Wu Cheng En, China. c 1590
Considered to be one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature (along with The Romance of the Four Kingdoms, The Water Margin and The Dream of the Red Chamber), The Journey to the West was first published around 1590 by an anonymous author. Scholars have settled on the 16th century writer Wu Cheng En as the probable creator or assembler of the novel.
In China, the novel is also called Monkey; a title that has been used for a number of film and television adaptations of the story.
Very little is known about Wu Cheng En. He was a well-known poet and a leading scholar during the Ming dynasty and was known to have attended the University of Nanjing. He is believed to have been born in Huainan about 1500 and died in 1582. Wu repeatedly failed the civil service exams. He was 63 years old when he was appointed to the post of Vice Magistrate in Changxing county, but after only two years was thrown into prison on a trumped-up charge of corruption. The details of the case were eventually brought to light and Wu was offered another position but did not take it up.
Wu’s poetry focused on the expression of emotions, and for this reason his work has been compared to that of Li Bai.
The Journey to the West, if written by him, was published after his death.
The novel is a fictionalized fantasy story based on the real-life adventures of the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, whose pilgrimage to India to recover Buddhist scriptures, or Sutras, is described in the novel.
The real Xuan Zang began and ended his pilgramage during the Tang dynasty at Da Ci’en Monastery in Xī’ān, Shǎnxī Province. Motivated by the poor quality of Chinese translations of Buddhist scripture at the time, Xuan Zang left Xī’ān in 629 to seek out original versions of the sutras. Aided by sympathetic Buddhists, he traveled great distances through hostile territories such as modern day Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, finally reaching India in 630.
Xuan Zang studied in India for 13 years before leaving for China in 643. He arrived
Back in Xī’ān in 646 and joined the Da Ci’en Monastery and led in the building of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in order to store the scriptures he had brought back from India. With the support of the Emperor, he established the Yuhua Gong (Palace of the Lustre of Jade) monastery dedicated to translating the scriptures he had brought back. Xuan Zang died in 664. His translations and dissemination of the Chinese translations of the Indian sutras contributed significantly to the promotion of Buddhism in China.
The Journey to the West
At the beginning of the novel, the Buddha surveys the land and sees only sin, violence, greed and hedonism and instructs a Bodhisattva named Guan Yin to seek out someone worthy and holy enough for the task of traveling to India to return with the Buddha’s sutras for translation into Chinese.
Guan Yin searches Tang Dynasty China and finds Xuan Zang. The Bodhisattva also finds three others who are willing to help Xuan Zang in order to atone for their sins, and a dragon prince, Yu-Lung, who appears in the guise of a white horse.
The first part of the story relates the biography of Sun Wukong, one of Xuan Zang’s fellow travelers. Sūn is a monkey born from a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao. He styles himself the “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” and his powers grow to match those of the gods. With arrogance and hubris he rebels against heaven but is undone by the Buddha who traps him under a mountain for five hundred years. His act of atonement is to aid Xuan Zang. The Chinese title of the novel “Monkey” obviously comes from this character. The similarity to the character of the Hindu monkey god in the Indian epic The Ramayana is obvious and, perhaps, the two characters have the same origin.
Xuan Zang’s second assistant is Zhu Bajie or Pig. He was previously Marshal Tīan Péng the commander of Heaven’s Navy who was banished to earth for flirting with the Princess of the Moon. The third traveler is the river-ogre Sha Wujing. He too was an immortal general in heaven who was sent to the mortal realm, in his case for accidentally destroying the crystal goblet of the Heavenly Queen Mother.
The four are given their task and they set off for the west. Throughout the journey they have to fight off monsters and spirits and those who are eager for their pilgrimage to fail. They must battle the Bull Demon King, the Iron Fan Princess, Spider-women and the shape shifting White-bone Demon.
The pilgrimage takes 14 years to complete, after which the three travelers achieve Buddhahood. The dragon prince is made a ‘Naga,’ an animal who can achieve human existence by following the fivefold path of enlightenment.
Many key elements of the story existed in Chinese literature prior to the publication of the novel. The Journey to the West relates many stories found in Chinese folk religion and mythology and makes many references to Buddhist and Taoist stories and myths. It is also a complex work — on one hand a simple adventure story full of demons and monsters; and on the other a subtle collection of religious wisdom and insight and an allegory on the often difficult path to enlightenment.