Interview – Mu Pan [Monkey] [The Folio Society]

MONKEY

By Wu Ch’eng-en

Illustrated by Mu Pan | Introduced by Frances Wood | Translated by Arthur Waley


Product Details: Bound in blocked cloth • Set in Garamond • 344 pages • Frontispiece and 6 colour illustrations, including one double-page spread • Black & white illustrated title-page • Fold-out map • Blocked slipcase • 11˝ x 6˝


One of the Four Great Chinese novels and a worldwide cultural phenomenon, MONKEY, Arthur Waley’s abridged translation of Wu Cheng’en’s sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West, is now reimagined in this beautiful new Folio edition, complete with beautiful artwork by Mu Pan – including a foldout map – and a new introduction by Frances Wood.

Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century retelling of an ancient Chinese folk tale combines spiritual wisdom and legend with a large dose of humour, making it the ultimate adult fantasy adventure. Charting the perilous mission of a shape-shifting, cloud-jumping monkey through China and India to retrieve sacred Buddhist scrolls, the themes of freedom, identity and heroism have resonated through the ages and the Monkey King has inspired generations of authors, artists, filmmakers and anime creators.

To celebrate the release, we caught up with artist Mu Pan to discuss their background, the illustration process, and the novel’s continued influence within Chinese culture.


Illustration © Mu Pan 2023 from The Folio Society edition of Monkey

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got started in illustration?

I was born in Taiwan in 1976. I moved to the USA after I finished high school and completed military service in 1997. That year I was accepted at the School of Visual Arts in NYC to study illustration. I have only done a few illustration projects in the past 20 years, I am more focused on making my own work storytelling with images and for shows in galleries.

When did you realise that art & illustration was the career you wanted to pursue

When I was in elementary school, about 5th grade. I was in charge of illustration for the school newspaper. At that time I was mainly into manga and anime. I realised this could be a fun job for the future.

How did this collaboration with The Folio Society come about?

I was introduced to Raquel Leis Allion, the Folio art director by my friend Yuko Shimizu who is one of the top illustrators in the world.

The illustrations in the book are incredibly beautiful. How would you describe your style?

I don’t call it a style. It is just how I draw from my training, observation, studying, and exploring over the past decades. It’s the same way I have drawn since I was little, and it grows with my experiences.  It just comes naturally to me. It reflects how I see the things happening in front of me and how I react to them.


Illustration © Mu Pan 2023 from The Folio Society edition of Monkey

Monkey has been called One of the Four Great Chinese novels. Can you tell us a little bit about its significance and influence within Chinese culture?

This is very broad question that can’t be answered briefly. It could be a topic of an essay or an open discussion.

The story involves history, religion, and even politics. Many of the characters, such as the demons, are created with symbolism. It also emphasizes Confucianism, which is pretty much branded in every Chinese person’s head. This is especially evident in the relationship between the monk and Wu Kong. Wu Kong often disobeys the monk, but he is the most loyal disciple among the three. He is a person with a great sense of filial piety which is still the most valued element in Chinese culture.

The story also highlights the necessity of enduring hardship in order to complete their journey to a successful conclusion. Most Chinese people believe that all our achievements will be fulfilled after we overcome our ordeal.

Importantly this book introduced us to the idea of being inspired by nature through observation and imagination. It shows us the balance between humans and all lives, and all lives to the world and the world to the universe.

In the end, my favorite part of the influence from the book is the message of searching for self-enlightenment. Every character is searching for the meaning of their existence, either demon or mortal. They all have their own journey, and their fates are all entangled with the 4 main characters. Through encountering each other, they found the path to their mindfulness, which is under their feet.

The story has been adapted numerous times in various forms of media, i.e. TV, film, opera, etc. How much inspiration did you take from those previous adaptations, or do you try to create your own vision based on the descriptions in the text?

While I looked up everything, I did not recreate the previous illustrations, I just remade the classic in my own way. Because the classic is already there, I wanted to capture it instead of re-creating it.

For my research, I looked up everything, and the best adaptation is still the 1986 tv series, and it is very close to the original novel. The actor who played Wu Kong is from a Chinese opera family, and his father and his older brother all specialized in playing the character. I also looked up some classic illustrations of A Journey to the West from the 19th century, also the sequential pictorial book from the 30s.


Illustration © Mu Pan 2023 from The Folio Society edition of Monkey

How did you decide which parts of the novel you wanted to illustrate?

First I chose my favorite parts of the story, then I refined them with the editor and art director.

There are many parts of the complete book, A Journey to the West, that I wanted to draw, but Monkey is the only tale in this edition so many exciting parts weren’t included. Also so many wonderful locations and fascinating characters, such as the flaming mountains, spider wave cave, skeleton demon, etc.

I truly hope The Folio Society can consider publishing the complete version of A Journey to The West, if they do, I would be honored to illustrate the whole book.

Who would you say have been your biggest inspirations and influences?

It comes with time and my growth, many things I used to love now I no longer care about. I would say stories are my biggest inspiration and the images of storytelling are my biggest influence.


Illustration © Mu Pan 2023 from The Folio Society edition of Monkey

What have been your favourite projects to date?

my next project…..

What advice would you give for anyone hoping to pursue a career in art and illustration?

Do not follow any trend, do not form a style, do not believe your fans, and do not think of yourself as a celebrity. Do what you are supposed to do and go with the flow. Just like all the characters in this book, find your direction and the path to that is under your feet.


The Folio Society’s edition of Wu Ch’eng-en’s Monkey, introduced by Frances Wood and illustrated by Mu Pan, is exclusively available from www.foliosociety.com


 

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