Monkey Craze!

a Monkey King performer on the street of New York City

A handsome Monkey King on the street of New York City. The soft-spoken performer, whose name I neglected to ask, was from Wenzhou, a coastal city in the province of Zhejiang, China. Photo taken on January 3, 2016.

The Monkey King Cannot Somersault out of Buddha's Palm

Front: [The Monkey King Cannot Somersault out of Buddha’s Palm] An amulet based on the legend of Monkey’s fight again Buddha. Made by the “lost wax method” of casting in brass, 32 mm. Acquired in Bangkok, Thailand. Curtesy of Tara McGowan, Japanese Metadata Assistant at Cotsen, and Kaja McGowan, the Director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University.

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

The Illustrated and Annotated Journey to the West

The Illustrated and Annotated Journey to the West (繪圖加批西遊記). 上海: 共和書局, 1919. 8 volumes. (Cotsen 75021)

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.

Journey to the West

Journey to the West (西遊記). China, [1920s?] Hanging scrolls. (Cotsen 72805)

One panel from a set of hanging scrolls illustrates a scene from Chapter 3 of Journey, “The Four Seas and Thousand Mountains All Bow to Submit.” Wild beasts and demon kings come to pay homage to Monkey, after he successfully obtains weapons for his monkey kingdom. Their outfits closely resemble costume of traditional Chinese opera.

Little Friends 1956

Little Friends (小朋友). 1956, no. 6. Cover art by Ye Jun (叶軍) and Dong Tianye (董天野). (Cotsen 153026)

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.

Drawing for Young People (少年儿童图画). Volume 7. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1963. "The Show is On!" by Yao Zhongyu. (Cotsen 63786)

Drawing for Young People (少年儿童图画). Volume 7. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1963. “The Show is On!” by Yao Zhongyu. (Cotsen 63786)

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 Diary of Lei Feng

The Diary of Lei Feng (雷鋒日記). 北京: 解放軍文艺社, 1963. (Cotsen N-000034)

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.

Sun Wukong Wreaks Havoc in the Atomic World (孙悟空大闹原子世界) / Guo Yishi (郭以实); illustrated by Yan Shanchun (阎善春). 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1980. (Cotsen 42623)

Sun Wukong Wreaks Havoc in the Atomic World (孙悟空大闹原子世界) / Guo Yishi (郭以实); illustrated by Yan Shanchun (阎善春). 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1980. (Cotsen 42623)

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.

Seventy-two Transformations (七十二变) / by Su Gang (苏刚). 成都: 四川人民出版社, 1980. 14 leaves. (Cotsen B-000003)

Seventy-two Transformations (七十二变) / by Su Gang (苏刚). 成都: 四川人民出版社, 1980. 14 leaves. (Cotsen B-000003)

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.

Sun Wukong (孙悟空). 1985, no. 2. 北京: 中国电影出版社. (Cotsen 90239)

Sun Wukong (孙悟空). 1985, no. 2. 北京: 中国电影出版社. (Cotsen 90239)

That Monkey’s name “SUN Wukong” was adopted by a children’s magazine as its title attests his enduring charm. Launched by the China Film Press thirty-six years ago in 1980, another year of the Monkey, 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. The magazine title on its cover is the brush calligraphy of SONG Qingling (宋庆龄, 1893-1981), the widow of President SUN Yat-sen and a leader of children’s literacy and welfare issues in China. Cotsen’s copy of the magazine was formerly part of the collection of an elementary school library in Beijing.

Journey to the West: Wukong Takes in Bajie (西游记: 悟空降八戒). [1980s] 11 sheets. (Cotsen 92466)

Journey to the West: Wukong Takes in Bajie (西游记: 悟空降八戒). [1980s] 11 sheets. (Cotsen 92466)

The episode in which Monkey takes in Pigsy as his fellow disciple is the subject matter of a set of ten postcards issued by the Nanjing Post Office in the 1980s. Cotsen’s holding is the original art work, which was outlined in pen and colored. The visual style of Monkey and Pigsy are vaguely reminiscent of shadow puppets.

Little Friends (小朋友). 1985, no. 10. "Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys Visit Japan," papercutting by Kuromiya Masae (黒宮正栄). (Cotsen 153026)

Little Friends (小朋友). 1985, no. 10. “Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys Visit Japan,” papercutting by Kuromiya Masae (黒宮正栄). (Cotsen 153026)

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

Shelves and shelves of Monkey King stories or editions and adaptations of Journey to the West in the Cotsen Children's Library. Photo taken from Cotsen's Japanese section.

Shelves and shelves of Monkey King stories or editions and adaptations of Journey to the West in the Cotsen Children’s Library. Photo taken from Cotsen’s Japanese section.

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.

Journey to the West

Journey to the West (繪本西遊記初編) / translated by Kutsuki Sanjin (口木山人); illustrated by Ōhara Tōya (大原東野). [大坂]: 前川文榮堂, [1806?]. (Cotsen 90024)

Xuanzang, Monkey, and Pigsy as imagined in one of the earliest illustrated Japanese editions of Journey.

Journey to the West (西遊記) / by Nakagawa Ryūgai (中川史英); illustrated by Yoshimoto Yuki (吉本有機). 東京: 富里昇進堂發行, 1910. (Cotsen 99402)

Journey to the West (西遊記) / by Nakagawa Ryūgai (中川史英); illustrated by Yoshimoto Yuki (吉本有機). 東京: 富里昇進堂發行, 1910. (Cotsen 99402)

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.

Sun Wukong's Journey to the West: A Sugoroku Game (孫悟空西遊記雙六) / illustrated by Tani Senba (谷洗馬). 東京: 日本飛行研究會, 1920. (Cotsen 153579)

Sun Wukong’s Journey to the West: A Sugoroku Game (孫悟空西遊記雙六) / illustrated by Tani Senba (谷洗馬). 東京: 日本飛行研究會, 1920. (Cotsen 153579)

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.

Xuanzang’s Work

Tripiṭaka. Sūtrapiṭaka. Prajñāpāramitā(大般若波羅蜜多經). Volume 429 / translated by Xuanzang. China, 1117. (Scheide Library 3.1.16)

It wouldn’t be complete to end this post without mentioning the Buddhist canons 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 attributed 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.

Earliest Chinese Editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Princeton


Their history is a long tale (but not sad, unlike the Mouse’s). It went something like this:

                     Weaver, a collector,
                   wrote to Chao, a
            find me
                in Chinese."
                  Chao located
                    three that escaped
                       young readers'
                        dirty li'l
                 One to Parrish,
              who cherished
         such as
           Alice in
                 and Thai.
                      his trove
                     in Firestone.
                  Aren't you
              how a
              tale twists
                in Chinese;
                   is he who
                     "taught us"
                      find out


To fully explain how some of the earliest Chinese editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland found their way to Rare Books and Special Collections of the Princeton University Library, this post will begin by introducing a few people, whose professional backgrounds seem unrelated to children’s literature. Besides having been born in the same decade, these three figures likely shared an appreciation for whimsical humor and childish innocence, as well as an interest in playing with languages, qualities that would make the best candidates for “grown-up” admirers of the Wonderland created by Lewis Carroll. Warren Weaver (1894-1978) was a mathematician, a pioneer in machine translation, and former director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. He authored Alice in Many Tongues, “an unprecedented documentation of the publishing history of Carroll’s novel and its translations into…forty-seven languages” (O’Sullivan 29). Yuen Ren Chao (赵元任, 1892-1982) was the founder of modern linguistics in China and a distinguished professor of Oriental Languages and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Chao published the first Chinese translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1922. Hu Shi (胡适, 1891-1962) was a philosopher, an influential figure in China’s New Culture Movement, and for a time China’s ambassador to the United States. A close friend of Chao’s, Hu also added to Princeton’s collection of Lewis Carroll’s works.

Early Chinese editions of Alice can be found in both the Morris L. Parrish Collection and the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton. The Dodgson section of the Parrish Collection contains nearly one thousand items of works written by Lewis Carroll, adaptations and parodies inspired by him, and books about him. Five of the Chinese copies were gifts from Warren Weaver, who related in his Alice in Many Tongues how he procured some of them. Weaver enlisted the help of Yuen Ren Chao, the first Chinese translator of Alice. Already teaching at Berkeley at the time, Chao managed to collect from China “three complete sets of all five of the editions then in existence” (Weaver 62). Weaver gave one set to Morris Longstreth Parrish, Class of 1888, whose fine collection of Victorian novelists was eventually bequeathed to Princeton. There is a discrepancy between Weaver’s description and the actual holding, however, because only the first, second, third, and fifth earliest editions, dating from 1922 to 1931, are currently to be found in the Parrish Collection.

1922 cover colophon

阿麗思漫游奇境記 = Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Lewis Carroll; translated by Yuen Ren Chao. 上海: 商務印書館, 1922. (Dodgson 81)

Cover and colophon of the first Chinese edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by the Commercial Press in Shanghai.

1939 name card

阿麗思漫游奇境記 = Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Lewis Carroll; translated by Yuen Ren Chao. 4th post-1932 edition. 上海: 商務印書館, 1939. (Dodgson 85)

A later edition gifted by Hu Shi, the translator’s close friend, to Princeton in 1958.

Princeton received a 1939 edition as a gift from Hu Shi, who was among the closest friends of the translator’s family. (At Chao’s private wedding ceremony held in 1921, Hu was one of only two guests invited and the couple’s chief witness.) Hu was briefly Curator of the Gest Library at Princeton, 1950-1952, and in 1958, gave Princeton his own copy of Alice, inscribing on the title page that the book be presented to “the Gest Oriental Library.” Then, perhaps as an afterthought, he inserted a name card with different instructions to give it to “the Lewis Carroll Collection of Princeton University.”

Translator’s Words and the Ill Fate of the Looking Glass

In the preface he wrote for the first Chinese edition of Alice, Chao acknowledged the challenge of translating the book. As he rightly observed, Alice was neither new nor obscure by the time he decided to give it a try–the book had been out for more than fifty years and entertained multiple generations of children in English-speaking countries. The reason why no Chinese version existed, he figured, was the formidable challenge posed by word play and nonsense in Carroll’s writing (Chao 10). In fact, the only “Chinese version” that Chao was aware of was done, albeit verbally, by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874-1938), tutor to Puyi (溥仪), the last Emperor of China. The Scot had told the story of Alice in Chinese to the lonely teenage boy in the Forbidden City. Chao decided that his translation project with Alice, carried out in the midst of Chinese language reform movement, would be an opportune experimentation with written vernacular Chinese, which was replacing Classical Chinese (10-11).

1932 postcard

Postcard from Yuen Ren Chao to a Mr. K.C. Lee of Anderson, Meyer & Co., Ltd. in Shanghai, dated February 2, 1932. Inserted in the first Chinese edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Dodgson 81)

Commercial Press

A historical picture of the headquarters of the Commercial Press on Baoshan Road, Shanghai. Japanese bombings on January 29, 1932 (exactly 84 years ago) wiped out the buildings, along with Yuen Ren Chao’s unpublished translation of Through the Looking Glass. (Source of image: Office Of Shanghai Chronicles)

After the wild success of his Chinese edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chao went on to translate Through the Looking Glass. However, his second Alice project was ill-timed. In what came to be known as the Shanghai Incident in 1932, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed Shanghai and destroyed the headquarters of the Commercial Press, Chao’s publisher. Princeton’s copy of the first edition was accompanied by a postcard sent by the translator from Beijing to a friend in Shanghai on February 2, 1932, only five days into the Shanghai Incident. Chao mentioned his almost-completed work with Carroll’s second Alice book in a somber tone, “I have corrected half of the proofs of my translation of Through the Looking Glass. I think the whole thing has been burned up along with everything else at the Paoshan [now spelled as Baoshan] Road office of the Commercial Press.” Chao would not be able to reproduce his work and publish a Chinese translation of Looking Glass until 1968, when he was in his seventies.

The First Chinese Edition of Alice, 1922

1922 Alice

Unnumbered pages that follow the title page of the first Chinese edition of Alice.

1922 epigraph Mencius

Epigraph is a quote from Mencius: “A great man is he who has not lost the innocence of his childhood.” (Dodgson 81)

Chinese like to compare the task of translation to a graceful dance performed while wearing shackles, meaning the translator has to be artful within the constraints of the original text. The “constraints” in Carroll’s Wonderland are more than those of average texts. Weaver methodically classified the principal problems involved in translating Alice into five areas: the verses, the puns, the use of specially manufactured words or nonsense words, the jokes which involve logic, and the otherwise unclassifiable Carroll twists of meaning with underlying humor (81-82). In Chao’s trailblazing Chinese translation, we witness how Alice encompasses both general challenges and unique Carrollian tests for a foreign language and how the translator meets them head-on through a creative and imaginative employment of the Chinese language.

1922 tail tale

The Mouse’s Tale, in Chapter 3, “A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale.” (Dodgson 81)

The most famous pun in Alice is perhaps the Mouse’s long and sad tale (tail). Chao did an ingenious job of making a pun, if not exactly the same one, here in the Chinese text. Chinese words for “tale” (故事, or gu shi) and “tail” (尾巴, or wei ba) are not related in any way. Chao found a clever solution by playing with the word “sad” instead, which he translated into “wei qu” (委屈) (37), although its more precise meaning is “feel wronged”, “sense of grievance,” etc. Thanks to the exceedingly rich reservoir of homophones in the Chinese language (a source of confusion for Chinese children learning to speak their native tongue), Chao was able to match “wei qu” (委屈) with “wei qu” (尾曲), a made-up combination that literally means “a tail in a curved shape.” Voila! In the Chinese version, when the Mouse describes its tale as “wei qu” (sad), Alice can see that its tail is indeed “wei qu” (curved). What the Chinese-speaking Alice keeps on puzzling about is why the Mouse calls its tale/tail “bitter” (苦)–a twist introduced by the Chinese translator. Alice must be thinking of “bitter” as a flavor, but “bitter” can also mean “suffering,” which is close to “sad,” thus preserving the meaning in the original English version.

The earliest Chinese editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the 1920s and 1930s are valuable primary sources to support in-depth inquiries in translation studies, the development of nascent written vernacular Chinese, and the international influence of Lewis Carroll on children’s literature. Comparisons between Chinese and English versions, as well as among multiple Chinese editions will yield interesting discoveries for those who appreciate nuances of language and cultural differences.


Chao, Yuen Ren, trans. Alisi man you qi jing ji. By Lewis Carroll. 1st ed. Shanghai: Shang wu yin shu guan, 1922.

O’Sullivan, Emer. “Warren Weaver’s Alice in Many Tongues: A Critical Appraisal.” Alice in a World of Wonderlands : The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece. Eds. Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum. First ed. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press in cooperation with the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, 2015. 29-41.

Weaver, Warren. Alice in Many Tongues. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.


Wainwright, Alexander D. A Catalogue of the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists in the Princeton University Library: Draft. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Library, 2001.