Note: This post is not endorsed. I received no compensation for the review.
I have an ongoing international survey gauging the readership of Journey to the West. With almost 1,000 responses, 53.4% of the respondents have never read the novel. Another 28.8% have only read a few chapters, including abridgements. Most have learned about the story via video games, comic books, or the internet. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as the majority of respondents come from North America (52.5%) and Europe (18.8%). Such non-Chinese speaking/reading populations do, however, have access to assorted translations. For example, the most popular English renditions are Arthur Waley’s 30-chapter abridgement Monkey (1942) and full translations like W.J.F. Jenner’s Journey to the West (2001) and Anthony C. Yu’s The Journey to the West (revised 2012 edition). Yu’s version is by far the most accurate, but it runs well over 2,000 pages (including a 100 page introduction, copious explanatory notes throughout the four volumes, and many scholarly sources), making it a daunting task to read. But what about those who wish to read the original Chinese? Well, the edition put out by the People’s Literature Publishing House (人民文學出版社, 1955/2017), for example, has 866,000 Chinese characters, and while the novel is written in the vernacular, a person would need to know 3,000 or more characters before they could comfortably read it. This means beginning students would normally have to wait years until they reached the appropriate reading level. But now they have a new option.
Jeff Pepper (writer and publisher) and Dr. Xiaohui Wang (translator) of Imagin8 Press have produced a series of bilingual retellings of the tale at the 600 and 1,200 HSK word levels, as well as a few with 1,500 based on new words introduced in past books.  So far there are 14 books in the series covering chapters one to 42 (Monkey’s stone birth to the defeat of Red Boy). All are available in Simplified Chinese, while (as of March 2021) only the first six books are available in Traditional Chinese. Each is divided into four parts: 1) a preface with a brief explanation of the series and a recap of the story from previous books; 2) the story proper presented in pinyin with the corresponding Chinese on the adjoining page; 3) the English translation; and 4) an alphabetized glossary of terms with four columns listing the Chinese character, pinyin, English meaning, and when new words (not part of HSK3) are “First Used” in a given book (i.e. 1, 2, 3, etc.).  If the First Used column is blank for a given character, this is because “the word is part of HSK3 or is in common usage” (Pepper & Wang, 2018a, p. 119). Furthermore, students have the added option of listening to audiobooks available for free on Imagin8’s YouTube channel. This means they can practice both their reading and listening skills. Needless to say, this series truly is an amazing resource.
The cover of book one. Design by Katelyn Pepper (larger version).
Now on to the story. Given the reduced word count, the tale in each book is a simplified version of the original. The first book opens on a parent telling Journey to the West as a bedtime story to their child, each subsequent volume representing a different night’s story. Certain aspects, such as the names of minor gods, immortals, and demons, as well as copious literary poems, are cut out as they don’t really affect the overall story.  The narrative flows smoothly and follows the general outline from Anthony C. Yu’s English translation.  The rhythm of pages is occasionally broken up by beautiful black and white drawings by Next Mars Media, each of which is accompanied by a bilingual caption.
Beyond a few very minor inaccuracies in the story, I only have two major complaints. One, the tendency to gloss over certain facets of the narrative resulted in the removal of one major aspect of Sun Wukong’s early training, which is the source of his most famous magic power. In the original, the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subodhi teaches Monkey the 72 transformations in order to hide from a trio of heaven-sent punishments scheduled to kill him for attaining immortality. After subsequently learning how to fly via the cloud somersault, he is expelled from the Sage’s school for showing off his newfound powers of metamorphosis to his less accomplished classmates. But in book one of the series, Wukong’s lesson on shapeshifting is mysteriously replaced with flight training. It is implied that he can simply fly away from said punishments (Pepper & Wang, 2018c, pp. 55 and 57 and 82-83). And instead of being kicked out for showing off his transformations, Subhuti simply tells him to leave because he’s “disturbing the other students” (Pepper & Wang, 2018c, pp. 57 and 83). This removal doesn’t make any sense, especially when our hero exhibits transformations in later books (Pepper & Wang, 2018b, pp. 39 and 78, for example).
Two, the Chinese sections of books one to five are very short, running between 25 to 30 pages with only 14 lines per page. The rest of the books are comprised of the aforementioned preface, the pinyin pages, the English translation, the images, and the glossary. However, book six and beyond tend to have more pages, especially those from book seven onwards as this is when the 1,200 word level is introduced. In addition, Imagin8 has produced a number of compilations, each collection containing three books (example).
For my overall rating, I would give the series 4.5 out of 5 stars. I highly recommend it for those in the early stages of learning Chinese. It will surely serve as a gateway to learning more about Chinese history, religion, and mythology.
1) Mr. Pepper was kind enough to send me the first six volumes in Simplified Chinese back in 2019. He recently sent me the Traditional Chinese version of volume six.
2) Book one is missing this “First Used” column. It was introduced in book two under the listing “New?”. This was subsequently changed to “Used In” in book five and then “First Used” in book six.
3) The names of certain reoccurring characters, such as Heavenly King Li Jing and his son Prince Nezha, are cut in earlier books. I’d be interested to see if their full names grace later books as the characters do appear several more times in the original narrative.
4) Dr. Yu is thanked in the acknowledgements.
Pepper, J., & Wang, X. (2018a). The Emperor in Hell (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Imagin8 Press.
Pepper, J., & Wang, X. (2018b). The Immortal Peaches (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Imagin8 Press.
Pepper, J., & Wang, X. (2018c). The Rise of the Monkey King (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Imagin8 Press.
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