Thursday, January 6, 2011

Monkey-Man and Sun

I was recently doing some research on the Chinese epic Journey to the West about the clever and slightly mischievous Monkey (Sun Wukong). The epic was passed down for centuries from an oral tradition. Based on historical events of the Tang Dynasty the story goes that a pure monk is accompanied by Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand as his bodyguards: former wretches who would absolve their past crimes by journeying West and collecting the Buddhist scriptures.

Multiple versions of the story exist. As time went on the stories were condensed and codified. In a particularly interesting and very early version, Sun Wukong and the rest of the band run into Hanuman: a Hindu monkey deity. This chapter was later cut, but their conversation is delightful, as is often the case when Monkey gets talking. I reprint it here from the Lawrence translation:

[Sun Wukong, has left the others and wanders around the mountain bend, looking for dinner.]

"Just then Monkey heard a rustling in the bushes. 'Well,' he thought, 'I can probably flush out a fine rabbit for master.' And, taking up his golden cudgel, he brought it down on the bush with such force that all of the leaves fell off. But instead of a rabbit he had knocked a head that looked awfully like his own.

'Tell me, my younger cousin' Monkey began, 'why you've deliberately denied my master his dinner! Don't you know that I am Sun Wukong, master of all ape kind? By all rights I should split your head open with my cudgel!'

At these insults the monkey-face in the bushes turned red and angry, and standing up Sun Wukong realized that this was no ordinary monkey.

'How dare you call me your younger cousin! I was born eons before you hatched out of a rock! It is you who should be apologizing to me, Wukong!'

'I did not recognize you, fabled big-brother. Are you Hanuman?'

'How can you ask when I stand right before you?'

'Then we are not cousins but brothers! Come, tell me of the lands that lie ahead. Is my master going to be safe on his journey?'

'Oh hells no. These mountains contain an ethereal flame that destroys only those who are pure of spirit. You should be fine though.'

'As doubtless, brother, you have no difficulty in crossing them. But my master certainly will.'

'Maybe if you spent more time with him your sleaze would rub off on your master and he'd be able to come through the pass safely.'

'Certainly, certainly. But since I have found you I think it would be better if it was your honorably hairy self that did it. I have been with him for months and he is still pure. Doubtless your overwhelming lack of grace would prove toxic to him within minutes.'

'Doubtless you had to be born from a stone since no mortal could have bared the sight of you as a child.'

'Whereas your mother, as everyone knows, was a hermaphrodite.'

'Hey now. It's a Hindu thing.'

'So tell me, are we going to be long in this shitty kingdom?'

'Not if I can help it!'"

[At this point the two of them fight an epic battle lasting forty-three rounds, only to find they are evenly matched. The narrative abruptly breaks off with Monkey going back to camp to recruit Pig to help him.]

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