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A Brief Look at "Journey to the West", a Classic Work of Chinese Literature

Updated on December 1, 2020

Written in the 16th Century, by the Chinese poet and scholar Wu Cheng'en, Journey to the West has earned itself a reputation as one of the great works of classic Chinese literature—standing alongside the similarly revered Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber. Taking as its inspiration the actual sixteen year pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, Journey to the West presents a highly fictionalised account of this historic event. In the version of the tale presented here, a young monk sets out on a very similar journey, for very similar reasons - though, here, the tale also draws deep from Chinese folklore and mythology, in its presentation of a wide variety of supernatural beings, who act as both allies and antagonists for the young monk.

Historically, Xuanzang's sixteen year pilgrimage to India was inspired by the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies that he found in his early studies of key Chinese Buddhist texts. The purpose of his journey was, therefore, to travel to the original home of the Buddhist faith, in order to acquire copies of Buddhist texts that were unsullied by the constant changes and revisions that the versions he had studied had undergone. In Journey to the West, the fictional Xuanzang's goal is similar—though, here, he is given the task by the Bodhisattva Guan Yin (an important figure in Mahayana Buddhism, who could also be referred to as a Goddess of Mercy and Compassion), and is also assigned the protection of three powerful supernatural beings, who act as his guides and guardians. For Xuanzang, the long journey is an act of faith, and a sign of his devotion. For his three guides, the journey becomes a process of penance, and atonement for past sins.

The tale is written in a distinctly episode manner, with its various chapters often involving side-stories that see the young monk's journey being interrupted in various ways—typically through an encounter with some spirit or demon who is determined to hinder the monk's progress, for one reason or another. While this may have been enough to hold the attention of readers, both then and now, Journey to the West also finds plenty of room for satire and parody - particularly in its presentation of the Heavens, and all of its assorted gods and spirits, as a celestial bureaucracy as complex and convoluted as anything that existed on Earth.

Key Characters

Xuanzang (Tripitaka)

The young Buddhist monk assigned the task of a long pilgrimage to India, in order to acquire original Buddhist texts. In the original Chinese text, the character was named after the historical figure that served as his inspiration—though, in Arthur Waley's English translation (titled Monkey, and published in 1942), the character's name was changed to Tripitaka, and that seems to have stuck for many English readers. Loosely translated as "The Three Baskets", Tripitaka is a term used in reference to a collection of key Buddhist scriptures.

Assigned three supernatural guides and protectors for his long journey, Xuanzang also comes to serve as a guide, of sorts, to each of them—leading them along their own path toward atonement and redemption. This is something which makes each of them as much Xuanzang's disciples as they are his protectors. Portrayed as pure, and entirely incorruptible, Xuanzang was also typically presented as something of a well-meaning fool—often stumbling into danger due to his desire to help the people they encounter on their journey. In many cases, it would be Xuanzang, himself, who would delay the progress of the journey as he leads his party astray. Almost without fail, it would be Xuanzang who would find himself in need of rescue.

While he was clearly intended to serve as the central protagonist of Journey to the West, Xuanzang was quickly overshadowed by his three protectors—the first of whom went on to enjoy a level of fame well beyond that of the novel that created him.

An early illustration of Xuanzang
An early illustration of Xuanzang | Source

Sun Wukong (Monkey)

Often referred to simply as 'Monkey' (again, largely thanks to the Arthur Waley translation), Sun Wukong has gone on to become the most easily recognised character from the original work—as well as one who even seems to have firmly established a place for himself in modern popular culture. The name 'Sun Wukong', which could be translated to mean either "awakened to emptiness" or "aware of vacuity", was one given to him by an early teacher from whom he learned many of his magic tricks. Declaring himself to be the "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven", Sun Wukong's early adventures soon earned him the attention of the Heavenly Court. Seeing him as a potential threat to order and stability, the Heavenly Court make the decision to try to bring him under their control—essentially be assigning him a variety of essentially meaningless tasks, in an attempt to keep him occupied. While he is offended by his first role, which seems him caring for the Jade Emperor's horses, Sun Wukong sees his next role as the guard and protector of the Court's peach garden as a little more worth of him. Of course, he is not able to resist the temptation of sampling the divine fruit for very long—something which earns him both a variety of new powers, and the anger of the Jade Emperor.

With Sun Wukong proving to be increasingly impossible to control, it ultimately falls to the Buddha, himself, to issue the self-styled "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven" with a challenge. The Buddha's challenge is a simple one. If Sun Wukong can leave the palm of the Buddha's hand, then he will truly be worthy of the title he has claimed for himself—though, if he fails to do so, he will be punished. Accepting the Buddha's challenge, Sun Wukong takes his place in the Buddha's palm. From there, he flies as fast and as far as he can - eventually making his way to five massive pillars of stone that seem to mark the very edge of creation. There, he writes a message as proof (while also taken a moment to relieve himself behind one of the pillars) before returning in triumph. Upon returning to claim his reward, though, Sun Wukong is left stunned when the Buddha reveals the message written on one of his own fingers—proving that Sun Wukong was, ultimately, unable to leave the palm of the Buddha's hand. As punishment for his failure, Sun Wukong is buried beneath a mountain - where he must wait for five hundred years, until he is given the opportunity to redeem himself by accompanying Xuanzang on his long journey.

With his wild and reckless nature, Sun Wukong could be taken to represent restless instability, and the dangers of unfocused ambition—something which, in the company of Xuanzang, he will finally learn how to overcome.

An early illustration of Sun Wukong
An early illustration of Sun Wukong | Source

Zhu Bajie (Pigsy)

The name 'Zhu Bajie', which can be translated to mean "Swine of the Eight Precepts", is one given to him by Xuanzang when he eventually comes to join the pilgrimage to India—and, is intended to serve as a reminder of the central tenets of the Buddhist faith. In the Arthur Waley translation, though, the character was referred to simply as 'Pigsy'.

Once an immortal, as well as a commander of the Jade Emperor's armies, Zhu Bajie found himself banished following a drunken attempt to seduce Chang'e, the Goddess of the Moon (the exact nature of this "seduction" has ranged from simple flirtation to attempted rape, in various translations and adaptations of the tale—so, similarly, the degree to which he actually deserves the punishment placed on him also seems to vary). While he was supposed to be reborn as a regular mortal man, an accident resulted in him being reincarnated, instead, in the form of a creature that was half-man and half-pig—and, it is in this form that he is eventually encountered by Xuanzang and Sun Wukong. While initially presented as an antagonist, it is soon revealed that, much like Sun Wukong, Zha Bajie had been recruited to accompany Xuanzang on his journey.

Zha Bujie could be taken to represent the purely physical appetites, as well as the dangers of over-indulgence—something which, as the tale progresses, he is never entirely able to overcome.

An early illustration of Zhu Bajie
An early illustration of Zhu Bajie | Source

Sha Wujing (Sandy)

Sha Wujing's names can be translated to mean "Sand Awakened to Purity" - though, Arthur Waley's English translation referred to him simply as 'Sandy'. Another immortal who once served in the Heavenly Court, Sha Wujing found himself banished after accidentally breaking a valuable crystal goblet during the Jade Empress's Royal Peach Banquet. Rather than being reincarnated as a mortal, though, Sha Wujing was forced to take the form of a terrifying sand demon who, in his hunger, was forced to prey on any travellers who happened to pass by. Just as with Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing is initially presented as an antagonist for the travelling party—as he is encountered while terrorising villagers near his river home. During the ensuring conflict, though, it is soon revealed that Sha Wujing was also recruited by Guan Yin—and so, Sha Wujing comes to join the party on their pilgrimage.

Portrayed as thoughtful and polite, after joining the pilgrimage, Sha Wujing seems to provide a fairly stark contrast to both Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie. He was also, seemingly, a victim of pure spite—forced to suffer due to the petty cruelty of the Jade Empress, whose banquet he unintentionally spoiled. This makes his position in the original text somewhat difficult to define—though, it would seem fair to argue that his status as a victim of royal spite ties in with the somewhat satirical nature of the text, as a whole.

An early illustration of Sha Wujing
An early illustration of Sha Wujing | Source

© 2018 Dallas Matier

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