The Journey to the West

by Wu Cheng'en

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.


Also known as Tan Sanzang, Tripitaka is the protagonist of Journey to the West. He is a pious Buddhist monk chosen by the Buddha to deliver his scriptures from their home in India to China. Tripitaka is based on a historical figure, Xuanzang, a seventh-century Chinese monk who completed a pilgrimage to India, where he acquired many Buddhist manuscripts. 

Unlike his historical counterpart, Tripitaka is comically terrible at the practical parts of his pilgrimage. The monk has many good traits, including his spiritual zeal, virtuous nature, and overwhelming desire to help those in need, but he is woefully ignorant of the world. Along the Silk Road, Tripitaka is terrorized by demons and spirits, as they believe that consuming his holy flesh might grant them immortality. As such, his disciples spend much of the novel retrieving him from demons, preventing kidnapping attempts, and foiling plots to trick the well-intentioned but often clueless monk. Though Tripitaka is helpless at self-defense, his piety and moral goodness often result in divine aid. His moral guidance leads his companions to better themselves, and his journey, though fraught with danger, ends successfully with the sacred texts retrieved and the monk's ascension to Buddhahood.

The Monkey King

The Monkey King, also known as Sun Wukong, is the most beloved character in Wu Cheng’en’s classic work. Born on Flower Fruit Mountain from a divine stone, Sun Wukong quickly proves himself to be decisive and courageous, which earns him the title of “Handsome Monkey King” from a fellow monkey in his tribe. He rules over Flower Fruit Mountain for a time before he decides to seek the Tao so he can ensure the immortality of his fellow monkeys. The Monkey King's decision leads to a cascade of chaotic events: he angers the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven; starts a holy war; defeats an army of celestial troops; and is sealed inside a mountain by the Buddha himself.

During these early adventures, Sun Wukong earns immortality in five different ways. His invulnerability, paired with his magical abilities and shape-shifting power, makes Sun Wukong the strongest of the group, though his power is tempered by a dislike of water, which makes underwater combat difficult for him. A clever trickster motivated by his pride and momentary desires, the Monkey King is an impulsive yet lovable character. Because he has a propensity for violence and chaos, the goddess Quan Yin tricks Sun Wukong into wearing a golden circlet styled as a crown. It is enchanted, and Tripitaka can tighten it by chanting the “Headache Sutra” when he feels the need to chastise the Monkey King or prevent him from turning to violence.

Zhu Bajie

Often referred to as Pigsy, Zhu Bajie was once a celestial deity who served at the head of the heavenly navy. However, his excessive taste and lack of self-restraint led him to drink too much and sexually harass Chang’e, the goddess of the moon at a gathering. This transgression resulted in his banishment to Earth. The Jade Emperor intended to banish him in human form, but a mix-up resulted in his new form as a half-pig, half-human monster. Before Tripitaka accepted him as a disciple, Pigsy spent his time lusting after women, devouring food, and engaging in excessive practices.

Pigsy is an accomplished fighter whose weapon of choice is a nine-pronged rake that, upon striking its marks, rends souls from their bodies. Proud but cowardly and given to selfishness, Pigsy’s character changes the least throughout the journey. He remains greedy and motivated by the pursuit of pleasure. Unlike the others, Pigsy does not ascend to the...

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heavenly plane or further his place along the path to enlightenment. Instead, he remains on Earth to continue his previous ways.

Sha Wujing

Sandy, as Sha Wujing is also referred to, was a heavenly general. Similar to Pigsy, he was cast out of his celestial position for an infraction—in his case, shattering a vase belonging to the Queen Mother of the West—and transformed into a monster. Each morning, the Jade Emperor of heaven sent seven flying swords to wound him as punishment for his destructive ways. To avoid these instruments of divine retribution, Sandy lived in a river, where the goddess Quan Yin recruited him to protect Tripitaka and his party. 

As Tripitaka’s third disciple, Sandy plays a more minor role. He is not as powerful as the first two disciples, but he is of a rational disposition and fights well in water, unlike the Monkey King. Tripitaka often turns to him for advice, as Sandy is often successful at mediating conflicts between the other disciples. His polite demeanor, unwavering loyalty, and kind attitude serve him and the group well.

White Dragon Horse 

A rather minor character, White Dragon Horse serves as Tripitaka’s steed after he devoured the monk’s original horse. White Dragon Horse is the son of an illustrious nobleman who was sentenced to death for crimes against his father. However, Quan Yin saves him from certain death, which leads him to the service of Tripitaka as recompense for her merciful actions. 

Quan Yin

A Chinese deity often referred to as the goddess of mercy, Quan Yin’s name is a shortened form of a word meaning “One Who Sees and Hears the Cry from the Human World.” According to legends, Quan Yin was a devout Buddhist whose earthly virtues permitted her to ascend to Nirvana after death. However, she felt compelled to remain on earth and help those in need, a sacrifice for which she attained immortality. In Journey to the West, she appears much as she does in traditional Chinese myths, helping the holy Tripitaka complete his mission and offering divine aid in the form of magical tools and powerful disciples along the way.