Journey To The West is one of the four classical Chinese novels. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, the novel is based upon the travels of the monk Xuanzang whose journey through China took him along what we now know as the Silk Road, and beyond. In all he travelled for some 17 years, through Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. He returned with a huge collection of Buddhist scriptures and then spent the rest of his life translating these into Chinese.
Journey To The West has been translated in English. The earliest translation, Monkey: A Folk-Tale Of China by Arthur Waley, shortened the story considerably – removing two thirds of the chapters and all of the verse. Full translations are now available, often with copious footnotes to clarify cultural issues that might otherwise confuse. The story has been adapted for television many times – with actors and in cartoon format. Many films have also incorporated references to Monkey King or the Journey To The West story.
The novel is composed of four main parts. In the first, the hero Monkey (Sun Wukong) is introduced in order to explain the magical powers that he uses so effectively later. This section takes great liberties with characters from both the Buddhist and the Taoist religions, a feature that continues throughout the book and which is one of its greatest strengths. The second part deals with the early life of the monk Xuanzang, culminating in his reason for travelling west. The third section is the journey through China, the section that interests us most here. The last section is the conclusion – the attainment of the goal and a bit of tidying up.
The Journey Through China
Xuanzang sets off from Chang’an the capital (now Xi’an) on his journey through China alone; alone that is except his sturdy steed a white horse. He is weak and would be be easy prey for beasts or bandits but because his purpose is to fetch holy scriptures he finds divine help along the way. He soon hooks up with the naughty Monkey who is released by Buddha to protect Xuanzang and therefore atone for his past sins. This is a great responsibility and one that causes Monkey considerable stress throughout the journey but that is clearly part of Buddha’s plan as Monkey does mature as the journey through China progresses.
This horse is soon killed and eaten by a dragon who is then made to take its place. The party is then completed by two other characters, Zhu Ba Jie, better known as Pigsy, and Sha Wujing, better known as Sandy. Pigsy is a greedy character, glutinous and lecherous. Sandy is a cannibal. Both are heavenly characters being punished on earth for minor misdemeanours, and their part in the journey is also suffering and atonement.
The fictional journey can be traced to some extent to real places, and this can provide a challenge for any contemporary traveller looking for an interesting theme for their own journey through China. Most of the relevant sites will be found in Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang Provinces. Those who decide to attempt this should remember that the author, Wu Cheng’en, never actually traversed the route and therefore relied very much upon his own readings and experiences. Much that would be familiar to the east of China is transferred to the west simple because the author had no means of knowing just what the west was like.
The Flaming Mountains that feature strongly during the story of the Bull Demon King are easily traced to the range close to Turfan in Xinjiang Province. To capitalise on this there is even a museum dedicated to the novel located here which is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the story.
The ancient city of Subashi near Kuqa (aka Kuche) was definitely a Buddhist kingdom during the time of the real Xuanzang’s visit and has been associated with the story of the Womanland of Western Liang. However, this may just be literary convenience as the most likely contender for a matriarchal society would have been Khorezm now a region in the west of modern Uzbekistan.
Other travellers may be interested in other aspects of the story. Mt. Yuntai near Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province is meant to be the inspiration for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit where Monkey enters the waterfall cave and becomes the King of his monkey tribe. The Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an still houses the original scriptures brought by the real monk Xuanzang all the way from India.
Whatever your interest, it pays to have a complete translation of the novel handy. An electronic version is useful for faster searches and as a more portable option to take with you on your journey through China.