The Journey to the West

by Wu Cheng'en

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Process of Earning Redemption

Journey to the West may recount a fictionalized version of historical events; however, Wu Cheng’en’s monumental work is an allegory for human striving and perseverance that extends beyond the real-life events of Xuanzang’s seventh-century pilgrimage. Indeed, the story focuses on the character arcs of its five-man band: the monk, Tripitaka, his three disciples, and his loyal steed. His disciples, celestial beings punished for their misdoings and immorality, develop throughout the journey. In the face of demons, spirits, and other divine challenges, the trio becomes more virtuous and enlightened. Their past sins are forgiven, and they attain heights once thought impossible for such spiritually-bereft characters. 

Though all of the characters must work for their redemption, the Monkey King is the best example of the transformative nature of their journey. His pride and arrogance led to his imprisonment by the Buddha; he remains imprisoned for 500 years. When he is finally released, forgiveness proves elusive. Instead, he must accompany Tripitaka on his journey, p rotect him from harm, and aid the monk’s mission to find and return Buddhist scriptures to China. His mistakes do not color his eternal existence, though. He can work to earn forgiveness through his good deeds. By the story’s end, the Monkey King has undergone immense change and learned enough to attain the enlightenment and divinity that long eluded his impulsive and quick-to-anger younger self.

Adversity as a Tool for Growth

In keeping with the novel’s allegorical discussion of perseverance, many characters face extreme adversity and struggle. These experiences provide a backdrop of strength that serves them well during their westward journey and allow them to thrive amidst the challenging nature of their quest.

In the second part of the novel, when Wu Cheng’en discusses Tripitaka’s life story and motivations, he reveals that his protagonist was born after his father was supposedly killed by a ferryman who usurped his wife and job. Soon after, Tripitaka’s now-remarried mother dumped him into a river. He survived the ordeal and was adopted and raised as a monk. When he found out the truth about his parents, he revealed the crimes of the ferryman and demanded his father's return from the god of the river. From such difficult origins, Tripitaka gained the traits that prepared him for his journey: spiritual piety, Buddhist values, patience, and kindness. 

During their travels, the group faces dozens of terrifying and dangerous ordeals. Yet, by working together, they overcome these ordeals and learn to be strong, wise, and brave. By persevering through struggle and strife, Tripitaka and his companions earn their eternal reward, compensation for their willingness to conquer adversity.

The Importance of Buddhist Values

The importance of Buddhist values and the pursuit of a virtuous, spiritually perfect life in Journey to the West cannot be overstated. The titular journey, its participants, the trials they face along the way, and the aid they receive act as a didactic means of communicating religious ideas and moral lessons. Tripitaka’s disciples face punishment for their immoral actions. They are not pardoned until they have learned how to live virtuous lives, acted without selfish motivations, and actively sought to improve themselves. As the previous discussions of redemption and adversity indicate, the novel is a means for the author to indicate the lifestyle and personal conduct expected of a moral person. Rejecting Buddhist values, as the Monkey King often does, leads to punishment. However, by acting in line with such values, the characters are rewarded and attain higher states of being. In short, the novel creates a black-and-white construction of punishment and reward for one’s actions, a bifurcated system that poses Buddhism and its system of living as the ideal state of perfection.

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