Early Modern Times – lunar reflections

Early Modern Times - lunar reflections

Dear readers,

新年快乐 (happy new year)! To celebrate the Lunar New Year of the Pig, let us reflect on the most famous porcine character in early modern literature: Zhu Bajie (猪 八戒), a disciple of Chinese monk Tripitaka in the folk novel Journey to the West, by the Ming dynasty writer Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩). Although the novel was written in the sixteenth century, it is a mythologised retelling of the seventh-century pilgrimage of Xuanzang (玄奘), a Tang dynasty monk and philosopher who walked thousands of miles from China to India to fetch Buddhist scriptures which he then translated into Chinese. Although his destination was India, not Europe, the transmission of Buddhism to China and its ramifications for Chinese culture, neo-Confucian thought, and encounters with Europe are important themes in the EMSP course Asia & the West: Centuries of Dialogue, crosslisted with CSP, HOST, and the Chinese Studies program at Dalhousie.

By the time Wu wrote Journey to the West–one of the most beloved novels in Chinese literature and inspiration for countless movies, cartoons, and comics–sixteenth-century Ming Chinese religion and philosophy was a syncretic blend of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (which the Jesuit missionaries to China, only interested in classical Confucianism, regarded as an ‘Original Sin-cretism’). Wu retold Xuanzang’s pilgrimage as an epic and comic journey of the monk Tripitaka (the religious name for Xuanzang, meaning ‘three baskets’, i.e., of Buddhist scriptures) beset by monsters, demons, natural disasters, and temptations, blending Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian themes and figures with traditional folk religion. Given the surreal encounters in the novel, no wonder that the monk received the name ‘trippy-taka’; and given the difficulties of the journey as well as his own human failings, he was a triple basket-case.

Fortunately, he is assisted by the powerful Monkey King, Sun Wukong: the Monkey King was born from an immortal stone, acquired magic powers (including the abilities to transform himself into different creatures or giant-/pint-sized versions of himself, to change his hairs into warrior monkeys, and to travel about on clouds), overcame Yama (the King of Death) for himself and his monkey subjects, acquired royal office in heaven but ended up trashing the Celestial Palace, and warred with all the gods and deities under the banner ‘Great Sage, Equal to Heaven’. On a personal note, I would say that he carried out quite the ‘simian coup’. Only the Buddha was able to defeat Sun Wukong by daring the latter to leap over his hand: the Monkey King managed to travel to the ends of universe and leave his mark on five pillars there, but then Buddha showed him the monkey-piss on his fingers. Sun Wukong was subsequently buried under a mountain for centuries, and only allowed his freedom if he would assist Tripitaka on his Buddhist pilgrimage. Tripitaka, for his part, would come to be grateful for his hairy disciple’s formidable powers and fighting abilities: with the help of Sun Wukong, then, he had the Monk-key to Enlightenment.

In the course of their travels, Tripitaka and Sun Wukong gather a couple of disciples to help them, including Zhu Bajie (his religious name, which means ‘pig eight precepts’). This is the ‘tail’ of Zhu, who is of course a pig-tional character and a pig-ment of Wu’s fertile imagination. A Mr. Gao approaches the pilgrims and tells them of a monster spirit who has taken his daughter as wife: Gao is understandably perturbed at having such a pig-headed son-in-law who is hogging his daughter for himself, not to mention the fact that he’s a boar and likely a pig-amist. Wukong encounters Bajie living in a pig-sty, drunk on swine and spirits, and behaving like a pig-tator. They fight, and the Monkey King learns that Bajie was the Water God of the Heavenly Reeds (and perhaps of great books programs, which have heavenly reads), punished for his swinish behaviour, and converted by the Bodhisattva commanding him to wait for pilgrims journeying to the west and join their spiritual odyssey.

Zhu Bajie swears to help them in the pilgrimage, though the reader learns that he’s still very much governed by his appetites compared to the other pilgrims and so is a square pig in a round hole. He makes ham-fisted attempts to better himself, and gradually learns some discipline and loyalty throughout their pig-aresque adventures wandering snout and about. He isn’t quite a Pig-malion, however: when the pilgrims finally reach India and the a-pork-alyptic moment of achieving the a-pigs of Enlightenment, Zhu Bajie is only promoted ‘Janitor of the Altars’ because of his talkativeness, laziness, and enormous appetite. Then again, he gets to eat up the offerings at the sacrificial altars, so he has no need to complain about his altar-ed state.

Let’s give a rind of applause to the Pig! And to pioneering EMSP graduate Lindsay Ann Reid, Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway, for her new book Shakespeare’s Ovid and the Spectre of the Medieval; as well as to Nick Baker, EMSP graduate in 2011, who has just been accepted to the PhD program in the Department of History at the University of Toronto!

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Pigonometric Studies Program

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