Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Monkey Who Would Be King

When we in the West think of the Medieval era, often what comes to mind are armoured knights, courtly ladies, corrupt clergy, devastating plagues and the Crusades. All too easily one can forget that there was a vibrant world beyond Europe. Yet whilst King Henry VIII of England and the Pope were tearing themselves and Christianity apart, an ancient civilisation flourished in the East. For the Ming Dynasty of Imperial China was a force to be reckoned with, riding the wave of an illustrious culture which today is at least three thousand years old. Global trade boomed, religious wars were an alien concept and the arts underwent a Renaissance. Here is one of the many stories hailing from those times, the tale of the Monkey who desired the Heavens.

The Monkey jumps the Waterfall
Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Legend tells of an ancient mountain, rising from the distant Eastern Oceans. Living beings, both mortal and divine, knew it as the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, for its towering heights were bountiful, lush and green. The denizens of the Mountain, however, were not quite so idyllic. For everywhere one looked, demons ran amok, and order was always far away. Only one cavern in the cliffs was free of them, the Water Curtain Cave, so named for the the roaring waterfall which plunged over its entrance, and no being dared cross it. One day, from the shifting powers of chaos and order in the cosmos, a strange egg of stone was formed at the very summit of the Mountain. The fauna of the land were puzzled by this strange object, and more so when it hatched. For one day, with a deafening crack, the two halves of the shell blasted apart, and from the midst emerged a monkey. An inquisitive creature, the monkey soon found a tribe of others like him on the slopes of the Mountain. The other monkeys were welcoming, and proudly showed their tranquil domain, but were careful to explain to the newcomer that the cavern beyond the thundering waters was where no monkey trod. The newcomer, however, a stranger to the superstitions of the world, merely laughed, and with a spectacular jump, soared through the falls, landing gracefully upon the bare rock within. The other monkeys looked on, shocked, but in awe. Revering the newcomer, the tribe named him as the Monkey King.

Sun Wukong - the Monkey King
Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
The Monkey King relished his new station, and soon all the monkey tribes of the Mountain were united under his rule. But after a time, he grew haughty. Calling himself the 'Handsome Monkey King', he soon began to tire of the limits that mortality brings. So, one day, he bundled several sticks together and built a raft, setting off over the horizon of the Great Ocean. Coming at last to the civilised spheres of the world, the Monkey King travelled far and wide, on a quest for knowledge and power. Now there were only a few beings on Earth who wielded the arcane power that linked Heaven and Earth, and these were the Xian (in Taoism, the Xian are a race of immortals). After an age, the Monkey King tracked down one of the Xian, determined to become his disciple and rise above his lowly station as a monkey. At first, the Xian turned the monkey away, again and again, mistrusting the creature and suspecting deceit. But when the monkey implored the Xian for knowledge, that he had travelled across Ocean and land to find him, the great spirit began to listen. Intrigued, the Xian asked him where he had come from, expecting the animal to reply 'the trees'. "All I remember is that there was a magic stone on the top of the Flower and Fruit Mountain, and that one year the stone split open and I was born", the monkey replied. The Xian was amazed at this, declaring "you were born of Heaven and Earth". The Xian took the monkey on as his apprentice, granting him a new name - Sun Wukong - a name which means Monkey Awakened to Emptiness. Soon, Sun began to gain mastery over human speech, and as the Xian grew impressed at his eagerness to learn, began to learn the ways of magic. Sun learned the secret of shapeshifting, and could soon morph his lowly form into seventy two different creatures. He learned, too, how to soar thirty four thousand miles in a single leap. Each of the hairs on his simian body he could bend to his will, transforming each to whatever he desired, even a clone of himself.

Sun Wukong before the Jade Emperor
Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Before long, Sun began succumb to pride once again. Boasting of his sheer power to the Xian's other disciples, Sun soon earned the scorn of his master. When the monkey's arrogance went too far, the Xian turned him away from his realm, commanding Sun never to reveal to another soul where he had learned his sorcery. Believing himself greater than the Xian, Sun returned to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, and enthroned himself once again, this time to be worshipped as a demigod by the creatures of the world. Ravenous for power, Sun could no longer be sated by the Earth itself. Diving to the depths of the Ocean, the monkey turned his hand to thievery, breaking into the watery domain of Ao Guang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. For he sought Ruyi Jingu Bang, a magical staff, a weapon of immense power and the very tool by which the gods had pushed the Ocean floor to the depths. The Staff glowed bright when Sun approached, acknowledging its new master. Hungrily, Sun stole it, and made his escape, conquering the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas with the boundless power over the oceans which the Staff brought him. The forces of Heaven, however, began to grow angry with Sun, and after an immense struggle, overpowered the monkey and bound him in Hell. It was then that Sun realised with a jolt that, as a mortal, he could still die. So the monkey broke free of his bonds, slew his guards and tore his name from the pages of the Book of Life and Death. In this tome was recorded the fates of every creature on the earth, and its word was law. Now that Sun's name was absent, the monkey was immortal, and the gods, outraged at his blasphemy, conspired against him.

The Jade Emperor
Image taken from a Chinese painted silk,
Ming Dynasty, 16th century
The Heavenly Spirits appealed to the Jade Emperor, the god who ruled Heaven and the mortal worlds, for help. A peaceful being, the Jade Emperor sought a peaceful solution to the crisis. Summoning Sun to him, he offered the monkey the position of Keeper of Heaven's Horses, believing that a station in Heaven would satiate the creature's ambition. Happily, Sun accepted. It was not long after, however, that Sun discovered that this was the lowliest position in Heaven. Enraged, the monkey threw open the gates to the Stables, and the Horses of Heaven bolted, causing havoc. Fawning and apologetic, the gods made Sun the Keeper of the Heavenly Garden. Satisfied, yet mistrustful, Sun accepted. However, when a vast banquet was held in the Garden, and all the gods and goddesses were invited, and Sun was not, the monkey once again went on the rampage. Turning once again to thievery, the monkey stole the peaches of immortality, the property of the mother goddess Xi Wangmu, and the pills of longevity that were the property of Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism), and the royal wine that was the property of the Jade Emperor himself, before sprinting back to his island home. The gods, furious, sent the armies of Heaven to arrest Sun. Though a hundred thousand strong, the hosts of Heaven were no match for the arcane might of the Xian that Sun had learned, as the Monkey King conquered them all. Drunk with an unbridled thirst for power, Sun let his guard down, just enough so that the combined power of all the gods could restrain him at last. Angry this time, the Jade Emperor commanded Lao Tzu to seal the monkey into a cauldron and set a fire beneath it, to eradicate Sun once and for all. Lao Tzu, still seething at the thievery he had suffered, obeyed without hesitation. Celebrating, the gods departed, and for a while, peace was at hand in the cosmos.

Forty nine days later, when many of the gods had even forgotten about Sun, they broke the seal on the cauldron. Spitting with deranged fury, out jumped the monkey with not so much as a singed hair. For the gods had forgotten that, since the monkey had torn his name from the Book of Life and Death, he could not be killed. Howling with frustration, the gods despaired. Desperate, and no longer able to contain Sun, the weary Jade Emperor turned to the very power behind the cosmos - the Buddha himself.

The Buddha
13th century Bronze statue in Kamakura, Japan
Meanwhile, such was the boundless reach of his ambition, Sun had fashioned yet another name for himself - the Great Sage, and now sought to be sole ruler of Heaven. Then, the voice of power sounded in the Great Sage's mind, the voice of the Buddha. The Buddha chastised the monkey for desiring to seize the Heavenly Palace. The Great Sage retorted with boasts of his prowess, how he could transform into seventy two shapes, and travel thirty four thousand miles in a single jump, doubting even that the Buddha could match him. Calmly, the Buddha responded with a wager. If Sun could, with a single jump, outleap the Buddha himself, the Jade Emperor would abdicate and the throne of Heaven would be his. If, however, he did not, he would be cast below the Earth, to meditate on his loss for eons. The proud monkey accepted at once. Bracing, Sun breathed in deeply, crouched down, and eyed the horizon, poised for the jump of his life. With a shout he was off, and what a leap it was! The monkey was but a blur, soaring through the sky. It was with such power that he kicked off, he even left the atmosphere, hurtling through the cosmos. Soon, the monkey saw the five great pillars which marked the boundaries of the Universe, as he began to lose speed and came back down again, landing atop the central pillar. The pillar was curiously round, and the drop terrifying, but all the same, Sun marked his name where he landed, howling with triumph.

Turning back, he jumped back to where he started from, and found the Buddha awaiting him there. "Tell the Jade Emperor to hand the Heavenly Palace over to me", Sun declared. "You wretch!" the Buddha angrily retorted "You never left the palm of my hand". Bemused, Sun described that he had reached the very pillars of the Universe - "do you dare come and see it with me?" There was no need, the Buddha replied, all he had to do was look down. When the monkey looked down, he felt a pang of horror. For the Buddha had held out his hand, and there on the top of his middle finger, were the words Sun had written. The pillars he had seen were the Buddha's own fingers! So the monkey saw the full extent of his vanity at last, and could not believe it. Turning to run, he saw those great pillars closing in on him until he was in their grip. In a flash, they became mountains, and the monkey was now buried beneath them, left to ponder the price of his arrogance...

United Kingdom

Journey to the West:
Monkey (Penguin Classics)
(One of the four great Classical novels of China, the story is surprisingly easy to read)

United States

The Journey to the West:
Monkey (Penguin Classics)
(One of the four great Classical novels of China, the story is surprisingly easy to read)

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