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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E8): Julia Lovell on the Monkey King, 4.8.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E8): Julia Lovell on the Monkey King, 4.8.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 8 looked at Monkey King, a shape-shifting trickster on a kung-fu quest for eternal life and the unforgettable protagonist of Journey to the West, one of China’s four great classic novels. Julia Lovell, who recently translated the text for Penguin Classics, talks about her experience bringing the story to life for modern readers, and the mischievous hero at its center, that gives us an important window into Chinese culture.

Julia Lovell (JL) is Professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Maoism: A Global History, which won the 2019 Cundill History Prize, and The Opium War, which won the 2012 Jan Michalski Prize. Her many translations of modern Chinese fiction into English include The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China and an abridged version of Journey to the West, both for Penguin Classics. She writes about China for several newspapers, including The Guardian, Financial Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 8:

Dinda Elliott (DE): Let’s start with the basics for everyone in the audience who doesn’t know. Who is the Monkey King?

JL: The monkey king, also known as Sun Wukong, is the hero of Journey to the West, one of the masterworks of pre-20th century Chinese fiction. Sun Wukong is a magic monkey — he has superpowers like he can travel 108,000 miles in one leap, or he can transform himself into anything he likes and he’s also unbeatable at kung-fu. But he is mischievous, arrogant, and totally lacking in self-control. …Among many other things, the novel traces monkey’s journey from troublemaker to virtuous Buddhist.

DE: I guess the big question is why should we read Monkey King? Is it important to know Monkey King and the story of Monkey King to understand China today?

JL: I’d argue that in the anglophone world, everyone needs to engage seriously with China and not just with its political system or economy but also with its enormously rich language and culture. The average educated Chinese person knows so much more about Anglophone culture than can be said in reverse. Journey to the West is hugely beloved of audiences not just in China, but across East Asia and the global Chinese diaspora who are very familiar with its characters and stories. And through reading Journey to the West, you learn so much about Chinese politics society and religion. The book kicks against lazy clichés about Chinese culture that you can still encounter in the west, clichés-for example-about Chinese culture worshiping hierarchy and authority or being isolated from the world outside its borders.

My less serious answer about why you should read Journey to the West is that it’s an action-packed kung-fu rich situation comedy, it features a hero the monkey king of unstoppable sassiness and a cast of delightfully absurd supporting characters.

DE: How important is this book in China today?

JL: The characters and stories are still a huge influence on Chinese and Sinophone culture. They’re a crucial imaginative resource for Chinese readers today, as they were back in the early modern period when the novel came into existence in its current hundred-chapter form. I’d also emphasize that it’s a novel that’s passed on through the ages through new interpretations and adaptations as well as in its original form, so it’s a novel about shape-shifting that has itself shape-shifted. …As I was working on the translation, I was struck by one observation by an internet commentator in 2015, who said that every Chinese person will fall in love with monkey; each generation has its own monkey; and I would add possibly has multiple monkeys; so it’s a very open text that lives on through adaptation and reimagination.

DE: What was the experience of translating it like? You took this massive text and managed to cut it down to a text of a single volume. Tell us a little bit about what the challenges were.

JL: First of all, I loved doing the translation; it was such a privilege to interact so closely with this classic of pre-modern vernacular fiction. I loved spending time with the book’s main characters — even though they’re supernatural beings, they are so very relatably flawed and fallible. But it was certainly challenging working between two literary cultures that are so remote chronologically and geographically. …But also really importantly I consulted Chinese friends, either scholars of the book or those who have grown up with the book to ask them which, in their view, were the key classic episodes that had to be included, because it was very important to me to include the elements of the novel that were best loved by Sinophone audiences.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Julia Lovell


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