The Journey to the West

by Wu Cheng'en

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The historical seventh-century pilgrimage of a Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who traveled to India to bring Buddhist manuscripts to China and promote Buddhist values throughout the Tang Empire, inspired the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West. This historical basis mingled with traditional folklore and mythology and, over centuries, became a staple in Chinese oral tradition. In the late sixteenth century, Wu Cheng'en, a Ming-era author writing in praise of the nation’s past perfection and values during a time of massive imperial and military expansion, collected this compendium of oral tales into a four-part novel. As the empire encountered new modes of life and value systems, his didactic, if comedic and often satirical, work called for a return to tradition, providing a Buddhist allegory for how such a return might come to be.

Cheng’en’s novel is a classical work of Chinese literature that remains popular today. 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. Equal parts profound and absurd, the novel—a term loosely applied to this mammoth work, often divided across several books—is composed of one hundred chapters split into four parts. The structure is interesting, as the first two parts act as introductions for the protagonist, Tripitaka, and his first disciple, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The third part accounts for the lion’s share of the work, describing the trials and tribulations of their journey west in eighty-six chapters that detail episodic conflicts and encounters. The final part is no more than a single chapter and details the journey home and the aftermath of the group’s success.

By structuring the novel this way, Cheng’en places the most importance on character development and the didactic entertainment of the novel’s educational adventure narrative. His protagonists are fully fleshed out and the audience clearly understands their passions, motivations, and faults well before the journey begins. As such, the journey becomes a site of transformation, a liminal space that uses demons, spirits, and other such obstacles to transition and teach. Across the loosely representative geographic plane of the Silk Road, the characters are assaulted physically and spiritually. Swirling out from nearly ten centuries of oral tradition, Journey to the West carries the weight of Chinese history and traditions, carrying three major religions—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism—alongside generations of sociocultural conventions and practices. The work is steeped in cultural and religious lore and can thus be difficult to decode or systematize. 

Traditionally, Journey to the West is understood as an allegorical tale that offers primacy to Buddhist values and beliefs. However, the story engages all three religions, as the characters gain power from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism alike, which indicates that despite the story’s Buddhist influence, there are many paths to spiritual enlightenment. As Tripitaka and his disciples journey west, they face many challenges and employ disparate tactics representing differing value systems to defeat them. Despite these different tactics, each disciple, and Tripitaka himself, better themselves and approach enlightenment. Redemption and forgiveness stem from many avenues, and the monsters-turned-disciples utilize every opportunity—Buddhist in nature or not—to improve themselves. Rather than a black-and-white dualism of good and evil, the novel is a hazy field of back-and-forth interaction as the nuanced and complex main cast seeks to improve and, often, falls short. 

As the journey is an extended metaphor for perseverance through adversity, each character offers a unique...

(This entire section contains 751 words.)

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aspect of this struggle. For example, Tripitaka’s first disciple, Sun Wukong, appears to embody human sin. He is impulsive, given to flights of fancy, and exceedingly prideful. Sun Wukong begins the novel as chaos and corruption personified, and, as some scholars argue, may act as a satirical figuration of the Ming Empire, which was notoriously corrupt. However, 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. Wu Cheng’en uses his characters to indicate the pitfalls and sins that humans must face on their journey west to enlightenment and virtue, and these didactic forms speak to different forms of human fallibility and success.