanzang, his fellow disciples Pigsy and Sandy, Emperor Taizong of Tang, and Chancellor Wei Zheng.
First launched in Shanghai in 1922, Little Friends is the longest-running children’s magazine in China. The cover of this issue depicts the legendary battle between Monkey and Erlang, a deity.
A picture in a fine arts textbook for the fourth grade in elementary school. Two children play puppet theatre on a make-shift stage, admired by a loyal audience that is their toys. Monkey, the main character of the show, wears a facial mask in the signature style of Peking Opera.
The heroic Monkey even found his way into another hero’s diary. Lei Feng (1940-1962) was a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army of China and, after his death from an accident, was characterized as a selfless Communist for the entire nation to emulate. In his posthumously published diary, Lei commented on Monkey Thrice Subdues the White-Bone Demon, a movie he watched in February 1962. He analyzed each character in the political context of Communism-Imperialism conflicts and concluded that a feisty and sharp-eyed Monkey has a lot to teach about fighting revisionist enemies.
Will his ancient magic power keep Monkey invincible in a futuristic world driven by atomic science? We shall find out from this science fiction published in post-Cultural Revolution China, after its new leader Deng Xiaoping navigated the nation away from class struggle and emphasized science and technology as forces of productivity.
This split-page book is based on one of Monkey’s famous powers: transformation. He would have been an A+ student if he were in Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration class, because he excels in freely transforming himself into any age, gender, species, object, and size. During the treacherous pilgrimage, Monkey has to resort to his transformation skills often to save everybody’s skin. Each of the 14 leaves of the book is divided into three parts: head, upper body, and lower body. The preface informs young readers that, instead of the proverbial 72 transformations that Monkey is known to be capable of, this book allows him to achieve 2,744 types of shapeshifting. Is that true? You do the math.
That Monkey’s name “Sun Wukong” was adopted by a children’s magazine in 1980 as its title attests his lasting charm. Published by China Film Press, Sun Wukong was a bimonthly pictorial magazine devoted to animated films and comic strips. Its main offering was animated spin-offs printed in full color, which must have been welcomed during much of the 1980s, when household ownership of television sets in China was so low that many Chinese used to gather at a neighbor’s house to watch TV. Cotsen’s copy of the magazine was formerly part of the collection of an elementary school library in Beijing.
As a segue into Monkey in the Japanese collection, this last picture was created by a Japanese papercutting artist but published in the Little Friends magazine in China. Two amiable-looking monkeys fly towards Mount Fuji through a sky that rains cherry blossom petals. The image refers to an exhibition of endangered golden snub-nosed monkeys sent from China to Japan as part of animal diplomacy. A subtle reference to the Monkey King–traveling by riding a cloud is another of Monkey’s famous skills–sweetens the message of Sino-Japanese friendship, because it implies that these monkey ambassadors would be warmly received in Japan, just like the legend of Monkey had become part of Japanese popular culture. The two countries experienced a honeymoon period during the 1980s, when Chinese public memory of Japanese war crimes remained dormant and Japan’s wartime atrocities and responsibilities had not begun to dominate public discourse on Sino-Japanese relations.
Monkey King From the Japanese Collection
The earliest Japanese translations of Journey in the Cotsen Children’s Library were dated in the 1780s. Monkey’s story has inspired illustrated editions, retellings, sequels, playing cards, sugoroku games, and media adaptations in Japan.
A picture book version of Journey. This page portrays the battle between Monkey and Princess Iron Fan. In what seems like a prescient adoption of DNA cloning technology, Monkey produces copies of himself from his own hair to outnumber enemies in desperate situations.
A sugoroku gameboard based on Journey, beginning with how Monkey assumes leadership by discovering a hidden cave behind a waterfall for his fellow monkeys and ending with a visit he pays to the moon palace.
It wouldn’t be complete to end this post without mentioning the Buddhist canons of scriptures that had spurred Xuanzang’s trek to India. Princeton University Library houses multiple editions of Tripiṭaka. Sūtrapiṭaka. Prajñāpāramitā(大般若波羅蜜多經), which Xuanzang is believed to have translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. The earliest three volumes held at Princeton were printed between AD 1112 and AD 1310 during the Song dynasty (East Asian Library and William H. Scheide Library). Volume 358 of the scripture, copied in brush pen on a scroll by a Japanese monk in AD 1259, has been shared at the Princeton University Digital Library.