Well, here I am again and another year has gone by. Happens to us all. But for me, as I live one year at a time, hopping from job to job, from country to country, this time of year means a reflection back on all that has happened to me and all that I have learned from immersing myself into a new culture in a new place with new people. As I prepare my own personal journey to the west for the summer, I thought I would share one of my souvenirs with my readers.
I have never been one to gravitate toward souvenirs, in fact I’m pretty much the anti-pack rat – throwing away as much of my ‘stuff’ as I can so that I can live lightly and (more importantly) travel lightly. Typically, I carry around my digital SLR and simply take photos that I hope to someday print and frame to hang around my home, reminding me of all my experiences. Until then, I was content to bring home only that which I brought. Until my wife, who is addicted to souvenirs, got me thinking about one in particular that I really wanted to have.
As a writer (most other writers will commiserate on this with me), I often imagine myself sitting at a thick and polished desk of dark colored wood, seated in a comfortable leather chair in front of a warmly lit fireplace, surrounded by walls upon walls of old, leather-bound books on shelves that reach from floor to ceiling. For those of you familiar with Harry Potter, think Gryffindor common room; for those of you not, see the photo.
It will be in this ‘study’ that I will continue to compose my stories. The study will be comforting. The study will have an old-world feel to it (perhaps even containing one of those giant, brown globes with the continents drawn wrong). So what I need to do in the meantime, is begin to gather books to fill those shelves. In China, I collected one of my first, and trust me, it is aptly named.
There are four great classical novels of Chinese literature, masterpieces if you will, that all students learn and most of whom are forced to read. They are often regarded to be the most influential works of pre-modern Chinese fiction, dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, and have been adapted hundreds of times into television shows, films, operas, and other media. Some are among the world’s longest and oldest novels.
Obviously, I wanted one of these for my collection (although some of the Confucius writings were jockeying for first place, particularly the I Ching). Their titles are: Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Journey to the West. I chose the latter because the subject matter appealed to me the most (if you would like to know more about the other three, I invite you to click the links after you finish reading my article).
Journey to the West was written by a man named Wu Cheng’en under the pen name Sheyang Hermit during the Ming Dynasty. He lived in Lianshui, near what is modern day Huai’an city (where Jen and I visited her family). At the time he wrote, the trend in Chinese writing was to imitate the very formal styles of the past. However, Wu went against this by writing his stories the way common people spoke. He first published Journey to the West (aka Xī Yóu Jì) anonymously due to severe criticism of other “vulgar” literature written in the same style. It is for this reason that some people still debate the work’s authorship.
The story tells of the legendary pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk who traveled to the western regions (present day India, Nepal, and Tibet), to obtain sacred texts (sutras). He experienced many trials and suffering before returning home to the eastern parts of China (another journey I took in February – I told you this blog was aptly named). The tale has strong roots in Chinese folk religion and mythology as well as incorporates Taoist and Buddhist philosophies. It is essentially the definitive work of Chinese adventure and fantasy (and allegory). My copy is hand bound and written in Chinese traditional script from the top to bottom, as opposed to modern day Mandarin, which is read from left to right like English.
In 1942, Arthur Waley translated Journey to the West into English for the first time. He named his version Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China and not only abridged the work, but also simplified it so that it would be much more digestible for a western audience. He translated only 30 of the original 100 chapters, but of those 30, he included them completely, only omitting lengthy sections of poetry. Humorously, he altered the characters’ names: Sun Wukong became Monkey, Zhu Bajie became Pigsy, and Sha Wujing became Sandy.
Waley’s translation was for years, the most popular version, and even now, English language books are hard to come by. If you would like to read a more detailed synopsis of the story (and I have to admit, I haven’t read it yet myself), or purchase an English version yourself, I’m sure you can search the Internet and find one or both (I still have to). In the meantime, I will be making my own journey west shortly and will hopefully see all of my loved ones, family, and friends over the summer.
Until Next Time…