Sun Wukong, AKA The Monkey King
It’s Chinese New Year, and in honour of the Year of the Monkey, I’ve gathered some my favourite adaptations of the Monkey King stories. The Monkey King is one of the most famous characters in Chinese literature, from one of its classic novels, Journey to the West.
Published in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng-en, Journey is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who travelled to Central Asia and India to obtain sacred texts (sutras) and returned after many trials. Journey adds bits and pieces from folk tales, as well as a key plot addition: that it was the Buddha who gives this task to the monk. Buddha also provides him with three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins, one of whom is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.
It’s a huge novel (first volume of the full translation by Anthony C. Yu here), and most people in the West know of it because of a severely abridged translation by Arthur Waley, called Monkey. Monkey is a classic trickster character, and the chaos that follows in his wake, combined with his charisma, amazing weapons (magic fighting staff!) and lack of any real malice, has made him incredibly popular.
For a quick primer on Monkey, I recommend this video from the people at Off the Great Wall, which has fun illustrations and really captures the hilarity of Monkey’s adventures.
There have been an enormous number of different Journey stories in film and TV, and Neil Gaiman was at one point tapped to write an adaptation, but that was in 2011, and unfortunately we’ve heard not much since. I’ve picked some of my favourites, and a few that I have yet to experience, but am looking forward to.
A classic manga and anime series inspired by Journey to the West, the manga written by Akira Toriyama is the second best selling in history (230 million copies worldwide), and viewed as one of the greatest ever made. It follows Goku (who has a monkey tail as a child) from his childhood through adulthood as he trains in martial arts and explores the world.
Toriyama’s inspiration is obvious: Goku’s search for the seven orbs known as Dragon Balls replaces the Buddhist sutras sought in Journey, and instead of Buddha/enlightenment, a wish-granting dragon appears when the Dragon Balls are gathered. It’s a fantastic story, and the manga and anime both keep the great sense of fun and adventure that characterises Journey.
The original anime was a key part of my childhood, especially the Dragon Ball Z era. I remember my siblings pretending to throw Spirit Bombs at each other and going ‘Super Saiyan’ at the height of our obsession, and I would love to re-watch it from the start.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
An award-winning graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang (currently writing Superman), American Born Chinese is made up of three intertwined tales, the first of which is based on the Monkey King’s adventures. It’s an amazing coming of age story, dealing with racism, struggling with your ethnic identity in an unwelcoming country, stereotyping, and the lifelong negotiation between cultures that immigrants face. The cartoonish style suits these themes, and the writing is fantastic.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
I first saw this wacky comedy version of Journey on a crowded public bus in Beijing, after a swelteringly hot day on the Great Wall. The TV screens above me were playing a very loud film which my friends found hilarious. A man with a mop for hair who hadn’t washed in days fought demons with nursery rhymes, people turned into monstrous animals, slapstick abounded. It was the most bonkers thing I’d seen in months. “Ming”, Amanda said, as we got off the bus. “What was that film? I have no idea what it was about, but I need to know.”
Written and directed by Hong Kong legend Stephen Chow, it’s an absurd, chaotic, brilliant adaptation of Journey, filled with enough energy and invention to power whole countries. Something this ridiculous is exactly what you’d expect from Chow, who is the genius behind Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle (both of which I also recommend).
Monkey King, Faerie Queen by Zen Cho
Probably my favourite Monkey King story in the last few years, and given the author I’m not surprised by that at all. Zen’s talent for comedy, anchored by a zippy narrative and a pitch perfect omniscient narrator, makes this story of Sun Wukong crashing into the Faerie Queen’s court a wonderful tale of a very bad day for the faeries. It’s delightful, with fantastic fight scenes and many laugh-out-loud moments, and an absolute must read.
The Litigation Master and the Monkey King by Ken Liu
A historically inspired short story about Tian Haoli, a clever man who helps the poor in legal cases against the rich, and who is visited mentally by the Monkey King. What starts off as an amusing tale of a legal Robin Hood turns into something darker, with themes of ordinary heroism and censorship, and the Monkey King becomes someone who inspires everyday people. It’s also about how storytelling, bearing witness and writing can be acts of bravery, and in Ken Liu’s hands it’s a very moving tribute to a dark event in China’s history.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West published by Namco Bandai Games
A re-imagining of Journey to the West, Enslaved is a game that sets the story 150 years in a future post-apocalyptic world, with only a few humans left, along with the war machines (called mechs) left over from a huge global war. Monkey gets dragged into a revenge quest by a woman called Trip, and they face various obstacles in their mission to find out who destroyed Trip’s village. The game’s storyline was written by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), with voice and motion capture work by none other than Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw. It received a lot of good reviews and praise for the beautiful art, great story and facial animation (unsurprisingly!), so I’m very keen to play it.
Journey to the West
Into the Badlands
Very loosely based on Journey to the West, this martial arts series (available on Amazon Prime) is set in America in the future, after wars caused chaos and destruction. Eventually seven men and women seized control, banned guns and trained armies of fighters called Clippers. As the series begins, a Clipper called Sunny (played by the incredible Daniel Wu) rescues a boy called M. K., and they journey through the Badlands to understand their pasts and M. K.’s mysterious power.
This show has received mixed reviews, but what has been universally praised are the fight scenes, led by specialists like Stephen Fung (House of Fury) and the martial arts choreographer Ku Huen Chiu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). I can’t really resist Hong Kong action films, so I’m keen to see this American version, especially as it’s supposed to have homages to well-known martial arts films.
Did we miss your favorite Monkey King story? Let us know in the comments!