Journey to the West

Journey to the West (Chinese: 西遊記; pinyin: Xī Yóu Jì) is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng’en. It is regarded as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and has been described as arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia. Arthur Waley’s abridged translation, Monkey, is known in English-speaking countries.

The novel is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who travelled to the “Western Regions” (Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent) to obtain Buddhist sacred texts (sūtras) and returned after many trials and much suffering. The monk is referred to as Tang Sanzang in the novel. The novel retains the broad outline of Xuanzang’s own account, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, but adds elements from folk tales and the author’s invention: Gautama Buddha gives this task to the monk and provides him with three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, together with a dragon prince who acts as Tang Sanzang’s steed, a white horse. The group of pilgrims journeys towards enlightenment by the power and virtue of cooperation.

Journey to the West has strong roots in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology, Confucianist, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophy, and the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas are still reflective of some Chinese religious attitudes today. Enduringly popular, the novel is at once a comic adventure story, a humorous satire of Chinese bureaucracy, a source of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory.

Authorship

The earliest known full-length version of Journey to the West was published anonymously in 1592, preceded by 2 briefer versions. The question of authorship is further complicated by the fact that a good deal of the novel’s material had been published in the form of folk tales. Anthony C. Yu, writing in 2012, warned that “this vexing dispute over the novel’s authorship, similar to that on the priority of its textual versions, see-sawed back and forth for nearly a century without resolution.”

Hu Shih, literary scholar and former Ambassador to the United States, wrote that the novel was thought to have been written and published anonymously by Wu Cheng’en. He reasoned that the people of Wu’s hometown attributed it early on to Wu, and kept records to that effect as early as 1625; thus, claimed Ambassador Hu, Journey to the West was one of the earliest Chinese novels for which the authorship is officially documented.

Recent scholarship casts doubts on this attribution. Brown University Chinese literature scholar David Lattimore states: “The Ambassador’s confidence was quite unjustified. What the gazetteer says is that Wu wrote something called The Journey to the West. It mentions nothing about a novel. The work in question could have been any version of our story, or something else entirely.” Translator W. J. F. Jenner points out that although Wu had knowledge of Chinese bureaucracy and politics, the novel itself does not include any political details that “a fairly well-read commoner could not have known.”

Regardless of the origins and authorship, Journey to the West has become the authoritative version of these folk stories, and Wu’s name has become a household name accompanying the book.

Historical context

The novel Journey to the West was based on historical events. Xuanzang (602–664) was a monk at Jingtu Temple in late-Sui dynasty and early-Tang dynasty Chang’an. Motivated by seeking better translations of Buddhist scripture at the time, Xuanzang left Chang’an in 629, in defiance of Emperor Taizong of Tang’s ban on travel. Helped by sympathetic Buddhists, he traveled via Gansu and Qinghai to Kumul (Hami), thence following the Tian Shan mountains to Turpan. He then crossed regions that are today Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, into Gandhara, in what is today northern Pakistan, in 630. Xuanzang traveled throughout the Indian subcontinent for the next thirteen years, visiting important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, studying at the ancient university at Nalanda, and debating the rivals of Buddhism.

Xuanzang left India in 643 and arrived back in Chang’an in 646. Although he had defied the imperial travel ban when he left, Xuanzang received a warm welcome from Emperor Taizong upon his return. The emperor provided money and support for Xuanzang’s projects. He joined Da Ci’en Monastery (Monastery of Great Maternal Grace), where he led the building of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to store the scriptures and icons he had brought back from India. He recorded his journey in the book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. With the support of the emperor, he established an institute at Yuhua Gong (Palace of the Lustre of Jade) monastery dedicated to translating the scriptures he had brought back. His translation and commentary work established him as the founder of the Dharma character school of Buddhism. Xuanzang died on 7 March 664. The Xingjiao Monastery was established in 669 to house his ashes.

Popular and story-teller versions of Xuanzang’s journey dating as far back as the Southern Song dynasty include a monkey character as a protagonist.

Synopsis

The novel has 100 chapters that can be divided into four unequal parts. The first part, which includes chapters 1–7, is a self-contained introduction to the main story. It deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformations, combat, and secrets of immortality, and whose guile and force earns him the name Qitian Dasheng (simplified Chinese: 齐天大圣; traditional Chinese: 齊天大聖), or “Great Sage Equal to Heaven.” His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sun’s rebellion against Heaven, during a time when he garnered a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mountain, sealing it with a talisman for five hundred years.

The second part (chapters 8–12) introduces Tang Sanzang through his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that “the land of the South (i.e. Tang China) knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins,” the Buddha instructs the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) to search China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of “transcendence and persuasion for good will” back. Part of this section also relates to how Tang Sanzang becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as a disciple of the Buddha named “Golden Cicada” (金蟬子)) and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by Emperor Taizong, who previously escaped death with the help of an official in the Underworld.

The third and longest section of the work is chapters 13–99, an episodic adventure story in which Tang Sanzang sets out to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Leiyin Temple on Vulture Peak in India, but encounters various evils along the way. The section is set in the sparsely populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantasy; once Tang Sanzang departs Chang’an, the Tang capital, and crosses the frontier (somewhere in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, inhabited by demons and animal spirits who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give immortality to whoever ate it), with the occasional hidden monastery or royal city-state amidst the harsh setting.

Episodes consist of 1–4 chapters and usually involve Tang Sanzang being captured and having his life threatened while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Tang Sanzang’s predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various demons, many of whom turn out to be earthly manifestations of heavenly beings (whose sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Tang Sanzang) or animal-spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms.

Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Tang Sanzang’s disciples, who, inspired or goaded by Guanyin, meet and agree to serve him along the way in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.

  • The first is Sun Wukong, or Monkey King, whose given name loosely means “awakened to emptiness,” trapped by the Buddha for defying Heaven. He appears right away in chapter 13. The most intelligent and violent of the disciples, he is constantly reproved for his violence by Tang Sanzang. Ultimately, he can only be controlled by a magic gold ring that Guanyin has placed around his head, which causes him unbearable headaches when Tang Sanzang chants the Ring Tightening Mantra.
  • The second, appearing in chapter 19, is Zhu Bajie, literally “Eight Precepts Pig,” sometimes translated as Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously the Marshal of the Heavenly Canopy, a commander of Heaven’s naval forces, and was banished to the mortal realm for harassing the moon goddess Chang’e. A reliable fighter, he is characterised by his insatiable appetites for food and women, and is constantly looking for a way out of his duties, which causes significant conflict with Sun Wukong.
  • The third, appearing in chapter 22, is the river ogre Sha Wujing, also translated as Friar Sand or Sandy. He was previously the celestial Curtain Lifting General, and was banished to the mortal realm for dropping (and shattering) a crystal goblet of the Queen Mother of the West. He is a quiet but generally dependable and hard-working character, who serves as the straight foil to the comic relief of Sun and Zhu.
  • The fourth is White Dragon Horse, the third son of the Dragon King of the West Sea, who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. He was saved by Guanyin from execution to stay and wait for his call of duty. He has almost no speaking role, as throughout the story he mainly appears as a horse that Tang Sanzang rides on.

Chapter 22, where Sha Wujing is introduced, also provides a geographical boundary, as the river that the travelers cross brings them into a new “continent.” Chapters 23–86 take place in the wilderness, and consist of 24 episodes of varying length, each characterised by a different magical monster or evil magician. There are impassibly wide rivers, flaming mountains, a kingdom with an all-female population, a lair of seductive spider spirits, and many other scenarios. Throughout the journey, the four disciples have to fend off attacks on their master and teacher Tang Sanzang from various monsters and calamities.

It is strongly suggested that most of these calamities are engineered by fate and/or the Buddha, as, while the monsters who attack are vast in power and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped celestial beasts belonging to bodhisattvas or Taoist sages and deities. Towards the end of the book, there is a scene where the Buddha commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Tang Sanzang is one short of the 81 tribulations required before attaining Buddhahood.

In chapter 87, Tang Sanzang finally reaches the borderlands of India, and chapters 87–99 present magical adventures in a somewhat more mundane setting. At length, after a pilgrimage said to have taken fourteen years (the text actually only provides evidence for nine of those years, but presumably there was room to add additional episodes) they arrive at the half-real, half-legendary destination of Vulture Peak, where, in a scene simultaneously mystical and comic, Tang Sanzang receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.

Chapter 100, the final chapter, quickly describes the return journey to the Tang Empire, and the aftermath in which each traveller receives a reward in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sun Wukong and Tang Sanzang achieve Buddhahood, Sha Wujing becomes an arhat, White Dragon Horse is made a nāga and Zhu Bajie, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars).

Main characters

Sun Wukong or Monkey King

Sun Wukong (孫悟空) (pinyin: sūnwùkōng) is the name given to this character by his teacher, Subhuti, the latter part of which means “Awakened to Emptiness” (in the Waley translation, Aware-of-Vacuity); he is often called the Monkey King. He is born on Flower Fruit Mountain from a stone egg that forms from an ancient rock created by the coupling of Heaven and Earth. He first distinguishes himself by bravely entering the Water Curtain Cave on the mountain; for this feat, his monkey tribe gives him the title of “Handsome Monkey King (美猴王).” After seeing a fellow monkey die because of old age, he decides to travel around the world to seek the Tao, and find a way to be able to live forever. He eventually found the “Grand Master of Bodhi (菩提祖師),” who taught him the 72 heavenly methods of transformation and a “sumersault cloud” which allows him to travel 108,000 li almost instantaneously. After angering several gods and coming to the attention of the Jade Emperor, he is given a minor position in heaven as the Keeper of Horses (弼馬溫) so they can keep an eye on him. When Sun realises that he was given a low position and is not considered a full-fledged god, he becomes very angry. Upon returning to his mountain, he puts up a flag and declares himself the “Great Sage Equal to Heaven.” The Jade Emperor dispatches celestial soldiers to arrest Sun Wukong, but no one succeeds. The Jade Emperor has no choice but to appoint him to be the guardian of the heavenly peach garden. The peach trees in the garden bear fruit every 3,000 years, and eating its flesh will bestow immortality, so Sun Wukong eats nearly all of the ripe peaches. Later, after fairies who come to collect peaches for Xi Wangmu’s heavenly peach banquet inform Sun Wukong he is not invited and make fun of him, he once again starts causing trouble in Heaven and defeats an army of 100,000 celestial troops, led by the Four Heavenly Kings, Erlang Shen, and Nezha. Eventually, the Jade Emperor appeals to the Buddha, who seals Wukong under a mountain called Five Elements Mountain after the latter loses a bet regarding whether he can leap out of the Buddha’s hand in a single somersault. Sun Wukong is kept under the mountain for 500 years, and cannot escape because of a seal that was placed on the mountain. He is later set free when Tang Sanzang comes upon him during his pilgrimage and accepts him as a disciple.

His primary weapon is his staff, the “Ruyi Jingu Bang,” which he can shrink down to the size of a needle and keep in his ear, as well as expand it to gigantic proportions. The rod, which weighs 17,550 pounds, was originally a pillar supporting the undersea palace of the Dragon King of the East Sea, but he was able to pull it out of its support and can swing it with ease. The Dragon King had told Sun Wukong he could have the staff if he could lift it, but was angry when the monkey was actually able to pull it out and accused him of being a thief; hence Sun Wukong was insulted, so he demanded a suit of armour and refused to leave until he received one. The Dragon King, fearful of Sun wreaking havoc in his palace, gave him a suit of golden armour. These gifts, combined with his devouring of the peaches of immortality, three jars of elixir, and his time being tempered in Laozi’s Eight-Trigram Furnace (after which he gained a steel-hard body and fiery golden eyes that could see very far into the distance and through any disguise), makes Sun Wukong the strongest member of the pilgrimage by far. Besides these abilities, he can also pluck hairs from his body and blow on them to convert them into whatever he wishes (usually clones of himself to gain a numerical advantage in battle). Furthermore, he is a master of the 72 methods of transformation (七十二变), and can transform into anything that exists (animate and inanimate). Notably, however, Sun cannot fight as well underwater. The monkey, nimble and quick-witted, uses these skills to defeat all but the most powerful of demons on the journey.

Sun’s behavior is checked by a band placed around his head by Guanyin, which cannot be removed by Sun Wukong himself until the journey’s end. Tang Sanzang can tighten this band by chanting the “Ring Tightening Mantra” (taught to him by Guanyin) whenever he needs to chastise him. The spell is referred to by Tang Sanzang’s disciples as the “Headache Sutra”. Tang Sanzang speaks this mantra quickly in repetition when Sun disobeys him.

Sun Wukong’s childlike playfulness is in huge contrast to his cunning mind. This, coupled with his great power, makes him a trickster hero. His antics present a lighter side in the long and dangerous trip into the unknown.

After completion of the journey, Sun is granted the title of Victorious Fighting Buddha (斗战胜佛; 鬥戰勝佛; dòu zhànshèng fú) and ascends to Buddhahood.

Tang Sanzang or Tripitaka

The monk Tang Sanzang (唐三藏, meaning “Tripitaka Master of Tang,” with Tang referring to the Tang dynasty and Sanzang referring to the Tripiṭaka, the main categories of texts in the Buddhist canon which is also used as an honorific for some Buddhist monks) is a Buddhist monk who had renounced his family to become a monk from childhood. He is just called Tripitaka in many English versions of the story. He set off for Dahlia kingdom (天竺国, an appellation for India in ancient China) to retrieve original Buddhist scriptures for China. Although he is helpless in defending himself, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) helps by finding him powerful disciples who aid and protect him on his journey. In return, the disciples will receive enlightenment and forgiveness for their sins once the journey is done. Along the way, they help the local inhabitants by defeating various monsters and demons who try to obtain immortality by consuming Tang Sanzang’s flesh.

Zhu Bajie or Pigsy

Zhu Bajie (豬八戒, literally “Pig of the Eight Prohibitions”) is also known as Zhu Wuneng (“Pig Awakened to Power”), and given the name PigsyMonk Pig or just simply Pig in English.

Once an immortal who was the Marshal of the Heavenly Canopy commanding 100,000 naval soldiers of the Milky Way, he drank too much during a celebration of the gods and attempted to harass the moon goddess Chang’e, resulting in his banishment to the mortal world. He was supposed to be reborn as a human but ended up in the womb of a sow due to an error on the Reincarnation Wheel, which turned him into a half-man, half-pig monster. Zhu Bajie was very greedy, and could not survive without eating ravenously. Staying within the Yunzhan Dong (“cloud-pathway cave”), he was commissioned by Guanyin to accompany Tang Sanzang to India and given the new name Zhu Wuneng.

However, Zhu Bajie’s lust for women led him to the Gao Family Village, where he posed as a handsome young man and helped defeat a group of robbers who tried to abduct a maiden. Eventually, the family agreed to let Zhu Bajie marry the maiden. But during the day of the wedding, he drank too much alcohol and accidentally returned to his original form. Being extremely shocked, the villagers ran away, but Zhu Bajie wanted to keep his bride, so he told the bride’s father that if after one month the family still doesn’t agree to let him keep the bride, he would take her by force. He also locked the bride up in a separate building. At this point, Tang Sanzang and Sun Wukong arrived at the Gao Family Village and helped defeat him. Renamed Zhu Bajie by Tang Sanzang, he consequently joined the pilgrimage to the West.

His weapon of choice is the jiuchidingpa (“nine-tooth iron rake”). He is also capable of 36 transformations, and can travel on clouds, but not as fast as Sun Wukong. However, Zhu is noted for his fighting skills in the water, which he used to combat Sha Wujing, who later joined them on the journey. He is the second strongest member of the team.

Being spiritually the lowest of the group due to his lust for women, extreme laziness, and greediness, he remained on Earth and was granted the title “Cleaner of the Altars,” with the duty of cleaning every altar at every Buddhist temple for eternity by eating excess offerings.

Sha Wujing or Sandy

Sha Wujing (沙悟淨, “Sand Awakened to Purity”), given the name Friar Sand or Sandy in English, was once a celestial Curtain Lifting General, who stood in attendance by the imperial chariot in the Hall of Miraculous Mist. He was exiled to the mortal world and made to look like a monster because he accidentally smashed a crystal goblet belonging to the Queen Mother of the West during a Peach Banquet. The now-hideous immortal took up residence in the Flowing Sands River, terrorising surrounding villages and travellers trying to cross the river. However, he was subdued by Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie when Tang Sanzang’s party came across him. They consequently took him in, as part of the pilgrimage to the West.

Wujing’s weapon is a magic wooden staff wrapped in pearly threads. He also knows 18 transformation methods and is highly effective in water combat.

Wujing is known to be the most obedient, logical, and polite of the three disciples, and always takes care of his master, seldom engaging in the bickering of his fellow disciples. He has no major faults nor any extraordinary characteristics. Perhaps this is why he is sometimes seen as a minor character. He does however serve as the peacekeeper of the group mediating between Wukong and Bajie and even Tang Sanzang and the others. He is also the person whom Tang Sanzang consults when faced with difficult decisions.

Wujing eventually becomes an arhat at the end of the journey, giving him a higher level of exaltation than Zhu Bajie, who is relegated to cleaning altars, but lower spiritually than Sun Wukong and Tang Sanzang, who are granted Buddhahood.

Sequels

The brief satirical novel Xiyoubu (西遊補, “A Supplement to the Journey to the West,” c. 1640) follows Sun Wukong as he is trapped in a magical dream world created by the Qing Fish Demon, the embodiment of desire (情, qing). Sun travels back and forth through time, during which he serves as the adjunct King of Hell and judges the soul of the recently dead traitor Qin Hui during the Song dynasty, takes on the appearance of a beautiful concubine and causes the downfall of the Qin dynasty, and even faces Pāramitā, one of his five sons born to the rakshasa Princess Iron Fan, on the battlefield during the Tang dynasty. The events of Xiyoubu take place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62 of Journey to the West. The author, Dong Yue (董說), wrote the book because he wanted to create an opponent—in this case desire—that Sun could not defeat with his great strength and martial skill.

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