Publication of Wu Chengen’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Since its publication, The Journey to the West, or Monkey, has remained one of the most popular classic novels in China, influencing Chinese literary writing, serving as a source for other genres, and offering religious and political inspiration.

Summary of Event

Xiyou ji (pb. 1592; also known as Hsi-yu chi; partial translation as Monkey, 1942; The Journey to the West, 1977-1983) was written by Wu Chengen, a native of Shanyang district (present-day Huaian county) in Jiangsu Province. Wu was born into a family of shopkeepers with literary credentials. His great-grandfather and grandfather both had served as local officials in charge of educational affairs. Although Wu’s father worked as a businessman for his livelihood, he was well read and familiar with classics of Confucianism and other schools of thought. Under the influence of his father, the young Wu cultivated a keen interest in literature, particularly in the literary tales of the Tang and Song Dynasties, and was able to write elegant poems and essays. Journey to the West, The (Wu) Wu Chengen Jiajing Wu Chengen

Despite his literary talent, however, Wu failed the civil service examinations, the primary legitimate channel for an official career. Only in his mid-forties, in 1544, was he selected as sui gong sheng (a “tribute student”). In his sixties, Wu served as a minor official (assistant for a county magistrate). Having stayed about one and one-half years in this position, he was falsely charged with misconduct in collecting grain taxes. After being rehabilitated, Wu retired and relied on conducting small business and selling his literary works for a living.

Wu Chengen lived during the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);decline of , when signs of dynastic decline were already visible, including inefficiency and corruption of the emperors and government bureaucrats. Many emperors, indolent and dissolute, chose to confine themselves to the imperial palaces, seeking personal pleasures and immortality (by taking “golden elixirs” made by Daoist priests) while neglecting state affairs. Bureaucrats were preoccupied with factional bickering, power struggles, and accumulating personal wealth. Nevertheless, the time when Wu lived was one of remarkable economic, social, and intellectual developments: acceleration of commercialization, rapid growth of urban population, increasing syncretization of the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism), and emergence of novels, long and short, as the main form of literature.

The Journey to the West is based on the pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (c. 602-664) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Xuanzang traveled from China to India between 629 and 645 in quest of Buddhist scriptures and returned with 657 texts of Buddhist scripture, translating the most important of them into Chinese. He became perhaps the best-known and most revered Buddhist monk in Chinese history, and his hazardous yet successful journey became part of the permanent legacy of Chinese Buddhist lore. His journey also became, over nearly a millennium, a favorite subject of popular legends and various literary works, including poetic tales and dramas. It was based on these literary antecedents about Xuanzang that Wu Chengen completed his hundred-chapter novel. It is set in a mythic world populated by deities, animal spirits, and monsters.

The Tang Monk (the protagonist representing Xuanzang) is accompanied in his journey by three animal-figured disciples with supernatural powers: Monkey (Sun Wukong), Pig (Zhu Bajie), and Sha Monk. The journey is full of dangers and difficulties such as desolate mountains and deep waters infested with ferocious beasts and demons. After having successfully undergone eighty-one ordeals, the companions successfully arrive in the West, where they acquire Buddhist scriptures and carry them home.

In stark contrast to the historical Xuanzang, who was believed to be intelligent and courageous, the character Tang Monk is dull, cowardly, ineffectual, muddle-headed, and even ignorant, often confusing right and wrong and confounding evil and good. He is totally dependent on his three disciples, especially Monkey, who is really the novel’s central character.

Powerful, resourceful, heroic, optimistic, and above all committed and trustworthy, Monkey serves as Tang Monk’s protector and guide, subduing bloodthirsty beasts. The first seven chapters depict Monkey before he is recruited as Tang Monk’s companion. He is portrayed as an independent and freedom-loving, yet rebellious figure who defies the authority of powerful deities from the Dragon King and the King of the Underworld to the most powerful Jade Emperor. Monkey creates turmoil in the Heavenly Palace by disrupting the Peach Festival and stealing the elixirs of immortality. He believes that right of kingship should not be hereditary but instead should be conferred only on the wisest and ablest.

A quite different but fascinating character in the novel is Pig (Zhu Bajie). Possessed of impressive magic powers and often fighting bravely, Pig makes significant contributions to the success of the journey. On the other hand, however, he occasionally wavers, sometimes appearing selfish, lazy, gossipy, and womanizing. Despite these defects, Pig is a humorous and intriguing figure.

Despite its ability to entertain, The Journey to the West is not a work simply for fun or, as Hu Shi argued, a book of profound nonsense. It is a work with serious political and religious meanings. The world described in the novel is a reflection of the political and social realities of the author’s time. In exposing the dark side of that world—particularly the corruption of those who held power—Wu was able to satirize the political problems of his real world. Some modern scholars insist that the most satirical descriptions in the novel were reserved for the emperor Jiajing (Chia-Ching, r. 1522-1567), who was notoriously corrupt and irresponsible. Some Chinese scholars believe that the novel reflects the peasants’ struggle (represented by the rebellious acts of Monkey) against the existing political order (represented by the Jade Emperor and his subordinates), while Monkey’s subjugation by and submission to Tathagata (rulai, the highest Buddhist deity) embodies the limitations and failure of this struggle.

Pervaded by religious themes and rhetoric, The Journey to the West also can be understood as religious allegory. In the novel, China’s two main religions, Buddhism Buddhism;China and Daoism Daoism , peacefully coexist and their deities work together—a sign of religious reconciliation or syncretism. Monkey, for example, gains his immortality and magic powers through Daoist self-cultivation, yet he also follows the guide of the bodhisattva Kun-yin when he becomes one of Tang Monk’s companions. Self-cultivation, aiming at longevity or immortality, is stressed, and Daoist and Buddhist training (particularly purifying and stilling the mind) is highly recommended as the way to achieve self-cultivation. Another major religious theme of the novel concerns atonement: All the pilgrims—Tang Monk, his three disciples, and even the dragon-horse—have been condemned for certain misdeeds. The westward journey may represent a process of seeking salvation, and the pilgrims are forced to endure preordained ordeals both as a test of their sincerity and to accumulate sufficient good deeds to atone for their crimes. In this regard, the journey is a success for all the pilgrims.

Significance

For approximately four hundred years, The Journey to the West has been widely circulated among Chinese of all walks of life and has been one of their favorite literary works. People not only have found the novel entertaining but also have drawn literary, artistic, moral, religious, and even political inspiration from it. The novel has provided subjects for artistic works from plays to paintings to films. It has played a significant role in education and moral cultivation (of children especially), with its praise for justice and good and its condemnation of injustice and evil. Today, Monkey is familiar to schoolchildren as a symbol of good and the White-Bone Spirit as a symbol of evil, and the story stands as a familiar metaphor for the triumph of good over evil. The religious syncretism endorsed in the novel highlights a Chinese cultural tradition of religious tolerance and love of harmony. Political figures have drawn from the novel significant lessons for their careers and their causes. Mao Zedong, for example, often called on his followers to emulate Monkey’s vigilance, his toughness toward enemies, his optimism in times of adversity, and his courage in carrying out the revolutionary struggle.

Further Reading
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    xlink:type="simple">Dudbridge, Glen. The His-yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. A comprehensive examination of The Journey to the West’s textual history.
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    xlink:type="simple">Jianxi Academy of Social Sciences, ed. Study of the Journey to the West. Nanjing: Jiangsu Ancient Works Press, 1982. A collection of scholarly articles on the novel.
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    xlink:type="simple">Liu Yinbai. Materials for the Study of “The Journey to the West.” Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Works Press, 1990. Contains rich information about the author and literary antecedents of the novel.
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    xlink:type="simple">Qu, Xiaoqiang. Unsettled Questions in “The Journey to the West.” Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Press, 1994. Interpretations of various issues concerning the novel.
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    xlink:type="simple">Su, Xing. Biography of Wu Chengen. Tianjin: Baihua Literature and Art Press, 1980. An account of Wu’s family background, life, and career.
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    xlink:type="simple">Yu, Anthony C., trans. and ed. The Journey to the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. The four-volume unabridged English version of the novel.
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    xlink:type="simple">Zhou Wenzhi. Penetrating “The Journey to the West.” Kunming: Yunnan People’s Press, 1999. An interpretation of the novel using theories of Daoism and Buddhism as well as Chinese medicine.

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