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How to understand Journey to the West

Over the past month a coincidence of events has occasioned me to think about Journey to the West: reading our new translation of Tatsuhiko Shibusawa’s Takaoka’s Travels and the death of Akira Toriyama. For many in the English-speaking world Toriyama’s magnum opus, Dragon Ball, might very well have been their introduction to the Chinese classic. But Dragon Ball invokes the novel in ways that could best be described as superficial; Son Goku, the protagonist, is informed by the Journey’s Sun Wukong in name and abilities. If, like me, you have not read the Journey your idea of the text may only go as far as these popular allusions. Reading Shibusawa’s work made it especially clear that I lacked a concrete idea of the its source material. What remains are references several orders removed from their origin, begging for further elaboration. What were the details of the publication of the novel that, as already mentioned, had its origins in China? What can we learn about its themes and characters? Finally, what do we know about the historical and literary context that it was situated in?

Form and Structure

Before we can discuss the book’s content, it is necessary that we have the basic idea of the form of the work. Journey to the West is frequently referred to as a novel—although this description strikes me as not totally helpful—in three parts and 100 chapters. Its structure is characterized by prose punctuated with poetry of varying length. In this way it stands as a sort of hybrid literature between classical, poetic forms—think the epic poetry of Homer or Dante’s Divine Comedia, to make a comparison with the Western literary tradition—and the modern prose novel.

Xuanzang at the Tokyo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s certain about its publication is that work appeared in print in the late sixteenth century, attributed to the author Wu Cheng'en. The authorship, it seems, is disputed, but I’d suggest this is not of great importance to us. The Journey consists of pre-existing materials, popular or folkloric in nature, collected and embellished as the author saw fit. In fact the subject of the narration is based on Xuanzang, a real historical figure, and his travels during the seventh century, Tang dynasty China. Xuanzang documented his journey in the Record of the Western Journey, although there is seemingly little in common between the actual account and its fictional retelling. Yet the significance of the sixteenth century publication should not be dismissed, argues Anthony C. Yu, a translator of the Journey:

To the extent that the story of Hstian-tsang [Xuanzang] is not only well-known and well loved but has already received popular elaborations for nearly a millennium before it is finally worked into the form of a 100-chapter narrative, the author of the developed Journey may be said to have found at last the formal solution most appropriate to the substance of his story.

In this way it’s comparable to attributing Arthurian legend to the publication of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur—definitive but not originary.


Dramatis Personae

The Journey’s cast of characters is perhaps more iconic than any particular event in the narrative. The book follows Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk based on, as previously mentioned, the historical personage of the same name. However, Xuanzang, his monastic name, is just one of his sobriquets. In the English translations the name Tripitaka is frequently used (this is Arthur Waley’s innovation and Anthony Yu’s translation preserves it). This is a Sanskrit word for Buddhism’s three fundamental scriptures (literally “three baskets”), in Chinese sanzang. This is Xuanzang’s primary title in the text, Sanzang, to commemorate the occasion and object of his journey. More on that in a moment.

Before we are even introduced to Xuanzang, we are given the tale of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. It should give some idea of his importance to the novel and his enduring popularity that the first seven chapters of the Journey introduce his background leading up to his encounter with Xuanzang. In fact Waley’s seminal translation of the Journey in English was titled simply Monkey. Sun Wukong is a figure of immense power and equal hubris, taking the title “The Great Sage, Heaven’s Equal.” His fate is to be sealed beneath a mountain by the Buddha himself, seemingly the only being who can subdue Monkey, after he proves to be too troublesome for the celestial court (in other words, the gods).

Xuanzang and Sun Wukong illustrated by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1864, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though there are two other companions to Xuanzang, their arcs take a similar form to that of Monkey. Banished, imprisoned, or otherwise, the figures that assemble around Xuanzang are a band of misfits, otherworldly in origin, who have in some manner offended the gods. To atone, they must aid the monk on his pilgrimage to obtain the scriptures. Tang society too, it seems, is in need of deliverance, the Buddha tells an assembly of Bodhisattva:

I myself would like to send [the three scriptures] to the Land of the East; but the creatures in that region are so stupid and so scornful of the truth that they ignore the weighty elements of our Law and mock the true sect of Yoga. Somehow we need a person with power to go to the Land of the East and find a virtuous believer. He will be asked to experience the bitter travail of passing through a thousand mountains and ten thousand waters to come here in quest of the authentic scriptures.1

Thus the Buddha assigns Guanyin (Kannon), importantly the Bodhisattva associated with mercy, to find a suitable figure to transmit the scripture back to the Tang.

The bulk of the Journey is, unsurprisingly, the journey itself, beginning in the thirteenth chapter till their return in the final chapter, but I can’t recount the many obstacles faced by Xuanzang and his attendees. I would suggest that the specificity of those impediments, the many wondrous and terrifying encounters, only add color to the core of the Journey. What’s essential, rather, is the shape of the narrative—a monk’s pilgrimage, his entourage, a series of encounters both ribald and life-threatening.

Shibusawa’s novel (originally published in Japanese in 1987) proves the Journey’s enduring appeal. The novel plays on the same duality of historical/fictional personages—Fujiwara no Kusuko and Prince Takaoka, son of Emperor Heizei—and a monk’s real, physical voyage that also expresses a journey of the heart. Those schematic elements of the Journey, what remains after it transforms across time and space, are its legacy. Although the pure entertainment Sun Wukong is a close second.

Context and Significance

I want to speak here about the significance of the “west.” The cardinal directions seem to appear frequently in the Journey. They are suffused with the astounding complexity of the interwoven cosmologies of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion. For example the world is divided along the four cardinal directions after its creation, as described the first chapter of the Journey, which provides a sort of Genesis story:

The world was divided into four great continents. They were: the East Pūrvavideha Continent, the West Aparagodānīya Continent, the South Jambūdvīpa Continent, and the North Uttarakuru Continent.2

But at base the west is a geographical frontier extending to the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of Siddhartha Guatama, the place that Buddhism emanated from and where its scriptures can be found. This was certainly the historical Xuanzang’s rationale for such a journey through what was, at the time, the unincorporated frontier of the empire—modern Xinjiang and Tibet—and perhaps as far as Central Asia. It’s a concrete place, of course, but I would also speculate that it signifies an outside and “other” place that allows for fantasy to unfold. The west then has some resemblance to the “east” in the critical sense of the Orient: an object of religious importance and a space on which to project the imagination.

What’s significant about its publication in the late Ming dynasty? To vastly oversimplify the social and literary context of the Ming, we can situate the Journey in a tradition of cultural retrospection (I have in mind Timothy Brook’s accessible book on Ming social history The Confusion of Pleasure). Commentators of the latter Ming lamented the dislocation of their thoroughly commercial society. Xuanzang, a figure who “had no love for glory or wealth, being dedicated wholly to the pursuit of Nirvāṇa,” plays the perfect foil, and his Tang China was a period of equal commercial and cultural efflorescence.

But here I risk making the Journey out to be a more serious novel than it is. Its tone isn’t one of pompous chastisement but rather satire, as Julia Lovell writes in the LA Review of Books. Wu Cheng’en, the possible author, was a scholar who would have doubtless been aware of the state of Ming society and who “suffered personally from the political corruption and ever-increasing social despair.3” This paints a convincing picture of the Journey as a work of parody and might begin to explain why the late sixteenth century publication (less than fifty years before the fall of the Ming) had such an enduring impact.

1 Anthony C. Yu, trans. and ed. Journey to the West: Revised Edition. Vol 1. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

2 Anthony C. Yu, trans. and ed. Journey to the West: Revised Edition. Vol 1. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

3 Shi Changyu. “Introduction.” Appearing in Journey to the West. Vol 1. Translated by W. J. F Jenner. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2003.



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