‘There was a rock that since the beginning of time had been worked on by the pure essences of heaven and the fine savours of earth, the vigour of sunshine and the grace of moonlight, until at last it became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg, about as big as a playing ball. Fructified by the wind it developed into a stone monkey…’.

So begins The Journey to the West – the story of the Monkey King. Monkey immediately learns to run and jump, but first he bows to the four directions, and as he does so, a light from his eyes penetrates as far as the pole star, and is noticed by the Jade Emperor in his heavenly palace. Monkey proceeds to create havoc – upsetting the hierarchies of heaven and earth in his disregard for their laws and governments. He sees through the external structures of religion – whether Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism – to the true essence of things. A wandering fool, with the strength and magic powers of a true martial artist; the needle he carries behind his ear becomes a staff, a cudgel, a weapon of mass destruction – or a tool for healing. He can harness the clouds for instant transport. But while attempting to steal the peaches of immortality from the garden of the Jade Emperor, he is finally caught and imprisoned. After years of incarceration, makes a deal to accompany the Buddhist monk Tripitaka on his journey to the West.

When Monkey Press came into being in the dim and distant past, Monkey’s playfulness and sense of irreverence, his ability to cut through illusion and to bring illumination was a source of inspiration. There was something of this playful irreverence in the spirit of Claude Larre. He played with words, with language and insisted that we move out of our comfort zones in an attempt to understand what lay behind Chinese medicine; he insisted that we attempt to understand the Chinese mind.

It was the early 1980s, when TCM first arrived from mainland China and was exerting its influence in the West. Source books at that time were limited, and there was a systematic clarity in these teachings which provided a stark contrast to the somewhat haphazard teaching of the 1970s. But in the wholehearted embracing of TCM which followed, some of us were left wondering whether the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. When Ted Kaptchuck published his Web that has no Weaver in 1983, it was taken by many as a testament against five element theory and the entrenchments became hardened. Strange, maybe, that in a text where the relationship of spleen and damp, heart and heat, liver and wind etc. are accepted without question, there should be doubt about the relevance of five phase theory. Careful reading suggests that this may have been a warning against an entrenchment in the system (Ted certainly had aspects of the monkey character himself!) but this was not a time of subtlety – it was a time of taking sides. We were constantly asked whether we were five element or eight conditions practitioners – as if the two ideas were mutually exclusive.

It was into this time of growing orthodoxy and rigidity that the monkey energy of Father Larre arrived, bringing a piercing eye of discernment coupled with a twinkle of mischief. We all wanted our lists and systems and an easy way to comprehend this strange medicine, but he questioned our very way of understanding. He delighted in making things difficult, because only by stopping us in our tracks could he hope to instil something more meaningful. In the first of the Chinese Medicine from the Classics lectures he explained that the Chinese way of thinking expressed by character/word/symbols is so different from our way of thinking in the West that we need to deconstruct our linear modality – step away from our rational brain, become scientists of beat poetry. He disregarded many Western translations of classical Chinese texts as ‘pure nonsense’, suggesting that ‘They stem from the imagination of people of different origins not sharing the same approach to life.’ But he also understood that we are inhabitants of the same universe, and that although we might not have the vocabulary to understand the concept of qi, we could understand it through our body consciousness.

He brought medicine back to life, back to life experience, back to its roots in Daoism and Confucianism; back to a time when medicine was one with the environment, and understood our ancestral origins. ‘Everything is part of medicine if we take the Chinese view that medicine is just governing life in ourselves.’ So to those of us who heard and responded to this voice, divisions were forgotten, shown to be empty shells, mere props in a charade. We felt as if we had a glimpse of something authentic, something worthwhile, something worth sticking at.

Peter Firebrace, who arranged the seminar, was asked for notes. Could he make copies? Peter decided to get the tapes of the seminar transcribed, and a photocopied edit, with a Letraset cover made on my kitchen table, was produced. It sold well, and with the addition of the editing skills of Caroline Root, we decided to do more.

Our first publications were made under the auspices of the International Register of Oriental Medicine, but as the registers were approaching their merge into the BAcC, we decided to form a publishing partnership. Monkey Press just seemed to arise from our mutual coherence. The name was somehow already there. Caroline was the only true monkey, Peter held the image of the ‘no seeing, no hearing, no speaking’ monkeys which can be seen in many Buddhist temples in the Far East. But we all knew the story of the Monkey King. Both Peter and I went to Guanghua in China Town to search for Monkey comics for our children. Monkey and the White Bone Demon was a favourite and I remember my son spending hours carefully colouring in the line drawings. Others had beautifully detailed colour pictures of the heavenly realms and the peaches of immortality. And through it all Monkey was constantly up to his mischief. So Monkey Press was born.

In the early days I re-typed a typewritten text on to an original Macintosh computer, which had a total of 1MB of RAM and pasted Chinese characters into the text with glue. Later, Caroline and I emailed pdf files between London and a small Greek island, which 30 years ago was as unlikely as Monkey jumping on his cloud trapeze and zipping to the end of the universe. It has always been an act of devotion. And however much I work with these old texts and with the insights of Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée – they never cease to inspire and amaze. Over the years we have attempted to edit more – but each time we try to make the language more accessible, the French/Chinese/English a bit more easy on the brain, I remember Father Larre telling an overwhelmed student that it is good to be confused. It is good to not know. Only then is there the possibility of understanding.

With Father Larre’s death at the auspicious age of 81, soon after the completion of the Ricci Dictionary, we brought to an end our first series – eleven titles transcribed from the London seminars, and one (The Way of Heaven) a translation by Peter from the French. But the work was continued by Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, and we have now published several new books from Elisabeth’s lectures. Elisabeth’s knowledge of the classical Chinese medical texts is unsurpassed. Her deep understanding of the philosophical texts of Daoism and Confucianism adding to the depth of her interpretation.

It is important that we stay connected to our roots. It would be such a loss to this medicine if it were to become detached from its past. We are at a time when the world needs a philosophy of health that is not separate from the health of society and the health of the planet. It desperately needs a cheap and effective form of medicine that is not dependent on pharmaceuticals. By returning to the classical roots of Chinese medicine, we can make a truly significant contribution to the medicine of the future. And by keeping in mind the light, playful, mischievous nature of the monkey, we can ensure that we do not get entrenched in ’isms and factions and remain open minded.

Sandra Hill (adapted from an article first published in ‘The Golden Needle’)