Wu Chengen Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis: The Journey to the West

The Journey to the West pleases; it includes slapstick humor, sly satire, eerie monsters such as the Cadaver Demon, marvelous battles, and adventures in countries as odd as Lilliput or Brobdingnag—places such as the Women Nation, Serpent Coil Mountain, and Mysterious Flower Cave. The main characters are an amusing mix: a complaining holy man, an all-too-human pig, a vague but friendly river monster, and the magical king of the monkeys, who calls himself The Great Sage Equal to Heaven and gets into trouble because he refuses to knuckle under to the celestial hierarchy. Their goal is not reached until near the book’s end, and the pilgrims’ return to China is supernaturally swift.

The novel has a didactic message as well. Before considering what it has to say about human nature, society, and religion, however, it will be useful to consider the centuries-long evolution of its plot and its characters. Much of the novel’s richness is the result of the author’s wide-ranging perspective, but much, too, is the result of the variety of its long, multilayered development.


One major strand of materials around which the story grew is the official biographies and the popular hagiographies of a seventh century monk, Xuanzang, who came to be known as T’ang San-tsang, or Tripitaka. Both the first name (which is Chinese) and the second (which is Sanskrit, the language of the Buddhist scriptures) honor him for the sutras he brought back from India to China. Works such as the Ta T’ang San-tsang ch’ü ching shih-hua (thirteenth century), the story, with poems, of how the Tang Dynasty monk Tripitaka obtained the scriptures, sketch in a few of the events and themes that appear elsewhere in the tradition, most fully in Wu’s The Journey to the West itself. Yet numerous brief tales and fragments recorded earlier suggest the gradual accretion of fantastic motifs onto the historical Tripitaka’s journey, which—rigorous though it was—was actually only one of many made by devout Chinese west and south to the homeland of Buddhism.

In The Journey to the West and its immediate forebears, the Tripitaka tales are mingled with motifs from many legends about magic monkeys. It has been suggested that The Journey to the West shows influence from Indian, Tibetan, or Central Asian epics that tell about monkeys of mythic power, and certainly some sharing of themes among the cultures must have taken place, but native Chinese stories also abound with supernatural apes, some of which do acts of religious merit and some of which are evil and must be controlled. (Clearly, both aspects of the indigenous tradition find expression in Wu’s Monkey.) Moreover, the evidence suggests that the written transmission to China of figures such as India’s Hanuman, the monkey-hero of the Rmyana (c. 350 b.c.e.) epic, was limited. What influence there was, then, seems most likely to have been minor. Perhaps the metaphor of ape for human is not so far-fetched that it could not be thought of more than once.

In any case, these two main characters—the pilgrim monk and his unruly monkey disciple—appear together long before the composition of Wu’s novel. Fragments of dramas dating from the thirteenth century, and a fourteenth century cycle of plays in twenty-four acts called Hsi-yu chi tza-chü (the journey to the west variety shows), suggest the range and shape of the novel to come. There still exist two short narratives in the vernacular that, because they were published well before Wu’s lifetime yet show marked similarities to passages in The Journey to the West, reveal that Wu must have worked from an older text or texts in creating his novel. The two shorter versions of The Journey to the West that were published about the same time as Wu’s may have been sources for his work or may have been abridgments of it.

There is a further textual problem that affects the modern reader’s experience of the novel. The text now ascribed to Wu today includes as its ninth chapter a pious biography of Tripitaka, which may seem somewhat at odds in tone with the rest of the book. This chapter does not appear in the 1592 edition of The Journey to the West. Probably it was added later from the wealth of materials about the life of the monk, yet the chapter’s appearance in one of the contemporaneous shorter versions mentioned above suggests the possibility of a full version, written by Wu and circulated in his lifetime, that was the basis for an abridgment as well as for the 1592 edition, which for some reason omitted chapter 9. Or perhaps Wu himself—recognizing the need to give the story of Tripitaka’s life before the quest, as he does for the other pilgrims—added chapter 9 after releasing the draft that became the basis for the 1592 edition, though stylistic differences make this seem less likely. In any case, other changes since that date are minor, especially when compared to the textual problems associated with other old Chinese novels.


The structure of The Journey to the West suggests something of the complexity of its development in the folk tradition; it also reflects the scope of a novel that places human life in the larger context of the supranatural cosmos. The book may be considered to fall into four parts: the early history of the monkey-king (chapters 1 through 7); the origins of Tripitaka and of the quest for the scriptures, which is prefigured by the Chinese emperor’s visit to the underworld (chapters 8 through 12); the pilgrims’ adventures (chapters 13 through 97); and the conclusion of the journey (chapters 98 through 100).

The novel begins with the beginning of the universe. Thus, the reader is reminded of the formless, undifferentiated Chaos that—in the traditional Chinese cosmogony—existed prior to existence. Grafted onto this concept in the opening poem is the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment so important to the book’s development. This is only the first of many instances of Wu’s syncretism, and his blending of elements from the various philosophical and religious schools of his day is a major source of the novel’s satisfying complexity and one reason for its popularity. After the narrative describes the primal cosmic day of 129,600 years, the formation of the physical world begins, and the reader’s attention is directed to a stone stop an axis mundi mountain in the fabulous realms of the paradisiacal Eastern Sea. This immortal stone, which is a kind of microcosm of the universe of...

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