Article by Malcolm Aquino
There are few faces that you will see more than Sun Wukong’s in China. Whether its movies, tv shows, video games or theater, Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, has made many appearances. You will often see costumed performers bearing his likeness through many tourist spots, dancing and swinging their mighty plastic staffs.
One would think a character of such fame would have quite a story, but the truth is that Sun Wukong is a decorated side kick. Journey to the West is about Tang Sanzang, a devout Buddhist monk who is tasked by the Buddha to retrieve holy scriptures from Vulture Peak, a mountain located somewhere in India. Sanzang must bring the scriptures back to China, called the Eastern Han in the novel, and achieve enlightenment on the way.
Joining him are three monks who must atone for sins they have committed. The first one he meets is the one and only Sun Wukong, a fierce, hotheaded monkey with many magical powers and unparalleled martial skills. The second is Zhu Bajie, a greedy, lazy, but good-hearted man who looks like a pig. Last, Sanzang meets Sha Wujing, a stoic ogre, who is the quiet one of the group. Together, they spend 17 years trekking through China, India, and many other central Asian countries in search of holy scriptures. They fight many demons, escape many kidnappings, and solve many great riddles.
Luckily, they are assisted along the way by an all star cast of holy beings, from Lao Zi, founder of Taoism to Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, who lends her wisdom and power. There are many others who lend a hand to this band on the monk’s journey to achieve enlightenment. On their quest, they find a village that’s inhabited only by women and a mountain covered in fire among the many other trials they face.
Like many old Chinese novels, Journey to the West is inspired by true events. Tang Sanzang is based on the famous Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who lived during the early times of the Tang Dynasty. Unimpressed with the quality of Buddhist scriptures translated to Chinese, Xuanzang set out to study abroad and bring back translated texts. Xuanzang left Chang’an (now Xi’an) in 639 AD, spent the next year travelling to India, and then the next 13 years in India, studying scriptures. Xuanzang returned to Chang’an in 646 AD with many scriptures and notes. He led the construction of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to store the holy texts. Xuanzang did all of this while the Emperor Taizong banned all Chinese citizens from travel. Lucky for Xuanzang, he returned a hero and was not charged with any crimes.
The novel version of events is credited to Wu Cheng’en, although that has been debated by some scholars. Wu takes Xuanzang’s account of events, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, and adds many Chinese folk tales and characters from famous Chinese myths to make an epic retelling of Xuanzang’s quest to find the scriptures. Much of the novel’s plot usually breaks down like this: Sanzang is kidnapped by some evil force, be it a demon or angry spirit. Wukong and friends must come up with a way to save them. Wukong and Zhu Bajie argue, then Wukong saves Sanzang, usually with some divine help or through wit. Much of the novel documents their journey to India, with the first few chapters covering the origin of Sun Wukong and his antics in Heaven, and the last chapter quickly wrapping up the return journey.
Religion and philosophy are deeply rooted in the novel, with Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism all under the microscope. Sun Wukong begins the novel as a Taoist, using those techniques to threaten the stability of Heaven. He is defeated by the Buddha, who assists the Jade Emperor in stopping Wukong’s destruction. He is then converted to Buddhism, to atone for the chaos he caused. However, he never gives up his Taoist powers, and oftentimes it is these powers that save the group from death. Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are also Buddhist converts. They also had positions in the Heavenly government but, like Wukong, the positions were pretentious and truly held no power. They too use much of the knowledge of Taoism to fight demons and protect Sanzang.
In fact, the only true Buddhist, that is to say the one who has followed the path since birth (with some divine intervention every once in a while), is Sanzang and he is portrayed as the least capable of defending himself and is often crying and panicking. It is only with the help of these Taoist masters who are now Buddhists that Sanzang is even able to sleep at night. Sanzang, while physically and mentally weak at times, is not a just a walking plot device, but has a good heart and is very studious in scripture. These traits also help when the brute force of the Monkey King doesn’t do much good. He is able to convince people to help them and hides the fact that Wukong, Bajie, Wujing are all walking monsters from scared townspeople and kings. The unity of Taoism and Buddhism and the message that these two schools of thought work best together is one of the big themes of the novel. Both Buddhist and Taoist deities lend help to the group on numerous occasions, even together in some conflicts. The group fights both Buddhist and Taoist demons and enemies.
While the three fighters of the group are Buddhist on the journey, they do not lose their Taoist teachings as a part of it. There are chapters where a group of Buddhists or Taoists oppress one another, and it is only after they have run-ins with Sanzang and friends are they able to reconcile or end the conflict once and for all.
It is not only religion that is looked at in Journey to the West; Imperial bureaucracy is often criticized throughout. The group manages to kill a lot of demons and witches, but they are just as often held up by corrupt kings, inept guards, and local uprisings. Many of the times that Sanzang is captured are due to some legal trouble and he is detained by the imperial guards, with Wukong and the others having to use their diplomatic skills at times, though rarely.
Journey to the West is a dense book. With a hundred chapters and over a thousand pages, this one will take a while. It is much like The Odyssey, Heracles, and other ancient myths and epics. Journey to the West was first written much later than the Greek, Mesopotamian, and Roman classics, but its structure and themes are very similar, especially in it’s “Hero’s Journey” narrative structure. It is definitely worth a read, but don’t expect to finish this in a couple days.
Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.