Review: New ‘Monkey King’ translation feels like the best Pixar adventures

“Monkey King: Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Julia Lovell Photo: Penguin…

“Monkey King: Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Julia Lovell Photo: Penguin Classics

Few literary heroes are more ubiquitous and enduring to multiple generations of Asians around the world than Monkey of the 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” by Wu Cheng’en.

Considered one of the Four Classic Novels of Chinese literature, the sprawling, picaresque fable has been adapted into countless films, TV shows, stage plays and children’s books in Asia. “Monkey King: Journey to the West,” a new translation from Penguin Classics, serves as a solid primer for Western neophytes.

Anthony C. Yu’s four-volume translation of the complete “Journey to the West” was published by University of Chicago Press between 1977 and 1983 and runs 100 chapters and more than 1,800 pages. Julia Lovell’s latest version is just 340 pages, and in her translator’s note, she explains that many omissions were made “in the interests of narrative economy and pace.” The result is a breezy, action-packed narrative that never pauses to surface the novel’s Buddhist themes and is peppered with Western colloquialisms like “Back in a jiffy!” to replace any wordplay that would have required footnotes. Even the geography of Monkey’s journey west is left hazy.

Julia Lovell translated the latest American version of “Monkey King: Journey to the West.” Photo: Dominic Mifsud

Born from divine stone, Monkey develops special powers while training for immortality, which include shape-shifting and the ability to cloud-somersault over 108,000 miles in a single leap. He wields a magic staff that can become small enough to fit in his ear and large enough to beat down giant monsters. When the ever-mischievous Monkey eats all the peaches of immortality in Heaven, an angry Buddha pins him under a mountain for 500 years as punishment.

Enter Tripitaka, a monk charged with trekking west to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures to enlighten the Chinese. When the monk comes upon the mountain, Monkey talks Buddha into freeing him so he can atone for his sins by protecting Tripitaka on his journey. Along the way, Monkey teams up with sidekicks: Pigsy, a pig spirit prone to cowardice in battle; Sandy, a cannibalistic sand monster; and Horse, a dragon horse. Our heroes will go from mountain to mountain as they journey west, each peak presenting a new monster to defeat.

“Monkey King: Journey to the West” is rich with imaginative world-building that evokes the best Pixar films. This passage during Monkey’s battle with the Bull Demon reads like a scene in “Finding Nemo”:

“Transforming this time into a thirty-six-pound crab, Monkey leaped in and sank straight to the bottom, where he encountered a finely carved gateway. … Peeking in through the doorframe of milky jade, he took in a scene of aquatic revelry: whales singing, giant crabs dancing, tortoises piping, alligators drumming, and perch courtesans stroking jade zithers.”

The book is also quite funny, as when Monkey and Pigsy urinate into a flowerpot and convince Taoist monks that drinking their “holy water” will give them immortality. “This is easily the most fun I’ve ever had with you, Monkey,” says Pigsy. With this new readable version of “Monkey King,” Western readers will also have plenty of fun.

“Monkey King: Journey to the West”
By Wu Cheng’en, translated by Julia Lovell (Foreword by Gene Luen Yang)
(Penguin Classics; 340 pages; $30)




  • Leland Cheuk

    Leland Cheuk is the author of three books, most recently the novel “No Good Very Bad Asian.” His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, NPR and Salon.