Last reviewed: June 2018
Huaian (now in Jiangsu Province), China
Huaian (now in Jiangsu Province), China
Few facts have been preserved concerning the life of Wu Chengen (woo chuhng-uhn). It is known that he was a native of Huainan, in Jiangsu Province, a town approximately one hundred miles north of Nanjing; that he began to write when he retired from the post of district magistrate; and that he was a friend of one of the leading figures of the revival of classical literature that took place during his lifetime. A handful of his poems can be found in Ming Dynasty anthologies.
However, to Wu Chengen is attributed the authorship of one of the most popular and enduring works of the Chinese tradition, The Journey to the West, first published anonymously at least ten years after his death. The local history of Huainan, compiled in 1625, does indeed treat Wu Chengen’s authorship of the novel as established fact. Moreover, throughout the years, his reputation both as a connoisseur of popular tales of the supernatural and as a masterful creator of humorous stories, reinforced the belief that he had composed The Journey to the West.
In any case, many works entitled The Journey to the West—stories in the oral tradition, religious treatises, even dramatic performances—circulated long before Wu Chengen was born. The Buddhist priest Hsuan Tsang (602–664) first employed the title for his autobiographical account of the seventeen-year journey from China to India and back that he undertook in order to bring Buddhist scriptures to China. Hsuan Tsang relates the difficulties of his pilgrimage, his life as a student of Buddhism in India, and finally his triumphant journey home to the Tang court. Through the years his story became embroidered with tales of the supernatural, with animal fables and folklore, and with Buddhist miracles from the popular tradition, until it was transformed into the tale of a courageous priest, beset by monsters and demons, who overcomes evil with the forces of good that are placed at his command by Lord Buddha.
Wu Chengen reshaped this diverse material into a novel of one hundred chapters informed not only by rich humor but also by a profound religious allegory of the nature of self-cultivation. His novel begins not with the story of the human pilgrim Hsuan Tsang but with that of a magic monkey.
Monkey (known in China as Sun Wu Kong, or “enlightened about emptiness,” after the monastic name he adopts later in the novel) is a creature born from a stone egg nourished by Heaven and Earth, who rules over an idyllic kingdom of monkeys in the Water Curtain Cave on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The first seven chapters relate how Monkey, spurred by the awareness of his own mortality, leaves his terrestrial paradise and obtains supernatural powers, which he in turn abuses by wreaking havoc in Heaven and, among other alarming misdeeds, feasting on the peaches of immortality. Powerful gods, including the Taoist sage Laozi, try to annihilate him, but the best that can be done—and this only with the help of Buddha—is to imprison him beneath the Mountain of the Five Elements.
Chapters 8 through 12 relate how, after the passing of five hundred years, Buddha announces his intention of imparting the scriptures to China, and the bodhisattva Guanyin contacts the pilgrim Hsuan Tsang and enlists the support of his sidekick-disciples Sandy, Pigsy, and the powerful and mischievous Monkey, all of whom are performing some kind of penance for past misdeeds.
Eighty-one adventures ensue (chapters 13–97), consisting largely of captures and releases of the pilgrims by a colorful variety of ogres, demons, animal spirits, and demigods. All is not what it seems in the narrative: Although the human pilgrim Hsuan Tsang is in charge, it is often the irrepressible energy, boundless courage, and comic detachment displayed by Monkey that advances the pilgrims on their way. Often, too, it is the cunning, gluttony, greed, and selfishness of Pigsy, on one hand—or the petulance, fearfulness, and nervous attachment to the world of phenomena of the somewhat literal-minded Hsuan Tsang, on the other—that get them into trouble.
As though to underline the paradoxes that underlie their pilgrimage, in the last two chapters the pilgrims must travel by a bottomless boat to receive wordless scriptures. The humor and allegory of the work are embodied in the extent to which Monkey all along has known what the others must learn by trial and error and instruction: the identity of form and emptiness taught by the Heart Sutra, for example (one of the scriptures originally brought to China by Hsuan Tsang), in which the search for enlightenment is itself a form of illusion; or the teaching of Ming Dynasty syncretism that the Three Teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism form an essential unity. “It’s all one to me,” says Monkey, unintentionally revealing one of the novel’s major teachings. At the end of the novel the pilgrims are carried back to the capital of Xi’an on divine winds, and each is rewarded with his heart’s desire.