The Monkey King

Do you ever revisit characters or series from your childhood, rewatching them or taking in new adaptations of them as they’re released? Besides that apparently being a sign that I might be anxious, I’m always a bit surprised by the hit of nostalgia when I do encounter certain things I grew up with*, like Sun Wu-Kong from Journey to the West. I remember watching the Hong Kong adaptation as a child, though I don’t actually remember it all that well, so when I saw Girl Giant and the Monkey King on the shelves this year, I knew I had to read it.

Eleven-year old Thom has been having a bit of a rough start to her new life in Georgia, between being one of two Asian kids at the otherwise all-white school and getting bullied by a few girls in her grade (which posse the other Asian girl belongs to), but that’s not even all: she also happens to have superhuman strength that she hasn’t quite gotten the grasp of controlling. As in, she fractured someone’s ribs when she kicked a soccer ball and the goalie tried to block it kind of superhuman strength. Aaaand she might have accidentally freed the Monkey King from the legends when she and her mom visited a temple. Her mom absolutely refuses to acknowledge her developing supernatural strength (ignoring the car door handle Thom accidentally wrenched off, the cup she squeezed too hard…) and avoids any and all attempts to talk about Thom’s father, who’s not in the picture, so despite his penchant for mischief, the Monkey King, Sun Wu-Kong, quickly worms his way into her life as her only true friend and ally, listening to her and helping her accept and control her incredible strength. But is the Monkey King really her friend, or is he just using Thom for his own plans?

You don’t need to know anything about the legend of the Monkey King to read Girl Giant and the Monkey King, as Hoang weaves the mythology in seamlessly. You don’t need to know the gods, goddesses, and heroes of Heaven in order to see the parallel between their snotty bubble and that of Thom’s middle school, and Sun Wu-Kong’s character is fleshed out well, allowing for the shades of grey that define him neither as a good guy or a bad guy, but a complex character that may be looking out for himself in ways, but is not immune to friendship and loyalty. For anyone who read this in record time as I did, look out for the sequel, Girl Giant and the Jade War, by Van Hoang, which is on order now!

*Some others include Doraemon (bonus points if you grew up with him as Ding Dong), Chibi Maruko-chan, Old Master Q, Ultraman (salted egg superman!), etc.

Reading Girl Giant made me nostalgic for Journey to the West, and this new abridged translation recently came out that has been on my to-read list, so I did a quick search on Journey to the West and realized just how little I actually remembered about the series! For one, I completely forgot one of the characters (Sha Wujing, of course – the monk, Monkey King and the pig demon are all memorable to a degree). Worse, I actually forgot why they were even on the journey to begin with: it’s a pilgrimage to India to attain sutras and bring them back to China, but it was also a journey to enlightenment. (Clearly I wasn’t paying much attention, to ignore this crucial aspect of the story: the plot.) What I do remember is the Monkey King’s mischievousness, his (over-)confidence in his own wit & cunning to get him through any problem, the absolute abandon with which he acts, without regard for morals, held in check only by Tripitaka (the monk) reciting the scripture that causes the golden hoop around the Monkey King’s head to tighten unbearably, stopping him in his tracks**. He is most certainly the protagonist of Journey to the West, though the monk Tripitaka is nominally the one leading the way, and this mischievous trickster character will be sure to worm his way into your heart.

I actually got so nostalgic I went back to rewatch the TVB series I must have watched as a child, which has, luckily for me, been made freely available by TVB in the Cantonese original and in English dub (sadly no mix of original audio with English sub). Some of the Cantonese audio is missing in parts of some episodes, including the opening theme, which I assume is because they don’t have the rights to the song (or certain actors’ voices?), but if you’re interested in watching the Monkey King in action, I would recommend it. (It’s a bit dated, so the special effects might make you cringe mightily, and the pacing is different than you might be used to from current/English TV series.) For an older adaptation, check out CCTV’s Journey to the West from 1986 (Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles).

**I know Journey to the West has a lot of adaptations, but this part sounds a lot like Inuyasha’s subjugation beads that bring him to the ground when Kagome says “Sit”… and while that’s probably not something that was inspired by Journey to the West, you know which series you’ve probably watched or at least heard of was? Dragon Ball. Yup, Son Goku is literally… Sun Goku (the Japanese name for Sun Wu-Kong). He has the monkey tail and staff and everything. How did I miss this as a kid?

And while you’re reading through the different story arcs that comprise the Journey to the West, you can also try making some longevity peach buns to eat (you could use the mantou & filling recipes from The Nom Wah Cookbook to make these peach buns too), to mirror the Monkey King as he went and ate the peaches of immortality in Heaven, consumed Laozi’s immortality pills, and feasted on the Jade Emperor’s wine. I can’t guarantee you won’t be risking Heaven’s forces coming after you, as they did for the Monkey King after he pulled that stunt, but wouldn’t it be worth it? Besides, he did survive and come out of that ordeal stronger… before the Buddha bested him and sealed him in the Five Phases/Elements Mountain for several centuries as punishment. But then Tripitaka comes along to free him for the titular journey, so it all worked out in the end in a way! 😉

Have you ever watched or read Journey to the West? Who’s your favourite character, and which story arc stayed with you the most?

About Karen

Karen (she/hers) is a Culinary Literacies Specialist at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre library. When not in the kitchen, she can be found knitting, reading, and repeating.

2 thoughts on “The Monkey King

  1. I haven’t read either Journey to the West or Girl Giant but I’ve just put both on my to-read list thanks to this post! (Also shoutout to InuYasha, the first manga I ever read!)

    1. I hope you enjoy them!

      And yes! While not the first anime I ever watched (I couldn’t get into the manga because I didn’t like the artwork), Inuyasha was definitely a part of my formative years. I never ended up finishing it, but still remember it fondly.

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