Laurie Cubbison

Radford University

Goku's Journeys: The Monkey King in DragonBall and Saiyuki

            Throughout literary history, certain characters have exceeded the bounds of their narratives.  These characters have such dynamic personalities that not only do their stories continue to be read, but their stories are also rewritten by subsequent authors who provide them with new adventures and new environments to inhabit. Such characters have long histories: Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey has appeared again and again, even as recently as the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou. Other characters have shorter histories, but extensive re-appropriations, such as Sherlock Holmes, who is so iconic that his cap appears on advertising characters to invoke the archetypal detective. And we are dealing with archetypes here, characters so iconic that not only do they fit an archetype, but they come to define it for the literary tradition in which they are embedded.

            In this presentation, I’m concerned with the Monkey King, one of the iconic characters of Asian literature and his various transformations as later writers played with the character. Xi You Ji, in English as Journey to the West (Wu), is a 16th century novel by Wu Ch’êng-ên, which tells the story of a Monkey King named Sun Wu-Kong (Son Goku in Japanese), who disrupts the heavens with his antics, is then imprisoned by the Buddha in a mountain until such time as he is released by a Chinese monk who is making a pilgrimage to India to bring the Buddha’s teachings to China. The monkey king then takes on the role of the monk’s disciple/bodyguard, protecting the pious, fragile human. In crossing Central Asia, they are accompanied by a former god turned pig demon, another god turned water demon, and a former dragon turned into a horse. Their adventures lead through great perils, fights with demons and dragons and other nature spirits in an allegory of the path to Buddhist enlightenment. I’ve placed more information about the novel on your handout, so as not to become too bogged down in describing the various texts I’ll be discussing.

            The character of Sun Wu-K’ung pre-existed Xi You Ji, and a fair amount of scholarship on the novel focuses on his legendary origins. He continued to be a significant character, with The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West appearing in the 17th century as written by a Buddhist monk, Tung Yueh. Contemporary literary versions of the monkey king and his story include such novels as Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, which uses the monkey king as a signifier for the main character, a Chinese-American playwright living in San Francisco during the 1960s, and Timothy Mo’s The Monkey King, set in 1950’s-60’s Hong Kong. Within Asian popular culture, the Monkey King has been featured in television series, Chinese Opera, and such Hong Kong films as Princess Iron Fan.  In this presentation, however, I’m going to focus on the re-workings of the original narrative in three anime/manga: Osamu Tezuka’s Saiyuki, distributed in the west as Alakazam the Great, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball series, and Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki, the three variations most familiar to non-Asian audiences.

            Given the vitality of this character within Asian culture and his current expansion into Western pop culture, the monkey king would seem to be archetypally significant. I will argue that not only does the monkey king bridge two Jungian archetypes—the divine child and the trickster—but recent anime/manga versions of the character emphasize the divine child over the trickster.

            Elements of the divine child exist in the original character of the monkey, although the monk embodies them more fully than the monkey, who is dominated by the trickster archetype.  Jung distinguishes between the child-god archetype and the child hero archetype: “Common to both types is the miraculous birth and the adversities of early childhood – abandonment and danger through persecution. The god is by nature wholly supernatural; the hero’s nature is human but raised to the limit of the supernatural—he is ‘semi-divine’” (Jung 165-6). Both Sun Wu-Kung and his master Tripitaka embody elements of the child archetype through their mysterious origins. Sun Wu-Kung was born from a stone where the auras of heaven and earth meet, while Tripitaka’s origin is reminiscent of Moses. Tripitaka was cast into a river by his captive mother in order to save him from the bandit who killed her husband. Later, when Tripitaka undertakes his pilgrimage, he is beset on all sides: “It is a striking paradox in all child myths that the ‘child’ is on the one hand delivered helpless into the power of terrible enemies and in continual danger of extinction, while on the other he possesses powers far exceeding those of ordinary humanity” (Jung 170). It becomes the responsibility of Sun Wu-Kung and the other two semi-divine pilgrims to protect their master from the “continual danger of extinction.”

            Although Sun Wu-Kung enters the story with the miraculous birth of the divine child, his character more closely resembles the Jung’s description of the trickster, especially once he receives his Taoist training: “A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurious; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and—last but not least—his approximation to the figure of a saviour” (Jung 255) . Not only is he sly, half monkey and half immortal, he is capable of seventy-two shape-shifting transformations. But his achievements merely increase his arrogance, and he begins to believe himself on par with the gods and demands entry into heaven, where he is offered the menial position of heavenly stable boy. Sun Wu-Kung’s actions during this period embody the unconsciousness of the trickster characters: “He is a forerunner of the saviour, and, like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness” (Jung 263). Ignorant of his proper role, he takes offense at the job he is given, he steals and eats food forbidden to him, and demands that the Jade Emperor give up the throne of heaven. Jung says of the trickster, “Although he is not really evil, he does the most atrocious things from sheer unconsciousness and unrelatedness.  His imprisonment in animal unconsciousness is suggested by …” (Jung 264) the inability of the gods to control him. Sun Wu-Kung is too powerful, too much an agent of chaos. He defeats divine warriors sent to capture him and fights the mightiest of them to a draw. Until finally, the Jade Emperor, Taoist deity that he is, is forced to ask for help from the Buddha. Capture of the monkey king, so difficult for the Taoist deities, is child’s play for the Buddha, who imprisons Sun Wu-Kung under a mountain to wait to be released by Tripitaka. When the pilgrimage begins, Tripitaka must control him with a gold diadem that Sun Wu-Kung wears as a kind of leash. Thus, the Buddha begins the process of taming the trickster: “the gradual civilizing, i.e. assimilation, of a primitive daemonic figure who was originally autonomous and even capable of causing possession” (Jung 266).  Over the course of the long novel, Sun Wu-Kung is transformed psychically: “At any rate the marks of deepest unconsciousness fall away from him; instead of acting in a brutal, savage, stupid and senseless fashion, the trickster’s behaviour towards the end of the cycle becomes quite useful and sensible” (Jung 266). The Monkey King is so thoroughly integrated into consciousness by the end that he achieves enlightenment.

            Tezuka’s variation also emphasizes the trickster, emphasizing the monkey’s reluctance to accede to the authority of the Buddha, brought to it only through concern for his selfless lady friend.  The characterizations are largely true to Journey to the West; it is in the visuals that Tezuka plays with the story, as when Alakazam uses Spanish bull-fighting techniques to defeat Gyumaoh, the Ox demon. At the end of the story, however, Alakazam is reformed although not enlightened in the Buddhist sense, returning home to his lady and his kingdom to rule as a good king (Tezuka).

            In contrast, the monkey characters of Dragon Ball (Toriyama) and Minekura’s Saiyuki (Minekura) embody the divine child archetype more fully than the trickster archetype. Discussing these characters becomes a bit confusing as they both go by the same name –Son Goku, the Japanese name of the character called Sun Wu-Kung in Journey to the West, so I’ll call the hero of Dragon Ball Goku and the Saiyuki character Son Goku. Dragon Ball opens with elements of its source narrative: Goku’s monkey-like tail and Sun Wu-kung’s weapon, Nyoi-bo, are joined by the flying cloud used by Sun Wu-kung, Alakazam and Goku for transportation, but only one of Goku’s companions fits well with the pilgrims – the pig Oolong. The Ox-king shows up, but unlike the other variations, the Ox-king here is not a villain. So as far as the narrative goes, Toriyama picks and chooses from the source narrative. Over time, especially as the story moves into the sequel Dragon Ball Z, Toriyama leaves the source material far behind. Although I’m quite interested in fidelity to the source material, it’s not a major focus of this paper. In this paper, I want to concentrate on the character and the archetype he represents.

            Throughout the Dragon Ball series, Goku is presented as a powerful martial artist with an innocent nature. Raised in isolation by a hermit who found him one day, Goku is in his early teens when he comes across Bulma, a teenaged girl who seems to have been placed in the monk’s role and joins her quest to obtain the dragon balls in order to make a wish. Goku has received no education, other than in the martial arts, and little contact with human beings. A running gag early in the manga has him trying to figure out the difference between males and females through some inappropriate touching. Unlike the source narrative, in which cloud walking is presented as a Taoist skill, in Dragon Ball Goku’s uniquely pure nature is what allows him to ride the cloud. Although Goku sees nothing unusual in his abilities, to his companions he is clearly something other than human. In spite of his innocence, he is a powerful and determined fighter, becoming over the course of the series and its sequels the strongest defender of the world. And in Dragon Ball Z, there are many villains from which the world needs to be defended.

            Unlike Sun Wu-Kung, Goku is not a trickster, beyond his dual animal/divine nature. He is innocent rather than wily, honorable rather than arrogant toward his enemies, nor is he a king. In fact, once he is revealed as an alien member of the Saiyan race, he is claimed to be of low caste, even though he is more powerful than Vegeta, the prince of the Saiyans. In fact, I might argue that Vegeta is a closer approximation to the original Monkey King than Goku is.

            The most recent version of the Journey to the West to reach Western popular culture through anime and manga is Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki, written with Kanji that translate not as Journey to the West but Journey to the Extreme. Minekura’s version of the pilgrimage is fascinating for the elements of the source narrative that she changed and those that she kept the same. Saiyuki is populated with the same characters as the original. The monk Genjo Sanzo was the god Gold Cicada in a previous incarnation, and Cho Hakkai and Sha Gojyo were both gods as well. The bodhisattva Kuan Yin is still orchestrating the pilgrimage, and Gyumaoh the Ox Demon is still a major villain, but…. The landscape is different, more modern, and whereas the original priest rode a dragon-turned-horse, now the pilgrimage rides in a Jeep that is also a dragon and pays its expenses with a credit card, rather than with a begging bowl.

            But the most intriguing change from Journey to the West to Journey to the Extreme consists of the change in mood that is created in part by the redistribution of the personalities of the pilgrims.  In the source narrative, the monk Tripitaka is a pious, naïve fellow, too apt to see good in a villain for his own safety and thus often a kind of damsel in distress. Sun Wu-Kung is the arrogant, charismatic trickster who must be tamed. Cho Pachieh is the hedonist pig who fails to achieve enlightenment because of his appetites, while Sha Monk is the gloomy, reserved member of the pilgrimage. But in Minekura’s version, the monk is the arrogant, charismatic leader while Son Goku is the naïve, good-hearted character. Meanwhile, Cho Hakkai and Sha Gojyo seem to have traded personalities as well, but it’s the personality shift between the monk and the monkey that seems most responsible for the change in mood.

            Genjo Sanzo is not the pious monk that his literary ancestor was, even though he shares a similar back story—the baby abandoned to the river and adopted by a monk. He’s a chain-smoking, hard-drinking cynic with a good deal of personal arrogance and an admitted lack of faith in Buddhism.

            Like Sun Wu-Kung, Son Goku was imprisoned under the mountain for 500 years, but unlike his literary ancestor, he was the equivalent of a young boy, whereas Sun Wu-Kung was an immortal already several hundred years old. Minekura has Son Goku imprisoned during his early teens and his growth halted for the time of his imprisonment. She portrays him as naïve and enthusiastic, but a powerful fighter just as the other monkey kings are. Whereas Sun Wu-Kung and Alakazam wore the gold diadem to control them, being given horrible headaches when the monk recited a certain spell, Son Goku’s diadem serves as a power limiter. When the diadem is removed or broken, he goes berserk, losing all consciousness of himself and attacking friends and foes alike, as Jung says of the trickster: “In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level” (260).  With the diadem on, he seems most to embody the child archetype: “Psychologically speaking, this means that the ‘child’ symbolizes the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man.  His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of early childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death” (178).       

So what does it mean that the monk and the monkey seem to have changed places? To have exchanged archetypes? Minekura seems to be saying something about Buddhism. While Buddha himself does not appear, Kuan Yin is a prominent character, seeming to orchestrate the pilgrimage as much for her own amusement as for the greater good of the characters and the world they live in.  While Toriyama seems completely uninterested in the religious aspects of the source material, Minekura seems to be questioning the relevance of Buddhist ideals as presented in Xi You Ji by subverting the character of the monk and sweetening the character of the monkey.


Works Cited

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series. Eds. Sir Herbert Read, et al. Second ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Minekura, Kazuya. Saiyuki. Vol. 1. Los Angeles: Tokyopop, 2004.

Alakazam the Great. 1961, 1996.

Toriyama, Akira. Dragon Ball. Shounen Jump Graphic Novel. Ed. Jason Thompson. Vol. 1. 42 vols. San Francisco: VIZ, LLC, 2003.

Wu, Ch'êng-ên. Journey to the West. Trans. W. J. F. Jenner. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2003.