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  • The Monkey King in the American Canon:Patricia Chao and Gerald Vizenor's Use of an Iconic Chinese Character
  • J. Stephen Pearson (bio)

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...


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