"Monkey King", or known to the Chinese as "Journey to West",
is one of the renowned classical Chinese novels dated back some four hundred
years ago, the other three being "The Water Margins", "Dream
of the Red Mansion" and "Romance of Three Kingdoms".
"Monkey King" was based on a true story of a famous Chinese monk, Xuan Zang (602-664). After years of trials and tribulations, he travelled on foot to what is today India, the birthplace of Buddhism, to seek for the Sutra, the Buddhist holy book. When he returned to China ,or the Great Tang as was called that time, he started to translate the sutras into Chinese, thus making a great contribution to the development of Buddhism in China.
"Monkey King" is an allegorical rendation of the journey, mingled with Chinese fables, fairy tales, legends, supersitions, popular beliefs, monster stories as well as whatever the author could find in the Taoist and Buddhist religions.
While average readers are facsinated with the prowess and wisdom of the Monkey King, many critics agree that the protagonist embodies what the author tried to convey to his readers: a rebellious spirit against the then untouchable feudal rulers.
Monkey King is indeed rebellious, being in fact not an ordinary being. He was born out of a rock, fertilized by the grace of Heaven, according to the story. Being extremely smart and capable, he learned all the magic tricks and gongfu from a master Taoist. Now he can transform himself into seventy-two different images such as a tree, a bird, a beast of prey or a bug as small as a mosquito so as to sneak into an enemy's belly to fight him or her inside out. Using clouds as a vehicle he can travel 180,000 miles a single somersault.
He claims to be king in defiance of the only authority over heaven, the seas, the earth and the subterranean world -- Yu Huang Da Di, or the "Great Emperor of Jade" in Chinese. That act of high treason, coupled with complaints from the masters of the four seas and the hell, invites the relentless scourge of the Heavenly army. In fact, the monkey had fought into the seas and grabbed the crown treasure of the neptune kingdom: a huge iron bar that supposedly serves as a ballast of the seas and can expand or shrink at its owner's command. That became the monkey's favorite weapon in his later feats. With that weapon, he went down into hell and threatened the helly king to spare his and his followers mortal life so that they all enjoy eternity.
After many showdowns, the dove faction of the heavenly court persuaded the emperor to offer the monkey an official title to appease him. The monkey accepted the offer on a trial basis. However, he learned a few days later that he was cheated and being jeered all over the heavenly court: the position he held was nothing but a stable keeper. Enraged he revolted, fighting all his way back earth to resume his own claim as a king.
Eventually, the heavenly army subdued him, only after many a battle, with the help of all the god warriors. However, all methods of execution failed. Having a bronze head and iron shoulders, the monkey dulled many a sword inflicted upon him. As a last resort, the emperor commanded he be burned in the furnace where his Taoist minister Tai Shang Lao Jun refines his pills of immortality. Instead of killing him, the fire and smoke added to the monkey a pair of firy golden crystal eyes that can see through what people normally can not. He fought his way down again.
At last, the emperor asked Buddha for help. The Buddha moved a great mountain known as the Mount of Five Fingers to fall upon him. Still, the tenacious monkey survived the enormous weight and pressure. Only that he could not move. Five hundred years later, there came to his rescue the Tang Monk, Xuan Zang, whom we mentioned at the beginning of the story.
To insure that the monk could make for the West to get the sutras, Buddha had arranged for the Monkey King to become his desciple and escort him, along with two other desciples they later came across, (actually also arranged by the Buddha). One is the humorous and not uncourageous pig transgressed from a heavenly general for his crime of assaulting a fairy, and the other a used-to-be sea monster. There the four started their stormy journey west which was packed with actions and adventures that brought into full play the puissance of the monks' disciples, the Monkey King in particular.
Story by Haiwang Yuan, University of Indiania, 1994