Whatever the date April 20th means to you, to the United Nations and us, it’s now China Culture Day. The UN is fabled for puzzling behavior. True to form, amongst the endless smorgasbord it could have assembled a banquet of culture from, the UN put on an exhibition by Professor Xu Peichen. We take nothing from the man; he is a master painter and calligrapher. But he is also known as “the monkey king”.
Now why would the UN, Quixotic crusader for world peace and brotherhood, want us to contemplate monkeys on China Culture Day?
You can learn a lot about the traditional difference in world view between China and the West by their take on monkeys. Traditionally, the West sees man as something outside nature. After all, we’re so clever, our emotions and drives so varied, our social structures so complex. Stuff and nonsense. Were there monkeys in North America and Europe, we would have never lost sight of the fact that almost all we call human can also be called monkey. The Chinese have always had enough monkeys about to accept that we, too, are but one component in nature’s order.
If you get a chance to visit Emai mountain in Sichuan, or the forests of Yunnan, pay close attention to the monkeys. Give them peanuts and watch them scramble, fighting with each other over scraps. See how the strong scatter the weak, how seriously they take their bellies and their antics. They are capable of all seven sins, and virtues such as loyalty and filial piety.
And they certainly know pride in their tribe, forerunner of nationalism. Aside from wrangling endlessly over status in the tribe, identity thrives on abhorrence of the other. The appearance of another tribe on its territory leads to all the horror they can wreak with their non-opposable thumbs.
As long as we call our monkey behavior human, the UN will remain a feckless booster club for an unattainable ideal. Will we ever transcend? Questions like these drive the work of Xu Peichen. Not for nothing is he known as the monkey king, for his namesake, the hero of Journey to the West, shows how high we can rise, and still fall short of heaven. Consider:
Far off in the Western Paradise (Vancouver?), the Buddha closed his eyes in meditation, and turned to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
“A remarkable creature has been born: a monkey, yet no ordinary one. He is destined to become an enlightened being, a true Buddha. Yet before he does, he will offer us no end of mischief.”
Long after, on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, in the Heavenly Cave, the monkeys feasted, celebrating the birthday of their king. But the Monkey King would have none of the festivity, and sat there gloomily.
“What troubles you Majesty?” asked an even older gibbon.
“Here I am, only four hundred years old,” said the Monkey King, “I’ve already reached the heights of greatness. What more can I hope and strive for? What is there higher than a king?”
“Your Majesty,” the gibbon ventured, “we have ever been grateful you hatched from stone, came among us, and found us this hidden cave behind the waterfall. We made you our king as the greatest honor we could bestow. Still, I must tell you that kings are not the highest of beings.”
“They’re not?” said the Monkey King.
“No, Your Majesty. Above them are the gods, who dwell in Heaven and govern Earth. Then there are Immortals, who have gained great powers and live forever. And finally there are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who have conquered illusion and escaped rebirth.”
“Wonderful!” cried the Monkey King. “Maybe I can become all three!” He considered a moment, and said, “I think I’ll start with the Immortals. I’ll search the earth till I’ve found one, and learn to become one myself!”
The next morning, the Monkey King ordered a raft be built and loaded with fruit for the journey. Then he took leave of his cheering subjects, floated downstream to the island’s edge, and started across the great sea.
On the surface of the Eastern Sea, not far from the Dragon King’s palace, the Monkey King landed on a barren rock jutting above the waves. Stretching himself out on it, he yawned and studied the sky.
“Now that I’m an Immortal, I think I’ll fly up to Heaven and become a god as well. But that’s all after a good nap.”
He closed his eyes and quickly drifted into sleep.
All at once Monkey felt himself jerked to his feet. Two men were clutching his elbows. One man had the face of a horse, the other of an ox.
Horse Face held an official document, which he studied closely. “Is your name Monkey?”
“That’s right,” said Monkey, in a daze.
“All right,” said Ox Head, “get moving!”
They started to drag him off. Stumbling once, Monkey happened to glance back. There he saw himself, still lying on the ground!
They rounded the rock and started across a desolate plain. The sea was nowhere in sight. “Where is this?” he asked. “And how did I get here?”
“He wants to know how he got here!” snorted Horse Face.
“You got here the same way as everyone!” said Ox Head.
After a while they came to the wall of a city. Above the gate was an iron placard with characters inlaid in gold.
DEMON GATE OF THE LAND OF DARKNESS
“Land of Darkness?” exclaimed Monkey, at last fully awake. “But that’s the realm of Yama, Lord of the Dead! I don’t belong here!”
“That’s what they all say!” said Horse Face.
“But I’m an Immortal!” protested Monkey. “I’ve gone beyond death!”
“Tell it to the judge!” said Ox Head.
“All right, I will!” said Monkey, snatching his staff from its hiding place behind his ear. “Grow!” he cried, and in half a moment he was swinging two meters of pine wood with deadly intent .
“We were just kidding!” cried Horse Face, fleeing through the gate.
“Yeah, can’t you take a joke?” said Ox Head, right behind him.
Monkey ran after them, still swinging. The very demons of the city were terrified, and dared not interfere. By the time Monkey reached the Palace of Darkness, Lord Yama and the other nine Judges of the Dead were waiting on the steps.
“Sire, what seems to be the trouble?” asked Yama nervously.
“The trouble?” said Monkey. “The trouble is you’ve brought me here!”
“But sir, I assure you,” said Yama, “you will be judged fairly and punished—I mean, re-educated—strictly according to your past deeds. Then when the evil you’ve done has been avenged—I mean, corrected—you’ll be returned to the Land of Light for a brand new life.”
“I don’t want to be reborn!” said Monkey. “I never wanted to die in the first place! Don’t you realize I’m an Immortal?”
“An Immortal!” said Yama in consternation. “There must be some mistake!”
“Exactly!” said Monkey. “I demand to see the Register of Life and Death.”
Yama led him into the Hall of Darkness, where a clerk dragged out several musty volumes. Monkey searched till he found his name.
“Writing brush!” commanded Monkey, and the clerk gave him one dipped in ink. Monkey blotted his name from the register. “That should do it,” he said.
“This is most irregular!” protested Yama.
“Tell it to the judge!” said Monkey. He slammed the book shut and rushed out. Then he made his way back to the city wall, swinging his staff as he went.
Just outside the gate, Monkey tripped and fell rolling. When he opened his eyes, he was back on the rock in the Eastern Sea.
“Wonderful!” cried Monkey as he jumped to his feet. “Next stop: Heaven.”
Thanks to Xu Peichen for his artwork, and Aaron Shephard