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Classic Chinese stories: Journey to the West

Updated on January 17, 2013

Journey to the West 2013 with Steven Chow

Many journeys to the West

Steven Chow is about to become the latest (2013) actor starring in a version of the Chinese classic story, Journey to the West. It is, in fact, Steven Chow's second version of the story. The first was in A Chinese Odyssey (1995).

Nor is Steven Chow's the only movie relating to this story coming out in 2013. Donnie Yen also has a film called the Monkey King premiering this year.

Over the years there have been many adaptations made for television in this endlessly popular story, at least part of which is based on fact.

The Monkey King 2013 with Donnie Yen

What a story

We know about the story because the monk Xuanzang, who actually made the journey in the 7th century wrote it down on his return to China; or more exactly dictated it to a disciple to write down!

But the original story is even more interesting than this; it was an interesting time in the development of Chinese Buddhism, and in fact, Mahayana Buddhism in general. The monk Xuanzang wanted to clarify his understanding by consulting original Sanskrit texts unavailable in China. He particularly wanted to study texts from the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism. This was an interesting development of Buddhist thought, possibly inspired by meditative insight, that the world we perceive is a processing and projection of the mind. There were different answers to the basic question, is there an out there, out there, one of which was that we cannot know that because all we know and perceive comes through our minds. We do not have any direct contact with reality. This was not another version of solipsism, rather a working out of meditative insight.

Xuanzang then, wanted to go to India to study the texts and did not let a small matter like a ban on leaving the country deter him.Without the aid of magical beings he made it to India and stayed there for sixteen years, apparently impressing all he came into contact with and storing up information that would later fascinate and help historians and archaeologists.

Xuanzang returned to China in 645 C.E. and was asked by the Emperor to write an account of his journey for the emperor to read. The book called The Great Tang Dynasty record of the Western Regions (Da-Tang xiyu ji 大唐西域記) became an official text and was preserved.

I ordered a copy as part of my research for this page, there are still some second hand copies left.

Sun Wu Kong, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing

I do not own the copyright to this picture. If you do and want it removed contact me and I will do so.
I do not own the copyright to this picture. If you do and want it removed contact me and I will do so. | Source
I do not own the copyright to this picture. If you do and want it removed contact me and I will do so.
I do not own the copyright to this picture. If you do and want it removed contact me and I will do so. | Source
I do not own the copyright to this picture. If you do and want it removed contact me and I will do so.
I do not own the copyright to this picture. If you do and want it removed contact me and I will do so. | Source

The story continues!

The Journey to the West story, as opposed to Xuanzang's record, was written in the 16th century, so nine hundred years after the event, and attributed to the writer, Wu Cheng'en (although this attribution has been questioned). It is one of the Four Classical Novels of China and delightfully mixes a historical story with characters from Chinese mythology and religion(s). What an amazing stroke of insight to give Xuanzang magical helpers along his way!

The emphasis also changes to give prominence to the 'helpers'. In fact the first section of the story is the story of Sun Wu Kong / Monkey, how he was born, learned magic and challenged the Taoist Immortals in Heaven until the Buddha imprisoned him under a mountain. This itself is an interesting glimpse into the merging of traditions in China and the relative status of various elements.

In some ways Xuanzang become a context for the disciples (forced by Guan Yin Pusa to aid Xuanzang) to display their skills and overcome the odds in each 'episode'. The main character is, of course, Sun Wu Kong, and he is joined by Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing and , a horse! Well of course he is not really a horse, he is the third son of the Dragon King of the Western Sea, but mostly appears as a horse for Xuanzang!

The companions were chosen by the bodhisattva Guan Yin to protect and accompany Xuanzang on his journey. Zhu Bajie and Sha Wuling has both been Generals in Heaven but had been exiled for misdeeds. In the case of Zhu Bajie, he attempted to sexually harass the Goddess of the Moon and was cast out of Heaven. Sha Wuling's only crime appears to be to have broken a valuable vase. It does not appear a very equitable system, to say the least.

The disciples, as they become, of Xuanzang are persuaded to serve him in return for having their 'crimes' forgiven. Interestingly it is not all happy endings with Zhu Bajie receiving a very minimal reward as he was never able to overcome his greed and lust. Sun Wu Kong, in spite of being extremely violent, served to the best of his ability and was granted Buddhahood at the end of the journey. Where he went after that is an interesting point as it is an accepted part of Buddhist thought that there cannot be another Buddha in the world until all memory of Siddhartha Gautama is gone, and that the next Buddha will be Maitreya who is currently waiting in the Tushita Heaven. Sha Wujing was also greatly rewarded and became an arahat, that is enlightened and having realized nirvana so that he would not be reborn. Even the dragon/horse receives a reward and becomes a naga, a snake deity. I am not entirely sure why this would be a promotion for a dragon, but you cannot expect a story to have all the loose ends neatly tied up!

So after many adventures the companions reach Vulture's Peak ( a real historical site), receive the Buddhist scriptures from the transcendental Buddha and return with them to China. On their return to China the travelers receive their rewards.

Further reading and viewing

A search will reveal many different editions of the story. My personal favorite is the one you can see on the right of this text, but then I like a long read! There are also some up to date-ish television series with English subtitles freely available on youtube.

Here is my current favourite, below, although for some reason Chinese movies and television shows never have good cgi!

Enjoy! I hope that the story inspires you to investigate the Buddhist and Taoist beliefs that inform this classical tale.


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