Other literary forms

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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.

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Achievements

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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 storytellers for the attention of busy passersby. The Journey to the West, in its use of such traditional techniques as interpolated poems and direct address to the audience/reader (“If you want to know what happened, you must listen to what is told in the next chapter”), applies the achievements of these generations of anonymous makers of fictions to a work of a high order of literary art. The poems are especially deserving of attention, though they were omitted by Arthur Waley from his translation: Wu’s gift for casting description, narration, and commentary into well-crafted verse gave great strength to the work.

Another of the author’s achievements was the skill with which he arranged existing materials and gave to them the tone, the unifying perspective, the fascinating characterizations, and the structure that they have retained for future generations. The sources of The Journey to the West have indeed drawn a great deal of scholarly attention, but it is clear that, whatever the degree of development of his immediate source or sources, Wu did not merely copy; he effectively manipulated the materials for his poetic, comic, and descriptive ends. As Andrew Plaks points out, The Journey to the West is not so much the retelling of a popular story as the transformation of that story into the vehicle for the important message of Tripitaka’s beloved Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form.”

The Journey to the West has been read and loved by schoolchildren and by scholars from the Ming Dynasty to the post-Mao Zedong era. It stands with Lo Kuanchung’s San-kuo chih yen-I (fourteenth century; The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925), his Shui-hu chuan (fourteenth century; All Men Are Brothers, 1933; also known as Water Margin, 1937), and the anonymous Chin P’ing Mei (sixteenth century; The Golden Lotus, 1939; also known as Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and His Six Wives, 1940) as the Four Great and Wondrous Books of the efflorescence of Chinese fiction during the Ming Dynasty, and it rivals even Cao Xueqin’s superlative Hongloumeng (1792; Dream of the Red Chamber, 1958; also translated as The Story of the Stone, 1973-1980, and A Dream of Red Mansions, 1978-1980) in the affection it inspires in its readers. Perhaps it is the most accessible work of Chinese literature for the foreign reader; certainly, it invites stimulating comparisons with Western allegories, epics, and satiric narratives.

Although subject to a wide variety of thought-provoking allegorical interpretations—psychological, religious, Marxist-Maoist—the book can be read with simple delight (especially in Waley’s abridged version) by a bright eleven-year-old who wants a good story. To what extent the materials of the novel were of the author’s own invention and to what extent they were rather a well-used inheritance may never be determined, but his work in creating The Journey to the West as we know it was invaluable, and the world’s readers are in his debt.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240

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.

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