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  • The Monkey King, 4-EVER
  • Dore J. Levy (bio)
Hongmei Sun. Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. Hardcover $95.00, ISBN 978-0-295-74318-9; Paperback $30.00, ISBN 978-0-295-74139-6; E-book $30.00, ISBN 978-0-295-74320-2.

This is a delightful work of literary history with the advantage of incorporating several media. The protagonist of the study, Sun Wukong—a.k.a. the Monkey [End Page 271] King, Great Sage Equal to Heaven, Pilgrim Sun, and many other names, some flattering and some not so flattering—has indeed the power of 72 transformations as he leaps forward into world literature from the publication of the novel The Journey to the West (Xiyou ji) in 1592. Hongmei Sun's study follows China's favorite hero from the publication of the Ming masterwork, attributed to Wu Cheng'en, through a flock of sequels in fiction, retellings in theater, to full-fledged appropriation and transformation in modern and contemporary storytelling in many genres. Sun's study deploys the Monkey King to bridge the gap between classical and modern/contemporary literature in a way that allows students of traditional Chinese and modern popular literature and media to connect.

In the introduction, Sun describes her work: "A study of the changes that the Monkey King image has undergone is therefore closely related to the issues of domestic and transnational Chineseness, the politics of representation and self-representation, and the politics of cross-cultural translation" (pp. 7–8). After taking her readers on this journey, involving not only many genres of literature but periods of ideological ferment which nourished and inspired so many faces of the Monkey avatar, she brings together the notion of the importance of cultural archetypes accessible to all with the evolution of cultural identity in an international context: "The aim of this book is to provide renewed understanding of the Monkey as a trickster figure, as well as demonstrate the link between the Monkey King character and the Chinese self- conception of national identity" (p. 169).

By tracing the progress of this most consummate of trickster figures into the twenty-first century, Sun introduces the Monkey King to the international stage as a true "universal archetype." These idealized figures are taken for granted in western traditions, deriving from classical epics, sacred books and later, with figures such as Dr. Faustus, watersheds of philosophical and spiritual crisis. As the Monkey King becomes accessible in the west and is recognized as an international figure and symbol of Chinese energy and creativity, he has gained the status of an international archetype, with all the transformations and reinterpretations that come with it.

The Monkey King is perhaps the most durable and malleable of Chinese folk heroes. The true beginning of his story lies in the original Journey to the West (The Great Tang Records of the Western Kingdoms, Datang xiyou ji, 646), a memoir composed by a Chinese Buddhist monk when he returned from an unsanctioned journey to India from Tang China in search of scriptures to supplement the scattered and unsystematic collection of Buddhist texts that had made their way overland from the Indian subcontinent through the many kingdoms of Central Asia. Xuanzang (fl. c. 602–664), better known in the west as Tripitaka after the scriptures he brought back from India, visited as many pilgrimage sites from the Buddha's life as he could. His memoir depicts himself [End Page 272] as a thoroughly self-reliant man of deep faith, on a mission requiring deep faith to endure and complete. When he returned to the Tang empire with a load of 657 texts, he produced translations that both influenced the development of many schools of Buddhist thought in China and Japan, and have never been superceded. This historical account is the basis of the Ming Journey to the West, which Hongmei Sun compares in its epic scope, its there- and-back-again structure, and its cultural influence, with Homer's Odyssey. The Ming text introduces the magical Monkey King to us as the hero, eclipsing the mortal Tripitaka in every possible way, but also making the monk...


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pp. 271-277
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