Journey To The West Summary

Wu Cheng'en

Journey To The West

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Journey To The West Summary

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Journey to the West is one of the “Four Great Novels” in Chinese literature. This is a grouping of four classical Chinese novels, understood by critics to be the best and most highly influential Chinese novels written before 1912. Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms both date back to the fourteenth century, while Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber date to the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively. Journey to the West is generally attributed to Wu Cheng’en, with the earliest records declaring his authorship appearing as early as 1625. However, modern scholarship has doubted the certainty of these records, and suggests that there is no specialized knowledge in the novel that definitively proves it was written by Wu. During the time it was written, the trend of Chinese literature was in imitating the classical styles of the Qin, Han and Tang dynasties (221 BCE- 907 AD) which are generally regarded as a golden age of Chinese culture. However, Journey to the West was written in vernacular Chinese rather than the traditional version. As such it is assumed Wu Cheng’en would have published the novel anonymously, to conform to social pressures against popular so-called “vulgar” literature at the time. In 1942 Arthur Waley published an abridged English translation of the text, which he called Monkey: A Folk Tale of China.

The novel is a combination of folk tales, alongside a fictionalized account of the pilgrimage of Xuanzang. Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), who left the Jingtu Temple in order to obtain better translations of Buddhist scripture. In spite of a ban against foreign travel issued by Emperor Taizhong, Xuanzang undertook an overland expedition of almost two decades to reach India. His exploits during this period of travel are written from his dictation in another classical Chinese text, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. This period of travel provides the basis for the novel in which Xuanzang is granted four companions from Chinese folklore to assist his journey.

His first companion is Sun Wukong, or Monkey. He is born from a stone egg on top of a mountain, and is nourished by the Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). His strength grows, but he angers several gods and is only granted a minor position in Heaven as the Keeper of Horses so the gods can keep an eye on him. He returns to the mountain he was born on and declares himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven”. Because no one is able to defeat him, he becomes the guardian of the heavenly peach garden. The peaches bestow immortality upon those who eat them, but Sun Wukong is greedy and eats all of the peaches. Eventually the Buddha intervenes and traps Sun Wukong beneath the mountain for 500 years. He is released from his prison by Xuanzang and agrees to be his disciple. However, Sun Wukong is often violent and difficult to control, and eventually has a metal ring placed around his head by the bodhisattva Guanyin. By chanting, Xuanzang is able to tighten the ring whenever he must chastise Sun Wukong, which causes him terrible headaches. Sun Wukong is unable to remove the ring until the end of the novel.

His second companion is Zhu Bajie known in English as “Pig of the Eight Prohibitions”. Once an immortal and Marshall of the Heavenly Canopy, Zhu Bajie was banished to the mortal world after a failed attempt to seduce the moon goddess Chang’e. He is born on earth as a half-human half-pig monstrosity and is a glutton of both food and women. Though he is commissioned by Guanyin to join Xuanzang on his pilgrimage, Zhu Bajie instead goes to a village and marries a young maiden. Xuanzang and Sun Wukong arrive and defeat Zhu Bajie and he eventually joins them on the journey to India. The third companion is Sha Wujing meaning “Sand Awakened to Purity”. Like Zhu Bajie, he was once a celestial being but cast into the mortal world and made to look like a monster. He resided in the Flowing Sands River and becomes an ogre terrorizing the local villages. Similarly he is defeated by the pilgrims and joins them. Sha Wujing is the most obedient and even tempered of the companions declining to participate in their bickering and as such Xuanzang often turns to Sha Wujing for counsel when faced with difficult decisions. By the end of the story Sha Wujing becomes an “arhat,” or one advanced along the path of Enlightenment who has not yet become bodhisattva. Xuanzang’s final companion is Yulong, a son of the Dragon King of the West Sea. He was sentenced to death by his father but saved by Guanyin to aid the pilgrims on their journey. He has almost no dialogue in the novel, and mainly appears in the form of a horse for Xuanzang to ride on.

The action of the novel unfolds in a similar style to the Greek epic, The Odyssey. The characters travel through many lands along the Silk Road into India and encounter magic, monsters, impossible terrain and many other scenarios of their journey which must be outwitted or defeated in combat. Toward the end of the novel the group reaches Vulture Peak in India where Xuanzang is presented the scriptures by the living Buddha. They quickly return to China and are rewarded for their pilgrimage with jobs in heaven.