Other literary forms
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.
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...
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