The Lunar New Year is upon us! Gongxi Fa Cai! Wan Shi Ruyi! Xin Nian Kuaile! And as this year is the Year of the Monkey, I thought that today’s review should be the famed Chinese classic, Journey to the West.

Journey to the West is more popularly known in English speaking countries as Monkey, based upon the severely abridged translation by Arthur Waley.

The novel is one of the most well known of China’s classic “popular novels.” Countless television and movie versions of the story have been made over the years. The book itself is a one hundred chapter account of the journey of Monk Xuanzang to India to fetch Buddhist scriptures. In that respect, Journey to the West is based on historical events. Xuanzang was, in fact, an historical personage, and he lived between the late Sui and early Tang Dynasties (602 – 664, CE). He was a monk at the Jingtu Temple in Chang’an (modern day Xi’An). Distressed at the poor translations of Buddhist scripture available in China during his time, he set out on a journey to India, by way of Qinghai, Gansu, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, in order to study at the ancient university of Nalanda, and bring sutras back to China. Defying an imperial travel ban, Xuanzang left Chang’an in 629, reaching India the following year. He returned after thirteen years, in 643, arriving home in Chang’an in 646. Despite having defied the emperor’s travel ban, Emperor Taizong gave the monk a warm welcome on his return. The emperor gave generous gifts and endowments to Xuanzang, who joined the Da Ci’en Monastery, and used the emperor’s gifts to build the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in order to store the sutras and icons he had brought back from India. He also used the emperor’s money to establish the Yuhua Gong Monastery, to be dedicated to studying and translating the sutras he had brought back. Xuanzang left a record of his travels in the book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.

The novel Journey to the West itself, was a highly embellished account of Xuanzang’s journey. It is popularly attributed to Wu Cheng’en, who published the book anonymously in the 16th century. The main characters of the novel are Monk Xuanzang himself, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie (or Zhu Wuneng), or Monk Pig, and Sha Wujing, or Brother Sand.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Sun Wukong. He is born of a stone on Flower Fruit Mountain that was born from a union of Heaven and Earth. He makes a great deal of trouble in Heaven and Earth, proclaiming himself first “The Monkey King,” and then “Great Sage Equal to Heaven.” The Jade Emperor sends several general against the Monkey King for his effrontery, but no one can overcome him. He was given a minor position in the Celestial Courts, but Sun Wukong went on to steal Peaches of Immortality, and got himself cooked in Laozi’s Eight Trigram Furnace, thus becoming essentially immortal, invulnerable, and matchless in battle. Sun Wukong has a magical staff which he uses as his primary weapon. He took it from the palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, and was additionally given a suit of golden armor. When the Monkey King defeats an army of one hundred thousand celestial troops led by the Four Kings of Heaven, the Jade Emperor appeals to the Buddha, who imprisons Sun Wukong under the Five Elements Mountain for five hundred years.

Next, we learn of Xuanzang’s life, and how he decides to become a Buddhist monk. He mourns at the lack of Enlightenment throughout China, and the bodhisattva Guanyin sets Xuanzang the task to bring back sutras from the West, and arranges for protectors to guide him on his way. The first of these protectors is, of course, Sun Wukong. He is at first reluctant, but Guanyin places a circlet on his head which produces crippling headaches whenever Xuanzang chants his mantras. Thus brought under control, the two travel westward together. Along the way, they also collect Zhu Bajie, who was once the Marshal of the Heavenly Canopy, in command of one hundred thousand naval troops in the Milky Way.

Zhu Bajie drank too much at a celebration, and made a rude pass at the immortal Chang’E; and so, he was condemned to be reborn as a human, banished to the mortal realm. However, due to sloppy paperwork, he ended up gestating in a sow, so that he was born part human, part pig. When Sun Wukong and Xuanzang come upon him, he is holding a village in terror, ruling over it. He and Monkey fight, and Zhu Bajie is defeated. As it turns out, despite his coarse nature, he isn’t exactly evil, and so, he is invited to come along on Xuanzang’s pilgrimage, in hopes that his sins might be purged.

The three travel on, and the next of the company they meet is Sha Wujing. Sha was once a celestial general, but was exiled to the mortal world and made a monster because he accidentally smashed a crystal chalice belonging to the Queen Mother of the West. He spent many years terrorizing the villages and towns along the Flowing Sands River. In particular, he had devoured eighteen other monks who had previously attempted the journey Xuanzang was making, and had a necklace made of their skulls. Naturally, Zhu and Sun defeat Sha, and Sha is then enjoined by Guanyin to accompany them on their pilgrimage.

After this point, the four go on to many fabulous and fanciful adventures on their way to the West. The book reads like an adventure novel worthy of the greatest Shaw Brothers epics. There is martial arts action, sorcery, Taoist alchemy and magic, and much more. At the end of their journey, Xuanzang and Sun Wukong achieve Buddhahood, Sha Wujing becomes an Arhat, and Zhu Bajie becomes a temple spirit whose job is to eat and drink the excess offerings made to the Gods and Bodhisattvas. And in addition to being an old fashioned, rip-roaring adventure, the reader will also learn a great deal about Chinese folk religion, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The most well known translation of this novel is Arthur Waley’s translation, as noted above. However, I would recommend a full length edition of the story. Although it comprises four volumes, I would suggest W.J.F. Jenner’s translation. From the Amazon.com page:

W.J.F (Bill) Jenner, born in 1940, is an English student of Chinese history and culture. His secondary education was mainly in the Greek and Latin classics. He began the study of Chinese at Oxford in 1958, where he graduated in Oriental Studies in 1962. He earned his Oxford D Phil for a thesis on the history of the great city of Luoyang in the 5th-6th centruy AD.

From 1963 to 1965 he was a translator at the Foreign Languages Press, for which he translated From Emperor to Citizen (volume 1, 1964; volume 2, 1965; laterreprints in two-volume and single-volume form, including one from Oxford University Press), the ghosted autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. He also began his translation of Journey to the West at that time. From 1979 to 1985 he returned to the FLP most summers to complete Journey to the West and to do other translations for the Press and its sister organization Panda Books.They included Lu Xun: Selected Poems, a bilingual edition with introduction and notes published by the FLP in 1982 and Miss Sophie’s Diary and Other Stories by Ding Ling (Panda Books, 1985).


Happy reading, all! And a Happy and Healthy New Year to you all!

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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