The Journey to the West Analysis
by Wu Chengen

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The Journey to the West Analysis

Journey to the West is a classic in Chinese literature, believed to be written by Wu Cheng’en, possibly as early as 1625. It tells the story of a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang and his search for spiritual enlightenment. Xuanzang’s pilgrimage takes him along the Silk Road to India as he searches for translations of Buddhist scripture, and the adventures he has and the characters he meets take him on a spiritual odyssey that resembles a Greek epic.

Xuanzang meets Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, who appears to embody human sins. The Monkey King personifies chaos and corruption, perhaps government corruption, which was pervasive in China at the time the novel was written. He also symbolizes Xuanzang’s mind, which during his search for spiritual enlightenment, is itself corrupt and chaotic. Monkey battles monsters, which represent obstacles to enlightenment, and through a series of trials, he gains spiritual power. The truth of Buddhism is stressed throughout the book, as the Buddhist characters in the story are the ones with the most power. Monkey gains his powers from Taoism, for example, and the Buddha alone is able to defeat him. The characters gain power from all three religions, however, which conveys the idea that there are different paths to spiritual enlightenment.

The Journey to the West

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

With this volume, Anthony Yu finishes his acclaimed translation of a major Chinese epic, the Hsi-yu chi (The Journey to the West). There have been several English versions prior to this, but none before has been a translation of the entire text. Yu has succeeded wonderfully in translating accurately the poetry and prose of this difficult text into flowing, readable English. He also brought his wide knowledge of Chinese literary and religious traditions to the text, both in the interpretive act of translation and in numerous scholarly footnotes. From the appearance of the first volume in 1977, Anthony Yu’s work on this project has received the highest praise, and this fourth volume has already won the 1983 Gordon J. Laing Prize for adding the greatest distinction to the publication list of the University of Chicago Press. It is a well-deserved honor.

The Journey to the West is a classic of Chinese literature which details the adventures of a Buddhist monk, Tripitaka T’ang, who travels to India to bring sacred scriptures of Buddhism back to China. He travels for fourteen years and 108,000 miles, undergoing eighty-one ordeals on the way. He is accompanied on his journey by four supernatural helpers: a monkey king, a hog, a river monster, and a dragon horse. On their way, the T’ang monk and his companions are hindered by countless monsters, ogres, and demons. The monk’s animal companions are indispensable in this regard, for they possess magical powers and weapons; Monkey is especially valuable, because he can change himself into numerous creatures and can even transform the hairs on his body into additional creatures to create a one-monkey horde of warriors.

This favorite Chinese tale has been told for centuries in various versions. The story is based upon an actual journey by Hsüan-tsang in the seventh century. This particular version, published in 1572, was probably written by Wu Ch’êng-ên, a poet and humorist. The work is the culmination of more than nine hundred years of telling and retelling the story of Tripitaka (an honorific title) as a legend and folktale. In his synthesis of this vast tradition, the author created a complex work of religious allegory, supernatural adventures, and alchemical lore, all pervaded by a sense of humor.

The text is a mixture of prose and poetry, gracefully interwoven. The use of poetry to emphasize and enhance prose is a technique common to Chinese literature, and especially to Buddhist writings. The author of The Journey to the West goes beyond this conventional strategy, skillfully employing poetry to further the narrative and give an interpretation of events. Even when merely describing scenery or creatures, the rich...

(The entire section is 4,340 words.)