Tuesday, March 24, 2009


While leafing through Harold Acton's exquisite Memoirs of an Aesthete I came across a passing reference to one of the Monkey stories, and I think I will include the quote in my book. I was suddenly reminded of how important the Monkey stories are in Vietnamese culture, serving much the same purpose that the Grimm Fairy Tales or the Mother Goose stories once served in Western culture. Various versions of the Monkey stories are endlessly repeated on Vietnamese television - Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and even home-made series of greater or lesser artistry.
One frequently comes across statues of Monkey and his companions in temple gardens in Vietnam, reminding us that the stories always functioned as Buddhist propaganda, serving up fanciful moral tales in which Buddhist virtues (and Buddhist characters) always came out on top - normally trumping the foolish Taoist or folk-religion figures.
A few years ago a whole slew of books came out about the mythic Journey to the West, with people trying to re-trace the steps of the monk Hsuan Tsang and his animal companions. At the moment I am reading one of the better ones - Richard Bernstein's stately and meditative Ultimate Journey.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Monkey tales is how they made the leap to the West through the agency of the 1970s Japanese TV series that was so hilariously dubbed into English by out-of-work Royal Shakespeare players and seemed to play endlessly on the ABC throughout the 80s. A whole generation of British and Australian youngsters (myself included) became immersed in this East Asian epic, the greater philosophical and cultural significance of which went completely over our heads.

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