Your Ultimate Guide to the Secret Rebels Behind “Journey to the West”

Hsi-yu chi, or Journey to the West, is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. The novel adds elements from a bewildering array of Asian cultural lore, as well as from the three major religious traditions of China (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). Adding elements of the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist teachings which are still reflective of some religious attitudes today, the story is considered so relevant that it becomes the basis of many retellings, movies, video games and animes.

The Monkey King is a Tin Neon Pang bas-relief made in 1984. It is located on Saint-Urbain Street, south of De La Gauchetière Street, in Montreal's Chinatown.
The Monkey King is a Tin Neon Pang bas-relief made in 1984. It is located on Saint-Urbain Street, south of De La Gauchetière Street, in Montreal’s Chinatown. By Jeangagnon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although Journey to the West may be considered as a pleasant introduction to the calm and gentle Buddhist philosophy, behind this story is in fact a real journey by a Buddhist monk ten centuries earlier who defied his emperor and became a fugitive questing his way to India. Also behind this story is a passionate poet who broke China’s literary tradition and wrote something for the common man at the expense of his own reputation.

Chinese New Year Family Festival 2016 in Washington DC
Chinese New Year Family Festival 2016 in Washington DC By S Pakhrin (CC BY 2.0)

A Monk’s Journey to the West with his Divine Companions 

The story of The Journey to the West follows one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s disciples who was banished from the heavenly paradise for slighting the Buddhist precepts. He was sent to the human world and forced to spend ten lifetimes practicing religious self-cultivation in order to atone for his sins.

In the Tang Dynasty, (and now in his tenth lifetime) the disciple reincarnates as a monk named Xuanzang (also known as Tang Monk and Tripitaka). The emperor orders Xuanzang to travel west and bring the holy Mahayana Buddhist scriptures back to China. After being inspired by a vision from the goddess Guanyin, he accepts the mission and sets off on the quest.

Journey to the West Illustration at Fung Tak Park By Fraxaer SI38F8 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

After ten lifetimes of self-cultivations, Xuanzang is no ordinary monk. His flesh is said to impart immortality. However, the weak and timid young monk is no match for the evil creatures seeking to kill and eat him, and therefore is ill-equipped for such perilous travel on his own. Knowing this, the goddess Guanyin provides the monks with four divine protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their own sins.

A scene of Journey to the West. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi published in 1864
A scene of Journey to the West. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi published in 1864

These protectors are the monkey king, and former Keeper of the Heavenly Horses, Sun Wukong who was punished for rebelling against heaven and for eating the heavenly peaches, the former Commander of the Heavenly Naval Forces Zhu Wuneng who was banished to earth for flirting, the former Celestial Curtain Lifting General Sha Wujing who was banished to earth for shattering a goblet of the Celestial Queen Mother, and the dragon prince Yulong who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. Out of mercy, Guanyin gives them one more chance to return to their celestial home if they agree to protect the monk on his pilgrimage.

Indeed, it is a very difficult journey as they encounter one trial after another. They are never short on demons and evil spirits coming after the monk through force or deception and through wealth or beauty. Yet, in the end, the pilgrims triumph and return to China with sacred scriptures – later achieving their rightful places in the heavens.

Statues of Zhu Bajie (left) and Tang Sanzang (right) at Haw Par Villa, Singapore.
Statues of Zhu Bajie (left) and Tang Sanzang (right) at Haw Par Villa, Singapore. By Sengkang (Copyrighted free use)

The Real Xuanzang: the Monk who Obtained the Sutras

The Journey to the West is based on a true story— the legendary pilgrimage of a seventh century Buddhist monk from Chang’an, Xuanzang, who traveled to the “west”— that is Central Asia and India, to obtain Buddhist sacred texts and then returned to China after many trials and suffering.  He made this historic pilgrimage to India along the Silk Road, travelling one of the longest and oldest trade routes known to mankind.

Although Buddha was born in 656 BCE, it was not until 60 or 70 CE that the first Chinese Buddhist communities were reported. Buddhism developed so widely and so rapidly that by Xuanzang’s lifetime, there were so many schools of Buddhism and so many conflicting texts that it became apparent to Xuanzang that to really study Buddhism to the standard he wished to achieve, he had to go to the source. Therefore, in 629 CE he set forth to seek “the sacred traces of the Buddha” and to find the true Buddhist scriptures in the land of its birth.

Image of the Monk Tang Xuanzang being seduced by two women  from the 1927 Chinese movie The Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong)
Image of the Monk Tang Xuanzang being seduced by two women from the 1927 Chinese movie The Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong)

However, unlike the more supportive fictional emperor in the novel, the real Tang Emperor had forbidden travel in the dangerous western regions. Xuanzang, who grew up in a strict Confucian tradition, struggled with a decision on whether or not to make the journey.  According to tradition, further enforced by a scene in Journey to the West, before Xuanzang left, he had a vision of the holy Mount Sumeru, and an unending horizon, symbol of the many lands he hoped to see. Therefore, Xuanzang went forth on his journey as a fugitive, hiding by day and traveling by night. When he finally reached the Jade Gate, he set out with his horse and a guide to cross the Gashun Gobi Desert.

Xuanzang’s sixteen years’ journey from 629 to 645 CE was a time of great changes throughout Asia. A year after Xuanzang’s departure, the Khanate of the Eastern Turks fell, removing China’s greatest threat to its northwest borders. Only a few years after the grand gathering of the Western Turks near Lake Issik Kul which Xuanzang would have witnessed, the Great Khan of the Western Turks was assassinated. This led to the breakdown of the once powerful Western Turkish Empire and allowed the Tang emperor Taizong to begin establishing power over the oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert.

The five characters in Journey to the West
The five characters in Journey to the West by จ่างหมิง (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Xuanzang would have been very conscious of his precarious position as an unarmed monk in the middle of wars and political upheavals happening around him. He traveled over the highest mountain ranges in Asia, on both the northern and southern Silk roads and through regions that are now Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on his way to India and, later, back home to China.

He visited with kings, replenished his caravan with horses and camels, as well as discussed Buddhism with merchants, warriors and fellow monks from different cultures and traditions. He forged new bonds between the major civilizations of Asia and served as a capable, albeit unofficial, diplomat throughout his journey, showing himself to be fully conscious of places, situations and relationships wherever he was. Along with Marco Polo, Xuanzang was the most famous traveler on the Silk Road with the added distinction of having traveled both on the northern and southern Silk roads, which even Marco Polo did not do.

Painted on the corridor of the Summer Palace
Painted on the corridor of the Summer Palace

Xuanzang recorded his journey extensively— characterizing each kingdom, describing the size of the capital, the soil, products, climate, the inhabitants, their clothes, style of writing, kings, and codes of law as well comparing local Buddhist tradition to what would have been familiar to himself. The record is titled the Great Tang Records on the Western Region, and served as the basis of Wucheng’en’s novel many years later. Aurel Stein, Central Asian explorer and archeologist, also credits Xuanzang with the first ethnographic survey of Kashmir, where he studied Buddhist philosophy for two years from 631-633 CE.

Like his fictional counterpart, Xuanzang’s travels were not without dangers. He met a band of robbers near Kharashahr and in Afghanistan shortly before he visited the cave of the Buddha’s shadow. Robbers also tried to ambush his caravan in the Punjab and pirates very nearly burned him at the stake not far from Ayodha.

A page from the earliest-known edition of Journey to the West, in woodblock print, 16th century
A page from the earliest-known edition of Journey to the West, in woodblock print, 16th century

When Xuanzang arrived home at Chang’an in 645 CE, high officials met him and guided him into the capital and the streets were filled with vast crowds welcoming him home. By the 10th century CE, a popular story cycle inspired by the travels of Xuanzang had already developed which finally led to the 16th century epic Journey to the West. Xuanzang was painted in temple wall decorations, and was the subject of popular block prints, puppet shows, and many other arts. He still remains a well-known folk hero in contemporary China and parts of East Asia.

For the next 19 years until his death in 664 CE, Xuanzang translated the variety of Buddhist scriptures that he managed to bring back with him. He is also remembered for the Wild Goose Pagoda which he persuaded the Emperor to build to house his scriptures. The pagoda still stands today as a major tourist attraction in Chang’an. Xuanzang died in 664 CE, and the Xingjiao Monastery was established in 669 CE to house his ashes.

The Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim Xuanzang (painting  dated between 1800 and 1900)
The Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim Xuanzang (painting dated between 1800 and 1900)

Wu Cheng’en: The Poetic Provincial Civil Servant

Wu Cheng’en was born in Huai-an, Kiangsu province in eastern China in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). As Xuanzang before him, Wu Cheng’en was also trained in the traditional Confucian manner and, also like Xuanzang, his life was not easy.

He repeatedly failed the arduous examinations for the imperial civil service. He did not gain entry into the imperial university in Nanjing until later in life. Finally, at the advanced age of 63, he became a provincial magistrate with postings in Beijing and Changxing county only to be imprisoned two years later on charges of corruption which he did not commit. After clearing Wu Cheng’en’s name, the imperial court offered him another post, which he refused, choosing instead live the remainder of his life in solitude, devoting himself to writing.  Wucheng’en became a writer, producing both poetry and prose, developing a distinctive style which conveys strong emotions— a stark contrast with the measured style preferred in literature at the time.

The pilgrims Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, "Sandy“, and "Pigsy“ at Western Paradise in production Monkey Sun (Theatre Esence, 1984) by By Jiří Procházka, Prague, Czech Republic - Archive of Amateur Theatre Esence, GFDL
The pilgrims Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, “Sandy“, and “Pigsy“ at Western Paradise in production Monkey Sun (Theatre Esence, 1984) by By Jiří Procházka, Prague, Czech Republic – Archive of Amateur Theatre Esence, GFDL

Like most of his contemporaries, Wucheng’en would have read the Great Tang Records on the Western Region and would have heard many stories of the now legendary monk Xuanzang. By his time, Xuanzang’s pilgrimage had become the subject of many fantastic legends, which had already inspired paintings and performances, giving him plenty of source material for his novel. Wucheng’en was inspired to write his own artistic interpretation of the historical pilgrimage of Xuanzang.

Greatness comes from the Risky Journeys of Poets and Rebels

Wucheng’en wrote Journey to the West in the vernacular rather than the formal and officially accepted classical or literary Chinese style. Classical Chinese style refers to the written language of the classical period of Chinese literature, from the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (early fifth century BCE) to the end of the Han Dynasty (220 CE), while Literary Chinese is the form of written Chinese used from the end of the Han Dynasty to the early 20th century, when it was replaced by vernacular written Chinese.

By writing in the vernacular style, Wucheng’en took a great risk, as it was a style considered of “ill-repute” and not fitted to be read by scholars and ministers – the class of people who could afford to, and did, read books and poetries in the classical language at the time. However, by breaking the rigid literary rules of the time, Wucheng’en reached a much wider audience by making his language less refined and “exclusive”. However, his usual passionate writing style and his preference for fantastic tales did not win him any admirers even before he started writing Journey to the West. It was therefore understandable that he may have published Journey to the West anonymously to not further damage his reputation.

Image from the 1927 Chinese movie The Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong)
Image from the 1927 Chinese movie The Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong)

Re-interpreting Xanzang’s encounters with dangers as “demons” in their fictional journey, Wucheng’en had the pilgrims encounter and battle demons, dragons, and gods from Asian mythology, in which he was evidently well-versed and vividly describes. He also added to his novel biting satire of the often inefficient and inescapable Chinese bureaucracy of his time. For example, when Monkey visits heaven early in the novel, he meets the Jade Emperor, who is less a mighty divinity than prosaic administrator, presiding over a bloated civil service composed of numerous useless officials with pompous titles.

Although the fictional monk Xuanzang is the central figure of the story, Sun Wukong (the monkey king) is the most recognized character. The reason for this, most critics agree, is that Sun Wukong embodies the theme that Wucheng’en, and Xuangzang centuries before him, embodied, which is that a rebellious spirit can defy even the most untouchable of feudal rulers. This idea of defying authority, something that both men had done, was highly frowned upon in China as the ideas of Confucianism again took hold over the newer religions in the region. Unlike Confucianism, which taught conformity and proper behavior within an ideal social system, Taoism and Buddhism advocated an approach to life more receptive to new ideas and changes. The central character of the monk, therefore, was necessary as a foil for Sun Wukong’s rebellious nature.

Linh Phuoc Pagoda at Lam Dong, Vietnam
Linh Phuoc Pagoda at Lam Dong, Vietnam

The novel ends with the band’s discovery of the sacred scrolls. For his efforts in defense of his friend the monk, Sun Wukong is made a saint, with the new name “Buddha Victorious in Strife”. However, this success did not extend to his author. Unlike Sun Wukong who achieved his Buddhahood and Xuanzang who spent the rest of his life in the glory of his achievement, Wucheng’en remained poor throughout his life. Dissatisfied with the political climate of the time and with the corruption of the world, he spent much of his life as a hermit.

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