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 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 awayAnd 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 eyesAs 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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 733 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.