Review of ‘Monkey King: Journey to the West’ by Wu Cheng’en

I knew nothing about this 16th century Chinese classic before reading, so it was quite an adventure for me. A new translation and abridged edition by Julia Lovell, this book is an epic fantasy / spiritual quest, based on historical events. It was first published anonymously but is generally attributed to Wu Cheng’en, a novelist and poet of the Ming Dynasty.

The first part of the story is the adventures of a stone monkey who is born from a mountain. A selfish superhero, he reigns over the other monkeys. He becomes immortal and can transform into anything. The rest of the story concerns a monk, Tripitaka, who is on a quest to travel to India and bring back Buddhist scriptures to China. With him as protectors are Monkey and the demons Pigsy and Sandy. The goddess Guanyin helps and hinders their journey, while the Buddha himself is possibly shaping their fate.

I liked the strong characters, humour and magical quality to the story. The language style is modern and easy to read. There are many references to Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, which don’t need any explanation but you could always look the terms up and read about the religions afterwards. What I wasn’t so keen on was the repetitive nature of the story, to the extent that by two thirds of the way through, I was tired of so many battles with demons.

Overall, I’m glad that I’ve read Monkey King: Journey to the West. However, I wouldn’t re-read it.

Thank you to the publisher Penguin for the advance copy via NetGalley. The book will be published as a Penguin Clothbound Classic on 11th February.

9 thoughts on “Review of ‘Monkey King: Journey to the West’ by Wu Cheng’en”

  1. This was actually the book which made me fall in love with Chinese literature. It is such a beautifully lyrical book, but also a fun adventure. The Monkey King is such a childlike, selfish protagonist, and yet the world is so fanciful. I should really reread it!

    1. That’s interesting! What other Chinese literature would you recommend? 🙂 This is a new translation so it would be worth a re-read.

      1. Well, you might have read a few of these, but Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, and The Book of Chuang Tzu are all great! There’s a lot of Chinese philosophy books I love to, but these are all more narrative adventures/dramas like Journey to the West.

  2. I sooo want to read this! I have a different edition of this – more of like a graphic novel. A gift from my dad when I was a kid. Must read it again! 🙂 Great review, NS!

    1. I’m sure it makes a great graphic novel! This is a new translation so it would be worth reading again if you’re already a fan of the story. Thanks Jee 🙂

        1. Yeah that’s quite expensive, I wouldn’t spend that much on a book unless I was feeling very rich (so, never).

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