International Folktale Character: The Monkey King

 

 picture credit: Roland @ flickr.com   Name: Monkey Uh…is that it? Well, he also goes by Monkey King, Handsome Monkey King, and Sun Wukong, or “Disciple who is aware of emptiness”. And what sort of character is he? Um, the name’s a bit of a giveaway. I get that he’s a monkey, but what makes him, you know, MonkeyIt’s a bit of a long story!  He’s a trickster, a braggart and a hero from China, who got into all sorts of trouble with the celestial pantheon.  And he’s been around since before the Han Dynasty (206 BC). So he’s old. Should I be impressed?  Yes.  He also boasts of being able to transform himself into 72 different images, immortality, and the ability to use the clouds to travel 34,000 miles in a single somersault.  As he says, “Why shouldn’t I take the power of the Jade Emperor?” Sounds like a modest guy… Yeah, Sun Wukong thought pretty highly of himself.  But who wouldn’t with skills like those?  Plus, he conquered all the best generals in Heaven, managed to sneak into a celestial banquet and steal everything from the peaches of immortality to some vintage wine, and escape from imprisonment in a fiery cauldron after 49 days with enhanced sight and strength.  Cheeky monkey. Was he just hell-bent on wreaking havoc in Heaven?  Not so!  He was acting out after being snubbed: after wiping his own name from the Book of Life and Death and being tattled on by the Kings of Hell, he was offered a rank in heaven.  Sounds great, right?  But everyone knows that “Horse-Manager” and “Official Gardener” aren’t Heaven’s most illustrious titles.  He was starting to feel like they’d promoted him just to keep him out of trouble. What a handful! Tell me about it.  And Buddha would agree – he was called in to help out in Heaven and eventually tricked Monkey into submission by daring him to jump out of his palm. Sounds like a cinch…but it wasn’t!  Let it suffice to say that the Buddha’s fingers look an awful lot like the 5 pillars of wisdom at the end of the universe.  The dare ended up with Monkey imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years, and the Buddha wiping simian pee off his hand. I blame the parents. Then you’ll have to go looking for a rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers!  Or perhaps you’re referring to the origins of the Monkey legend, which many believe is the Hindu Ramayana. So did he ever escape from this prison?  He was released in order to help a monk travel to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras.  He did such an awesome job (with a little help from an ego-squeezing headband controlled by the monk) that he was given Buddhahood.  And hundreds of years later, Mao Ze Dong declared himself a fan and suggested all of China could take inspiration from the ingenuity of the Handsome Monkey King. Yeesh.  Talk about giving the guy a big head.  So does he just appear in the one story?  Yeeees…but sort of like Spiderman or Batman, there have been many different versions and re-tellings, including the famous translation of Journey to the West; a popular 1970s tv show; and an opera written by that guy from Blur. Don’t Say: Quit monkeying around. Do Say: Buddhism is more fun than a barrel of monkeys!