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'Journey to the West', a classic work of Chinese Literature

Updated on December 11, 2016

'Journey to the West'

Considered to be one of the great examples of classical Chinese literature, alongside 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms', 'The Water Margin' and 'Dream of the Red Chamber'. 'Journey to the West' was first written by the poet and scholar Wu Ch'eng-en in the 16th Century. It tells the tale of the young Buddhist monk, Tripitaka, and his pilgrimage to India, the original source of the Buddhist faith, in order to acquire original copies of key Buddhist writings, and bring them back to China. Ostensibly a fictionalised account of an actual journey, that taken by the monk Hsuen Tsang in the 7th Century, it also serves as 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 those that exist on earth.

In this fictionalised account, the young monk is given the task by Guanyin, a Bodhisattva, one who has achieved a high level of enlightenment in the Buddhist faith, typically associated with compassion and mercy - commonly referred to as a goddess of mercy, in English. On his pilgrimage, Tripitaka is also assigned the protection of three supernatural beings, who will act as his guides and guardians, but will also serve as his disciples. For Tripitaka, the journey is an act of faith and devotion, though for his guides, it is an act penance and atonement for past sins.

The tale is presented in a distinctly episodic format, quite possible originally written and distributed in individual installments over a long period of time. The monk's journey is often broken up by side stories involving encounters with danger in various forms - typically demons of some description who are either causing trouble in an area the group happen to be passing through, or are after one of the group in particular.

An early ilustration of Tripitaka (or, Xuanzang)
An early ilustration of Tripitaka (or, Xuanzang) | Source

Key Characters

Tripitaka (Xuanzang)

A young Buddhist monk assigned the task of completing a Journey to India to recover original Buddhist texts, as the ones available to Chinese Buddhists had gone through generations of revisions and alterations, making them invalid. On his quest, he is assigned the protection of three supernatural protectors. He guides his three protectors on their quest to recover the Buddhist texts, and on their own path to enlightenment and atonement - making them as much his disciples as they are his protectors. Portrayed as pure and incorruptible, he is also something of a well-meaning fool. In many cases, it will be Tripitaka himself who will lead the expedition astray - and, almost without fail, it is Tripitaka that finds himself in need of rescue.

Nominally the central character, he is quickly overshadowed by his three protectors - particularly the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

An early illustration of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.
An early illustration of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. | Source

The Monkey King (Sun Wukong)

Often referred to simply as 'Monkey', in translations - and, easily the most popular character of the tale. He is given the name 'Sun Wukong', which can be taken to mean either 'Awakened to Emptiness' or 'Aware-of-vacuity' (as it is in the Arthur Waley translation mentioned below), by an early teacher from whom he learned many of his magic abilities. Declaring himself to be the 'Great Sage, Equal of Heaven', he ultimately attracts the attention of the Heavenly Courts, and finds himself given various essentially meaningless tasks, in an attempt to keep him under control and out of the way - first, by caring for the Jade Emperor's horses, then as the protector of the heavenly peach gardens. He is offended by the task of caring for the Emperor's horses, though regards protecting the peach gardens perhaps a little more worthy of him - though, he quickly helps himself to the divine fruit, gaining various new powers, and angering the Jade Emperor in the process.

Sun Wukong ultimately proves impossible to control, though - foiling any attempt to stop him or remove him. And, it is ultimately left up to the Buddha himself to bring the Monkey King under control. The Buddha issues the Monkey King with a challenge - if he can leave the palm of the Buddha's hand, he will truly be the 'Great Sage, Equal of Heaven' and, if not, he will be punished. The Monkey King immediately takes off, seemingly leaving the Buddha far behind as he makes his way to the very edge of the world. Finding five pillars of stone at the very edge of creation, he leaves a message written on one as proof, before heading back in triumph. Upon returning to claim his reward, however, the Buddha reveals the Monkey King's own message written on one of his own fingers - proof that Sun Wukong was ultimately unable to leave the Buddha's palm. As punishment, Sun Wukong is buried beneath a mountain for five hundred years, until he is finally offered a chance to redeem himself by accompanying a young monk on his journey.

The Monkey King could be taken to represent restless instability and the dangers of unfocused ambition.

An early illustration of Pigsy ( Zhu Bajie)
An early illustration of Pigsy ( Zhu Bajie) | Source

Pigsy (Zhu Bajie)

Zhu Bajie can be translated to mean 'Pig of the Eight Prohibitions', a name he is given by Tripitaka once he joins the Pilgrimage as a reminder of the prohibitions of the Buddhist faith. In English, though, he is most often simply referred to as 'Pigsy', this being the name given to him by Arthur Waley in the first proper English translation of the text. Once an Immortal, and a commander of the Heavenly armies, Pigsy was banished back to the mortal world after an incident of drunkenly flirting with the goddess of the Moon (though, in some translations, it is portrayed as closer to sexual harassment, or even attempted rape). While he was supposed to be reborn as a regular human, an accident saw him being reincarnated in the form of a half-man, half-pig monster, instead. He is eventually encountered by the young monk, Tripitaka and Sun Wukong, and given the chance the join them in their journey.

He can be taken to represent the purely physical appetites, as well as the dangers of over-indulgence.

An early illustration of Sandy (Sha Wujing)
An early illustration of Sandy (Sha Wujing) | Source

Sandy (Sha Wujing)

'Sha Wujing' can be taken to translate to 'Sand Awakened to Purity', though in English he is typically referred to as 'Sandy' or sometimes 'Brother Sand' - 'Sandy' tends to be the most common name given to the character in English, though, once against due to its usage in Arthur Waley's translation. Another Immortal, he was banished to earth after accidentally smashing a crystal goblet during the important Peach Banquet. In punishment, he is also forced to take on monstrous form. He is eventually encountered terrorising villages near his river home, and is offered the chance to join the pilgrimage after being defeated.

Seemingly a victim of royal spite, rather than anyone in actual need of atonement, he is portrayed as polite and thoughtful - in contrast to both the Monkey King and Pigsy. This makes his position in the text somewhat difficult to define.

'Monkey', translated by Arthur Waley.

For many years, this was the nominal English translation of the text. First published in 1942, it makes no attempt to present the entirety of the original in its single volume length. As Arthur Waley said himself in his introduction to the text, the original work was of immense length and was usually published in its native language at the time in the form of abridgements that severely reduced the length of each chapter, often by removing dialogue entirely. Arthur Waley's own strategy was to choose a selection of individual episodes that he considered to form a coherent narrative arc, and present them in their entirety, while simply removing many other chapters. While Arthur Waley's version does indeed offer a coherent and rounded narrative, it is also true that his text included only thirty, or so, of a possible one hundred separate tales - significantly less than half of the original.

© 2011 Dallas Matier


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