Wu Chengen Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wu Chengen (woo chehng-ehn) is remembered chiefly for his great novel, but he was also a skilled poet and a writer of satiric stories, supernatural tales, and essays in the literary language. Only The Journey to the West is available in English translation.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Journey to the West is one of the world’s great comic adventure novels, a major religious epic, and an amusing and instructive satire on human foibles. In compiling and shaping materials that by the sixteenth century had a rich tradition of their own, Wu Chengen gave them their definitive form, a form that has remained unrivaled by later variations on the story. The imaginative force of this quest by a magic monkey, a pig, a river monster, and a monk to bring Buddhist scriptures back from India can be seen in The Journey to the West cartoons, comic books, and cut-paper pictures still popular in China (and Japan) today. The modern Westerner who has the opportunity to attend a performance by a “Chinese opera” troupe is likely to see a scene from one of the plays that were part of the evolution of the novel, and he or she is almost certain to be captivated by the spectacle of the monkey-king’s acrobatic antics.

The novel is also one of the works that mark the sixteenth century in China as a heyday for fiction written in the language of the people. For at least five centuries, stories in the vernacular had been told in the marketplaces by professional storytellers, despite the official view of the educated class that fiction, and anything not written in the difficult language of the classics, did not deserve the status of “literature.” (Westerners might compare the situation to that of medieval Europe before Dante, when serious writing was done not in French or Italian or Spanish but in Latin.) Love stories, tales of heroism, and narratives about human encounters with the supernatural came to be written down and printed, perhaps as “promptbooks” for the storytellers or perhaps as imitations of such promptbooks for members of the literate middle class—and for some of the literati in their leisure hours.

There existed also an even older tradition of popular Buddhist sermons and homilies that used secular, and sometimes sensational, subject matter to compete with the marketplace...

(The entire section is 835 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Dudbridge, Glen. The “Hsi-yu chi”: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Includes bibliography.

Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University East Asia Program, 1996. Provides informative critical introduction to The Journey to the West.

Jenner, William J. F., trans. The Journey to the West, by Wu Chengen. 3 vols. Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1994. Includes an extensive scholarly introduction and notes that address the allegorical significance of the novel.

Liu Ts’un-yan. Wu Ch’eng-en: His Life and Career. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967. Biography of the writer to whom The Journey to the West is attributed.

Plaks, Andrew H. The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Provides informative critical introduction to the work.

Waley, Arthur, trans. Monkey. 1942. Reprint. New York: Grove Press, 1984. A lively, much-loved translation. Waley, however, translates only about a fourth of the original text, omitting many of the trials undergone by the pilgrims during their journey. See Antony C. Yu and William J. F. Jenner for complete translations.

Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone: Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in “Dream of the Red Chamber,” “Water Margin,” and “The Journey to the West.” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Compares masterworks of Chinese literature.

Yu, Anthony C., trans. Journey to the West, by Wu Chengen. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977-1983. A complete translation.