top of page
  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

An interview with Professor Frederik H. Green

How to understand Journey to the West, part 2

This is a follow up to my last post describing the content and context of Journey to the West. Frederik H. Green is professor of Chinese at San Francisco State University and the translator of Bird Talk and Other Stories, a collection of stories by the Chinese author Xu Xu. We sat down to talk about the historical background of the Journey and how readers can approach the novel in translation today.


John Sockolov: I’d like to start by asking you about your relationship to Journey to the West. How did you come to read it for the first time?

Frederik Green: My first encounter goes back to my first year as an undergraduate student. I studied Chinese in the UK and it was in what used to be called the Faculty for Oriental Studies. It was basically everything to do with East Asia, and I focused on Chinese. That was in the 1990s. And even though we focused on learning spoken Chinese—learning Mandarin—the content of the degree really was classical Chinese and premodern Chinese literature, philosophy, and history. 

In the first year we did a survey of some of the important works in translation. We read Arthur Waley’s translation of Journey to the West—it’s just titled Monkey. And Arthur Waley’s is such a delightful translation. It’s relatively short—well, it’s still 400 pages or something like that, but compared to the original it’s short. Very few people will tell you they’ve read the original cover to cover. It’s just so long and so repetitive. And that’s kind of the case for a lot of premodern Chinese fiction. It doesn’t necessarily lend itself to sitting down and reading it cover to cover like you would a novel. 

This has a lot to do with the storytelling tradition. Chapters are often meant to be read by themselves. Sure, it’s helpful if you have a little bit of context, but they stand by themselves and you can just enjoy it for that. That, of course, is how most people would have consumed them. People would have come to a marketplace and there would have been a storyteller. The storyteller would have started by giving a quick summary and would have just done that one episode. It’s not a narrative strand where you start at the beginning and have constant character development. 

And Journey to the West is a prime example of this. If you were to read an unabridged translation, you might think: Wait, haven’t we encountered this same monster already? So Arthur Waley did a really great job of picking out what’s most representative, most entertaining, most important. He did this in the 1940s. There’s a very famous 20th century Chinese intellectual named Hu Shih. He praised Arthur Waley’s translations because it now reads like a novel.

Fiction traditionally in Chinese culture had a low social standing. The important literary forms were always history and poetry. It wasn’t until the 20th century that fiction was elevated to this status. And it’s at this time that intellectuals like Hu Shih came to articulate what was going to be the Chinese classical canon. And canonization was to some degree inspired by what faculties of, let’s call them for now, “oriental studies” in the West would teach! It’s difficult to say who put them into the canon first, but suffice to say it hadn't been until the 20th century. It was well known and incredibly popular, but it was not considered highbrow culture—it was entertainment.

JS: I’m interested in the circumstances of the novel’s publication. From what I understand, the identity of the author is not certain, but the author of the novel was possibly a scholar-official of the type that you see across Chinese history. How does that play into the writing of the novel? Is it intended as a satire of Ming culture as I’ve seen it argued?

FG: The question of why someone wrote such a long and entertaining book in the Ming dynasty is the same as why all of us get up in the morning and go to work—to make money. The Ming dynasty saw an incredible flourishing of the publishing industry. There are a lot of factors that go into that. It had to do with population growth, economic growth, and the growth of the cities; it had to do with a relatively high literacy rate; and it had to do with advances in printing technology. Printing took off like it wouldn’t in the West for another 300 years. 

Another very important factor was cheap paper. The Chinese were just able to produce large quantities of very inexpensive paper. There are very interesting accounts of that. The Jesuits came to China around that time and they were just dazzled by the availability of cheap paper and books, and by how many people read. And that’s really striking that these highly educated Europeans were just stunned by that degree of literary culture in China.

So you could make good money from writing a successful book. Maybe he owned his own publishing house. Maybe he wrote it for someone who had a publishing house. It was a major undertaking, of course, but if you had a good book and you had the facilities to print it, you could make a lot of money out of that.

JS: So it’s not so different from today’s context?

FG: Yes. That’s maybe the most basic answer to your question. Now the question of why he wrote it the way he did, that’s a really difficult question. What is the book? Is it a book about Buddhism? Is it a book about adventure? Is it just meant to make you laugh? Is it a book that’s meant to poke fun at Ming society? I think it’s a little bit of all of that.

But, of course, the book is also a historical novel. That is very important, that it is based on, in part, a travelog accredited to Tripitaka himself. And from those historical sources, these tales and adaptations developed over time. So when we call him an author, maybe we should more accurately call him an anthologizer, who just took all these beautiful pieces that were laying around and maybe added a little bit here or there. We don’t know. It’s difficult to say.

JS: Jumping forward to after the publication, its reception or legacy, what elements do you think have had the greatest impact on later literature? It seems to me that the characters are the most reproduced aspect, but maybe there are stories within the novel that have had a major influence.

FG: In China, and by extension Korea and Japan, probably the vast majority of people have never read this work cover to cover, especially not in its ur-form. Yet, everybody knows it. Everybody in China, and I would guess in Korea and in Japan, has heard of it. That has a lot to do with the fact that there are so many adaptations, almost for every age group. So that even if you haven’t read it you are familiar with some of the main themes of the work and with some of the characters. Journey to the West is relatively easy because there are only a handful of characters that really matter. Maybe there are a few of those monsters that have become more well known than others. The fact that it’s universally known, and there are certain themes that are universally known, that’s very important.

The first part—this is reflected in the title that Arthur Waley chose for this translation—is the Monkey story. For a lot of people Journey to the West is the story of the Monkey more than anything else. When, of course, the story in the original only takes up the first 10 chapters. But that story, because it is so self-contained, and it’s the first part, and it has a beginning and an end, has lent itself to its own cultural canon. There are literary works and plays in Chinese theater and opera that tell the Monkey story or just episodes from the Monkey story. 

The character Monkey is just so attractive, this mischievous character that cannot be subdued. You are not quite sure whether you should love him or hate him. And maybe, in terms of the novel, he’s the most complex character. In a way the only really complex character. The only character where we see growth and change. That lends itself to latching on. 

In contrast, Tripitaka, you know, is really an antihero. He’s really an antihero, but in a way he’s also the most human—because he’s always afraid, with zero self-confidence. All the way to the end. And he just doesn’t get things. He’s comical. But that also makes him human.

Then if we think about the entire novel, there is the theme of the journey. It is an interesting theme because you can think about it many different ways. In its most basic form it is just a physical journey from A to B and back to A. And that is always interesting because on a journey things will happen, you’ll encounter obstacles. Then there is the allegorical meaning of a journey through life that makes us mature and become aware of our own weakness and strength. It makes us into a better person—or a better monkey. Again, that lends itself very easily to adaptation.

Then there is the religious aspect of the Journey. You could think of it as a journey towards understanding Buddhism, to becoming a buddha, towards enlightenment. I think all these things lend themselves to adaptation.

If you were to ask me what it’s most about, it’s all of them. When I read the novel with my students, I like to focus on all of these aspects. What fascinates me is that, even though it looks like a purely fantastical journey, most of the stops you can find the actual historical locations, geographical locations along the Silk Road. And a lot of what’s being described are basically encounters between Chinese civilization and non-Chinese peoples along the Silk Road.

JS: So the “west,” then, is a frontier.

FG: The rulers of the Tang were not actually purely Han Chinese. They were from central Asia, along the Silk Road. They came to control the heartland of Han China. This isn't the same as China today, which includes among other things Tibet and Xinjiang, the border regions. This western region was under loose Tang control. What that meant was that the Tang had garrison cities—Dunhuang, Hotan, Kashgar—along the Silk Road that they controlled. They controlled the trading routes so that they could tax them.

But the empire ended at Lanzhou. And nobody was allowed to go beyond there. You needed special permission to leave. You basically needed a passport to be able to leave the empire.

JS: And if my understanding is correct, Xuanzang, the historical personage, left without permission.

FG: He left without permission, yes. The thing is that nobody would ever think of leaving. And this is the same everywhere else in the world, whether it’s Japan or Europe, nobody ever left the place that they were born. Except for a very limited number, maybe if you were a government official in China you traveled around the empire because you were sent to be the governor of some province. But those were the only people. Nobody ever went beyond the confines of what they could walk in one day, the next market city. What’s interesting is that merchants who did trade, say along the Silk Road, hardly any of them traveled the length of the Silk Road. They would travel from one trading city to the next and go back and forth.

And part of the reason why you wouldn’t want to do it is because it was so dangerous! And people spoke different languages and had different religions and maybe were at war with each other. Why would you want to do it? 

China proper was probably pretty safe. But once you cross the mountains that’s where the Journey really starts. In Arthur Waley’s translation it’s page 125:

This mountain is called the Mountain of Two Frontiers. Its east belongs to this land of T’ang. The west side is the land of the Tartars. The wolves and tigers on the far side I have not subjected, moreover I have not the right to cross the frontier. You go on alone.

And this is a real mountain. And that’s where the Tang ended, essentially. Beyond that you were on your own. There’s an excerpt from the real Xuanzang’s diary that describes these places:

All around me was a vast expanse: no travelers or birds. At night there were glimmerings of monstrous fires, shining like stars; in the daytime the frightening wings hugged the sands and scattered it like rain. Even though I had met with this disaster, my heart was not afraid.

JS: I wanted to close by asking how someone who wants to read the novel today should approach it.

FG: The latest translation is by Julia Lovell. That came out just a couple years ago from Penguin. It's always refreshing to have a new translation, and Lovell has really updated the language. I think it will be more accessible to a younger generation of readers. At the same time, she stays closer to the original text. In terms of choice of which episodes to translate, there is considerable overlap with Waley's translation, including, of course, the entire Monkey story at the beginning. I personally still love Arthur Waley’s translation. And the audiobook of the Waley translation is hilarious. Whenever I teach the novel I listen to it because it’s a good way to get back into it. It’s quite old, I think, and it’s done by a British actor, Kenneth Williams. That’s a really great way of consuming it. But Julia Lovell’s translation is also highly recommended.

JS: Is there any advice you’d give someone reading it so that they can get more out of it? Something they should be attuned to that they might otherwise miss?

FG: Just start reading and allow yourself to be drawn into the novel. You won't be disappointed! When I read it with my students, they usually have very different backgrounds. Often they are Chinese American and they tell me: I was always meant to read this novel; my grandfather raved about it but I never read it, so now is the time. They will know the Monkey and Tripitaka. So they will come with a little bit of background. But there are always students who don’t. I try to approach it from different angles. I’m always fascinated by the geographical and historical accuracy of the novel. You need to point this out because if you read it at face value it’s pure fantasy. I think that is difficult for people to appreciate.

The satire is clearly there. It’s so funny at times how he is poking fun at—I say “he,” the author, but whoever wrote this—is poking fun at Chinese society. Corruption is always made fun of. And, of course, the way it’s being made fun of is that it’s corruption in the underworld or in heaven. They finally make it to India and they are about to get the scripture from the Buddha but first they have to bribe these assistants of the Buddha! If you’re interested in China, I think it can tell you a lot about Chinese history and society. And it will make you laugh; it's genuinely funny. What more could one wish for?



bottom of page