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  • The Monkey King in the American Canon:Patricia Chao and Gerald Vizenor's Use of an Iconic Chinese Character

The past few decades have seen the incorporation into American life of one of the most popular figures in Chinese culture: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The stories of Monkey and his companions, Sandy, Pigsy and the Buddhist monk Tripitaka, have circulated throughout China for centuries, being told and re-told in numerous oral traditions, written texts, theatrical and operatic performances, movies and television series. In America, the Monkey stories have recently been re-told by David Kherdian, appropriated by Mark Salzman, and adapted both as a serial comic for adults by Milo Manara and Silverio Pisu, and as a children's story by Aaron Shepard, while Monkey himself has shown up as a character in a Sesame Street TV special and as an Office Assistant for Microsoft Office.1 The Monkey tradition is also being established within the American literary canon (that idealized collection of America's most important books, purportedly determined by academics and critics but more plausibly established and updated by major authors through their own literary influences) thanks in large part to the publication of three critically lauded novels from high-caliber authors: Gerald Vizenor's Griever: An American Monkey King in China, which won the 1986 Fiction Collective Prize and the 1988 American Book Award; Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, which won the 1990 PEN USA-West Award; and Patricia Chao's Monkey King, which received favorable reviews and was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers Award.2 Vizenor and Kingston are well-established writers whose works are routinely studied in universities, while Chao is a promising young novelist who represents the next generation of Asian American writers. As [End Page 355] will be seen, these three authors use the Monkey tradition in sophisticated but radically different ways. For this reason, they form a convenient set with which to examine the ways non-Western literary traditions can be integrated into American literature; specifically, the authors take the character of Monkey and either imitate, parallel, or invert him.

The Monkey Tradition

At this point, a summary of the Monkey story is useful. What is here called the Monkey tradition refers to a family of legendary stories that grew up around a historical incident from the seventh century: the journey taken by the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (also spelled Hsüan-tsang, but usually referred to by his Buddhist name, Tripitaka) to bring Buddhist scriptures from India to China. Over the centuries, the stories were expanded to include a set of three magical disciples—Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy. Several versions of the tradition have been written, the most famous of which is the sixteenth-century novel Xiyou ji (also spelled Hsi-yu Chi), generally attributed to Wu Chengen. The title Xiyou ji translates literally as "Western-Travel Record," and is formally translated in English as The Journey to the West, a title which matches up nicely with the formal plot of the novel, i.e., the narrative of Tripitaka/Xuanzang's journey from China to India.

Viewed from this perspective, the story's central character is Tripitaka, who is commissioned for the journey by the Bodhisattva Guanyin (or Kuan-yin) after the Buddha complains that the Chinese are trapped in wickedness and need the scriptures to teach them how to live well (chap. 8).3 The three disciples are also commissioned by Guanyin, both to assist Tripitaka on his trek and to attain merit for their individual spiritual journeys: Guanyin first meets a monster who, as a result of being punished for an act of carelessness while serving the divine Jade Emperor, haunts the Flowing Sand River awaiting travelers he can attack for food; Guanyin invites him to await Tripitaka's arrival and renames him Sha Wujing (or Sha Wu-ching, "Sand who awakes to purity"), the source of his usual moniker, Sandy (1: 514 n.25). Guanyin next meets a monster who is being punished for a dalliance with the Moon Goddess and whose spirit was trapped in a sow's womb on its way to its next reincarnation; she also invites him to await Tripitaka, and renames him Zhu Wuneng (or Chu Wu-nêng, "Pig who awakes to power"), from which comes his nickname, Pigsy (1: 514 n.31). After a brief encounter with a dragon prince, whom she commissions to serve as Tripitaka's horse, Guanyin [End Page 356] encounters the Monkey King, who has already been given the name Sun Wukong ("Monkey who awakes to vacuity," a name he received in chapter 1), and who has been imprisoned under a mountain by the Buddha himself as punishment for a series of misdeeds in Heaven. These three characters, along with the horse, form Tripitaka's retinue, using their great powers to help him past the many obstacles that beset him on the way to India.

While the formal level of the plot, i.e., the journey narrative, centers on Tripitaka, his disciple Monkey has his own tradition of tales, which form the first seven chapters of Wu Chengen's novel. This sequence of stories begins with Monkey's origin as a divine embryo born of an immortal stone and shaped into his monkey form by the wind. Later, the stone monkey discovers the Blessed Land of the Flower-Fruit Mountain, a bountiful land hidden behind a waterfall, and introduces it to his group of monkey companions, upon which he becomes their king. After several hundred years, however, the Monkey King becomes disturbed by the awareness of old age and death, and leaves his kingdom on a quest for immortality (chap. 1). He eventually succeeds in gaining powerful knowledge of magic, e.g., the ability to fly and to change shape, and acquires his best-known weapon, a magic cudgel that changes size. But he also adopts the title "Great Sage, Equal to Heaven" and creates havoc among the kingdoms of the sea, of death, and of heaven, until finally the Jade Emperor invites the Buddha to subdue him, where he remains until he is commissioned by Guanyin, as already recounted (chap. 2–7).

As a cultural icon, Monkey is loved as much for his rambunctious behavior in Heaven as for his maturation into a heroic Buddhist disciple whose faithfulness to Tripitaka's journey not only promotes the growth of Buddhism in China but also earns him Buddhahood, being promoted by the Buddha himself as "Buddha Victorious in Strife" (chap. 100). Given his popularity and the vitality of his narrative tradition, it is not surprising that many English abridgements of the novel (such as those by Arthur Waley and David Kherdian) make Monkey both the central focus of and the title character for their versions. Similarly, as can be seen in the titles of the novels of Kingston, Chao and Vizenor, it is Monkey more than Tripitaka who serves as their primary point of reference. Yet these novels are not simply American versions of Monkey's adventures. Rather, they draw on the full range of characters and themes from the Monkey tradition and then combine them with allusions to European and American literary traditions—e.g., Kingston references Rilke, Whitman and Kerouac; Vizenor mentions Hemingway and Native American trickster tales; and Chao sets her story in New England—to create a space from which they can comment on both Chinese and American cultures. It is through this conjunction of Chinese and Western references [End Page 357] that the Chinese stories are becoming part of the American literary canon, taking their place beside the African and indigenous American narratives currently stretching the edges of America's literary heritage and making it more representative of the actual ethnic makeup of the nation.

A quick note on canons: I am not here asserting that any of these three novels will itself remain in the upper tiers of American literary masterworks (although Kingston's currently seems well positioned to join her The Woman Warrior as one of the most important late twentieth-century works from any ethnic group). Rather, I suggest that the use of the Monkey tradition by American authors and in distinctively American contexts has the effect of "naturalizing" Monkey as an American myth, in much the same way that Washington Irving naturalized his German and Spanish sources or that China naturalized its Buddhist Indian influences or that Japan naturalized its Chinese and, by extension, Indian influences. American culture has always wrestled with finding the golden mean between preserving what is best from its ancestral cultures and establishing what is uniquely its own. This dynamic has been just as important to politics and religion as it has been to literature—particularly to ethnic minority groups who, as a result of the ethnic pride movements of the late twentieth century, have wrestled with the problem of the hyphen, and are now eager to refuse the choice of "either," "or," or "neither" when confronted with their ethnic and American identities. Rather, they assert that there is no reason why one cannot be both.4 This process is no doubt being reinforced by the growth of globalization, by which European Americans have become much more familiar with and interested in Asian, African, Latino, Middle Eastern and Native American cultures. Thus, the combination of American interest in non-Western cultures with the growth of high-caliber literature from authors from ethnic minorities makes it inevitable that the boundaries of American literary history will have to expand outward beyond the boundaries of European influence to incorporate the non-Western influences that are even now making themselves felt as part of an authentically American cultural tradition.

As has been said, it is the variety of approaches found in the three novels that makes them useful as a set in studying the appropriation of non-Western traditions as material for American literature. All three novels use Monkey as a point of reference, but they utilize him in radically different ways: Kingston appropriates him as an inspiration for her hero, Wittman Ah Sing. Vizenor also appropriates him, but less as an inspiration than as a cousin to his Native American trickster hero, Griever de Hocus. Chao, on the contrary, connects him to the sexually abusive father of her central character, Sally Wang. Together, they raise numerous questions about the [End Page 358] structural and thematic influence of a well-established Chinese tale upon modern American literature. Kingston's novel, however, has already been extensively analyzed, while Vizenor's and Chao's works have received little or no attention.5 Therefore, this article will restrict its focus almost entirely to the ways Vizenor and Chao use the Monkey corpus and will restrict its methodology to that which might be used in an undergraduate comparative literature course on this topic: close reading of each novel (with the Monkey story in the background), stressing a comparative approach in order to uncover those parallels to the Monkey tradition that might be recognized without the aid of secondary sources.6 The aim of this article is not to seek specific references to Wu Chengen's novel, but rather to uncover the ways in which the Chinese tradition provides structural and thematic material for these very American works.

Using the original's dual title as a guide, the article will examine how these novelists utilize the main structural elements of the Chinese tradition: first, how do they transform the character of Monkey, and do they also create analogues to the disciples? Second, how do they play with the notion of journey, and what purpose do they give it? Third, what do they do with the notion of the West, that is, with the destination of the journey? Finally, how do they use the Monkey corpus to comment on America and on American literature?

Maxine Hong Kingston: Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book

Although this article will not analyze Kingston's novel, a brief synopsis is in order. The story follows Wittman Ah Sing, a Berkeley graduate and aspiring playwright in 1960s San Francisco, who, in an early-morning post-pot-party haze, is inspired to recreate the Chinese American epic theatre tradition. Over the course of the novel, he quits his job, gets married, visits his parents, travels to Reno to find his grandmother, and rouses his community—including Americans of Chinese, Japanese and European ancestries—to stage a historical epic, a play based on The Journey to the West, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the experiences of the Chinese people in the United States.

Of the three American Monkey King novels, Kingston's use of the Chinese tradition is the most straightforward: Wittman is a Monkey character, although not in an uncomplicated manner—he also acts as Three Kingdom's Lord Guan and other literary figures as the need possesses him, making him [End Page 359] an embodiment of the entire Chinese literary tradition. At the same time, Kingston has been accused by other Asian Americans of misrepresenting Chinese literary history by changing the details of the original stories. However, this novel should make clear that Kingston infuses the traditional stories with a sense of play, allowing them flexibility in order to meet the needs of their audience. Wittman could not simply be Sun Wukong, just as he could not simply be Lord Guan. For Wittman to truly be Wittman, he must differ from both literary figures, even as he borrows and imitates at will. Within this sophisticated approach, however, Kingston's use of the Monkey figure is mostly straightforward: she uses a literary work from her own ancestral tradition and she preserves its central sense of heroism. As will be seen, Vizenor and Chao take these two approaches and make them problematic.

Patricia Chao: Monkey King

Chao uses the robust Monkey tradition to tell a much more somber story. Sally, an American-born child of Chinese immigrants, has a successful life in New York City, but has not overcome the sexual abuse inflicted on her as a child by the Monkey King—as her father called himself during the abuse—and has recently attempted suicide. Both her sister and her mother know about the abuse but refuse to discuss it, even with the hospital therapist. After her release from the hospital, she recuperates with her aunt and uncle in St. Petersburg, Florida, and begins a relationship with one of her former hospital companions. Upon returning to New York, she navigates her relationships with her family, friends, ex-husband and artwork until she finally feels prepared to return to work and to re-enter her life.

By having Sally's father call himself the Monkey King while abusing her, Chao turns the figure of Monkey against itself. Instead of being a heroic pilgrim who leads others to enlightenment, Chao's Monkey wounds his family, drives wedges between them and almost pushes Sally to her death. Similarly, Chao converts Monkey's favorite defensive weapon, his magic cudgel, into an instrument of rape, incest and child abuse. By transforming the cudgel in this way, Chao also inverts the avoidance of sexuality found in the original: the Buddhist pilgrims guard their chastity against predatory women, whereas here the predator is the central figure in Chinese family life, the patriarch. Chao uses this iconoclastic inversion to question Chinese traditions: Monkey became a Chinese hero, but at what cost to women? The [End Page 360] role of women in the original story is at best problematic; outside of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, no women go on the journey and many of the female characters are seductresses. Consider, for example, the episode of the Nation of Women, in which Tripitaka is chosen by the queen to be her consort and must be rescued before she attempts to consummate the marriage, but is then kidnapped by a female scorpion spirit who intends to have him for herself and who is vanquished only with the aid of Guanyin (chap. 54–55). By connecting the abusive father with Monkey, Chao suggests that one effect of the Monkey tradition upon Chinese culture was to reinforce the reigning patriarchy, a patriarchy that has not only become impractical in the modern world, but has also been a weapon against Chinese women.

Chao's inversion of Monkey's heroic status makes it difficult to identify her analogues to the other Chinese characters. While it would be easy to take Sally's hospital friends, especially Mel and Lillith, as Chao's version of the other pilgrims, it eventually becomes clear that Chao's analogues are more literal. One crucial clue is Chao's description of Sally's family visiting "a motel that has a monkey in a cage in the parking lot" (151); this monkey screams so much that Sally's sister remains disturbed long after the family has returned home (152, 156). Thus, Chao deflates Monkey's heroic status by literalizing his monkey form and then making him threatening in an animalistic sense. She uses a similar process with the other disciples, so that Pigsy becomes Piggy, a stuffed animal with fur "worn to a kind of sickly flesh color," a snout that is "a garish orange," and eyes so dark and beady that when they catch the light, Sally is repulsed and almost drops him (26). Similarly, the growling tiger that Monkey kills and whose hide becomes Monkey's clothing (chap. 14) becomes in Chao's world a tiger kitten (182, 245). Further, Tripitaka's horse becomes a birthday present from her father, "a carved wooden horse […] dark and smooth and long-legged with bulging eyes and bared teeth" (125). Although this horse is an antique from China and therefore a symbol of Sally's ancestral heritage, she responds negatively: "what I want to do is give it back, tell them that I hate it" (125). Overall, Sally displays no pleasurable association with any of the animals from the Monkey tales; she would rather be "a chipmunk, a squirrel, even a bear," animals that are not central to the Chinese story (132). Chao further separates Sally from the pilgrim-animals through her birthday: her sister was born in the year of the pig (cf. Pigsy), whereas Sally was born in the year of the dog, another animal not central to the Monkey tradition (181). In this way, Chao deflates all the powerful animal figures from the journey until they are harmless and/or repulsive. [End Page 361]

As has been shown, Chao also inverts the heroic reputations of the Chinese figures. When Sally's mother reads the Monkey story to her daughters, she calls him greedy and "not interested in humans" (156). She mentions only the rebellious, dangerous aspects of Monkey's pre-journey character and not his eventual conversion and Buddhahood. Similarly, Chao inverts the tiger skin worn by Monkey when she describes Sally's self-mutilation scars as "tiger stripes" (186). Even the Buddha is inverted; he becomes Uncle Richard, an overweight gambler who dies from heart disease (208, 310). Chao strips these Chinese figures of their heroic associations, making the characters harmless while giving their qualities a negative slant.

The next question is whether Chao uses this same iconoclastic approach to the motif of the journey. Given the novel's emphasis upon Sally's health and recovery, her journey would seem to be primarily internal, from sickness to health, from dysfunction to reintegration. This interpretation has reasonable support, as when Chao attributes Sally's inability to read, paint and drive to her loss of "that peculiar quality of concentration needed to tap into the soul" (9, 25, 234). Such descriptions highlight the psychological journey Sally must take towards full reintegration into daily life. Even the structure of Chao's novel—the first section being set in the hospital and the second set within her memory—emphasizes the internal nature of Sally's journey; until she goes to Florida, there is no substantial physical movement.

Chao's use of geography, however, suggests that there are also physical (i.e., geographical) analogues to both the journey and the West, as Sally, like the Chinese pilgrims, must travel both west and south to achieve salvation. This approach south allows Chao both to create an analogue to the Chinese tradition and to play with an American literary tradition: namely, the tradition of depicting the South as a place of illicit passion and spiritual danger. Chao preserves the tradition's portrayal of the South as untamed and untamable, but inverts its allegation that this wildness is dangerous to the soul. Consider the following descriptions:

Florida was surreal, I couldn't take seriously anyplace that had palm trees. And it was stunningly flat, the bay itself a vast plain, stretching out light blue and gleaming on both sides of us as we skimmed across toward St. Petersburg, which shimmered ahead of us through a fog of heat.


The flowers were so beautiful I knew they must be poisonous. And the air was brimming. It wasn't just honeysuckle I smelled, there was something even more heady, a fragrant rush that was almost [End Page 362] decadent. […] The South pulled no punches when it came to decadence. (180) The vegetation in Florida had a wildness to it, things would grow rampant the minute you turned your back.


Yet, in spite of its wildness, the South is where Sally regains her health; it is the North that is truly dangerous. Sally imagines that a return north would be "like a time warp" back a few months (243), and although her thoughts are focused on preserving the beauty and promise of spring, the temporal aspect of the image implies regression, for she would be leaving behind the acceptance she has found with her aunt, uncle and boyfriend, and returning to a mother and sister who do not want to deal with their family's problems. In effect, by returning north, Sally would lose all the progress she has made. In this manner, Chao proposes the myth found in the Chinese novel as an alternative to the American myth of the dangerous South. In her novel, it is New England, the "birthplace" of the United States, that must be enlightened.

What then does the novel say about the United States? On the one hand, Chao uses the States to critique traditional Chinese culture, especially by showing the violence behind its patriarchal traditions. For Chao, these traditions are so strong and at the same time so distant from American values that Sally's parents, in spite of their successful lives in the States, never comfortably assimilate. Even after Sally has attempted suicide, her mother refuses to condemn her late husband, as seen when she lashes out in defense of both her husband and traditional Chinese family values during a family therapy session: "'He was a good father,' she repeated. 'Look what he sacrificed for you. […] Work so hard to pay for your education. Then what happens. No-good daughter. You disappoint him so much, he can't say. […] Children supposed to give you peace in old age. Your daddy was never peaceful. He talked this all the time, maybe he's better off back in China, shouldn't have come to the United States at all. Never have children'" (85). Later, in private, she hisses (Chao's word) at Sally: "Your father is dead […]. He is an ancestor. You must have respect for your ancestors" (86). Her adherence to Chinese patriarchy raises the question whether Sally, had she been brought up in China, would simply have accepted her father's abuse. On the other hand, would the abuse have occurred had the family remained in China? Since Sally narrates the story, it remains unclear whether her father's behavior is related to his immigration to the United States. [End Page 363]

In addition to revealing the ugly aspects of Chinese culture, Chao's United States allows Asians to assimilate. Sally's life is mostly free from racial conflict: her ex-husband, her lover, and her best school-friend are all white, and her family, in spite of some problems years earlier, no longer encounters racial conflict. Thus, Chao's United States is a country that accepts Asians. Interestingly, however, Chao focuses not on the United States as a whole, but only on the East Coast: the action centers on New York, New Haven, and Florida. Instead of sending Sally west to California as might be expected, Chao sends her across the Bible Belt down to the southern edge of the nation. This use of Florida avoids the difficulties of the traditional North-South partition and allows her to depict the South as wild, surreal and decadent, the sort of place that seems antithetical to both Chinese and Puritan notions of a well-ordered society. It also allows Chao to downplay the Asian-Pacific rim and to stay close to the traditional "heartland" of American culture, a fact that suggests that she intends to critique the United States as well as China.

The implication of this movement to the East Coast is that, seen in terms of the geographical movement of the Chinese pilgrims, New England plays the role of China. That is, New England needs to be enlightened. In the original, the pilgrims must fetch the scriptures in order to establish true religion in China. Chao replaces China with Sally's New England family, the mother and sister who refuse to deal with their family's problems. This is where Sally's journey begins and ends; it is the place she tries to flee and the place to which she must be reconciled. Although the United States generally enables assimilation, New England surprisingly resembles the China of Sally's parents. Given that Chao's vision of New England juxtaposes Puritanism with Chinese filial piety, it is not surprising that Sally's mother and sister refuse to acknowledge the father's crimes. By inverting the notion that America is best represented by New England and the Puritans, Chao rejects the orthodox myths of the United States as well as that of China. If America allows assimilation, it is not because of its supposed Puritan origins.

Yet, in the end, Sally is able to return to New England, not only to re-enter her life, but also to reconcile with both her family and her location. Her reconciliation is not simplistic, however. She reconciles with New England by recollecting that on the morning she attempted suicide, she was trying to paint but was unable to capture "that pale New England sky, the spreading boughs of the pines etched so mercilessly upon it" (307). She laments, "I wasn't good enough. I wasn't nearly good enough. I wouldn't even know how to begin. It was my doom to be able to see, to feel like this, and not be able to translate. Still, at that moment I'd known: this life is exquisite" (307). [End Page 364] This exquisiteness is crucial, because Sally cannot reconcile herself to her family until she realizes that without her father, she would not exist at all. "Family was fatal but they created you after all. Who would I be if it hadn't been for Monkey King, if I didn't have his breadth and bones and blood, if he hadn't made his mark on me? It was useless to try to imagine how things would have turned out had I been born to another family, not only useless but impossible. I was what I had come from" (290). This sentiment reflects one of the lessons taught by the Chinese story, as seen in the way the journey becomes a process through whose hardships the pilgrims grow in the ways of Buddhism and earn merit towards their enlightenment. Just as the Buddhist pilgrims learn that they must endure their trials in order to gain enlightenment, Sally realizes that her attachment to her hatred and anger is self-destructive.

As an alternative, Sally rejects the hospital's seemingly sensible teaching about anger and adopts a more mystical understanding of her own emotions. She explains, "In the hospital they told us that pain is something you experience and then put behind you. I disagree. I think you hold everything, pain and pleasure, in your heart, and that memory only deepens the next experience" (307). She will no longer try to conquer her own anger: although she will not ignore the real damage done to her by her father, she will allow that pain to mingle with pleasure so as to make the future more meaningful. The implication of this passage for the novel as a whole is that although both Chinese and Puritan cultures have a great deal to answer for, that past cannot be undone. As individuals, we can only make our own journeys and hope that in so doing, we can both preserve and share everything in our world that is worth preserving.

Gerald Vizenor: Griever: An American Monkey King in China

Chao criticizes the place of her Chinese tradition in the modern world, whereas Vizenor uses that tradition to critique modern China. Vizenor's novel relates the adventures of Griever de Hocus, a mixed-blood Native American trickster who wreaks havoc while teaching in post-Communist Tianjin, where he repeatedly encounters people and objects from his dreams. His trickster activities include liberating chickens from the marketplace, adopting a rooster as his pet, freeing a bus-load of condemned convicts, protesting the capitalist recolonization of the country, and escaping in an ultralight airplane. And, in the midst of all this chaos, he discovers the novel [End Page 365] The Journey to the West. Given that both Vizenor and his hero are Native Americans, this novel raises interesting questions about cross-cultural borrowing, such as what it means for one ethnic group to borrow an icon from another, what the character of the Monkey King can mean to someone who is not Chinese, and what contributions the Native American tradition can make to Chinese culture. These questions deserve further attention, as does the question of when Vizenor's variations on the Monkey tradition stem from the specific needs of his novel and when they reflect a deferral to Native American storytelling techniques. For now, however, it must suffice to examine Vizenor's use of the Chinese novel.

Vizenor's approach to Monkey is to create an avatar for him. Although Griever does not know the Chinese novel until the third section of the book (125), he is established early on as a Monkey character. For instance, his gestures, by which he "resolves his bother and concern in the world" (31), resemble Monkey's: tapping his toes, pinching and folding an ear, and pulling a wild hair from his temple—specifically, the "metahair, the hair that transforms impotencies, starved moments, even dead-ends" (31). These are the same gestures Monkey uses when he performs his magic. Other people in Tianjin recognize the resemblance too. Griever's use of the word "liberated" while telling a story inspires his translator to whisper "Monkey liberation" and to begin translating his tales "from the traditional stories of the monkey king" (93). Griever's translator realizes that the best way to translate his stories is not to put them directly into Chinese, but to tell the Monkey versions that the audience would already know. Griever thereby becomes an incarnation of Monkey, returned to enlighten China once more.

Once Griever learns of Monkey, Vizenor frequently refers to him as "Monkey King." More interestingly, however, Griever deliberately begins to act like Monkey, as when he paints his face like a monkey for his photo ID and when he uses Monkey's name, Sun Wukong, with the police (138, 152). It is as though he has learned Monkey's skill of transformation. However, he does not merely impersonate the literary figure; rather, he gives him a contemporary political context, connecting him to such imprisoned human rights activists as Wei Jingsheng and Fu Yuehua (151–152). These episodes could be compared to at least two episodes from the Chinese, taken from different stages of Monkey's life: the first episode comes from Monkey's pre-Buddhist career and is perhaps his first practical use of magic, when he defends his monkey subjects from the Monstrous King of Havoc (chap. 2); the second comes after he has joined Tripitaka, when the pilgrims are called upon to help restore the king of Black Rooster Kingdom to his throne, which has been usurped by decree of the Buddha as punishment for mistreating a [End Page 366] disguised bodhisattva (chap. 37–39). The fact that Monkey acts as a political savior both before and during his journey suggests that politics never loses its importance in the individual's life, even after conversion to Buddhism. Therefore, Griever's association of Monkey with these activists serves to remind his Chinese audiences of the original story's political implications and sets out for them the kinds of people who might be modern Monkeys.

It is important to note, however, that it is not clear how completely Griever should be identified with Monkey. After Griever has read TheJourney to the West, he dreams about being Monkey. But his dream does not progress very far into the narrative of the journey: after dreaming of the moment in the story where Tripitaka first recites the fillet spell (a spell given him early in the journey to keep Monkey under control by constricting his headband), Griever wakes up with a headache (130). The implication could be that Griever is the wild, rebellious Monkey of the novel's early chapters, but it could also be that the restrictions of Chinese culture prevent him from fully following his trickster impulses. A third possibility is that there is finally an unbridgeable distance between Native American and Chinese tricksters. By equating Sun Wukong with Wei Jingsheng and Fu Yuehua, contemporary Chinese reformists, Griever might be suggesting that as a Native American, he cannot fully become the Monkey figure the Chinese need, and that they must therefore find that figure among themselves, even if the figure does not behave in the same manner as the Monkey King of lore.

One approach to this question of how closely Vizenor intends to align Griever with the Monkey King is to examine what he does with the other pilgrims from the Monkey stories. During a scene in which Griever is followed by five men, Vizenor describes the group as "the Monkey King and his five disciples" (147). But since these men remain anonymous and exit the story after this episode, they do not function as true analogues to the Buddhist pilgrims. Vizenor hints at where to find the true analogues in his description of Wu Chou, the gatekeeper at Griever's school: "Wu Chou, which means warrior clown, a name he earned from the classical theater, was an actor before the revolution. He is remembered for his performances as the Monkey King in the opera Havoc of Heaven. When he was too old to tumble as an acrobat, he studied the stories of tricksters and shamans in several countries around the world" (23). By substituting one Monkey King for another, i.e., replacing Sun Wukong with Wu Chou, Vizenor suggests that the other pilgrims will show up in literal guises.

As it turns out, the pilgrims Sandy and Pigsy do indeed turn up, although not until almost the end of the story. In the novel's final section, Griever meets a man nicknamed Sandie, "a government rat hunter" who studied economics [End Page 367] and political science at UC Berkeley (161, 163). Vizenor explicitly connects Sandie to his literary ancestor by explaining that he earned his name "from a comic opera, the most sincere character in the stories about the mind monkey"; he later cements this connection by describing him as "the most earnest and courteous of the wanderers" (161, 165). It is through Sandie that Griever visits Obo Island, an island that is "shaped the same as the nation" and whose tribal name means "'cairn,' a tribal place where shamans gather and dream" (164). These descriptions suggest a kingdom of monkey minds, just as the island's location behind Shuishang Water Park recalls Monkey's kingdom behind the waterfall. On this island, Griever meets a man known as Pigsie, a "lascivious peasant" and basketball player who studied aeronautical engineering in Albuquerque and who is apparently named for his current life as a swine herder and trader (165–169). Vizenor has thus created literal versions of the three animal pilgrims from the novel, as well as of Monkey's island kingdom.

Yet Pigsie and Sandie might not be Griever's true colleagues for his journey, since Vizenor connects him more strongly to three other people in attendance on Obo Island. The first of these is Shitou, who makes his living breaking stones and entertaining tourists with bear stories; he is connected to Griever by two facts, namely, that he "inhale[s] the breath of bears sealed in the stones" and that he had earlier appeared in one of Griever's dreams (72–74, 16–17). The second is Yaba Gezi, a mute child named after the mute pigeon of pre-revolution folklore (60–61). He too is an incarnation of a figure from folklore; a Chinese official (who claims the boy does not exist) calls him "Child from old stories, no one sees the mute, from stories before liberation" (61). Like Shitou, he appears to Griever in a dream, first drawing a picture of Obo Island and then becoming one with him (57–59). Finally, there is the moth-walker Kangmei, whose father is Battle Watson, an American sinologist who rescues Chinese artifacts; it is Kangmei who possesses the manuscript from Griever's dream (173). She literally becomes Griever's fellow pilgrim by accompanying him on his escape to Macao. Even though these three characters are not nominative analogues to the original pilgrims, they are more effectively Griever's colleagues than are Pigsie and Sandie. If Vizenor intends to show that Monkey's modern avatar need not resemble the literary figure, then the same should go for his disciples: their true avatars are not the obvious ones.

Vizenor's approach to avatars also applies to the characters of the Bodhisattva Guanyin and Buddha. When Griever learns that his unborn daughter has been killed, he refers to her as Kuan Yin (the alternate spelling for Guanyin), explicitly noting that it is "the same name as the bodhisattva who captured the mind monkey for the Jade Emperor" (232–233). Again, [End Page 368] Vizenor creates a literal double for the Chinese character; yet, because she dies unborn, she cannot function as a modern Guanyin to the Chinese. Vizenor uses the same technique with the Buddha, as seen in Griever's encounter with the blind woman Hua Lian, a famous actress who still paints her face in classical theatrical style but who now reads the faces of bus passengers (111–113, 121). Vizenor sets up the revelation of the Buddha by having Griever ask her to show him Confucius. She points to a man running to catch a bus and explains the significance of his movements: "Notice how he bends his head to women and children, how he kowtows to power, to those in uniforms. […] His heart gossip is bound in genealogies" (122). Confucius has reappeared in an unlikely guise, visible only to those who have eyes to see heart gossip. Therefore, when Hua Lian announces that there will be a Buddhist on the next bus, Griever asks what Buddhists look like: "Indifferent. […] Watch for the man who is detached, […] the one who has no interest in culture, women or children, the one who has a soul perched on his shoulder" (122–123). She then points to a man Griever had already encountered. This is as close as Vizenor gets to portraying the Buddha, but it supports the notion that Griever's true companions will not be duplicates of the literary figures. Yet Vizenor gives even this notion an ironic twist: the man pointed out as the Buddhist reappears later as one of the prisoners, condemned for seducing old women in order to steal their valuables, among which is the black opal ring that Battle Watson had rescued and that Griever had seen in his dream (154–155, 142, 17). Is this man truly a Buddhist? Was Hua Lian wrong? Or does this encounter suggest that the contemporary avatars of Monkey, Confucius and the Buddha may not behave in the ways people expect them to?

Given that Griever is Vizenor's avatar for Monkey, what is his journey and what is its purpose? The immediate answer would seem to be that the journey is Griever's trip to China and back. Yet this answer is problematic, since his trips to and from China remain outside the setting of the book: the story begins with him already in Tianjin and ends with him in the air making his escape (27, 230). Moreover, other than a few short trips outside Tianjin, he makes no substantial journeys within the course of novel. Yet he is always in transit: he is repeatedly shown riding buses, bicycles, trains, trucks, boats, planes, etc. Further, his adventures take him all over Tianjin; very little actually happens at the school where he teaches. Hence, his real journey as Monkey is (physically) through the city of Tianjin and (spiritually) into the lives of the city's people.

As for his mission, it seems to be threefold. First, there is the dream Griever describes in the opening letter of the book, in which he sees the bear shamans, the old stone man who fathered a diasporic nation of healers, and [End Page 369] the birchbark manuscript he is to take back with him (17–18). Throughout his stay in Tianjin, Griever runs across each of these items and people until, finally, he recovers several stolen sacred bear scrolls (230). Vizenor has fun with this aspect of the original story as well: the goal of the Chinese pilgrims' journey was to bring back the Buddhist scriptures, but the texts they receive are revealed to be blank. To further complicate this matter, Buddha informs them that "these blank texts are actually true, wordless scriptures, and they are just as good as those with words" (4: 393, chap. 98). Similarly, Griever discovers after all his travails that his scrolls "are nothing more than recipes" (234). The purpose behind Griever's dreams was to restore stolen Native American property; perhaps this explains why the literal avatars of the Chinese pilgrims are not Griever's true companions—Griever's primary mission is only tangentially about China.

Griever's secondary mission, however, is to promote "Monkey liberation," as when he commands the police to release the condemned prisoners and justifies his commands by attributing them to the order of "The Jade Emperor and Sun Wukong in the Treasure Hall of Divine Mists" (151). This scene is one of the most politically charged episodes in the book, as it is in this scene that Griever reads aloud an editorial against the death penalty, refers to himself as Wei Jingsheng and Fu Yuehua, and steals the truck of convicted criminals (149–153). Although Griever is clearly criticizing the Chinese government for its oppressive policies towards dissidents, his declarations that "Confucius and Mao Zedong were liars" and that "no one here will ever be free" suggest that he sees the problem as running much deeper (152–153). In fact, Vizenor's depiction of a throng of indifferent Chinese citizens watching a caravan of condemned prisoners, unconcerned by the lack of due process, resembles the well-known episode in the life of Chinese author Lu Xun. After viewing a photo of Chinese bystanders submissively watching a Japanese soldier execute a Chinese compatriot, he was convinced to change the course of his life from medicine to literature and activism. Like Lu Xun, Vizenor suggests that the Chinese people are spiritually sick and in need of healing.

A third reason for Griever's journey is made clear in the episode in which he crashes the opening of Pierre Cardin's restaurant, Maxim's of Beijing. Set on the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and coinciding with the unveiling of the restored Imperial Palace, the restaurant's opening provides Griever an opportunity to critique the new colonization of China by capitalists. Vizenor's narrator notes that the customers at the restaurant are "unaware that at the maiden performance one lunch on the imperial stage cost more than four months' salary of an average worker" [End Page 370] (202), a statistic that recalls Marx's theories about the alienation of labor for the benefit of capital. As a passerby refers to it, the restaurant is "the third forbidden city," founded by Mao Zedong, Pierre Cardin and Matteo Ricci (202–203). The fact that Griever is finally "asked" to leave the restaurant simply because he is not wearing a tie—not because he crashed the gala or because he brought his rooster with him—clarifies the danger of capitalism as merely the flip side of communism. As Griever shouts on his way out—"the revolution for a necktie"—the oppressive regime of communism has given way to an oppressive regime of capitalism (206). It may seem paradoxical to have Griever as Monkey fighting both communism and capitalism, but as he learned from Hua Lian, "Communists are capitalists […]. The soldiers serve the cadres, and the cadres down the line are the new shadow capitalists" (123). The opposition between the two systems is illusory.

Tianjin is therefore not only the site of Griever's journey, but also his West. Vizenor plays on the Chinese novel's formal title, for Griever literally comes west to China from the United States. But he also comes to a post-colonial China that is actively being westernized anew, and as a Native American he knows a good deal about westernization. In fact, Griever understands that the West could never really have left China; as he informs a waitress in the hotel restaurant, "colonialism, that worm in the muscles of the heart, persists in more than memories and printed words" (110–111). This statement hearkens back to a comment Wu Chou made early in Vizenor's novel: "Tianjin is a broken window […]. Dreams retreat to the corners like insects, and there we remember our past in lost letters and colonial maps, the remains of foreign concessions" (22). China has been permanently shaped by its colonial past.

Vizenor recalls these vestiges of colonialism throughout the novel, such as in his descriptions of the city as "partitioned in memories of lost relatives, colonial concessions, shadow capitalism, and painted faces from classical operas" (109). Similarly, Griever proclaims to the waitress and her empty restaurant that even though the Communists burned the markers between concessions and purged the European place names, "nine colonial nations succeeded in their vaults and domes, spires, groins, cusps and lobes on arches, and in their moats and stunted trees, sculpturesque gardens, monolithic markets, the same old pillars hauled back from the shadows" (111). Although the place names are now Chinese and the landscaping has been destroyed, the buildings remain, unremitting testimonies to the presence of nine foreign countries. Moreover, as the opening of the restaurant Maxim's of Beijing makes clear, these vestiges are stirring to life again. Whereas Wu Chou claims that "the old names have disappeared but we bear the same [End Page 371] missions in our memories" (22), Griever sees that colonialism is not merely a memory: it is re-encroaching on China, reclaiming the concessions it once had in Tianjin.

It is therefore apparent that Vizenor is also criticizing the United States, even though his rebukes of Chinese oppression sound pro-Western. For instance, to a crowd of spectators gathered to watch an execution, Griever reads aloud an editorial, written by a foreign journalist, that includes the following statement: "A friend said to me that it is unfortunate that before you [i.e., the Chinese] had your socialist revolution you didn't have the opportunity of knowing a period of being bourgeois and have the chance of picking up some bourgeois values, like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, civil liberties and an abhorrence of capital punishment" (150). On a cursory reading, this comment sounds pro-Western or even pro-American, but neither the editorial nor the novel is so clear. The editorialist's unnamed friend regrets that the Chinese had not tasted western liberalism before the revolution, but never explicitly claims that the socialist system is itself a bad thing. Likewise, Griever sees the West reclaiming what it had lost in the revolution but is none too keen on the excesses of capitalism. It is therefore fitting that during his escape, his companion is Kangmei, whose name means "resist the United States" (141). Given Griever's ambivalence about American values, it cannot be assumed that he intends to portray America as the savior of China when he whistles "The Stars and Stripes Forever" while liberating a flock of chickens from the market-sellers, or when he uses that same classic American march, along with "Semper Fideles," to replace the patriotic music piped over the city's loudspeakers every morning (24, 37–40, 135). Given the history of the Native Americans at the hands of the American government, it is certainly possible that both Griever and Vizenor are pointing out that America is, in fact, China's conqueror.

Conclusion: The Monkey King in the American Canon

American minority writers have long drawn upon non-European traditions and have thereby extended the borders of America's literary heritage to include Africa, Mesoamerica and Asia. The Monkey King novels of Gerald Vizenor and Patricia Chao—one appropriating Chinese stories into another ethnic tradition and the other revealing their oppressive effects—demonstrate the versatility of this technique. Neither of these authors uses the Monkey tradition out of nostalgia for Chinese traditions: Chao is deeply critical of [End Page 372] her Chinese heritage, in part because of the influence of traditions like the Monkey corpus, and Vizenor is just as critical of contemporary China. Instead, both authors use Monkey for their own pragmatic purposes. Because both Vizenor and Chao are concerned with spiritual sickness and healing, the stories surrounding the Buddhist pilgrims' journey towards enlightenment provide a helpful template for their stories about what it takes to become healthy in the modern world. Thus, both authors are concerned with opening up possibilities for the future on the individual and/or the national level.

This pragmatic focus on the future does not neglect the past; in both novels, the past hovers threateningly over the present. In fact, both authors place the Chinese tradition within a contemporary crisis—specifically, the deadly consequences of traditional patriarchy in Chinese American culture and the insidious re-colonization of contemporary China by the West. Nor will the future be unscathed by the past. Although Sally recovers and returns to her previous life, it is not clear that her family will be as fortunate; Vizenor is equally unsure about China's future. Both authors temper hope for the future with realistic assessments of the power of human inertia. Yet hope is in fact present, especially in the belief that the relationship between past and present is not an either/or situation in which one dominates the other. We are not trapped by the past, nor must we altogether reject it. Rather, we must learn how to use it for the sake of our future. For Sally, this means allowing her past to deepen the beauty and exquisiteness of her present life. For Griever and his Chinese colleagues, it means learning to recognize the living avatars of the traditional literary figures.

What then of America? It is not immune from criticism. Patriarchal oppression is not merely a Chinese problem, for it finds nourishment in the soil of Puritan New England. Nor is American capitalism the solution to Chinese communism, for the two are eerily similar. Chao and Vizenor use the Chinese novel to critique both Chinese and American culture, e.g., the mythos of Puritan New England and blind faith in American capitalism. Yet, these acts of criticism imply their belief that as a culture, we are not trapped in our current ways of thinking. Thus, the sixteenth-century Chinese novel is useful not only to critique American culture, but also to heal it. In this way, the Monkey corpus ceases to stand outside of the American tradition and takes a place inside of it. By using the Chinese tradition in this way, Chao and Vizenor, along with their colleague Kingston, are establishing it as part of the American literary canon. [End Page 373]

J. Stephen Pearson
The University of Georgia
J. Stephen Pearson

J. Stephen Pearson is currently a fourth-year doctoral student in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia, where he teaches courses in Comparative Ethnic American and World Literature. His research examines analogies between minority and religious literatures; his recent conference papers in this area have examined the confl ict between Korean indigenous religion and Christianity in Nora Okja Keller's Comfort Woman, and the application of current multicultural theories to the works of Richard Rolle, St. Catherine of Genoa, and Kathleen Norris.


1. David Kherdian, Monkey: A Journey to the West (Boston: Shambala, 1992); Mark Salzman, The Laughing Sutra (New York: Random House, 1991); Milo Manara and Silverio Pisu, The Ape (New York: Catalan, 1986), originally published in serial form in the magazine Heavy Metal; Aaron Shepard, Monkey: A Superhero Tale of China (Los Angeles: Skyhook, 2005); Big Bird in China, dir. Jon Stone, perf. Carroll Spinney, Frank Oz, and Jim Henson, Children's Television Workshop, 1983. The reference to the Microsoft Office XP Office Assistant was found in the article "Office Assistant," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Apr 2006, 17:25 UTC, 13 Apr 2006 <> and although I have not seen the figure personally, I am told by a colleague that his Microsoft program does indeed have a monkey king figure as one of the possible office assistants.

2. Citations will be from the following editions: Gerald Vizenor, Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1986; Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987); Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Knopf, 1989); Patricia Chao, Monkey King (1997; New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998).

3. There are many variations of the story of the journey, but for the sake of convenience, references in this paper will be taken from the standard English translation of Wu Chengen's novel: Anthony C. Yu, The Journey to the West, 4 vols. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980), using chapter numbers where specific quotes are not given. It is hoped that this procedure will be useful as a starting point for further analysis of the connections between the Chinese stories and the American novels. However, it should be noted that many people have become familiar with the Monkey tradition through Arthur Waley's well-known abridgement, Monkey: Folk Novel of China (New York: Grove, 1943), which presents most of the original's opening chapters but presents only a few episodes from the journey narrative. This is the version of the story presented in such classroom anthologies as the Norton and the Bedford.

4. For more commentary on the historical development of the problem of hyphenation among ethnic American minorities, see such critical works as Cyrus R. K. Patell, "Representing Emergent Literatures," American Literary History 15.1 (2003): 61–69; Marc Zimmerman, U.S. Latino Literature: An Essay and Annotated Bibliography (Chicago: MARCH/Abrazo, 1992), especially pages 9–40; and Lisa Suhair Majaj, "New Directions: Arab-American Writing at Century's End," in Post-Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing, eds. Munir Akash and Khaled Mattawa (Syracuse: Jusoor/Syracuse UP, 1999) 67–77.

5. As of 13 April 2006, the MLA online database showed fifty-one articles on Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, but only six on Vizenor's Griever and no articles at all about Patricia Chao.

6. Since some of the articles on Griever contain helpful information for analyzing the novel in terms of Buddhism, post-colonial China, Native American literature, Vizenor's own experiences in China, etc., I list them here: Linda Luzut Helstern, "Griever: An American Monkey King in China: A Cross-Cultural Re-Membering," in Loosening the Seams: Interpretations of Gerald Vizenor, ed. Robert A. Lee (Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 2000) 136–154; Linda Lizut [sic] Helstern, "Blue Smoke and Mirrors: Griever's Buddhist Heart," Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures 9.1 (1997): 33–46; John Lowe, "Monkey Kings and Mojo: Postmodern Ethnic Humor in Kingston, Reed, and Vizenor," MELUS 21.4 (1996): 103–126; Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, "Vizenor's Griever: A Post-Modernist Little Red Book of Cocks, Tricksters, and Colonists," in New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism, ed. Arnold Krupat (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1993) 317–343; Cecilia Ann Sims, "The Rebirth of Indian and Chinese Mythology in Gerald Vizenor's Griever: An American Monkey King in China," Bestia: Yearbook of the Beast Fable Society 3 (1991): 48–55; and Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, "Vizenor/Griever, un singe qui se rit de la dialectique entre l'ici et l'ailleurs," L'Ici et l'ailleurs: Multilinguisme et multiculturalisme en Amérique du Nord (Bordeaux: Presses de l'Université de Bordeaux, 1991) 123–138. [End Page 374]

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