Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

The 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 Tang Sanzang and his search for spiritual enlightenment. Tang Sanzang’s pilgrimage takes him along the Silk Road to...

(The entire section contains 4347 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The 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 Tang Sanzang and his search for spiritual enlightenment. Tang Sanzang’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.

Tang Sanzang 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 Tang Sanzang’s mind, which, during his search for spiritual enlightenment, is itself corrupt and chaotic. The Monkey King 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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 31, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3113

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 and vivid poetic passages are valuable adjuncts to the prose. One can almost feel the surroundings in passages such as this account of the arrival of winter:

The peak’s jadelike plums half-blooming,
The pond’s water slowly icing.
The red leaves have all dropped away
And pines turn verdant and gay.
The pale clouds are about to snow;
Dried grass on the mountain lies low.
What frigid scene now fills the eyes
As bone-piercing wind multiplies!

Anthony Yu has indeed done a superb job with the difficult task of rendering not only prose but also poetry into fluent and contemporary English.

At the very beginning of the text, the story of the origin of the Monkey King, Sun Wu-k’ung, is told. This tale discloses the primary role he is to play in the story, unlike earlier versions of the Tripitaka legend. After his birth from a great stone egg, he frolics for a time as king of the monkeys at the Water-Curtain Cave in the Flower Fruit Mountain. Amid a carefree life of abundance, he begins to worry about the impermanence of life. Longing for the knowledge of immortality, he undertakes a journey which brings him under the instruction of the Taoist Patriarch Subhodhi. Through this tutelage, Monkey attains immortality as well as magical abilities. With these powers, he becomes intolerably disruptive and proud and remains so even after he is called to the heavens in an attempt by the heavenly immortals to control him. The immortals put him in charge of the heavenly stables, but he demands the title of Great Sage Equal to Heaven. Eventually, he ruins the Festival of Immortal Peaches by eating the peaches, getting drunk on stolen wine, and stealing elixir reserved for the use of the Jade Emperor of Heaven. Monkey successfully fends off heavenly troops sent to subdue him until the Buddha himself must punish him by imprisoning him under a mountain.

The story goes on to detail the Buddha’s decision to give holy scriptures to China for the people’s enlightenment. The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin is dispatched to the East to find a suitable scripture pilgrim; she is also to enlist the aid of any monsters with any great supernatural powers that she encounters. On her journey, she meets the monkey, hog, monster, and dragon and prepares them for discipleship. After reaching China, she chooses Hsüan-tsang as the scripture seeker and he receives a commission from the T’ang emperor. He is given the title Tripitaka T’ang, which refers to his role as imperial searcher for the Buddhist canon of scriptures.

As the T’ang monk travels, he meets his animal disciples one by one. He frees Sun Wu-k’ung from under the mountain and begins to win the loyalty of this Prometheus-like ape. A dragon swallows their horse, but, proving to be the very dragon that Kuan-yin recruited, he transforms himself into their horse. They next meet Pa-chieh, the hog monster of Cloudy Paths Cave. Monkey battles him, but once Pa-chieh learns that the scripture pilgrim is Monkey’s master, he joins them as a disciple. Finally, they meet Wu-ching, or Sha Monk, a river monster of the Flowing Sand River. The scripture pilgrim now has his full traveling party of immortals with miraculous powers. Only with such aid could Tripitaka T’ang hope to complete such a lengthy and hazardous journey.

The travelers meet with incredible troubles at every turn. Monsters threaten to eat them or kill them in various horrible ways. Demons attempt to seduce and entrap them. They also are often asked to assist innocent people who are plagued by the local ogres and monsters. Furious and bloody battles occur, and Monkey frequently resorts to bodily transformation to win these struggles. He becomes hundreds of sleep-inducing insects, armies of monkeys, a cricket, or even a piece of clothing. He can enlarge or reduce his size, somersault thousands of miles in a wink, and perform other amazing magic. Such tricks get the travelers through many tight spots.

As they move across China, the animal guardians of Tripitaka also pursue their own spiritual journeys. The T’ang monk tries to control them, but ultimately they must learn to control their own beastly inclinations to progress, however slowly, toward spiritual perfection. The inner journey is indeed a rocky one for these disciples, who had already earned immortal status once but fell from favor through their evil actions. Their aid to the monk and to others they encounter also forwards their own redemption.

Chapters 75 to 100 are contained in the fourth and final volume of Journey to the West, continuing the tale from where it left off in the previous volume. As this volume begins, Monkey is trapped in the stomach of a green-haired lion fiend. If he tries to climb out through the monster’s mouth, he will be chewed to pieces. Instead, he makes a rope of his hair, ties it firmly around the beast’s heart, and then shrinks himself and crawls out the lion’s nose. Once he has escaped, he enlarges to a height of thirty feet and is able to control the fiend by tugging on the rope attached to its heart. He can then return to his companions, who are mourning his supposed demise, and assist them as they meet attacks by the lion fiend’s brothers: a yellow-tusked white elephant and a golden eagle-roc or “Garuda Monster.”

In these final chapters, the travelers are accosted by lions, rhinoceros fiends, a king who kills monks, and various monk-eating monsters. A female rodent spirit captures Tripitaka in order to seduce him as her mate. This would destroy the monk’s mission by causing him to transgress his monastic vow of celibacy. The group saves the lives of 1,111 young boys whose hearts are about to be eaten for the sake of adding a thousand years to the life of a dissolute king. They encourage a town to return to the way of Buddhism and by so doing end a drought sent as punishment. The three disciples also take on their own three followers, training them in martial arts.

Through many other adventures, the travelers finally arrive at the Thunderclap Monastery of the Spirit Vulture Peak in India. To reach this residence of Buddha, they must cross a raging river in a bottomless boat. Here it seems that Tripitaka has at last lost, as he falls through the boat and his body floats downstream. Nevertheless, congratulations are given him, because he has now become a Buddha who watches his own corpse float away. They receive the scriptures, deliver them to the Chinese emperor, and return to heaven to be given their appointments as Buddhas and other dignitaries.

Time and again in this volume, as in the preceding ones, the Monkey King serves as the savior of the others. His ability to change into numerous forms, to somersault into the heavens to plead for assistance from the immortals, and to wage fierce battle with his mighty rod gets them through the horrible ordeals which they must face. Old Monkey also has the discernment to detect the presence of demons and monster spirits even when they are disguised in other forms. He is occasionally a bit high-spirited, proud, and unruly even though his demeanor does gradually improve along the journey. He is also ingenious, daring, insightful, and fiercely loyal to his master.

The pig, Pa-chieh, is not nearly so versatile as his “Elder Brother” the monkey, yet Pa-chieh can be a powerful warrior, striking down monsters with his nine-pronged muckrake. Often, however, his central concern is consuming vast quantities of food, bickering with Monkey, and generally being a slave to his own desires. The pig is quite frequently unmannerly, impulsive, cowardly, greedy, lazy, and lustful. It is especially in such failings that he provides the perfect foil for the clever gibes of Sun Wu-k’ung, whose favorite name for Pa-chieh is “Idiot.”

Sha Monk is a more obscure figure in this volume. His most common activities are leading the horse and guarding the luggage with Pa-chieh’s assistance. He can be a strong fighter, wielding his priestly staff with a vengeance. In general, however, he is more passive, observant, and reflective than the others, often acting as the voice of restraint or remonstrance to his more impulsive fellow disciples.

Tripitaka T’ang is often overshadowed by his colorful companions, especially by the fantastic monkey king, who steals the central role in this magical retelling of the Tripitaka legend. The T’ang monk remains in the background but does so as the master for whom hardships are undertaken. He maintains a controlling influence over his assistants’ unruliness, symbolized by the headband (or “fillet”) which he deceives Sun Wu-K’ung into wearing, and which he can tighten painfully by reciting a “tight fillet spell.” Monkey is the most in need of control by Tripitaka and, as the senior and most powerful disciple, in turn commands the others. In this work, however, the master plays an ambiguous role. He is often seen cowering as his disciples do battle for him or complaining of the hardships and lacking the will to proceed on the journey. He is, after all, a mortal human facing fourteen years of immense trials, monstrous adversaries, and incredible adventures. He tends to become overwhelmed. Without the assistance of his immortal and magical disciples, he would have been unable to persist on the journey. It is he, however, and not his animal helpers, who must travel more than 100,000 miles to India for the scriptures. Sun Wu-k’ung explains this to Pa-chieh when asked why he does not simply put the master on his back to soar above the clouds and avoid the river monster (actually Sha Monk before his discipleship).“Take this monster here: he can use spells and call upon the wind, pushing and pulling a little, but he can’t carry a human into the air. And if it’s this kind of magic, old Monkey knows every trick well, including becoming invisible and making distances shorter. But it is required of Master to go through all these strange territories before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows; hence even one step turns out to be difficult. You and I are only his protective companions, guarding his body and life, but we cannot exempt him from these woes, nor can we obtain the scriptures all by ourselves. Even if we had the ability to go and see Buddha first, he would not bestow the scriptures on you and me. Remember the adage: ’What’s easily gotten, is soon forgotten.’”

The Journey to the West is a complex allegory informed by the religious syncretism of the late Ming dynasty, uniting Taoist alchemy, Mahyna Buddhism, and Confucianism. Clearly, it is a tale of spiritual quest and pilgrimage. The travelers have both inner and outer quests for salvation. Externally, the pilgrims deliver the scriptural canon of Buddha’s law for the instruction of the Chinese people. Their internal quests lead them to discover their own Buddha natures and escape the Wheel of Transmigration. At times, they almost succumb to doubt and despair, but their way is protected by the benevolence of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin. They cannot frustrate the will of Buddha even through their personal failings and bunglings. This is symbolized at the very start of the story when Monkey haughtily tries to usurp the title of the Jade Emperor of Heaven. Tathgata Buddha challenges him to prove his superiority by leaping out of the palm of Buddha’s hand. Monkey uses his 100,000-mile somersault to reach five great pink pillars which he marks with his name as proof of his success. Disrespectfully, he urinates on one pillar before leaving. When he returns to claim his title, he looks down at Buddha’s hand, only to find his graffito and the aroma of monkey urine on Buddha’s fingers. The remonstrance received from Buddha serves as a backdrop for the rest of the tale: “’You stinking, urinous ape!’ scolded Tathgata. ’Since when did you ever leave the palm of my hand?’” Despite Monkey’s protests, Buddha flips over his hand, imprisoning the ape under his fingers, which in turn become the Five-Phases Mountain.

The Five Phases of Taoist alchemy play a large part in this allegory. Water, fire, wood, metal, and earth are related to the five forces of the body: essence, spirit, soul, vigor, and will. The last three of these are allegorically represented by Pa-chieh, Wu-k’ung, and Sha Monk respectively. Monkey is the unruly “monkey of the mind” which must be controlled for the Master to gain Buddha nature. Hog represents bodily desires and Monster is the will. Indeed, the symbolism is incredibly rich and complex throughout this text; Anthony Yu’s scholarly footnotes help sort out many of the allusions and offer references for further study of this fascinating aspect of The Journey to the West. In general, his competent handling of the translation enables untutored readers to begin an understanding of the religious and symbolic depths of the work.

A reader entering the world of these volumes is embarking on a wondrous personal journey, a journey into a magical time of long ago and far away, as well as a journey into self. For the Western reader, this will be at times a difficult pilgrimage, fraught with unfamiliar names and faces, unknown places and allusions. Yu assists the reader admirably with his lucid introduction to the first volume and with the numerous explanatory footnotes. Throughout, his notes and translation facilitate the reader’s interpretation of the religious and alchemical allegory. At first, however, the profusion of details can be frustrating. Names can be particularly difficult. Monkey alone, for example, can be referred to by more than a dozen names. This confusion is overcome within a few chapters of this volume, however, and is made considerably easier if one has read the preceding volumes.

Their length and complexity should not discourage anyone from becoming thoroughly engrossed in these volumes. Just as the intricate world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s lengthy Lord of the Rings trilogy has been mapped and explored by countless readers, so this saga should become familiar to a wide range of Westerners. Better parallels may be drawn, perhaps, with Dante’s The Divine Comedy or the various versions of the Arthurian legends. Despite all of its differences from Western literature, The Journey to the West has underlying themes of universal appeal. Pilgrimage, good and evil, self-discovery, and heroism are seen amidst a fabulous tangle of magic, religion, alchemy, adventure, poetry, and humor.

The reader can approach this text at whatever level of difficulty desired. Children of Eastern heritage have been reared on tales derived from The Journey to the West as children in the West have been reared on Grimm’s fairy tales. Now, Western children can be told these stories of a different culture. Older readers can enjoy the work simply as a fabulous, often humorous, adventure series, while those willing to spend more time and thought with the text will be exposed to a wealth of Chinese wisdom, history, and imagery. Scholars will find a rich resource for interpretation and further research. This work will be read with great pleasure by students of alchemical lore as well as fans of fantasy novels, by researchers of Eastern religions as well as those looking for good fiction for leisure reading. This is to say, finally, that The Journey to the West has all the characteristics of any true literary classic. It can be read, reread, and subjected to differing interpretations. One can learn from it in proportion to the energy one is able to expend on it. Above all, at whatever depth the reader becomes immersed in the story, he or she will be rewarded with hours of enjoyment. Anthony Yu has indeed performed a great service in so skillfully making this Chinese classic accessible in full to English-speaking readers.

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

Monkey’s cave

Monkey’s cave. Home of Monkey at an unidentified location in China. Born from an egg transformed from a rock, Monkey reigns over the race of monkeys. Situated in mountains with trees and lakes, Monkey’s habitat is more or less an everywhere place for this everyman character of myth. The monkeys come to think of their cave and the surrounding area as paradise, and they wantonly occupy their time by wandering through the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.


Jambudvipa. City in which Monkey spends ten years studying and learning the ways of men. After leaving his cave and his fellow monkeys when he realizes his own mortality, he crosses the ocean to the east and goes to Jambudvipa. He then crosses what is called the Western Ocean to arrive at Cave of the Slanting Moon and Three Stars, where a Taoist patriarch (who has monklike qualities) first informs him that he can become immortal. While in his stay, he learns how to transform himself into innumerable physical objects, foremost of which is the pine tree.


Heaven. After an act of mischief in one of his transformations, Monkey is sent to Heaven itself where the Jade Emperor can both watch and train him. Here, in the Treasure Hall of Divine Mists in the Cloud Palace of the Golden Arches, Monkey continues his adventures with numerous other mythical characters, most of whom are from the Buddhist tradition. Heaven, here, is given to readers as a physical place, but one in which supernatural settings and characters larger than life can both thrive and clash. After one particular misadventure, Monkey is placed under a five-peaked mountain to serve penance and further perfect his spiritual existence; this mountain, so it turns out, had originally been Buddha’s fingers.


Chiang-chou. Province of China. In something of a flashback of the work, the story returns to this region to relate the story of Hsuan Tsang (also called Tripitaka) and his murdered father, the governor. In this setting are villages, farms, and large towns, as well as a temple—all reveal the sinful nature of China at the time this conspiracy is related. Hsuan Tsang, after learning the details of his father’s murder, makes a journey to the West, where he, too, comes to the Cloud Palace of the Golden Arches and meets the Jade Emperor. The trip occurs after Emperor T’ai Tsung of T’ang experiences a kind of Buddhist hell in a place called the World of Darkness.

Chinese countryside

Chinese countryside. In this epic trip, Tripitaka (accompanied by Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy) experiences more-than-typical occurrences on their spiritual pilgrimage on some very physical roads. Bandits accost them, for example, but, similarly, the journey comprises places from the supernatural: a dragon appears to give battle, and Monkey rides it. They come to the Cloud Ladder Cave near the River of Flowing Sands, on the banks of which are monsters to provide even more adventures. They also pass through two kingdoms: Crow-cock and Cart-slow.

Flaming Mountain

Flaming Mountain. Hellish place where flames consume everything over hundreds of square miles in which a significant part of the story is set. Because the mountain’s flames are inextinguishable, the only way to get beyond them—and thus to Buddhist heaven to find enlightenment and achieve immortality—is to fly over them by means of using an iron fan. Of all the geographic impossibilities in the work, this one is far more formidable than any of the others. Tripitaka and Monkey are eventually able to put out the flames permanently, and thus they transform the landscape into a set of mountains, which are yet impassable.

Blessed Region of Buddha

Blessed Region of Buddha. Surprisingly few details are given about Buddha’s actual habitat. It is a place in the spiritual world that has physical dimensions. Buddha lives in a most holy monastery where there is a Great Altar and the Great Hero Treasure Hall. It is a place of treasure chests and great feasts; the scrolls are kept in chests with precious jewels on the outside. Entrusted with these great religious scrolls, Monkey and the others are sent back to the Western Paradise; that is, they are sent back to China, where the people can now (because they have the scrolls) receive spiritual guidance and thereby remove themselves from their sinful ways of life.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

Bantly, Francisca-Cho. “Buddhist Allegory in the Journey to the West.” Journal of Asian Studies 48, no. 3 (1989): 512-524. Analyzes and explains Buddhist allegorical elements interwoven into this novel.

Ch’en, Shou-yi. Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction. New York: Ronald Press, 1961. Discusses the structure of the work and traces the literary development of the presumed author.

Christian Century. CI, March 7, 1984, p. 258.

Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. Critical analysis of six major classical Chinese works includes Journey to the West. Gives historical background and traces similarities to and divergences from the epic pilgrimage of Hsüan Tsang to India, which provides its historical basis.

Hsia, C. T., and T. A. Hsia. “New Perspectives on Two Ming Novels: Hsi Yu Chi and Hsi Yu Pu.” In Wen-lin: Studies in the Chinese Humanities, edited by Chow, Tse-tsung. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Provides historical background in its comparison of The Journey to the West to another novel of the era.

Liu, Wu-chi. An Introduction to Chinese Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Chapter 16 discusses Journey to the West as a supernatural novel that is as much a product of folk tradition as of the author’s creative imagination. Discusses the structure of the novel and concludes that it is a good-natured satire of human foibles and bureaucratic stupidity.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 6, 1983, p. 7.

Parabola. VIII, August, 1983, p. 122.

So, Francis K. H. “Some Rhetorical Conventions of the Verse Sections of Hsi-yu-chi.” In China and the West: Comparative Literature Studies, edited by William Tay et al. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1980. Analyzes the verse sections, which use all the major genres of verse in Chinese literature, in Journey to the West.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Journey to the West Study Guide

Subscribe Now