'Monkey: Journey to the West': the story

Monkey, hero of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s opera ‘Monkey: Journey to the West’, isn’t just immortal: he’s pretty old too. Time Out traces the story of the demon-clobbering primate back to its origins in mystic Ming-dynasty legend

  • 'Monkey: Journey to the West': the story

    Monkey see © Jamie Hewlett

  • The legend of the Monkey KingDespite appearances, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s opera, ‘Monkey: Journey to the West’, isn’t a pastiche of the 1970s Japanese TV show ‘Monkey Magic’. For the original story, you’d have to head back to middle Ming dynasty China (AD1590, say), when the fictional ‘Journey to the West’ (‘Xiyóujì’) was written. Attributed to the poet Wú Chéng’ en, it’s an epic crammed with Buddhist references and superhuman escapades that has become a defining myth – a sort of Oriental equivalent of our Arthurian legends. So who exactly is this mythical Monkey King (aka Sun Wùkong), who acts like an unruly teenager but also aspires to be a ‘great sage equal to heaven’? Time Out has the backstory…

    OriginHatched from a stone egg on the slopes of Flower Fruit Mountain, Monkey was born in possession of all of man’s energy and instincts – but devoid of discipline, so he’s a great fighter, but also a disobedient one. Popular readings of the legend see Monkey as a rebel fighting feudal rulers. He was taught how to speak and act as a human by a Buddhist lord, Bodhi. Dismissed for boastfulness, he spent years roaming the land, battling demons. During this time, Monkey’s destructive and chaotic behaviour became notorious. Despite his talent for running amok, Monkey was taken up to heaven by Buddha.

    Monkey seeThe Monkey King’s tenure in heaven taught him nothing, and his riotous behaviour even upset Buddha’s zen: the supreme being wound up imprisoning Monkey for 500 years. He was released on condition that he and friends Pigsy and Sandy protect a young monk called Tripitaka on a quest to reclaim sutras (scriptures) from the West (ie, India). This was the making of Monkey: he learned discipline and embarked on the path to enlightenment, thanks to Tripitaka’s influence. After the 14-year quest, Monkey was rewarded with immortality and a passport back to heaven.

    Monkey doCombat Defeats foes using his magical staff, a weapon that changes size which he keeps behind his ear.
    Chinese acrobatics skills Can travel more than 50,000km in a single somersault.
    Cloud-travel Zips around the sky on a cumulonimbus which he can summon at will.
    Shapeshifting Monkey can transform into people or objects using 72 different methods of morphing.
    Evil eyes Can instantly detect wickedness in any form or beneath any disguise.
    Monkey talk
    Mao Zedong, Communist leader of China, 1949-1976
    ‘Monkey’s fearlessness in thinking, doing work, striving for the objective and extricating China from poverty makes him a role model.’

    Dr Steve Tsang, lecturer in Chinese studies, St Antony’s College, Oxford
    ‘It’s a superhero story. Monkey didn’t play by the rules, but something got him back on track. His heart is in the right place.’

    Chen Shi-Zheng, director of ‘Monkey: Journey to the West’

    ‘When I moved to the US in 1987 I discovered “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings”, and I wished everyone could know of this imaginative Chinese story.’

    Meet Monkey's travelling companions

    Tripitaka.jpg Tripitaka (Xuánzàng)
    The boy-monk, played in both the TV series and the opera by a woman.
    Represents Man – he’s indecisive, fearful, easily deceived.
    Pigsy.jpg Pigsy (Zhu Ba jiè)
    A human soul reincarnated to be half-pig.
    Represents Laziness and gluttony in all its forms.
    Sandy.jpg  Sandy (Sha Wùjìng)
    A river demon-turned-monk who wears skulls on a necklace as a reminder of his demon days.
    Represents The rewards and trials of patient service.
    Yu_Lung.jpg  Yu Lung
    Tripitaka’s horse, Yu Lung, is really a dragon prince who ate the monk’s original pony.
    Represents The burden of taking responsibility for misdeeds.

    ‘Monkey: Journey to the West’ is at the O2, Nov 8-Dec 5.

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