Wu Chengen Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Few facts have been preserved concerning the life of Wu Chengen (wew chuhng-uhn). It is known that he was a native of Huainan, in Jiangsu Province, a town approximately one hundred miles north of Nanjing; that he began to write when he retired from the post of district magistrate; and that he was a friend of one of the leading figures of the revival of classical literature that took place during his lifetime. A handful of his poems can be found in Ming Dynasty anthologies.

However, to Wu Chengen is attributed the authorship of one of the most popular and enduring works of the Chinese tradition, The Journey to the West, first published anonymously at least ten years after his death. The local history of Huainan, compiled in 1625, does indeed treat Wu Chengen’s authorship of the novel as established fact. Moreover, throughout the years, his reputation both as a connoisseur of popular tales of the supernatural and as a masterful creator of humorous stories, reinforced the belief that he had composed The Journey to the West.

In any case, many works entitled The Journey to the West—stories in the oral tradition, religious treatises, even dramatic performances—circulated long before Wu Chengen was born. The Buddhist priest Hsuan Tsang (602-664) first employed the title for his autobiographical account of the seventeen-year journey from China to India and back that he undertook in order to bring Buddhist scriptures to China. Hsuan Tsang relates the difficulties of his pilgrimage, his life as a student of Buddhism in India, and finally his triumphant journey home to the Tang court. Through the years his story became embroidered with tales of the supernatural, with animal fables and folklore, and with Buddhist miracles from the popular tradition, until it was transformed into the tale of a courageous priest, beset by monsters and demons, who overcomes evil with the forces of good that are placed at his command by Lord Buddha.

Wu Chengen reshaped this diverse material into a novel...

(The entire section is 833 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The attribution of The Journey to the West to Wu Chengen has been questioned. In fact, the preface to the oldest extant printed text of the novel claims that the identity of the author was unknown, and the earliest known identification of Wu as the author appeared about forty years after his death (c. 1582). This situation is not, however, uncommon in the history of Chinese fiction, for the publication of work not in the literary language was once considered to be “beneath” an educated person: Many works in the vernacular were published anonymously or under pen names. Nevertheless, most of the novel read today seems to be the work of one person, and what evidence there is points clearly to Wu.

Wu was a minor official of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). His biographies tell us that he was a “native” of the Shanyang district in Huai’an Prefecture, which is today part of Jiangsu (sometimes spelled Kiangsu) Province. This does not necessarily mean that he was actually born in Shanyang, but rather that this district, which is located in the lower Yangtze (or Chang) River basin north of modern Shanghai, was his family’s ancestral home. He seems to have spent most of his life in this central coastal region, however, and The Journey to the West includes many phrases in the dialect of Huai’an. For about eight years, when he was in his forties, Wu lived in Beijing, the capital, but, as Liu Ts’un-yan suggests, he may have preferred life in the central Yangtze city of Nanjing or in the provinces.

Wu was born into a line of...

(The entire section is 640 words.)