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The Origins of Journey to the West

by Karen Kane

To understand today’s China, it might be wiser to learn a bit about a little monkey than read the Analects of the conservative philosopher, Confucius. Monkey, a.k.a. Sun Wukung, the Monkey King, the Great Sage Equal to Heaven, is the hero of every Chinese child and, for that matter, most adults. (He was a favourite of Mao Zedong.) Monkey represents another side of the Chinese ethos. He is naughty, clever, brave, loyal, impulsive and irreverent, someone who defies authority to get the job done. Monkey is the central character of one of the finest novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West.

No one knows for certain the author of this novel of social satire, lyric poetry, comedy, and fantasy. Stories of adventure, satire, and eroticism were read extensively during the Ming dynasty (1368 -1644 AD), but many authors remained anonymous to hide their less-than-official tastes and pastimes. Historical detective work has led most scholars to attribute Journey to the West to Wu Cheng-en (ca. 1500-1582) of Jiangsu Province. His father was a merchant but trained his son in the Confucian classics so that Wu might win a position in the bureaucracy. After twice failing the civil service exam, Wu was appointed to the post of Vice Magistrate, only to be thrown in prison on a trumped-up charge of corruption. When his innocence was proved and he was released, he declined further positions. Wu was known for his cleverness in poetry, but he showed a preference for the bizarre ghost and fantasy stories popular at this time.

His novel is a fictionalized account of the real pilgrimage to India of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, in a quest to bring back the Buddhist scriptures, or sutras. Xuanzang is also called Tripitaka, which is Sanskrit for “three baskets” of Buddhist teachings. In the novel, Tripitaka is accompanied not only by Sun Wukung, the mischievous magical monkey, but by three other sidekicks: a sand demon, the lusty Pigsy, and a dragon prince turned into a white horse.

"Monkey... is naughty, clever,brave, loyal, impulsive and irreverent, someone who defies authority to get the job done."

Journey to the West’s popularity spread to Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, where figures of the four pilgrims still protect the eaves of the Imperial Palace in Seoul. Much of its appeal is in the multiple layers offered to the reader. It is a gripping adventure, a “buddy story” full of puns and bawdy wit. It is also a social satire of the decadent Ming court. It is a spiritual guide that blends Taoist physical alchemy and sexual yoga for longevity, Buddhist metaphysics, and Confucian moral self-cultivation. (Wu Cheng-en probably followed the then-popular movement known as San Jiao, He Yi, or “three teachings flow into one river.”) Some scholars see the five pilgrims as representing human frailties and strengths and the journey as an allegory of self perfection. In the novel, Tripitaka, the monk, appears comically peevish, constantly afraid of losing his precious bodily fluids to scantily clad ladies or his flesh to cannibalistic demons. Monkey, with all his childish willfulness, is often the only one to remain unattached and unafraid, seeing what is real and what is illusion – more “enlightened” than his Master.

The Monkey King fantasy, while only loosely based on the real quest by Xuanzang, features many actually recorded events. In 629 AD, Xuanzang, a young monk, had a dream of vast lands, which inspired him to go to India to bring back the Buddhist scriptures. Buddhism had spread along the Silk Road from India through Central Asia to China hundreds of years earlier, but the first translations of these texts were done by Chinese with a poor knowledge of the original language, often using Taoist terms to explain the more esoteric doctrines. Xuanzang hoped to refine his translation skills and bring the complete scriptures back to China to resolve the growing theological debates between Buddhist schools of thought.

Xuanzang first went west (hence, “A Journey to the West”) through the deadly Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts. His guide tried to murder him, he lost his water bags, and his nights were filled by the demonic screaming of wind-blown sand. He often prayed to the bodhisattva, Guan Yin, for safety. With Xuanzang on the edge of death, his horse managed to lead him to an oasis at the foot of the Heavenly Mountains. He eventually arrived at the great teaching monasteries in India, where he studied Sanskrit and philosophy.

When he returned to China in 643, he was honoured by the Tang Emperor and offered high positions in the military for his vast knowledge of the lands and people threatening China. The Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian was built to house the treasured books. But Xuanzang declined all posts and devoted the next 19 years of his life to translations; his most famous was the Heart Sutra, about the illusory nature of reality, which Monkey and Tripitaka often chant in the novel. Both the fictional Monkey King and the real heroic monk are revered throughout East Asia. On a recent anniversary of his death, Chinese and Japanese followers recreated part of the 10,000-mile journey, bearing the skull of Xuanzang along the way.

The events of Xuanzang’s quest became progressively more spectacular as the stories were retold in monasteries and tea houses. The Silk Road was bringing new music, theatre, erotic dances, and tales from India and Central Asia to China, including the story of an earlier monkey hero, Lord Hanuman, in the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. Finally, 900 years later, these oral tales and dramas were combined and embellished by Wu into the comic novel, Journey to the West, with Monkey as the central character.

Over the centuries, Wu Cheng-en’s novel and the mischievous Monkey King have been transposed to diverse forms, from Peking Opera, replete with exciting martial exhibitions and costumes, to Hong Kong movies, from cartoons to video games. Combining all these genres, Monkey: Journey to the West is its latest spectacular transformation.

To learn more about the historical Xuanzang, read Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road (2003) by Sally Hovey Wriggins. To learn more about the fabulous Monkey King, see The Monkey and the Monk (2006), an abridgement by Anthony C. Yu of his translation of the complete Journey to the West (1984).

Karen Kane is Associate Director of the Asia for Educators Program at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute of Columbia University. Used with kind permission. © Karen Kane, 2008