Top positive review
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One of the four classics of Chinese Literature
on 10 July 2003
I read this after having read the excellent San Guo Yan Yi (The Three Kingdoms/Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I would highly recommend) and, having known a bit about Chinese culture, language and literature I went into it knowing what to expect and was delighted that it had surpassed my expectations.
Most often referred to as Xi You Ji or, Journey to the West, it is difficult to appreciate why the author chose to call it "Monkey". While the character of Monkey does occupy much of the first part of the book and remains the strongest and, I'm guessing, most people's favourite character throughout, he is still only part of the entourage of characters who face the Journey. Still, what's in a title?
This book is replete with humour, both obvious and subtle. It would help if you had a certain understanding of Chinese History and culture in your reading of this book to understand the many references contained within. However, even if you don't know a jot about anything to do with China, you will still find this book immensely enjoyable and full of quotable wisdoms.
It details first the story of the birth of monkey and his fate and then the birth of "Tripitaka" and then begins the Journey to the West. It might often appear a bit disjointed, leaping around topics. For example, you begin with the story of Monkey, and are then thrown into a (seemingly) completely unrelated topic. But the way Wu Cheng'An has worked all these plots into a coherent story is truly brilliant. Instead of finding it disjointed, I found the the jumps kept the book very exciting. While there are certain parts of the plot which I assume are composed according to the epic style of the time (for example, all the battles take place in rounds, or bouts, and seem to follow a standardised format of engage and retreat/chase), these don't detract anything from the novel to one who is used to epic literature (for example, the battles in the Iliad followed a pattern).
In following the path of Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy you invariably pick your favourite for each has their own individual personalities and stock epithets. Pigsy is fat and glutenous and fights with a rake (!) and perhaps is one of the funniest charicatures in the book. Monkey is a mischief maker, both loveable and naughty with fabulous powers. Sandy... doesn't really do much. Tripitaka is hilarious simply because he is portrayed as the hero of this book but spends most of his time being rescued by his disciples! It truly is riotous.
Thus, even if you fail to understand the relationships of the San Jiao (Three teachings of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism)or the nature of the bureaucracy (the way heaven mimics earth), you will still find this one of the funniest reads of your life.
(The other three classics of Chinese literature are The Three Kingdoms, The Story of the Stone/Dream of the Red Chamber and The Outlaws of the Marsh and I highly recommend all of them)