The Journey to the West

by Wu Cheng'en
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Which of the characters mentioned in Journey to the West are based on historical figures, and which are purely imaginary?

Characters in Journey to the West that are based on historical figures are Xuanzang, T'ai Tsung, and Buddha. Characters that are imaginary include the Monkey King, Pigsy, Sandy, and the Dragon King.

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Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en is a sixteenth-century Chinese “novel” that fictionalizes a pilgrimage made by Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Tang Sanzang or Hsuan Tsang depending on the spelling in particular translations) to find some sacred texts hidden by Buddha. Some of the characters in Journey to the...

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Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en is a sixteenth-century Chinese “novel” that fictionalizes a pilgrimage made by Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Tang Sanzang or Hsuan Tsang depending on the spelling in particular translations) to find some sacred texts hidden by Buddha. Some of the characters in Journey to the West are based on historical figures while others are imaginary.

Xuanzang was a real person. He was born around 602 AD and really did travel around in search of sacred books, even making a seventeen-year pilgrimage to India. This is the journey fictionalized in the novel. T'ai Tsung is also a historical figure. He was the emperor of China in the seventh century AD at the time when Xuanzang was traveling. Buddha, too, is based on a real person, the founder of Buddhism who lived some time in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. By the time of the novel's setting, however, he was a largely a mythical and religious figure.

But many characters in Journey to the West are not historical at all. The Monkey King (Sun Wukong), for instance, is imaginary even though he is arguably a secondary protagonist in the tale. Pigsy (Zhu Bajie), too, is imaginary, as are Sandy (Sha Wujing) and the Dragon King (Yulong). These characters all add to the symbolic nature of the novel as well as contributing literary and creative interest.

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