July 13: China: Wu Cheng'en, "Journey to the West"

Moving eastward from India to China, we begin with a novel that moves westward from China to India. Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West is based on an actual journey by a seventh-century monk named Xuanzang, who spent seventeen years travelling and studying in Central Asia and India.


He finally returned to China in 645 with a trove of more than six hundred Buddhist treatises, and he spent the rest of his life working with a team of colleagues to translate the Sanskrit originals and to write commentaries on them. Master Xuanzang’s emperor asked him to write down the story of his epochal journey, and nearly a millennium later, his Great Tang Records of the Western Regions became the basis for one of the “Four Classics” of traditional Chinese fiction, The Journey to the West.

Published anonymously in 1592, this massive narrative is usually attributed to Wu Cheng’en, a minor official in the Ming Dynasty. In Wu Cheng’en’s account, Master Xuanzang (usually called Tripitaka or “Three Baskets,” referring to three categories of Buddhist texts he brought home) makes his journey in the company of four fanciful companions provided for him by Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy: a reformed river ogre, a humanized pig, a dragon-turned-horse, and most importantly a loquacious and unruly monkey, Sun Wukong or “Monkey Awakened to Emptiness.”

          Wu Cheng'en characters

Together, they become a sort of Fellowship of the Sutras. In the course of a hundred chapters, they surmount eighty-one dangers and ordeals, from wild animals to bloodthirsty bandits to malevolent demons, before finally reaching their goal in India, where they receive the gift of scriptures from the Buddha himself.

The historical Xuanzang was a pilgrim who ventured to India despite an imperial ban on foreign travel, but Wu Cheng’en adds a Confucian emphasis. He makes Tripitaka a faithful servant of his emperor, who commissions him to seek out the scriptures, and the opening and closing chapters frame the tale within sixteenth-century political concerns over imperial governance and the growth of bureaucracy. Further, the eighty-one adventures that occupy the bulk of the narrative now feature alchemical practices and magical transformations common to popular Daoism.

Whereas Xuanzang was devoted to textual analysis and sophisticated philosophical debate, Wu’s narrative reflects a Daoist understanding of the world as fundamentally a mental construct, with meaning best grasped through meditation and mental discipline beyond words. At one point in the story, Tripitaka and Sun Wukong are arguing over the correct interpretation of a key Sanskrit text, the Heart Sutra: “‘Ape-head!’ snapped Tripitaka. ‘How dare you say that I don’t know its interpretation! Do you?’” Sun Wukong insists that he does, but then falls silent. When the pig and the ogre mock him as too ignorant to respond, Tripitaka reproves them. “Stop this claptrap!” he says; “Wukong made his interpretation in a speechless language. That’s true interpretation.” (Yu trans. 4:265).

According to the novel, the Buddha himself has observed that in China’s part of the world, “they are greedy, lustful, murderous and quarrelsome. I wonder whether a knowledge of the True Scriptures would not cause some improvement in them?” (Waley tr., 78). And so he inspires China’s emperor to send a pilgrim to receive his “three baskets” of scriptures. “One contains the Vinaya, which speaks of Heaven, one contains the Sastras, which tell of Earth, one contains the Sutras, which save the damned. The whole is divided into thirty-five divisions, written on 15,144 rolls. These are the path to perfection, the only gate to virtue.” 

A basic question for any reader of Journey to the West is to decide on the relation between this religious cosmology and the social and political geographies of the human world. The two major translators of the story into English, Arthur Waley and Anthony Yu, have taken very different approaches. Anthony Yu’s four-volume translation gives the work entire, including its 745 reflective poems, and in his hundred-page introduction, he details the religious and philosophical background for understanding the book as an allegory of religious self-cultivation. Thus Sun Wukong embodies the Buddhist concept of “the monkey of the mind,” whose restless striving must be calmed and enlightened.

By contrast, in his 1943 translation Arthur Waley created a kind of novelization of the original, as he’d earlier done with The Tale of Genji, which we’ll look at next week. He suppressed almost all of the poems, and he radically abridged the text, focusing on the exploits of the lively, anarchic Sun Wukong; he even titled his version Monkey.

As given by Waley, the first seven chapters of the novel detail Sun Wukong’s magical origins (he’s born from a stone) and portray his nearly successful attempt to invade and rule heaven, aided by his vast alchemical powers and his ability to split himself into an entire army of invading monkeys. The heavenly Jade Emperor tries to buy him off with a minor post, but the monkey isn’t satisfied. As the celestial bureaucracy tries to bring him in line, he sounds like a powerful warlord testing the limits of an earthly emperor. “What crime is there that you have not committed?” the Jade Emperor’s outraged minions reproach Sun Wukong. “You have piled up sin upon sin; do you not realize what you have done?” “Quite true,” he calmly replies, “all quite true. What are you going to do about it?”

In keeping with this emphasis, a recent Chinese film version makes Sun Wukong into the monkey who would be king:

               Monkey King

Bureaucracy even rules the underworld. When Sun Wukong is hauled away to the Land of Darkness, he challenges the clerks of the King of Death to locate him in their records, but he doesn’t fit any of their categories: “The official dived into a side room and came out with five or six ledgers, divided into ten files and began going through them one by one – Bald Insects, Furry Insects, Winged Insects, Scaly Insects [. . . .] He gave up in despair and tried Monkeys. But the Monkey King, having human characteristics, was not there.” Finally Sun Wukong locates himself in a miscellaneous category: “Parentage: natural product. Description: Stone Monkey.” His entry shows a life-span of 342 years, but Sun Wukong asserts that he’s become immortal, and he boldly crosses out his name and those of his monkey henchmen; the underworld bureaucrats are too terrified to oppose him.

Mysticism and Realpolitik rub shoulders throughout the narrative. At the climax of the story Tripitaka and his companions finally reach the long-sought Holy Mountain in India. There the Buddha graciously orders two assistants to take them to his treasury and make a good selection of scrolls “for these priests to take back to the East, to be a boon there forever.” All should be well, but Tripitaka neglects to bribe the assistants, and they get their revenge by packing up a hefty but deceptive bundle of scrolls. On the way home, the pilgrims make a shocking discovery: the scrolls are all blank. Weeping, Tripitaka exclaims: “What good is it to take back a wordless, empty volume like this? How could I possibly face the Tang emperor?” (4:353). They return in haste to the Holy Mountain – only to have a smiling Buddha reply that he knew all along what would happen. He reveals that the assistants had done the right thing despite themselves, for “these blank texts are actually true, wordless scriptures, and they are just as good as those with words.” (4:354). He concedes, however, that “the creatures in your Land of the East are so foolish and unenlightened that I have no choice but to impart to you now the texts with words.” (4:354). Language and perception reach their limit, as in Attar’s Conference of the Birds, where the quest for enlightenment runs through the regions of Bewilderment and Nothingness, and the birds finally come to see the limits of all vision.

Whether in Arthur Waley’s simian-centered abridgement or in Anthony Yu’s sprawling hundred-chapter version, Journey to the West is a tour de force, a great work both of world literature and of otherworldly literature. We might get a similar effect in European literature if we could combine Dante’s hundred-canto Divine Comedy with Don Quixote, another extended narrative of comic misadventures, which similarly features extended banter between an idealistic master and his earthy servant. Cervantes published the first volume of Quixote in 1605, just a few years after Wu Cheng-en’s masterpiece appeared in 1592. Though these two great writers couldn’t have known of each other, their heroes Quixote and Tripitaka, and their sidekicks Sancho Panza and Sun Wukong, could walk a long way together “nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita,” as Dante would say: in the middle of our life’s road.