I don’t know as much as I should about Chinese culture, but I’m a busy man, and it’s hard to change that. How can I educate myself in 2000 / 3000 / 4000 + years of culture while doing a 60-hour week, spending time with my family and not giving up any of my other various interests? It would be good if someone came up with a short reading list to get me up to speed, and what do you know, it looks like someone has already.
The “Four Great Classical Novels are “the four novels commonly counted by scholars to be the greatest and most influential of classical Chinese fiction” and I’m going to have a go at reading all of them this year, as well as The Plum In The Golden Vase, which was thrown out of the Four Great Classical Novels for being too sexy.
I’m starting with “Journey To The West”, also known as “Monkey” as it looked the most immediately accessible. It was most likely written by someone called Wu Cheng’en in the early-mid 16th century. To get an idea of timescale, that’s just before Shakespeare was born. Language and writing style shifts so much over 500 years that the book is now very heavy going, and the length of it makes it even more daunting – it has 100 chapters, none of them particularly short.
Fortunately then I didn’t need to read it in Chinese, and the most famous English version by Arthur Walley is quite significantly abridged. In a sense it’s a bit of a cheat, but short of setting aside a half-decade to learn to read classical Chinese it was the only option. Translation is part of the art, anyway, and if I were Chinese I’d love to read modern, accessible versions of Shakespeare or Chaucer.
“Monkey,” as Walley named his translation, is the story of a monk traveling from China to India in order to bring back Buddhist scriptures. It was possibly based on a true story, though it’s unlikely that in real life the monk had a monkey spirit, a pig creature, a swamp ghost and a dragon disguised as a horse traveling with him. Of course, Monkey is the real star of the piece. The first third of the book (or 7% of the unabridged version) concerns his birth (from a stone egg), his religious training resulting in godlike superpowers and various simian japes played on the gods until they are forced to give him the name of “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven”. Then it all goes a bit wrong, he’s put in charge of a peach orchard in heaven and unsurprisingly eats all the peaches and then steals a whole banquet for the other monkeys. This is a bit too much for the gods and he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years to cool off a bit.
The rest of the book concerns the journey – first the monk’s backstory, then his encounters with each of his companions before it settles down into episodic tales of the things and people they encounter on their way to the west. These vary from minor issues with monsters devouring first-born village children to major trials such as restoring a king who has been usurped by a shape-shifting magician. Finally they reach India, bring the scriptures back to Xi’an and are changed into immortals for their trouble.
It was quite enjoyable on the whole, better when it wasn’t hammering home the fact that it’s one long Buddhist parable, and all the better for the focus brought to it by Walley. Sometimes I felt I was reading an ancient scripture, sometimes one of Grimm’s most lurid fairy tales and sometimes even a particularly out-of-the-box modern fantasy novel (not that I read those).
Next week I’ll see if I can find a good modern version of