Drama in China: “The Journey”…

This is Part II of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My additional comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

A Big Gift of a Small Book

You will recall that my introduction to the “Tales of Monkey” took the form of a 5″x7″ book, containing 305 fragile pages of Arthur Waley’s translation of a much larger work attributed to a 16th century poet by name of Wu Ch’eng-en. The Waley book has no copyright or publishing information and my only clue to it’s age is the introduction written by Dr. Hu Shih, dated December 15, 1942.

It began with the following passage:

“There was a rock that since the creation of the world had been worked upon by the pure essences of Heaven and the find savours of Earth, the vigour of sunshine and the grace of moonlight, till at last it became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg…”

Excerpts from this first chapter of Waley’s book formed the framework of my first Monkey Tale performance.

A few months later, another gift arrived. It was “The Journey to the West” by Wu Ch’eng-en, translated by Anthony C. Yu. It was the first full translation of the original work, which took Dr. Yu six years to complete, and which filled four volumes and nearly 2,000 pages.

The poetry in the Yu translation, that Waley had eliminated from his, was absolutely enchanting:

...Soaring peaks arise from the Sea of the East. 
There are crimson ridges and portentous rocks.  
Precipitous cliffs and prodigious peaks.
Atop the crimson ridges, Phoenixes sing in pairs;
Before the precipitous cliffs, the unicorn singly rests...
Green pines and cypresses keep eternal their spring...
Within a single gorge the creeping vines are dense;
The grass color of meadows all around is fresh.
This is indeed the pillar of Heaven, where a hundred rivers meet...

The stories were filled with such lyrical text and descriptive poetry, that it would inspire me to start committing them to memory, performing them as single stories at medieval events, and then, eventually, seven stories, back to back, during that day-long One Monkey Show.

About “The Journey to the West

“The Journey to the West” is considered one of the four most famous classic folk novels in Chinese literature. It is a 100 story allegory based on the travels of a monk who traveled west from China to India in search of Buddhist scripture. It is a mix of high fiction and religious doctrine, which some scholars believe was written with the intent of teaching morality and virtue. Although the monk, who would later become known as Tripitaka, was born into a Confucian family and became a Buddhist, many of the allegorical references in Wu Ch’eng-en’s work are based on Taoist philosophies which sometimes wander down mystical paths. Those who are familiar with the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism will not be surprised by this intermingling of doctrines.

As I stated in Part I of this series, authors of Chinese literature often built upon the stories handed down through generations. Keeping the traditions of the Song Dynasty storytellers, authors further embellished these stories with their own prose and poetry, based in lyric styles of rhyming quatrains of 5-7 syllable lines (which is why I also ended up studying Chinese lyricism during my preparation of these stories). “The Journey to the West” combines prose and a great deal of beautiful poetry. Poetry was used as the more descriptive vehicle, while prose tyed the poetry together and supported the narrative.

To get into why a set of fictional animal characters came to be the protectors of a Buddhist monk, and why those characters have become more popular than the real-life person the tales are based on, would take us deeper into the rough than I want to go in this synopsis. For those readers who are interested, I refer you to the 62 page Introduction in the first volume of Yu’s translation.

Putting literary analysis aside, I enjoy the flow of Wu Ch’eng-en’s narrative style and the incredible beauty of his poetry, as well as the touches of magic and alchemy that thread through his tales. I hope that’s what held my audiences to these stories as well.

A column of rising white rainbows,
A thousand fathoms of dancing waves---
Which the sea wind buffets but cannot sever,
On which the river moon shines and reposes.
Its cold breath divides the green ranges;
Its tributaries moisten the blue-green hillsides.
This torrential body, its name a cascade,
Appears truly like a hanging curtain.

About Wu Ch’eng-en

Although there have been several versions of “The Journey to the West” written by multiple authors over a number of centuries, the most famous version (and the version I work from) is attributed by most literary experts to Wu Ch’eng-en.

Wu Ch’eng-en was a novelist and poet, educated as a Confucian. He was born in Jiangsu Province in about 1504, and died there in 1582. He spent some of his life in the lower echelons of civil service, never including as a resident scholar at the University of Nanjing. In addition to “The Journey to the West” he wrote several poems and other works in prose, some of which were critical of society’s corruption. He became dissatisfied with the political climate and lived his later years as a hermit artisan.

About Tripitaka, on whom the work is based

The “Journey to the West” is loosely based on the pilgrimage of Hsuan-tsang, a 7th century monk who disobeyed Emperor T’ai-tsung, and left China in the dead of night to travel West to India in search of Buddhist scripture. He returned to the Chinese city of Chang’an after a trek that took 16 years and covered 10,000 miles.

Hsuan-tsang was 27 years old when he started out from Chang’an, hiding by day and traveling by night on horseback. He crossed the Taklamakan Desert and passed through the Jade Gate that marked the furthest edge of T’ang Dynasty China, and onto the Northern Silk Road, along the base of the T’ien Shan Mountains. He would pass through Samarkand and other cities with his small caravan before crossing the T’en Shan mountains into India. Like Marco Polo would do centuries later, Hsuan-tsang recorded his impressions down to the most minute detail. He spent two years in Kashmir studying Buddhist doctrine under the tutelage of a sage, before spending a dozen or so years circumnavigating the entire Indian continent. He studied Sanskrit at Nalanda Monastery, a famous enclave for Buddhist monks. He met with kings, khans and leaders of his faith, and at times served as an emissary. He became one of the greatest metaphysicians in medieval Buddhist history.

He left India after 14 years, returning to China in 645 CE. He arrived with several statues of Buddha in a variety of sizes and materials, and a library of 657 books. He recorded his travels in the “Record of the Western Region” which took him a year to write. He would leave behind a legacy that included contributions to Indian history, archaeology, Chinese literature, and his translations of Buddhist scripture. His travels would become glorified and handed down as folktale and legend, culminating in one of China’s most famous works, and the evolution of The Monkey King as a national folk hero. His own name would be replaced with “Tripitaka” – which translates into “the three baskets of Buddhist wisdom.”

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha's talk.
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man...
...Declining office, he wished to be a monk,
To seek at Hung-fu Temple the Way of Truth,
A former child of Buddha, nicknamed River Float.
His religious name was Ch'en Hsuan-tsang.

About my own journey with “The Journey”

As the stories in the Yu translation are quite lengthy, I edited them to shorter versions, retaining as much of the poetry as I could, with just enough narrative to tie the poetry together and keep the plot intact, while removing the repetitive phrasing that Wu Ch’eng-en utilized. I also kept audience attention span in mind. I had learned early on that it is better to keep an audience wanting more, than to bore them with a single story that runs too long.

I worked to commit the scripts to memory, 2-3 hours a day, one page at a time, by sheer repetition. I would repeat it over and over on my daily commutes, moving on to the next page only after I could recite the previous page, literally in my sleep. Sleep itself became a secret weapon…I recorded script onto a pocket dictaphone, which had a place on my pillow and which would continue to play even after I had fallen asleep. It’s amazing how much you can memorize when you let your sub-conscious do the heavy lifting…

…While Monkey King was fighting his way out of the city, he was suddenly caught on a clump of grass, and stumbled. Waking up with a start, he realized that it was all a dream…

The Journey to the West,, Chapter Three

Committing each story to memory took 4-6 weeks. Those who attended the One Monkey Show may recall that I read some passages. Wherever the story had a character reading from a book, register, summons or invitation list, I worked that into my performance. So out of those 7 hours, I estimate that I committed just under 6 hours of script to memory.

Materials I referenced in this chapter include:

  • The Journey to the West: Volume I, translated by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago Press, 1977
  • Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, by Sally Hovey Wriggins, Westview Press, 1996
  • China Travel Depot and Wikipedia.com (for the biographical information about Wu Ch’eng-en).

“What I would learn next along the way, will be explained in the next chapter…”

From my library of gifted monkeys…

3 Comments on “Drama in China: “The Journey”…

  1. I wish I had ever had your level of dedication to your art. I am enjoying this series very much.

    • Thank you Natasha, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series. Next week’s episode comes with a teaser 🙂

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