Analysis: The Journey to the West

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2709

The Journey to the West pleases; it includes slapstick humor, sly satire, eerie monsters such as the Cadaver Demon, marvelous battles, and adventures in countries as odd as Lilliput or Brobdingnag—places such as the Women Nation, Serpent Coil Mountain, and Mysterious Flower Cave. The main characters are an amusing mix: a complaining holy man, an all-too-human pig, a vague but friendly river monster, and the magical king of the monkeys, who calls himself The Great Sage Equal to Heaven and gets into trouble because he refuses to knuckle under to the celestial hierarchy. Their goal is not reached until near the book’s end, and the pilgrims’ return to China is supernaturally swift.

The novel has a didactic message as well. Before considering what it has to say about human nature, society, and religion, however, it will be useful to consider the centuries-long evolution of its plot and its characters. Much of the novel’s richness is the result of the author’s wide-ranging perspective, but much, too, is the result of the variety of its long, multilayered development.


One major strand of materials around which the story grew is the official biographies and the popular hagiographies of a seventh century monk, Xuanzang, who came to be known as T’ang San-tsang, or Tripitaka. Both the first name (which is Chinese) and the second (which is Sanskrit, the language of the Buddhist scriptures) honor him for the sutras he brought back from India to China. Works such as the Ta T’ang San-tsang ch’ü ching shih-hua (thirteenth century), the story, with poems, of how the Tang Dynasty monk Tripitaka obtained the scriptures, sketch in a few of the events and themes that appear elsewhere in the tradition, most fully in Wu’s The Journey to the West itself. Yet numerous brief tales and fragments recorded earlier suggest the gradual accretion of fantastic motifs onto the historical Tripitaka’s journey, which—rigorous though it was—was actually only one of many made by devout Chinese west and south to the homeland of Buddhism.

In The Journey to the West and its immediate forebears, the Tripitaka tales are mingled with motifs from many legends about magic monkeys. It has been suggested that The Journey to the West shows influence from Indian, Tibetan, or Central Asian epics that tell about monkeys of mythic power, and certainly some sharing of themes among the cultures must have taken place, but native Chinese stories also abound with supernatural apes, some of which do acts of religious merit and some of which are evil and must be controlled. (Clearly, both aspects of the indigenous tradition find expression in Wu’s Monkey.) Moreover, the evidence suggests that the written transmission to China of figures such as India’s Hanuman, the monkey-hero of the Rmyana (c. 350 b.c.e.) epic, was limited. What influence there was, then, seems most likely to have been minor. Perhaps the metaphor of ape for human is not so far-fetched that it could not be thought of more than once.

In any case, these two main characters—the pilgrim monk and his unruly monkey disciple—appear together long before the composition of Wu’s novel. Fragments of dramas dating from the thirteenth century, and a fourteenth century cycle of plays in twenty-four acts called Hsi-yu chi tza-chü (the journey to the west variety shows), suggest the range and shape of the novel to come. There still exist two short narratives in the vernacular that, because they were published well before Wu’s lifetime yet show marked similarities to passages in The Journey to the West, reveal that Wu must have worked from an older text or texts in creating his novel. The two shorter versions of The Journey to the West that were published about the same time as Wu’s may have been sources for his work or may have been abridgments of it.

There is a further textual problem that affects the modern reader’s experience of the novel. The text now ascribed to Wu today includes as its ninth chapter a pious biography of Tripitaka, which may seem somewhat at odds in tone with the rest of the book. This chapter does not appear in the 1592 edition of The Journey to the West. Probably it was added later from the wealth of materials about the life of the monk, yet the chapter’s appearance in one of the contemporaneous shorter versions mentioned above suggests the possibility of a full version, written by Wu and circulated in his lifetime, that was the basis for an abridgment as well as for the 1592 edition, which for some reason omitted chapter 9. Or perhaps Wu himself—recognizing the need to give the story of Tripitaka’s life before the quest, as he does for the other pilgrims—added chapter 9 after releasing the draft that became the basis for the 1592 edition, though stylistic differences make this seem less likely. In any case, other changes since that date are minor, especially when compared to the textual problems associated with other old Chinese novels.


The structure of The Journey to the West suggests something of the complexity of its development in the folk tradition; it also reflects the scope of a novel that places human life in the larger context of the supranatural cosmos. The book may be considered to fall into four parts: the early history of the monkey-king (chapters 1 through 7); the origins of Tripitaka and of the quest for the scriptures, which is prefigured by the Chinese emperor’s visit to the underworld (chapters 8 through 12); the pilgrims’ adventures (chapters 13 through 97); and the conclusion of the journey (chapters 98 through 100).

The novel begins with the beginning of the universe. Thus, the reader is reminded of the formless, undifferentiated Chaos that—in the traditional Chinese cosmogony—existed prior to existence. Grafted onto this concept in the opening poem is the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment so important to the book’s development. This is only the first of many instances of Wu’s syncretism, and his blending of elements from the various philosophical and religious schools of his day is a major source of the novel’s satisfying complexity and one reason for its popularity. After the narrative describes the primal cosmic day of 129,600 years, the formation of the physical world begins, and the reader’s attention is directed to a stone stop an axis mundi mountain in the fabulous realms of the paradisiacal Eastern Sea. This immortal stone, which is a kind of microcosm of the universe of space and time, is impregnated by the spiritual energy of the Yin and Yang forces and gives birth to the magic monkey, who recognizes and hence draws on the powers of the “four quarters” (the orderly, created earth) and finally becomes the founder of a nation.

Such is the cosmic frame of reference that gives The Journey to the West its epic scope, its mythic force, and the authority for its central theme of illusion versus reality. Like the invocation to the muse at the beginning of the great epics of the West, this opening links the mundane realm to the divine, and the first chapter’s conclusion, the monkey-king’s acquisition of a name with a strong religious message—he is called Wu-kung, which might be glossed as “one who has become spiritually awakened to the Void that is the true nature of what we take to be reality”—reminds us of the power of language. The name that defines the monkey’s ego is also a sign of the truth that everything, even that ego, is illusion—a truth that the pilgrims, and the reader, will have to journey through ninety-nine more chapters to grasp.

Characters and themes

Monkey has much to learn, or unlearn, however, before the name that so delights him becomes altogether accurate. His qualities are the restlessness and daring of the human mind, and his wondrous abilities—to change his bodily form or to travel to a distant continent in the wink of an eye—suggest the slippery tricks of human fancy. When he overreaches and steals peaches of immortality from the heavenly orchard, magic elixir from the palace of the revered Daoist figure Laozi, and jade juice and ambrosia from a celestial banquet, Monkey must be imprisoned for five hundred years beneath a mountain in the desert borderlands of China, until Tripitaka frees him to serve as a disciple on the quest. So, too, must the mind be controlled, and even after he is freed, “the monkey of the mind,” as he is sometimes called, remains subject to a thin band of metal that literally surrounds his skull and clamps down when Tripitaka finds it necessary—until the novel’s end, when Monkey becomes a Buddha and learns that the band that restricted him has vanished.

Yet there is much of value in Monkey’s energy, once it is civilized. His optimism, his ingenuity in matching his magical transformations to the enemy at hand, his straightforwardness and freedom from inhibitions, his generosity toward his dependents—these qualities are as much a part of his appeal as are his bombast and humor. Central to what makes the reader admire him is his liberation from what muddles more ordinary lives. He views his rights as equal to those of anyone else and simply does not recognize the authority of the heavenly bureaucracy. He has the daring that allows him to step outside society’s limitations; even if those ordering limitations seem necessary for daily life, the individual who finds them at times confining is bound to feel a secret glee at Monkey’s antics. Most important, Monkey maintains the attitude of nonattachment that is central to Buddhist ideals of right thought and action. His attention is not focused on the goal of the quest, on fretting and imagining; rather, he lives in the moment at hand, solving problems when they present themselves, and is therefore liberated from the ill effects of taking this illusory world too seriously.

Tripitaka, for all the reverent description of his piety in chapter 9, falls short of this ideal of nonattachment. His sentimentality arises, forgivably, from his compassion, but he is also guilty of fear. In part, his fears arise from an awareness of his human physical limitations; this causes him to fret over his bodily needs and leaves him sometimes paralyzed and helpless. Worse is his wrongful willingness to believe in the reality of his senses and the false monsters that they create. Thus, in Tripitaka’s first adventure with his new disciple, the monk falls easy prey to the Six Robbers (allegorical representations of those tricksters, the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the mind, and the body), while Monkey wisely laughs them off. Tripitaka, however, does have the great virtue of faith, and he, too, becomes a Buddha at the end—not because he has worked for saintliness, but precisely in spite of his sometimes petty clinging to the letter of monastic law.

Another of Tripitaka’s disciples, the river monster Sha Monk (Sha Wuching, or Sandy) is less sharply characterized, but the fourth pilgrim, Pigsy (Chu Pa-chieh, Wu-neng), is unforgettable. The long poem in which he introduces himself aptly begins: “My mind was dim since the time of my youth;/Always I loved my indolence and sloth.” As Hsia has pointed out, Pigsy represents the ordinary human being who simply wants a comfortable family life. His greed and his lust make him an object of ridicule, yet in the end he is rewarded—not with Buddhahood, for he has not yet detached himself from his passions, but with a comfortable position clearing up the plentiful offerings of food from Buddhist altars. Thus, he is given a situation suitable to his level of spiritual development, as the book concludes with the “everyone in the right place” ending familiar to readers of Western comedies.

The objects of Wu’s satire, then, include the various follies of the pilgrims, and hence of humanity, but that is only the beginning. Early in the novel, when Monkey first leaves his subjects in the monkey kingdom and goes off to learn how to become an immortal, a demon attacks his land; presumably the monkey-folk would not have suffered had their king been fulfilling his social duties rather than seeking personal spiritual growth. Despite Wu’s devout espousal of Buddhist beliefs and the high value he places on the spiritual effects of esoteric Daoist practices, such as internal alchemy and breath-control, he does not hesitate to criticize religious practitioners. The bickering and the fruitless dogmas of various schools are revealed as foolishness when Monkey first becomes a pupil of the Patriarch. The satire goes further: This teacher’s “secret signs” are somewhat laughable, and the one who deciphers them and wins the coveted right to the secret teachings is, after all, an unruly ape.

In contrast to the quarrelsome and selfish would-be holy ones is the simple woodcutter in chapter 1: He points the way to the Patriarch’s cave for Monkey but cannot take time for religious study himself because he has selflessly devoted his life to caring for his aged mother. A similar figure, the tiger hunter who defies all the Buddhist prohibitions against taking life and eating meat, appears at the start of Tripitaka’s journey west; although he breaks religious law, he, too, is portrayed as filial, thoughtful, and helpful.

Sometimes, just as human characteristics such as pride and greed are given animal or monster form, female figures are used in the novel as the embodiments of the temptations of lust and the subtler temptation (see chapters 53 and 54) to reproduce, but this misogynous projection of the human sexual drive onto women alone may be viewed rather as a prejudice of Wu’s culture than as uniquely his. Also, as in the West, this vision of women is oddly accompanied by a female figure of great virtue, Kuan-yin, the motherly and loving Goddess of Mercy.

Critical reception

Fuller analyses of the Buddhist, Daoist, and neo-Confucian allegorical messages of The Journey to the West have been written by Plaks, Yu, Hsia, and a long tradition of Chinese commentators before the present century; there are other possible allegorical readings as well. Certainly, the riotous disruptions of the somewhat pompous courts of the Daoist pantheon or the Dragon King wittily suggest the vulnerability of similar institutions in the human realm. Bureaucratic corruption, too, is given amusingly pointed satiric treatment: It even appears among the divine assistants of the Buddha himself. Several interesting readings of the novel in the light of the Marxist concept of class struggle have been made; these focus on Monkey’s defiance of established authority. The author of the brief essay in a volume edited by Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein (cited in the bibliography) offers a fascinating interpretation of the work from the perspective of developmental psychology. Yet to reduce this multivalent work to any one simplistic allegory is to lose sight of many other meanings.

Still, Wu’s novel does have a central focus, one that allows for a variety of understandings of the characters, their interrelationships, and the true nature of their journey. The main point of the book is clear: This world is unreal, even absurd, and certainly our perceptions of it are not to be trusted. What we call “reality” shifts and deceives us; the laws of nature may apply to hapless, nervous, human Tripitaka, but not to enlightened beings such as Monkey. To realize this, however, is not to despair; rather, it is to achieve the kind of relaxed acceptance that is modeled by the novel’s narrator. If society’s hierarchies are to be questioned and if Tripitaka’s pietistic concern with maintaining his purity is sometimes looked at askance, their positive values are also recognized. The bitterness of the last part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) has no place in this book. Wu Chengen seems to encourage us to see how far short of ideal this world falls—and how that falling-short is inevitable, given its illusory nature. Still, it is the world we have to live in, and he allows his reader to see the joke in that.

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