The Monkey or the Monk: The Tension Between Arthur Waley and Anthony Yu’s Translations of The Journey to the West


Arthur Waley and Anthony Yu both add their own interpretation in their translations of The Journey to the West. Waley’s translation focuses primarily on the heroism of Monkey, a fact that is apparent in his exclusion of Tripitaka entirely from the title of his book, Monkey. Yu, though he certainly exalts Monkey’s heroism, he also notes Tripitaka for his superior willpower. They thus both appear in the title of his translation, The Monkey and the Monk. Though the Journey would certainly not be possible without the immortals, Yu’s Tripitaka is also seen as an integral part of the group. Waley’s Tripitaka is almost seen as a hindrance to the pilgrimage; when faced with a challenge, he dissolves into tears and despair. Yu’s Tripitaka, in contrast, though he may not be as powerful as the immortals, certainly has a superior will and moral code. This is particularly notable in his strength when confronted with sexual temptation. Interestingly, Waley’s Tripitaka is portrayed as a sexless, weak being while Yu’s Tripitaka is humanized by the acknowledgement of his sexuality. His humanity makes his self-denial all the more impressive. Waley’s portrayal of Tripitaka gives all power to the immortals, while Yu’s characterization exemplifies the value of mortality and humanity.

In Waley’s Preface of Monkey he says, “It is clear that Tripitaka stands for the ordinary man, blundering anxiously through the difficulties of life, while Monkey stands for the restless instability of genius.” (Waley, 8) This interpretation of the role of Tripitaka explains Waley’s portrayal of the Monk. Waley’s translation is deemed by Hu Shih, to be ,“freed from all kinds of allegorical interpretation by Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist commentators, Monkey is simply a book of good humor, profound nonsense, good-natured satire and delightful entertainment.” (Waley, 5) For Waley, Monkey is considered the unstable, yet utterly lovable hero. Many of the episodes in Monkey support this claim. When Monkey and Tripitaka are confronted by a band of robbers, Monkey’s over zealousness is contrasted with Tripitaka’s powerlessness and impracticality. To Tripitaka’s horror, Monkey kills all of the robbers and takes their possessions: “In an instant he was among them and striking right and left he slew them all, stripped off their clothing and seized their baggage. Then he came back to Tripitaka and said laughing, ‘Master. I have killed them all.’’’ (Waley, 132) Tripitaka responds with moral authority, but without an alternative plan: “I am very sorry to hear it…One has no right to kill robbers, however violent and wicked they may be…Why kill them? You have behaved with a cruelty that ill becomes one of your sacred calling.” (Waley, 132) Monkey does not appreciate this scolding, responding by defending the practicality of his actions. “If I had not killed them…they would have killed you.” (Waley, 132) Tripitka responds, “A priest…should be ready to die rather than commit acts of violence.” (Waley, 132-133) What Tripitaka does not acknowledge that his death would mean his mission would not succeed, thus the wisdom of his way of life would not be brought to China. Though Tripitaka is able to articulate his own beliefs, he is not able act in defense of them.

Waley’s Tripitaka’s impracticality and weakness is revealed again when his horse is eaten. He immediately reverts to despair and hopelessness: “‘Well, suppose it has been eaten…how am I to travel? It’s a great deal too far to walk,’ and as he spoke his tears began to fall like rain.” (Waley, 139) Monkey responds to this display with disgust and presents Tripitaka with a suggestion to how he can solve their quandary. “Don’t make such an object of yourself…Just sit here, while I go and look for the wretch and make him give us back the horse.” (Waley, 139) Instead of responding with thanks and grace, Tripitaka whines to the Monkey about the possibility of failure: “You can’t do anything unless he comes out of the water…if he does it will be me that he will eat this time.” (Waley, 139) Monkey replies in anger, “You’re impossible, impossible…you say you need the horse to ride, and yet you won’t let me go and recover it. At this rate, you’ll sit here staring at the luggage forever.” (Waley, 139) Tripitaka is consistently unwilling to brainstorm other ideas, rather he wallows in despair. If it weren’t for Monkey’s ingenuity and hope, their mission would surely have failed. Though Tripitaka is supposedly the “master” of the expedition, it is Monkey’s leadership that brings the journey to success.

Waley’s Tripitaka is also easily manipulated. In order to gain revenge upon Monkey, Pigsy tells Tripitaka that Monkey is capable of bringing a dead king back to life. While Monkey does end up resurrecting the king, it is because Pigsy manipulates Tripitaka into torturing monkey. The narrator claims that Tripitaka is an easy target for manipulation: “Tripitaka, being by nature as pliable as water was easily moved by that fools story.” (Waley, 194) Not only was Tripitaka manipulated, he was “easily” maneuvered by a “fool”. This speaks to Tripitaka’s weakness and stupidity. Tripitaka is actually more of a hindrance than a positive force on their mission. Waley’s focus on Monkey and lack of faith in Tripitaka shows his favor toward the immortals. Waley has little faith in the strength of humanity, putting his trust in the power of the immortals, rather than the moral strength that would and should be possessed by a monk. The potential power of humanity is revealed in Anthony Yu’s interpretation of Tripitaka.

Anthony Yu wrote his version of The Journey to the West in response to Waley’s translation. Yu objected to several aspects of Waley’s tranlation. In his Preface to his own translation, Yu writes, “My labor on The Journey to the West begun in 1970 was… motivated…to rectify the acclaimed but distorted picture provided by Arthur Waley’s justly popular abridgement.” (Yu, 33) Yu complains that Waley’s translation does not show the true scope of the epic because he cut many chapters that Yu considers important. He also feels that Waley neglects religious allegory in his translation. “The distantly collaborative result of our studies has mad it clear that religion is not only crucial to the novel’s conception and formation, but also that its nearly unique embodiment need not clash with ‘good humor, profound nonsense, good natured satire, and delighted entertainment.’” (Yu, 34) Thus, Yu seeks out to reassert the concept of religious commentary, which profoundly affects his portrayal of Tripitaka. In contrast to the sexless and weak version of Tripitaka presented in Arthur Waley’s translation, Yu offers another view in his translation, The Monkey and the Monk. Though Yu shows the power and ingenuity of Monkey, he also shows Tripitaka’s discipline and wisdom, traits that Monkey lacks. Yu highlights these traits in Tripitaka by acknowledging Tripitaka’s sexuality, which thus reasserts the importance of religious strength that is missing in Waley’s translation.

In Waley’s translation, hardly any women appear, let alone ones who sexually tempt Tripitaka. Yu’s emphasis on Tripitaka’s sexuality allows him to be seen as spiritually superior. His humanity is juxtaposed with his willpower, making him a more impressive and useful character to the narrative. There are several scenes in which women in Yu’s translation tempt Tripitaka. In chapter 24, Tripitaka and the pilgrims arrive at the women’s nation. The Queen is determined to make Tripitaka her husband, and offers him her hand in marriage. In this proposal, Tripitaka is not only offered a beautiful women, but a position of power and lots of money. Bajie (in Waley’s translation, Pigsy) responds to this proposal for his master, “Go back an tell your ruler that my master happens to be an arhat who has attained the Way after a long process of cultivation. He will never fall in love the dowry of a nation’s wealth, nor will be enamored with even beauty that can topple an empire…Let me be the live in husband.” (Yu, 375) Bajie has already proven his weakness when confronted with the opportunity to indulge himself in the physical world of both food and women. His immortality does not make him more holy than Tripitaka, on the contrary, Tripitaka is much more disciplined. It becomes clear that without Tripitaka’s agreement to the marriage, they will not be allowed to continued on their journey, thus Monkey hatches a plan to make it seem that Tripitaka will marry the queen without actually going through with the marriage. Tripitaka’s fears are not entirely quelled. He worries the queen will want to engage sexually with him, something that Tripitaka has renounced as a monk. “I fear that if the queen asks me to enter the palace, she will want me to perform the conjugal rite with her. How could I consent to lose my original yang and destroy the virtue of Buddhism, to leak my true sperm and fall from the humanity of our faith?” (376) Tripitaka’s devotion to his faith supersedes his desire to engage sexually.

Even when faced with the beautiful queen, Tripitaka is not swayed from his vow. A poem describes her in the chapter: “Brows like kingfisher hair,/ And flesh like mutton jade./ Peach petals bedeck her face;/ Her bun piles gold-phoenix hair./ Her eyes’ cool liquid gaze—such seductive charm./ Her hands’ young, tender shoots—such dainty form.” ( Yu, 379) While Bajie literally drools at the prospect of the queen, Tripitaka maintains his chastity. The language surrounding the woman is very sumptuous, suggesting that her qualities are not lost upon Tripitaka. “She leaned her fragrant shoulder over the to the elder and put her peachlike cheeks up to his face. Opening her scented mouth, she said softly, ‘Royal Brother darling.’” (Yu, 381) While Tripitaka remains polite, he does not yield to the beautiful woman offering herself to him.

After avoiding this marriage, Tripitaka is taken captive by another woman who would like to engage sexually with him. The epigraph at the beginning of chapter twenty-five reads, “Deviant form makes lustful play for Tripitaka Tang; upright nature safeguards the uncorrupted self.” (Yu, 386) Indeed, it is only Tripitaka’s moral nature that protects him from the seduction of the fiend. Tripitaka is very worried about his fate, “I can remain silent and refuse to eat anything, but this fiend is not like the queen. The queen, after all, is a human being whose actions are governed by propriety. This fiend is a monster spirit most capable of hurting me.” (388) Thus if Tripitaka does not yield to this woman’s desires, his life could be in danger. Instead of giving in to the fiend, Tripitaka bravely denies her, “The elder Tang showed no sign whatever that he had been aroused. Though the female fiend tugged and pulled at him and refused to let go, our master doggedly rejected her advances.” (393) Tripitaka’s capability to give in, makes his not doing so much more impressive. The fragility of his mortal life makes his denial all the braver. While Monkey is certainly a heroic character that is involved in more impressive action and fighting, Tripitaka in these scenes reveals why he is master and the true hero of the epic. Tripitaka needs the immortals to help him attain the scriptures, however the immortals are unworthy to get the scriptures on their own. Thus Tripitaka’s superior morality makes him a necessary character, one that has a role in the mission. In Waley’s translation, it’s unclear why Tripitaka would have been chosen to pursue the scriptures at all. His presence is important because he was chosen, however he doesn’t show any traits that set him above average men. He does not reveal any of the strength of character that Yu’s Tripitaka does.

The translations of Waley and Yu serve differing purposes. While Waley’s is perhaps more action-packed and full of fun, Yu’s translation puts more emphasis on the religious connotations of the story. Arguably, the humor and action in Yu’s translation is hardly lessened in his mission to bring attention to the religious aspects of the epic. The largest difference between the two translations can be observed in their portrayal of Tripitaka. While Waley portrays him as an ordinary man unable to cope with the challenges he is faced with, Yu counters this with a character full of bravery and strength of character. While Waley’s Tripitaka is faced with devastating challenges, Yu’s is additionally faced with moral challenges. The emphasis of Tripitaka’s humanity, particularly in Yu’s acknowledgment of the monk as a sexual being, allows his character to be tested, revealing his superior moral strength. Particularly compared with his powerful yet unruly disciples, Tripitaka is revealed as a hero, a human with superior moral strength to immortals. Waley, in contrast, is much more inclined to portray Monkey as the hero, despite his moral shortcomings. He views immortals as the true heroes because they are more involved in battle and action. Yu seems to have more faith in humanity, portraying a mortal as superior in wisdom and faith to his immortal deciples. Yu’s focus on morality can be explained by his concentration on the Chinese religions in his translation, an area that he felt Waley neglected in his version. Both of these translations have value in their own right. They attempt to realize different goals, providing two different interpretations and portrayals of the same story. There is value reading the two side by side; this allows the reader to note the similarities and differences between the two translations. The analysis of these differences allows the reader to discover the different aspects of the story the authors favor. For Waley, the portrayal of monkey as a humorous, yet ultimately brilliant and entertaining hero was more important than Yu’s focus on religion. These focuses affected their portrayal of Tripitaka. Both translations have value and provide a glimpse into different facets of a brilliant Chinese epic.