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Sun Wukong: The Monkey King

via Ashia

Quick Things You Need To Know:

  • The Monkey King (aka Sun Wukong) is a popular trickster character in Chinese culture. My parents read my stories about him and I watched his movies growing up, but they were in Chinese so I never fully got the details. Until recently, it was hard to find books about the Monkey King set in English.
  • Modern Monkey King stories mix up elements from Chinese ancestor worship and Buddhism, but the official origin of Sun Wukong is from the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en, Journey To The West. Since then, Monkey has become a common reference character for kids’ cautionary tales promoting Chinese values, particularly the consequences of selfishness (focus on the self rather than the group), hubris, and impetuous action.
  • Tricksters & trickster gods are the perfect introduction to the beliefs and values of cultures beyond the ones we grow up in. They make a good entry-point to learn about faiths outside of the dominant group. But there are also some cultural traditions we should learn about and respect before diving in (such as the tradition to not read Coyote stories unless snow is on the ground)
  • Tricksters are fundamentally human and flawed in a way more ’serious’ deities are not – and it’s those flaws that make it easier to love them. They aren’t better than us. In fact, compared to them, we are morally superior, smarter, kinder, and doing pretty well. Tricksters serve as a mirror to our flaws in a way that reflects us in a positive light. They make us feel better about ourselves while also allow us to laugh at flaws. (ex: Monkey King by jiang, featuring the first third of Monkey’s life)
  • Kids are pulled in by the trickster as a rebel & rule-breaker – gives them the catharsis of seeing a little guy upset the social order and defy authority.  (The monkey king – dickins, middle stage of monkey’s life)
  • While learning to operate in a big world while too little to reach the kitchen counter, kids find solace in the escapism of supernatural and super-human feats of strength that modern-day superheroes offer. (The Monkey king by seow *last stage)
  • In keeping with the trickster m.o. – you can’t pin down one set of traits in rebels – and there’s a good reason for that. The trickster embodies a sense of need, based on the oppression and values of each culture.  In cultures where the group’s well-being takes precedence over the individual, selfish, gluttonous characters like Sun Wukong appeal to our sense of indulgence. In cultures where humans must work in tune with the whims of the earth and seasons, Coyote is always getting into trouble by trying to fiddling outside his lane. In individualistic societies with broad divides in power, like the one we live in, the rebel fights for socialism and helping the poor – figures like Jesus and Robin Hood. (And yes I just called Jesus a socialist and a trickster.) In this way, tricksters can range from self-interested, short-sighted, and rude, to the clever vigilantes, or even honorable leaders who inspire a revolution. The one thing they have in common is that they disrupt the social order and tap int the undercurrent of fatigue when the norms of a culture become ingrained to daily life.(Ex: Loki/ Fantastic adventures of Krishna)
  • The one thing you can count on the trickster to do is throw the party (or universe) into chaos, with the potential to change the landscape of society forever. (Ex: Jesus / Baba Yaga)
  • SEE BUDDHA – I’m working on a list of books featuring & discussing the Buddha, and many of these feature references to Buddha. Buddha also plays a large role in many of the books below. The Buddha often takes the role of wise & patient adult to contrast against Monkey King’s selfish impulsiveness. Because we live in the patriarchy now, Buddha is always depicted as masculine instead of nonbinary/ungendered. Which is ridiculous.
  • SEE HANUMAN – Despite the things Sun Wukong & Hanuman have in common, I can’t find a common origin to link the two. Both are childlike, but Monkey King presents as more childISH – mischievous and self serving, whereas Hanuman’s stories often contain an childLIKE innocence. Both are from Asia (Monkey King is popular in most of China & parts of South Asia & Pacific Islands, Hanuman is a Hindu deity, which is primarily honored in West/South Asian countries like India. Both are gluttons like sweets, but for different reasons – Hanuman prefers candy (gluttonly for pleasure) Monkey prefers peaches, but only rare peaches that offer special powers (gluttony for power).
  • SEE TAOISM – many modern stories about Sun Wukong focus on principles behind Taoism. Common themes include an invisible force behind nature and reality (tao), and the ease of acting in harmony with our roles. Taoism focuses on nature, but Monkey King actively tries to obtain power through unnatural power-ups (like magic peaches), and to climb the social ladder beyond his natural place, which disrupts the social order and environment.
  • Something to notice is the way that Monkey King’s distasteful ambitions and action could be seen as a good thing through individualistic Western thought. these stories subtly poke fun at Western hubris, selfishness, and refusal to accept our place in society.
  • Also see notes from the great race – one of the things that makes Monkey stories so fun and chaotic is the Chinese nonchalance about intellectual property. ‘inauthenticity’ that harms the original artist is a western problem. typically by Chinese cultural standards, copying someone else’s work and twisting it is not an insult to the original. Although you do risk making a fool of yourself if your spinoff is shitty.

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Quick & Messy Book List:

Suggested order of reading:

These books cover the three broad segments of Monkey’s adventures. You can choose to read them from birth to his eventual maturity and enlightenment, but I find that reading them in order of mischief gets kids more engaged with the stories and help kids identify and fall in love with him. So I choose to go with him as a headstrong, impetuous young adult, then back to him as an innocent baby, then leap forward to him as an older adult who has learned from his ways. I’m pretty sure there is another section where he falls back on his old ways, but I still haven’t found an English language version of the later parts of this story
  • The Monkey King rosie dickins – ( 2 of 3 adolescence & young adulthood)
    this was our favorite of this phase of Monkey’s Adventures. Intro of him being a crappy king “He was the king of the monkeys, but he was not a good king. He was always stealing food and demanding presents.” ch1 monkey goes to heaven and his ego is affronted to have a lowly job with horses, ch 2 he becomes the steward of the celestial peaches in heaven, and then eats them all (great part about eating just one and that being a gateway peach, so this works well to approach discussions on drug addiction), sneaks into the banquet and runs away and fights the guards. ch 3 buddha’s challenge, when he tries to outrun buddha. i prefer the version of this part in American Born Chinese, as the pillars are clearly fingers so he reveal is less interesting, but i can see why they did it literally for kids (ABC is for teens & young adults). mentions that he piddled on the pillar and wrote “Monkey was here” but doesn’t show him peeing. I wish the Buddha had been depicted as a little less like a frustrated parent, again, I prefer the calm bemusement of ABC since the real buddha would be all powerful and knowing, and you don’t get frustrated when you know you can handle stuff. book ends with him being trapped under a mountain, without uncertainty or ambiguity. illustrations are westernized, but nice and cute, writing is not eloquent or perfect, but clear and understandable. Q loved this more than any other monkey king book. beginner chapter book (3) rebels, drug abuse, entitlement, spoiled, hubris, ego, mischief,  chinese folktales Ages 4.5+ enjoyed, but closer to 5.5+ because of naughty behavior. Worked well to read this to R2 at 4.5 while reading The Magical Monkey King (Jiang) to Q, so they could both discuss Monkey and create Monkey adventures. this is r2’s first monkey king book and he loves it.
  • Little Monkey king’s journey – li jian – (birth & origin 1 of 3 in chronological order)
    shows him busting out of rock and being raised by old monkey king, ad how he goes in search of an immortal pill to save him. like always, li jian does the thing where it’s the same redundant lines as he meets each new characters (like in The water dragon) and it gets tedious – but is easy to skip on the fly. the animals he meets give him powers. he starts out brave, but is gifted with the powers of invulnerability, transformation, his magic staff, and his cloud somersault to save his adoptive father. Q enjoyed this book, and drawing connections between how he started out as innocent and progressed to the person he became in ’The Monkey King’ (Dickins). I preciously thought Q enjoyed his powers, but now I’ve learned it’s his naughtyness that Q particularly identifies with.  age range: 4+. Would NOT use this for the adoption collection.
  • The monkey king – seow  3 of 3 Monkey’s middle-adulthood and maturity
    in this one, we see how he’s rescued by Tripitaka, the great scripure seeker  in his quest to find buddha’s sciptures to show humanity the way to kindness, peace, and harmony as is his destiny. monkey king then goes on to join T, the keeper of the heavenly garden, the jade emperor’s old cook (both start as attacking monsters and decide to join up when they hear it’s Tripitaka) and together they fight a giant eagle. the super hero trio is rather bickery, which I like. but Q still prefers the mischievous adolescence of Dickins’s phase. this is definitely a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful monkey king in adulthood. lovely illustrations – a modern take on traditional Chinese style. age range: 4+
  • the magical monkey king (ji-li jiang) (more advanced version of adolescence / early childhood – mischevous & selfish phase)
    AAPI, first chapter book version of monkey king that Q has been into. perfect for 6.5, but 4.5 is too young to sit through it. he particularly enjoyed it because it was a retelling of a story he’s already familiar with, and he was excited to read it and expand his experience identifying with the monkey king. he utterly loved sitting through this. looks long, but was a quick read, we got through it in about 3 sessions.

PENDING ANALYSIS

  • Treasury of chinese folk tales – shelley fu – both Q and I were ejoying this one but we ran out of time. we’re currently waiting for it at the library for another try. expands on monkey king way farther than any other book i’ve read. ages 4.5+ asian chinese folktales, religion (creation stories), ancestor worship, pan gu, nu wo, celestial realm
  • Havoc In Heaven – This is the version I grew up with. I can’t get my hands on it as an adult to screen it through an adult lens. There’s a movie available though, with English subtitles. My kids can’t sit still through it and it periodically disappears from our prime subscription, so it’ll be a while until I can comment on this.

CAMEOS & EASTER EGGS

Finding references to the Monkey King in everyday stories – particularly modern ones, is always a fun thrill. Inserting him (or lesser-known tricksters, such as Nezha) into the background is a common way of putting cultural easter eggs into Chinese-created stories & art.
  • Angel in Beijing – yang – finds a cat, loses cat, cat makes an old lady happy. it’s fine. takes place in modern beijing but kind of feels old. visuals and text nod to the monkey king, haw fruits on a stick, etc. but not interesting enough to read at 4.5 & 6.5. lost pets. AAPI (taiwan born, immigrated to america at 7)
  • My Beijing (Jun) – Lovely book! I go into this in more detail in the elders collection. Transparency: I got a free copy of this from LFBC (they decided it wasn’t right for a book box, but it’s spectacular outside of that context)

For older kids & teens (ages 10+)

  • American Born Chinese – Gene Yang – Accidentally Q got ahold of this and hte monkey king illustrations were enticing to him, but also gave him nightmares. odd three-styles of intertwining stories finally made sense in the end, which made me want to read it over again. the stereotype sitcom style made me exhausted, but overall it worked. N said it felt like the book form of frsh off the boat., illustrations: great, engagement: adults only, keywords: racism, chinese culture, folktales,age range: when violence and understanding of parody on stereotypes is okay – 7 or 8+?

NOT RECOMMENDED

  • Money king wreaks havoc in heaven  – debby chen covers most of hte stuff other books do, with a different spin and in a little more detail (seems built for older readers) but the illustrations aren’t as much fun and the writing is dry and a little clunky. nah. AAPI
  • Monkey King Defeats Red Boy – chen – abrupt beginning feels like it starts three pages too late, which is disorienting. takes place midway along the journey for Tank Monk (Tripitaka). odd pasive violence – a boy left for three days to slowly die while hung from a tree, mentions of throwing the boy off a cliff, yeah i’m gonna call this on – five pages in and hte writing is so terrible I can’t even. don’t get again. asian women makers of color, bilingual (english, chinese characters)
  • The gods and goddesses of ancient china – fisher – the slant-eyes REALLY bugs me, they look distorted and monstrous – starts out semi-normal, then gets progressively more distorted. no one looks like that! actual book just picks some random chinese gods and legends and mushes them together (at least acknowledges the variation and broad scope of a non-unified system of rules, ceremonies and disorganized religion.) simple quick profile on each page, but not engaging and gives kids no reason to care about individual gods. boring even for the ones I wan to learn more about, like Guan Yin & Sun Wukong. I’ve seen more expansive stories on most of these gods elsewhere. doesn’t give date of origin, location, or a way to connect any of them. seems like a cash-grab book by white authors pretending to be an educational resource. looks like they consulted a single asian academic and makers are white. problematic – racism, asian religions, folktales, orientalism-slant eyes, whitewashing
  • The monkey king – shobha viswanath – NOT the same as the chinese monkey king, but based on a tale from the jataka. not a huge fan because I’m not sure what moral we can take from this story (the monkey king doesn’t want outsiders to find out about mangoes, and when they do, they attack the monkeys unil they realize they are ‘civilized’) which has all kinds of issues of racism and imperialist undertones that I’m not comfortable with. NOPE illustrations: cute but meh keywords: buddhism, religion, folktale.age range: 3.5+, problematic
  • Monkey King – ed young looks closest to the 60’s Havoc in Heaven that I grew up with, but not as energetic. ripped paper illustrations are a little confusing (I know he’s super famous but I’ve never been into Young’s style). illustrations are too crude to really figure out what’s going on, and each take is summed up into 2-3 sentences. nah. More of a rudimentary cliffs notes on the adventures of the monkey king.  there’s no background on who all of these characters are, no intro, no explanation on motivations. The author kinda jumps into the story and expects readers to know who the jade emperor and red beard bandit are, etc. so not great for beginners and also not detailed enough for those familiar with the story. read it to Q around age 3 and it was too abstract and surreal for understanding, and now that he’s 5 it’s too simple. not worth getting again.

 

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