Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671
The Journey to the West was inspired by the pilgrimage of the Chinese priest Hsüan Tsang to India in the seventh century. Except for the priest and a few other historical personages, the novel is fantastic, with the whole mythical universe as its background. It is interpreted as a satire,...
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The Journey to the West was inspired by the pilgrimage of the Chinese priest Hsüan Tsang to India in the seventh century. Except for the priest and a few other historical personages, the novel is fantastic, with the whole mythical universe as its background. It is interpreted as a satire, with the rebellious monkey against the bureaucratic heavenly government, and as an allegory, what Westerners might consider a Buddhist version of John Bunyan’s Christian adventure tale, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). For centuries, however, the Chinese—adults and children alike—have loved this absurd story of monsters simply because of its imagination, humor, and delightful nonsense. Arthur Waley translated thirty out of the original one hundred chapters, omitting many of the calamities the pilgrim and his disciples encounter. The story before the start of the pilgrimage is preserved almost in its entirety, and this alone makes interesting reading.
Wu Chengen was a sixteenth century magistrate as well as a novelist. Starting his hundred-chapter novel with Monkey’s birth in the creation myth, Wu Chengen has made him a divine hero on an unflinching quest for immortality, to which the subsequent pilgrimage is but the final chapter. Waley used Monkey as the title of his partial yet witty translation of the book. The novel represents the “dual modes of myth and comedy.” Most fully developed myths in the novel have some relation to the story of Monkey, and these include the creation, the quest for immortality, the journey to the underworld, the fall from grace, the divine mercy, the mission, the redeeming pilgrimage, and the apotheosis.
Nevertheless, Monkey is not the only hero in the pilgrimage. He and Pigsy are a pair of complementary characters. When Monkey is alone, his adventures are not as interesting as those in which Pigsy joins him. In addition, the five pilgrims almost achieve a harmony of personalities among themselves after reaching the Crow-cock Kingdom. On their way they are transformed from isolated victims of fate into united victors in faith. In the Cart-slow Kingdom, they not only help themselves but they also become the destined saviors of suffering people.
This harmony of personalities among the pilgrims is vitally related not only to character development but also to the union of the dual modes of myth and comedy in the novel. The characters of Monkey and Pigsy, for example, gradually balance each other, while in the plot, Pigsy often provides a comic relief to temper Monkey’s mythic adventures. The pilgrims’ quest in the physical world is also a quest within their personalities. As the quest continues, the relations among them become more and more harmonious. It is chiefly through the harmony of their personalities that they at last attain their goal.
In Monkey’s fearless quest for immortality, his determination almost becomes a kind of destiny. In his heroic striving, he reaches a height of spiritual awareness at which time stands still. In most journey themes in world literature, the end revisits the beginning. The quest of Monkey also goes in a cycle, in which the perpetual process can be identified with the final goal. The Buddha himself tells the pilgrims that even the Mahayana scriptures ought to be left behind in a quest for enlightenment. The plot of the quest, therefore, is like a circle that has no end; the important part of the pilgrimage is the pilgrimage, not so much the recovery of the scriptures.
Myth and comedy are further related by the author’s lyrical vision of life and the lyrical style of his narrative. Nature is charged with human feeling in the story, which uses some of the lively conventions of the oral traditions, such as the recurring exclamation, “Dear Monkey!” Humor and myth are joined, for example, in the pilgrims’ last calamity on the river; the author uses an old Chinese folk motif to reach the mythic number of eighty-one. This is also a joke at the expense of storytellers, who tend to miscount their calamities during their oral performances.