With thousands of years of recorded history and a rich and varied literary tradition which draws upon one of the world’s longest evolving written languages, it is no surprise myth and fantasy are integral parts of Chinese literature, past and present. From this tradition, four works have been chosen as the ‘four greatest novels in Chinese history.’ It is interesting to note that of these epic-length novels, one contains light elements of Daoist fantasy—more mystical than supernatural—while two others use stronger elements: the motifs of super-human ability, pre-cognition, and supernatural connection with nature are present in varying degrees throughout the works. Relatively unknown to the West, the fourth novel, Journey to the West, is, however, a ‘full blown fantasy of epic proportions’ in the most literal sense of the expression. Suffuse with elements of animal fantasy, ghost fantasy, magic-adventure fantasy, and the strongest of all, mythopoeic fantasy, it is arguably one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written.
First recorded on paper in the 16th century, there is much confusion as to who the real author is, consensus falling upon Wu Chengen for lack of decisive proof. Based on the true story of a Chinese monk who was sent by the emperor to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras, Journey to the West is the literary result of generations of street corner historical recollection, legend building, and tale swapping—“a string of stories that developed over many hundreds of years,” sparking the confusion over authorship (Journey 2322). In a country prizing their street corner raconteurs, artistic license in making each episode more fantastic than the next became the norm, and the story became a “collective creation by professional entertainers” (2332). Taels of silver traded for dexterity of tongue, it is perhaps no surprise the centuries yielded a story 100 chapters long and more than 2,300 pages (W.J.F. Jenner’s English translation). Passed on orally in a predominantly illiterate population, it has since enjoyed immense popularity by the educated in written form as well. Following the influx of Western technology in China’s post-Mao years, a lengthy television series was filmed. Adhering closely to the book, it has maintained its charm and continues to win the hearts of the Chinese, the series in heavy rotation on several television stations at all times of the year. There is not a person in China who does not know the name of the main character, Sun Wukong.
That being said, the story is overall light-hearted, and at other times sad or dramatic, a diverse array of themes and subjects to be found. Key among them are religion, politics, cosmology, and ethics, but perhaps most importantly, one of the main tenets of Buddhism: the importance of patience through suffering. Shi Changyu, in his introduction to Jenner’s translation, makes note of the avoidance of the material world: “the search for the individual’s heart” as an important theme (8). Other premises he mentions are the affirmation of both Daoist and Buddhist teachings, the “ideal cosmic setup” of the Five Elements of Chinese cultural tradition, as well as the importance of maintaining a free and innocent nature when confronting life’s problems (10). W.J.F. Jenner, in the “Translator’s Afterword,” likewise makes note of the novels irreducibility to a single theme, citing mismanaged government, understanding humanity, moral uprightness, and the abandonment of the material world as among the wide variety of ideologies available in the text.
As a whole, the novel can be roughly divided into two parts. The first is the introduction of the main characters, their coming together to form a group, and the reasons for their quest. The Chinese emperor, when beheaded in a dream and sent to the lowest level of the underworld, learns that a price for his soul has been set, and the only way to eliminate the debt is to acquire an item hitherto non-existent in China: a copy of the holy Buddhist sutras. Tang Sanzang, the holiest of monks in the kingdom, is thus chosen to undertake the perilous and lengthy overland journey to India from which it is doubted he will ever return. However, while Tang Sanzang is the undisputed leader of the group of disciples which comes to assemble, Sun Wukong, a holder of many titles, among them the “Monkey King,” is undoubtedly the main character in the story. (When translating the novel into abridged form, Arthur Waley simply called it Monkey.)
Born from a stone egg split open at the peak of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, the monkey-human Sun Wukong dominates the novel’s narrative. Clever and wiley—sometimes too much for his own good—cheeky as well as having a seemingly infinite variety of supernatural abilities, his first act upon being born is to start his own kingdom and submit other monkeys to his rule. Dissatisfied with the trivial nature of the mortal realm, he leaves after a time for greater glory, consulting a Daoist priest on the means of bodily transformation, flying, and a variety of other fantastic skills. Achieving these, he performs the famous “somersault flying cloud leap” into heaven, where he proceeds to wreck havoc amongst the holy Jade Emperor and his retinue, Daoist deities, which Laozi and Zhuangzi are treated as, and a variety of Buddhas and Boddhavistas which all live together in the vaults of heaven. None seeming to escape the mischievous behavior of the Monkey King. He eats all the peaches from the Peach Orchard of Immortality, drinks all of the Jade Emperor’s longevity wine, and devours each of Laozi’s elixirs of immortality. Unsatisfied with the title the gods grant him in hope of appeasement, “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven,” he continues running rampant through the heavens before finally being subdued by Buddha himself, who imprisons him under a mountain to prevent him from further troubling the world of mortals and immortals alike. Thus the Monkey King’s limitations are reached: more powerful than all other beings, he cannot usurp the wisdom and might of Buddha, a theme which is arguably the strongest of the novel.
After Sanzang has been introduced and begun his quest to India, he quickly encounters the Monkey King trapped under the mountain. Knowing the only way he can be saved is to “give up evil-doing, and return to Buddha’s law,” Sun Wukong is then freed, provided he promise to serve Sanzang on his quest (322). As a means of ensuring he behaves, Buddha places a gold band around the Monkey King’s head and gives Tang Sanzang an incantation to recite, a Band Tightening Spell, which tightens the band and causes pain if he misbehaves. They next encounter a pig-man who was banished from heaven for his “drunken flirtation with an immortal maiden at the Peach Banquet,” and as he too promises to do only good if he’s allowed to assist the quest, joins the unlikely group. Greedy, fun-loving, and foolish, Pig represents all that is laughable and boorish in humanity. In his innocent stupidity, he also provides the foil for the majority of the Monkey King’s practical jokes, a sidebar to their encounters with monsters and demons. After Pig, the fourth and fifth members of their entourage are found, Friar Sand and a horse-dragon, respectively, and the band of journeyers is set. Except for the final three chapters, the remainder—roughly 1,800 pages—is the group’s journey west. Trials and tribulations abound, they must overcome each to continue the journey to fetch the holy Buddhist scriptures.
A total of one hundred and eight trials and tribulations are encountered. The number sacred to Buddhism, all test the band’s moral integrity, belief, and determination. Individual episodes rather than stories which build toward something larger, at every stage obstacles and impediments are placed in their path which need overcoming, calling the group’s mettle and persistence into doubt. Handsome and innocently kind, Tang Sanzang’s innate fears are his worst enemy. With each monster and demon springing from the forests, he is sent shaking to his knees, crying and in desire of abandoning the quest for home. As the only mortal amongst the band of disciples, he is also often tempted to deny the vows he took as a monk, predominantly regarding indulgence in women, wine, and meat. Pig exemplifies greed in its purest sense, as everywhere he goes, either his hunger for food and women or love of fun seem to lead the way—astray from Buddhist teachings. And the Monkey King, for all of his magical powers, including his seventy-two transformations which he performs by plucking a hair from his body, chewing it, and spitting it out into whatever shape or creature he desires, as well as his ability to use his signature weapon, the “as as-you-will cudgel,” which he can shrink and increase in size at will, cannot nonetheless control himself, the conceit in his own cleverness and trickery likewise getting him into trouble. The success of the quest never in doubt, however, it is the variety of means the group uses in overcoming the impediments they encounter which provide the heart of the novel.
Sun Wukong, the most powerful of the group, is always in the middle of the trouble they encounter, of which there are three basic kinds. The first is a problem he is able to solve himself, whether through luck, wit, or physical prowess, particularly his ability to transform and fight in myriad fashions. The second is a situation wherein his over-confidence leads to trouble and he himself is in need of rescue. Whether it be by other members of the group who naturally want him to continue with them in their quest, or by lesser deities from heaven, beings such as heavenly warriors, planets, as well as dragon kings. Each occasionally do his bidding in order to avoid his troublesome nature should he be freed by someone else. (They remember well the havoc he wrecked in heaven before becoming a monk and do not want the acts repeated.) The third situation is one wherein he is trapped but cannot be helped by any of the above. As the quest is predestined to succeed—and no doubt is left of this by the narrator throughout the novel—it is in times like these that he must appeal to the Buddhist deities for rescue. The novel ends in the final three chapters when the group has overcome the requisite hundred and eight trials, acquired the holy Buddhist scriptures, and are thus able to return to China.
More than picaresque, Journey to the West is incredibly imaginative and richly detailed, and full of an unknown amount of features and accents, poetry and songs accumulated from the street-corner. The story is thus truly the work of a culture rather than one individual. Due to the broad imaginative sweep, cultural importance, and position in history, both literary and actual, the novel is open to a variety of interpretations from a mythological standpoint. Loosely based on recorded history and resulting oral stories, the euhemerist reading is strong. Also, that the band of disciples return to China with Buddhist scriptures for the common people lends credence to Mircea Eliade’s conception of the introduction of the “sacred” into a culture and society. The story’s transcendence of time—four centuries and counting—further attests to this. Another theory which lends itself strongly to the novel is Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. The incredible breadth and variety in the story, in terms of cultural symbolism, history, setting, and characterization, opens a floodgate of possible oppositions and subsequent mediations to be interpreted. However, as the novel can be seen to represent a person’s journey through life and the suffering they will encounter before attaining nirvana—the quest element being the strongest of the novel—Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, that all stories are variations of a single story, seems best and will be used to analyze Journey to the West.
(This is the end of Part I. For Part II, please click here.)