Re-Writing the Monkey King (#ChineseNewYear #YearOfTheMonkey)

 

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First thing first: I would like to wish everyone a very happy, healthy and successful Chinese New Year! May this year be full of creativity and motivation for your writing! And for reading, lots and lots of curiosity and optimism!

I love monkeys. The arrival of the Year of the Monkey reminds me of the most famous monkey in the Chinese World (and perhaps across the globe) — the Monkey King. This guy shares the same surname with me — Sun. His first name “Wukong” means “Awakened to Emptiness” in Chinese. A master of 72 methods of transformation/shape-shifting, Wukong is arguably the most important character in Journey to the West, one of the four “great classics” of Chinese literature.

Back in 2010, I worked with Real Reads Ltd to re-write these four Chinese classic novels for young English readers — the other three being The Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber. Even with my years of training in Chinese Literature and Chinese Studies, this writing gig was a valuable learning exercise full of challenges and surprises. Also rewarding was to work with professional illustrator Shirley Chiang and Real Reads director/editor John Button.

In terms of re-writing the Monkey King, one of the most memorable surprises is how difficult the job was. I have been reading Journey to the West since childhood and know the story inside out — how Wukong learns to put all his tricks and talents to good use; how he fends off all sorts of monsters and demons and guides Master Xuanzang through the tough soul-searching journey from China to India. Precisely because I know the novel’s 100 long chapters in classic Chinese so well, it was hard to summarise it in merely 6,000 words in English. It was almost like trying to explain War and Peace to a three-year-old in Brazil in one sentence.

Meanwhile, the best lesson I learned from re-writing the Monkey King for young readers is to abandon all rational (and boring) thinking as an adult. I was writing a children’s story, not a PhD thesis. I did not have to explain why an ancient rock is able to give birth to a monkey. Nor did I need to explain the mythical and symbolic meaning of this. All credits to John and his kind (and patient) guidance as I arrived at a simple sentence that solved all these problems: “Bang! A very special monkey was born from a magical rock on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.” The word “magical” is truly magical!

(Interestingly, like re-writing Journey to the West, the better I know and enjoy the classic Chinese texts — especially The Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin in which various famous warriors demolish their enemies like “cutting watermelons and chopping vegetables” — the harder it was to re-tell their stories in modern English that is suitable for reading by kids. On the contrast, despite the fact that I have always disliked Dream of the Red Chamber as a romance story full of miserable young lovers and power struggles among the rich, I found it surprisingly easy to re-write. Indeed, as of this writing, among all the books I have listed on GoodReads, Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber remain as the most commented and rated titles.)

Well, that is all I want to share with you on the first day of the Year of the Monkey. Writing in another genre is difficult and daunting, but it is not impossible, as long as you are willing to learn from the experts.

Image below thanks to: Year of the Monkey stamps, Republic of China (Taiwan) Post.

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