Journey to the West （西游记; pinyin: Xīyóujì） is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Originally published anonymously in the 1590s during the Ming Dynasty, and even though no direct evidence of its authorship survives, it has been ascribed to the scholar Wú Chéng’ēn since the 20th century.
In western countries, the tale is also often known simply as Monkey. This was one title used for a popular, abridged translation by Arthur Waley. The Waley translation has also been published as Adventures of the Monkey God; and Monkey: [A] Folk Novel of China; and The Adventures of Monkey.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the legends around the Buddhist monk Xuánzàng’s pilgrimage to India during the Táng dynasty in order to obtain Buddhist religious texts called sutras. The Bodhisattva Guānyīn, on instruction from the Buddha, gives this task to the monk and his three protectors in the form of disciples — namely Sūn Wùkōng, Zhū Bājiè and Shā Wùjìng — together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuánzàng’s horse mount. These four characters have agreed to help Xuánzàng as an atonement for past sins.
Some scholars propose that the book satirises the effete Chinese government at the time. Journey to the West has a strong background in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology and value systems; the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas is still reflective of Chinese folk religious beliefs today.
Part of the novel’s enduring popularity comes from the fact that it works on multiple levels: it is a first-rate adventure story, a dispenser of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India stands for the individual journeying toward enlightenment.
The novel comprises 100 chapters. These can be divided into four very unequal parts. The first, which includes chapters 1–7, is really a self-contained prequel to the main body of the story. It deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sūn Wùkōng, a monkey born from a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformations, combat and secrets of immortality, and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qítiān Dàshèng (齐天大圣), or "Great Sage Equal to Heaven". His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sūn’s rebellion against Heaven, during a time when he garnered a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mountain for five hundred years.
18th century Chinese illustration of a scene from Journey to the West
An illustrated edition of the storyonly following this introductory story is the nominal main character, Xuánzàng, introduced. Chapters 8–12 provide his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that "the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins", the Buddha instructs the Bodhisattva Guānyīn to search Táng China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of "transcendence and persuasion for good will" back to the East. Part of the story here also relates to how Xuánzàng becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as the "Golden Cicada" and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by the Emperor Táng Tàizōng, who previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official).
The third and longest section of the work is chapters 13–99, an episodic adventure story which combines elements of the quest as well as the picaresque. The skeleton of the story is Xuánzàng’s quest to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but the flesh is provided by the conflict between Xuánzàng’s disciples and the various evils that beset him on the way.
The scenery of this section is, nominally, the sparsely populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India, including Xinjiang, Turkestan, and Afghanistan. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantastic; once Xuánzàng departs Cháng’ān, the Táng capital and crosses the frontier (somewher in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, all inhabited by flesh-eating demons who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give Immortality to whoever eats it), with here and there a hidden monastery or royal city-state amid the wilds.
The episodic structure of this section is to some extent formulaic. Episodes consist of 1–4 chapters, and usually involve Xuánzàng being captured and his life threatened, while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuánzàng’s predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various goblins and ogres, many of whom turn out to be the earthly manifestations of heavenly beings (whose sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Xuanzang) or animal-spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms.Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuánzàng’s disciples, who, inspired or goaded by Guānyīn, meet and agree to serve him along the way, in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.
The first is Sun Wukong (孙悟空), or Monkey, previously "Great Sage Equal to Heaven", trapped by Buddha for rebelling against Heaven. He appears right away in Chapter 13. The most intelligent and violent of the disciples, he is constantly reproved for his violence by Xuánzàng. Ultimately, he can only be controlled by a magic gold band that the Bodhisattva has placed around his head, which causes him excruciating pain when Xuánzàng says certain magic words.
The second, appearing in 19, is Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), literally Eight-precepts Pig, sometimes translated as Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously Marshal Tīan Péng (天蓬元帅), commander of the Heavenly Naval forces, banished to the mortal realm for flirting with the Princess of the Moon Chang’e. He is characterized by his insatiable appetites for food and sex, and is constantly looking for a way out of his duties, but is always kept in line by Sūn Wùkōng.
The third, appearing in chapter 22, is the river-ogre Sha Wujing沙悟净), also translated as Friar Sand or Sandy. He was previously Great General who Folds the Curtain (卷帘大将), banished to the mortal realm for dropping (and shattering) a crystal goblet of the Heavenly Queen Mother. He is a quiet but generally dependable character, who serves as the straight foil to the comic relief of Sūn and Zhū.
Possibly to be counted as a fourth disciple is the third prince of the Dragon-King, Yùlóng Sāntàizǐ (玉龙三太子), who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. He was saved by Guānyīn from execution to stay and wait for his call of duty. He appears first in chapter 15, but has almost no speaking role, as throughout most of the story he appears in the transformed shape of a horse that Xuánzàng rides on.
Chapter 22, wher Shā is introduced, also provides a geographical boundary, as the river that the travelers cross brings them into a new "continent". Chapters 23–86 take place in the wilderness, and consist of 24 episodes of varying length, each characterized by a different magical monster or evil magician. There are impassably wide rivers, flaming mountains, a kingdom ruled by women, a lair of seductive spider-spirits, and many other fantastic scenarios. Throughout the journey, the four brave disciples have to fend off attacks on their master and teacher Xuánzàng from various monsters and calamities.
It is strongly suggested that most of these calamities are engineered by fate and/or the Buddha, as, while the monsters who attack are vast in power and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped heavenly animals belonging to bodisattvas or Taoist sages and spirits. Towards the end of the book there is a scene wher the Buddha literally commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Xuánzàng is one short of the eighty-one disasters he needs to attain Buddhahood.
In chapter 87, Xuánzàng finally reaches the borderlands of India, and chapters 87–99 present magical adventures in a somewhat more mundane (though still exotic) setting. At length, after a pilgrimage said to have taken fourteen years (the text actually only provides evidence for nine of those years, but presumably there was room to add additional episodes) they arrive at the half-real, half-legendary destination of Vulture Peak, wher, in a scene simultaneously mystical and comic, Xuánzàng receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.
Chapter 100, the last of all, quickly describes the return journey to the Táng Empire, and the aftermath in which each traveler receives a reward in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sūn Wùkōng and Xuánzàng achieve Buddhahood, Wùjìng becomes an arhat, the dragon is made a Naga, and Bājiè, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars).