Monkey | Chapter 9
Stories Retold: Journey to the West
We take a break from the fantastical misadventures of Monkey to tell a story of love, betrayal and redemption.
At that time the capital city of China was Chang-an. Peace prevailed and the Emperor was wise and it was a time of plenty.
His Imperial Highness had a great desire to recruit the brightest minds to help him in running the country. On advice from his ministers, he decided to invite scholars from every province to come and take part in an examination. A young scholar called Chen, living in the province called Hei-gei, decided to go to the capital and try his luck and hoped in so doing to provide some small means for his widowed mother.
Chen was a bright young man. He sailed through the preliminary exams and, making it through to the final, attained top of the class and was given a certificate signed by the Emperor’s own hand.
As he had excelled in the countrywide examinations he was placed on a horse and lead through the streets at the head of a grand procession.
The route took him past a certain minister’s house who had an only daughter. She was unmarried and lived in a high tower that allowed her to observe the passers-by on the street. When she saw Chen riding the horse and knowing that he had excelled in the court examinations she set her heart on becoming his wife. She had in her possession an embroidered ball and as Chen past by she threw the ball out of the window and it landed on top of his hat.
The young man heard the great gates of the minister’s house being opened and out came some servants who, taking hold of the horse’s reins, led the student into the courtyard. Following the customary introductions, the young couple were introduced and one thing led to another. And so they were married and they passed the evening in merrymaking before the two of them entered the bridal chamber.
The following day Chen was awarded governorship of Chien-chou and ordered to take up the post immediately.
After a few days of travelling, they reached the Inn of Ten Thousand Blossoms where they decided to stay and rest for a couple of days. The next day a fisherman brought a golden carp to them and Chen took a fancy to it and decided to have it for his supper and so bought it. But when the young man looked closely, he saw the fish’s eyes flicker in a strange way. He said to himself:
“I have heard that if the eyes of the fish or a snake should flicker in this way then it means they are something special.”
So, he decided to put the fish back into the river alive. His wife was full of admiration telling him that to release living things like that is a sign of piety.
After their short break the happy couple went on their way until they came to the Hung river, where they were met by two ferrymen Liu and Lee. Unfortunately, Chen had done them both a disservice in a previous life and this was going to cause trouble for him now! The two ferrymen eyed Chen’s beautiful wife. They took the young couple on board and sailed the boat to a remote part of the river where they killed poor Chen throwing his body into the river. The ferryman called Liu took the young governor’s clothes and letter of appointment telling the frightened wife that she was now his, and that she must not breathe a word or her own life would be forfeit.
Meanwhile, the corpse of Mr. Chen sank to the bottom of the river where one of the local soldier prawns was on guard duty. He immediately took the body to the Dragon King of the river who recognised the young man at once:
“Why, this is the one you put back in the river. I will go to the local municipal deity and ask for his soul back.”
Meanwhile, fraudulent Chen and Mrs. Chen made their way to Chien-chou where he posed as the new governor.
Mrs. Chen was deeply unhappy, but she remembered that she was with child and so she played her part in order to protect herself and her unborn baby.
When the time came her to give birth, the false Chen happened to be away on business. As she gave birth, she heard a voice tell her that she must do everything to ensure the survival of her child and that the great bodhisattva Kwan-yin had promised that her baby son would one day be famous throughout the whole world.
She knew that the false Chen would kill the child if he found out. So, she wrote a letter giving the true provenance of the baby and then, removing his left sock, she bit the top off the little toe with her teeth so that, should she find her child in the future, she would be able to recognise him. She then took him to the river where she tied him to a plank with an explanatory letter and, with tears in her eyes, set him on the waters.
The plank floated downstream until it came to a standstill by the temple of the Golden Mountain. The Abbot heard the baby crying and took the child and raised him as his own. He decided to call the child ‘Plank’, which may seem rather unimaginative but was rather descriptive! By the time the child had grown to a young man of seventeen years of age, he had been ordained and to his relief was given his name in religion: Hsuan Zhang. He had studied hard and learned all the sutras. He also learned to meditate and was particularly skilled at it. One day he got into some silly doctrinal argument with another young monk who lived at the temple. The second monk, angry at being defeated in argument, turned on Plank, saying, ‘’No one knows who your father is or where you come from. You are no better than an animal!’’
Plank was deeply upset by this and ran to the Abbot asking if this was true. The Abbot, without saying a word, took down from the cupboard an ornate wooden box, opened it and gave the young monk his mother’s letter. The Abbott said, ‘’This letter tells you everything you need to know.’’
And so the young man learned his true history. The Abbot beseeched him to go and find his mother. Therefore, dressed as a mendicant, the young man made his way to Chiang-chou, to the house of his mother. He knocked on the door and begged for alms as all monks do. The maid went upstairs to inform the lady of the house that there was a monk at the door and what should she give him? Mrs. Chen, who the previous night had dreamt of seeing a waning moon become full again, wondered quietly to herself if this might mean some news of her son.
She instructed that the monk be brought inside and she went down to meet him. When they were alone, the monk burst into tears and told his story, saying that he was searching for his mother and that her married name was ‘Chen’. He showed her her own letter, and at once she knew this must be her long lost son.
Mother and son embraced and, with tears running down her cheeks, she instructed him to leave the house since, if the fraudulent governor returned and found out the truth about him, his life would surely be in peril.
"Do not worry,” she said “Tomorrow I will pretend to be ill and I will come to the temple to make an offering for my good health."
The very next day, she was as good as her word, and, accompanied by the servants, she made her way to the temple. There she removed the sock on the young monk’s left foot and when she saw the top part of the little toe missing she clasped him to her breast. This was the final confirmation she needed.
"I will give you a letter which you must take to my father in the capital Give the letter to him. It will instruct my father to ask the Emperor to send his soldiers to come and rescue me.’’
Within only a few days, the matter had been settled and justice prevailed. The Emperor gladly sent his troops to arrest the charlatan who had murdered his finest governor. The impostor was duly executed by the very river when he had worked as ferry man.
The water spirits, who always keep a close eye on the affairs of men, reported what had been happening to the Dragon King. The latter immediately summoned Chen.
"Harmony has been restored" said the Dragon King, "It is time to restore your soul to you so that you can go home."
Meanwhile, on the shore of the river a pale body floated in to view. The assembled crowd gazed warily until finally Mrs. Chen recognised the body of her husband. To the surprise of the assembly, they watched as the fingers of one hand began to uncurl and Mr. Chen stretched out his feet and legs. A moment later the eyelids fluttered and Mr. Chen sat up rubbing his eyes.
With the family reunited, and after some tears, plenty of laughter and a good meal, they all set off for the capital once more.
And if you want to know what happened after this you must listen to what is told in the next chapter.
Based on the translation by Arthur Waley.
Image copyright to Roberta Mansell
The Stories of Monkey
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