(The following is the second part of the essay "The Mythopoeic Fantasy of Journey to the West: China’s Monomyth". Part I can be found here.)
Campbell, an advocate of Freudian symbolism and Jungian archetypal theory, believed that myth, folktales, legends, and all other manner of lore and tales are the poetics of the imagination, “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” as he states in his treatise on the subject, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (3). Produced naturally by the psyche, symbols and archetypes reveal themselves in the colors of the culture they are associated with, customs, dance, music, visual arts, and stories included. Greek mythology remains a unique sub-genre of stories, for example, but if one strikes at their core they will find elements, symbolism, and archetypal patterns common to world mythology. At this degree of commonality, myth and mythology are thus creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities, and as such “[h]umanity lives in one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.”
The constancy of this “one story” cannot be underestimated, according to Campbell, who writes it is “a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” (Hero 30). While he extends his argument to elaborate upon seventeen individual steps, the first phase, “separation or departure,” is the severance of the hero from their relative group, or as he states it in more psychological terms: “the retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside.” (30). Taken from their zone of comfort, the individual faces the unknown within themselves. The second phase, “the trials and victories of initiation,” is the struggles of the hero in their new found predicament and subsequent triumph over the problems encountered: the “clarification” and “eradication” of difficulties. Facing the unfamiliar, the individual is thus tested and succeeds in overcoming the difficulties. The third phase, “the return and reintegration with society,” is the transfigured return of the hero to his respective group and his acceptance by them. Thus in Jungian terms, the result can be expressed as “individuation,” or the individual’s “break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of […] archetypal images”: the universal human (Hero 17). Campbell sums up the monomyth with the following:
“The hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Hero 30).
The path to such power unfolding in phases, the hero’s experience thus forms a cycle, one that Campbell states endlessly repeats itself cosmogonically. Learning may be passed from generation to generation, but as no two individuals’ predispositions are identical and no two learning environments the same, each hero, or individual, must learn for themselves, propelling the cycle onwards, generation after generation. Therefore, when viewing the basic plotline of Journey to the West, a strong parallel can be drawn between the cosmogonic cycle and the quest cycle the heroes undertake: a group of monks leave their native land, separating themselves from the culture and environment they are so familiar with, encounter a and overcome a host of trials and tribulations, and return to their society with the wisdom of the gods, transformed into deities themselves and thus bearing the holy scriptures for dispersal amongst the common folk. However, as the Monkey King, or Sun Wukong, is the hero of the story, his character must be looked at in greater detail to determine to what extent he develops throughout the novel, and in particular the literary representation of his psychological development towards achieving Jungian individuation.
As Sun Wukong’s initial development sees him mastering every earthly and heavenly skill, including a trip to the underworld to have his name struck from the list of the dead, every skill save wielding the power held by the highest of Buddhist deities, and that he does so entirely independent from any particular society or environment is troublesome when seeking to locate a situation from which he might be separated and thus fulfill Campbell’s first criteria of the monomyth. It is therefore ironic that by having his freedom removed—to no longer be able to wreck havoc on the heavens and the gods, to control or torment whom he pleases on the earth—is what isolates the Monkey King. Not banishment from a specific culture or region in human terms, it is his inability to traverse the cosmos in freedom which separates the Monkey King from his previous lifestyle; he is trapped under Buddha’s hand. Even after Tang Sanzang frees him to assist the quest, the band placed around his skull which Tang Sanzang is able to painfully tighten is a constant threat and reminder he is not as free as he once was. The band is thus a symbol of his separation from his former life of freedom and of his subjection to the Buddhist quest.
Indubitably wise and clever in the seemingly endless tricks, transformations, and powers he’s able to use in protection of the group, Sun Wukong exhausts himself time after time saving the group from all manner of monsters and demons which block their journey, in addition to working with a host of others. With the help of the Star Lords of the Nine Bright Shiners, the East Dipper, Prince Nezha, and various other real and imaginary gods, he defeats the likes of the Leopard King, the Bull Demon Ogre of Fire Mountain, as well as his own doppelganger. These characters, including the pilgrims, remain static throughout the novel, any transformation in character sudden and without prolonged anguish of learning, a simple usage of Buddhist rationale able or unable to turn their heart. While he too remains defiantly cheeky facing the tribulations, a subtle change can be seen in the Monkey King’s character developing through the story, however. On three occasions the band of pilgrims is surprised on the road by a group of common bandits: near the beginning of the story, toward the middle, and lastly approaching the conclusion. Poor and pitiable, the bandits nonetheless seek to use violence to extract as much as they can from the penniless journeyers, even if it’s only their clothes. Frail and human, unlike the majority of other gods and monsters the group encounters, the bandits are weak, and the Monkey King sets about slaying the first group in the blink of an eye. Admonished by Sanzang for the taking of human life afterwards, Sun Wukong remains firm in his belief that he has protected the group from harm. “But if I hadn’t killed them, they’d have killed you, Master.” he states (336). When meeting the second group in the middle of the journey, he slays only one bandit, the rest allowed to run away into the forest. Sanzang again admonishes Sun Wukong for the unnecessary taking of a life, to which he replies that one is better than all, and once again reiterates the importance of protecting their quest. Upon meeting the third group of bandits towards the end of the novel, Sun Wukong, unbeknownst to himself as a result of the changes he’s undergone in the quest to that point, sets about converting the bandits to Buddhism, even organizing a place for them to practice in a local monastery. Paralleling this softening of aggression and murder is the number of times Sanzang must use the Band Tightening Spell to make Monkey behave, the amount reduced with each of the hundred and eight trials passed. At the end of the novel when the scriptures have been achieved, he asks Sanzang if the band is still necessary, to which he receives the reply “It was because you were so uncontrollable in those days that this magic was needed to keep you in order. […] Now that you are a Buddha of course it can go.” (2314).
The bandit acid test and the recurrent usage of the Band Tightening Spell are but a superficial representation of the initiation process Sun Wukong undergoes, however. More explicit is the overall change in temperament with each new trial and tribulation; his dealings with the gods and deities moves toward facilitation and away from aggression as the story progresses. With each demon equal to his own cleverness he encounters, Sun’s appeals to the Buddhist gods come with less over-confident maneuvering and with greater supplication. While taking nearly three chapters to kill the Great Horned Bull in the early stages of their journey, the equally formidable Three Monster Kings: King Cold-avoider, King Heat-avoider, and King Dust-avoider go down with ease in the face of the combined forces of Sun Wukong and a host of heavenly deities who come to his aid when readily and willingly asked, that is, rather than begrudgingly. It is through this gradual acceptance of and supplication to Buddhist powers that the Monkey King’s process of individuation and initiation can clearly be seen. The band that is removed from his head is thus only a symbol of his finding himself and being free to roam the Earth without others being threatened. Regarding the Monkey King’s internal trials and tribulations, a quote from Campbell sums up the process undertaken: “fabulous forces are […] there encountered and a decisive victory is won” (Hero 30).
The third phase, “return,” is perhaps the most unequivocally represented of Campbells’ three phases by Sun Wukong. Thought ugly and demonic for his quasi-human appearance, throughout the quest the Monkey King strikes fear into the hearts of people just by looking at them. However, upon his return to the emperor’s court, when the common people learn he has returned with the holy scriptures, they open their doors and spread tables with food to congratulate him on his great achievement, his appearance no longer worrisome in the light of his Buddhahood, the offerings a “boon” as it were. Also, upon collection of the holy sutras and returning to China, all five members of the quest are made deities by Buddha himself. Sun Wukong, despite being the one who once wrecked havoc on heaven, mended his ways and is now trustworthy enough to be “rewarded the high office of Victorious Fighting Buddha” (2312). Perhaps no more explicit a metaphor for the transcendence of psyche into the realm of personal discovery can be found than the achievement of nirvana through Buddhahood as Sun Wukong experienced. Campbell writes “the composite hero of the monomyth is a personage of exceptional gifts” and that “[f]requently he is honored by his society.” Nothing truer could be said of the Monkey King when examining the conclusion of Journey to the West.
If examined in greater detail, perhaps the total seventeen steps of Campbell’s overall monomythic hero experience would adhere just as closely as the three general phases have to Sun Wukong and his development. A noted admirer of Eastern philosophy, which intrinsically includes myth and legend, it is perhaps no surprise that Journey to the West parallels his ideology so clearly. Needing no introduction to the Chinese as heroic, it remains for the west to discover the tale of the Monkey King and the fantastic adventure he undertakes in obtaining individuation, or as Buddhists might express the idea: nirvana. Sun Wukong and his heroic undertaking to help fetch the holy Buddhist scriptures are thus firmly cemented in Chinese culture as monomyth.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd Ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1968. Print.
Wu, Chengen. Journey to the West. Trans. By W.J.F. Jenner. Beijing: Foreign Languages
Press, 2005. Print.