“So then, instead of holding on to the Biblical view that we are made in the image of God, we come to realize that we are made in the image of the monkey.”
– Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living (1937)
Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West is one of the world’s most-read and referenced works of literature. It continues to delight audiences everywhere and has been adapted countless times: ranging from the early days of animation to today’s CGI epics all the way to the loose stories such as Dragon Ball and A Korean Odyssey. It is one of China’s oldest, most beloved novels, written in a style that’s still accessible to audiences today, featuring characters which could easily be found in a modern piece of pop culture. So, there has to be something to this staying power, right?
In a lot of ways, the novel works a lot like plenty of modern superhero comics. Their stories are recycled from medium to medium, altered and modified to suit the tastes or the current climate. Batman’s parents could have been killed in a random act of violence, or as part of a larger city-wide conspiracy, or by a gangster who would later become one of his deadliest adversaries. By now, the myth of these characters has become so ingrained in popular consciousness that everyone has a version that they most identify with. Much like the ceaseless influence of Dracula in Europe to the ever-present Yokai tales of Japan, the characters and archetypes present in Cheng’en’s epic have definitely lasted the test of time.
Part of the story’s staying power is in its base content: the episodic nature of the novel lends itself to easy adaptation. Films that want to focus only on the Monkey King can easily just adapt the first few chapters (see Havoc in Heaven, Alakazam the Great and Monkey King), while later sections are just as easily cropped and edited to fit the film format.
But more importantly are the characters themselves: the four pilgrims with their unerringly human qualities. Wu Cheng’en imbued each one with a unique but iconic characteristic, the contrast of which we still see in plenty of films and TV now. Zhu Bajie is greedy, cowardly and lazy, but has excellent social skills; Sha Wujing is endlessly loyal and dedicated; Sanzang is the (usually) even-headed and kind boss and Sun Wukong is the shrewd and capable right hand man. We see similar tropes in our comics, sitcoms and movies and by making these four travellers so adaptable, Wu Cheng’en unknowingly gave us characters which would still be relevant to this day.
With each character representing various qualities of both the Chinese people and humans as a whole, we can easily translate their reactions to those obstacles into real-world issues – even if we choose to ignore the novel’s original allegories. We witness antagonists get off scot-free simply because of their connections to officials in Heaven – something that still rings true to life today. You could set a Journey to the West adaptation in the past or the present day, and not lose any of the charm or innate meaning.
And out of this comes Sun Wukong, a massively endearing character who is written in such a manner that he is probably the novel’s most human character, despite being made of stone. This isn’t a character who suffers from problems only applicable to the time period it was written in – far from it. Instead, Wukong has pride, and acts out when he’s hurt. He gets frustrated, spurned and insulted and reacts in a believable fashion. It’s difficult to predict what he’ll do because he is equally likely to forgive as he is lash out in revenge. The escapism is inevitable: Wukong is a character who represents rebellion and free actions in a world where one’s actions are dictated by an all-knowing governing body: in this case, the Jade Emperor. He lashes out against the rules, but he still has a strong sense of duty when it is a task which gives him purpose: see his (by and large) dedication to Sanzang or even his enthusiasm to looking after the Heavenly stables. Sure, the migraine-inducing band is there to keep him in check, but it’s not often used against him lashing out.
Watching this trickster monkey outsmart and outfight literally everything Heaven throws at him is the sort of satisfying fulfilment people love. Professor Qu Jingyi of the Nanyang Technological University says that “Readers and viewers love the Monkey King’s fighting spirit and optimistic attitude towards life,” and that “His playful nature is also still beneficial to our modern society, under heavy stress”. All of this is true. We want him to pull one over on those who oppose him, but he’s often forced to conform much like we are, and he does it all while keeping his pride intact. Throw in the fact that he’s just all-round cool and by far the most talented, and you have the makings of a character who’s destined to last for hundreds of years.
Wukong, and by extension the rest of the travellers, is a prototype for the folk hero that will dominate narrative structure for hundreds of years to come. He is a distraction from the real world, in a setting that oozes magical realism. Journey to the West has survived all of this time because it was written by somebody who understood what people wanted. Beowulf is a stoic, unkillable hero with no foibles. Wukong might be damn-near unbeatable but his fallibilities are strong enough to cripple him, and it’s the weaknesses that he, Wujing, Bajie and Sanzang have that make the victories all that more satisfying, the struggles more real and the story timeless.