The Journey to the West

by Wu Cheng'en

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803

Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West is a meandering, fictionalized account of an actual seventh-century pilgrimage to India made by Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk searching for sacred texts. Cheng'en's novelization of this oft-told folk tale is one of, if not the most, famous works of classical Chinese literature and remains popular today. The novel is a comedic adventure that satirizes Chinese society and bureaucracy through an allegorical discussion of the human condition. Journey to the West, a monumental novel composed of one-hundred chapters loosely divided into four sections, depicts the spiritual journey of Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk striving to retrieve lost Buddhist texts and reach the Western Paradise: the heavenly realm of the Buddha.

The first section, chapters one through seven, detail the mythological origins of one of Tripitaka’s soon-to-be disciples, Sun Wukong. Also known as the “Monkey King” or “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” he is a sentient monkey who hatches from a rock. The Monkey King spends his early days learning Taoist philosophy; this first section of Journey to the West describes his path to Taoist enlightenment, painstaking mastery of combat, and efforts to become immortal. Despite his intellect and accomplishments, Sun Wukong is a chaotic spirit who grates at authority, and he eventually rebels against the Taoist deities and leads an assault against heaven. As punishment for his impulsive, conflict-causing ways, the Buddha traps Sun Wukong inside of a mountain for five hundred years.

Section two introduces Tripitaka, also known as Tang Sanzang, the fictionalized version of Xuanzang. While the real-life version of this Buddhist monk was a wise and experienced man whose pilgrimage to India was well-planned and successful, Tripitaka is naive and unversed in many of the skills necessary for his pilgrimage to unfold as planned. His ignorance of the dangers of the world around him often leads him to comical situations. This section also provides a brief historical account of the sacred text the Buddha hid for all but the most worthy. Chapters eight through twelve are composed entirely of background, historical context, and character introduction. These four chapters provide the essential backdrop for Tripitaka’s journey as it begins in chapter thirteen, the first chapter of the third section.

In the third section, which encompasses chapters thirteen through ninety-nine, Cheng’en describes Tripitaka’s epic, meandering journey to recover the Buddha’s scriptures. He follows Asia’s famous trading route, the Silk Road, and sets his sights on Leiyin Temple on Vulture Peak, where the scriptures are likely hidden. While the context is familiar, the journey itself is strange and fantastic, featuring bloodthirsty demons, vengeful spirits, and dangerous environments that plague the bumbling Tripitaka. As he travels west, Tripitaka encounters friends and foes alike, and his adventures are split episodically into groups of four chapters. Along the way, Quan Yin, the goddess of mercy, protects him with various followers, most notably the Monkey King, who Tripitaka encounters and recruits as his first and most powerful disciple in the first episodic adventure.

As the journey continues, the monk stumbles across several more lost souls, who he recruits as companions. Shortly after the Monkey King, Tripitaka enlists Zhu Bajie, also translated as Pigsy, a heavenly spirit banished to the mortal realm and transformed into a pig demon as punishment for his greed and lust. After that, he meets Sha Wujing, often referred to as Sandy, another celestial spirit living in the mortal realm who appears as a river demon. He also encounters White Dragon Horse, a spirit saved from a death sentence by Quan Yin and who serves Tripitaka as a loyal but largely inconsequential steed. 

The path...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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is full of peril, infested by demons and malicious magicians, and further complicated by environmental dangers such as explosive mountains of fire. Tripitaka is repeatedly saved by his ragtag collection of demon disciples, who, as the journey progresses, learn how to live virtuously and harmoniously. Eventually, the group reaches their destination, Tripitaka obtains the texts he sought, and, in return for their services as the monk’s protectors and their personal growth throughout the journey, his disciples earn salvation. 

The fourth section is also the shortest; it is only concerned with the events of chapter one hundred, as the group journeys home, back to the East, and the aftermath of their effort. For their good deeds, each member is rewarded with a post in the heavenly bureaucracy: Tripitaka and the Monkey King attain Buddhahood; Sandy becomes an arhat, which refers to one who has traveled far along the path of enlightenment but has not yet reached Buddhahood; White Dragon Horse becomes a naga, a half-human, half-serpent spirit; and Pigsy, whose continuing greed hampered his character development, becomes an altar cleanser. The story ends as Tripitaka completes his work and his struggles along the Silk Road come to fruition.