In February, 1966, a secret struggle within the Chinese Communist Party erupted into public conflict. Frustrated by his rivals’ efforts to transform fundamental political issues into mere academic debates, Chairman Mao Zedong decided to mobilize public opinion behind him in order to inspire a popular insurrection against party and state leaders like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao’s own lieutenants (including his wife) were put in charge of the country’s central propaganda organs, and they began issuing pronouncements by the Chairman designed to incite public opposition to local bureaucratic authorities. One of these provocative announcements by Mao simply stated that: “The local areas must produce several more Sun Wukong to vigorously create a disturbance at the Palace of Heaven.”1 Very few Chinese reading that statement missed the allusion to The Journey to the West; nor did they fail to understand that, by citing such a symbol, Chairman Mao was sanctioning rebellion against the highest party officials.

The Journey to the West (Xiyou ji) is China’s great mythic novel, describing the seventeen-year pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang overland to India and back in the early seventh century. Best known to English readers under the title Monkey, which was Arthur Waley’s translation, the novel has been attributed by Dr. Hu Shi (1891-1962) to a sixteenth-century author named Wu Cheng’en.2 Although most scholars accept this attribution, they also agree that the hundred-chapter novel crystallized numerous oral and written stories dating back to at least the thirteenth century when the enormous urban centers described by Marco Polo saw the rise of popular drama and vernacular fiction.3 Thus, while the novel does embody the poetic genius of a single author, it also incorporates layer upon layer of Taoist mythology, Buddhist iconography, and popular folklore that add richness and variety to the text.4

The historical Xuanzang (ca. 596-664) was a religious figure of great importance to the development of Buddhism. His heroic journey in 629-645 through fifty-odd kingdoms of western and southern Asia was acclaimed by the Tang monarch Taizong (r. 627-649); and after he returned to China, Xuanzang was able to get lavish imperial subsidies to translate 73 of the 657 Sanskrit texts he had brought back, firmly establishing the Yogacara (Consciousness-Only) school of Buddhism in China. Even to have traveled into the western lands, where dreaded ogres like the man-eating demon of the desert known as Deep Sands (Shen-sha) were believed to lie in wait, made Xuanzang a well-known figure not only in China but also in Korea and Japan. He was soon transformed in popular tales into a celestial being himself, named Tripitaka after the “three baskets” of scriptures which he sought.

Tripitaka does not conform to the usual expectations of a saintly hero on a sacred quest. Throughout The Journey to the West he is portrayed as a weak and even peevish person, all too vulnerable to the tribulations he encounters. But having ordained eighty-one ordeals for him to overcome, Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, has also arranged for four divine guardians to guide Tripitaka on his way. Each of these is a heavenly delinquent: originally a god or spirit forced to descend to earth as a demon until given the opportunity to redeem himself by helping the pilgrim. Thus, Deep Sands, the loathsome cannibal with a necklace of human skulls, joins Tripitaka as the Monk Sha; a deposed dragon prince is transformed into a white horse to become his mount; and an adulterous water god condemned to incarnation as a lustful swine (“Piggy”) is recruited to serve the Tang Monk as a bodyguard. The most important of these guardians, and the hero of the novel, is Monkey: the creature whose own mythological creation actually precedes the appearance of Tripitaka in the novel.

Monkey’s birth coincides with the creation of the world when there appeared in the Eastern Ocean, on top of the Flower-Fruit Mountain, an immortal stone, whose height and girth corresponded to the cycles of the solar calendar. Nourished by the seeds of Heaven and Earth, the stone became pregnant with a divine embryo, and then split open, giving birth to a stone egg.

Exposed to the wind, [the stone egg] was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs. Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar.(1:67-68)

Monkey may represent an Indian influence on Chinese folklore, corresponding to the figure of the wise monkey Hanumat in the Hindu Ramayana, but there is no clear trace of this connection in the Chinese sources. Instead, there are numerous medieval folk legends about monkeys: a great white ape in southwestern China who abducted women and impregnated them, a large black monkey in central China who was supposedly chained to the bottom of the Huai River by the mythical flood-tamer Yu, and so forth. By the seventeenth century there was even a Fukienese cult devoted to the worship of an ape known by the very name which Monkey sometimes adopts in the novel: “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven.”5 By the time The Journey to the West was written, then, there existed popular cults glorifying a mythical monkey whose exploits were enacted in popular drama or recounted in folk tales. The author of the novel—probably Wu Cheng’en—based his narrative upon this folk tradition, and the novel in turn helped shape that tradition further.6


In the novel, the stone Monkey, becomes the ruler of a band of apes who establish a kingdom in a grotto behind a waterfall that hides them from “the whims of Heaven” (1:71). For three or four centuries they sport in this paradisiacal Water-Curtain Cave until Monkey suddenly realizes that, while they might have escaped the whims of Heaven above, they are still eventually going to be subject to the sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld below. “If we die,” Monkey asks his followers, “shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the heavenly beings?” (1:73). Monkey there-upon decides to learn the secret of immortality, and so leaves Flower-Fruit Mountain, “determined in heart and mind to achieve great things” (1:75). Crossing the Western Ocean on a raft, he discovers a Taoist immortal, Patriarch Subodhi, living in a mountain cave. The patriarch accepts Monkey as his disciple, renaming him Sun Wukong (“Sun Wake-to-Vacuity”), and teaches him how to attain longevity by nursing his vital forces (“all power resides in the semen, the breath, and the spirit”), how to fly through the air by practicing the “cloud-somersault,” and how to change his form by chanting magic spells.

Armed with these secrets of the Taoist Way of Knowledge, Monkey proceeds to acquire a weapon for himself. From the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean he gets the measuring rod with which the flood-tamer Yu fixed the levels of the oceans and rivers. This iron rod, bound with gold at both ends, becomes Monkey’s famed cudgel: a staff that can stretch to mighty lengths at a command, and then be reduced to a needle and tucked behind his ear. By now, the ape has become a creature of cosmic capacities:

He bent over and cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be ten thousand feet tall, with a head like the T’ai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The cudgel in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell. Tigers, leopards, wolves, and crawling creatures, all the monsters of the mountain and the demon kings of the seventy-two caves, were so terrified that they kow-towed and paid homage to the Monkey King in fear and trembling. (1:108)

There is nothing on earth that can match him in size and strength, and the monarchs of the animal world become his fraternal allies, their subjects his minions. Even the lords of the Underworld are frightened of Monkey. When the ten Kings of Darkness summon him below for a final reckoning, he astonishes them with his ferocity, and bullies them into letting him erase his name from the ledger of souls. No longer registered as a mortal, Monkey is now free to challenge Heaven itself.

In The Journey to the West, as in Chinese folklore in general, Heaven’s ruler is analogous to the Confucian emperor on earth. Like his mortal counterpart, the Jade Emperor governs the Taoist Heaven by means of a bureaucracy composed of officials who report to him and carry out his policies. In this case the Jade Emperor responds to memorials complaining about the obstreperous Monkey King by doing exactly what the Ming emperor sometimes did when confronted by a particularly powerful rebel leader, namely, offering him an appointment in his own administration in order to cajole him into surrendering. Like many a rebel before him, Monkey accepts the appointment which turns out to be a degrading position as keeper of the stables. But as soon as he discovers that his post is so low it doesn’t even carry an official rank, he leaves Heaven in disgust and returns to his army of beasts, determined to lead a rebellion once again under his newly arrogated title of “Great Sage, Equal to Heaven.”

Twice Monkey defeats the divine armies sent against him, and the Jade Emperor is finally forced to acknowledge Monkey’s new title as Great Sage and to invite him back to Heaven to supervise the Garden of Immortal Peaches. This time Monkey is unable to resist the temptation to eat the peaches of immortality; nor can he prevent himself from raiding the imperial banquet table just before guests arrive. Drunk, Monkey stumbles away into the palace of Lao Zi, the Taoist Immortal, and gulps down five containers of the alchemist’s golden elixir of life. The elixir sobers him, and realizing now how much danger he will be in when the Jade Emperor finds out, he rushes back to Flower-Fruit Mountain to summon his followers to his side. Once again the Jade Emperor’s heavenly armies arrive and once again they fail to capture him.


They fought till the air was rid of birds flying by;
Wolves and Tigers were driven from within the mount;
The planet was darkened by hur- tling rocks and stones,
And the cosmos bedimmed by fly- ing dust and dirt.(1:148)

Only when Lao Zi himself intervenes can the heavenly host capture Monkey, and even then they cannot harm him. Monkey has consumed so many Taoist potions of immortality that he is indestructible. After smelting him for forty-nine days in an alchemist’s brazier, Lao Zi opens the crucible, expecting to find only purified elixir. Instead, Monkey emerges to wreak havoc once again: “immune to all the spears and swords,” he runs amok in Heaven, “not to be seized by fighting lords or thunder gods”(1:170).

Of all the sequences in The Journey to the West, the image of Monkey wreaking havoc in Heaven has most captivated the imagination of the Chinese people. A favorite episode in Peking opera, this clash between the quintessential rebel and divine authority is the closest analogy that one can find in Chinese literature to the Prometheus myth in the West.7 For Marxist literary historians, naturally enough, Monkey’s assault on Heaven symbolizes revolutionary fervor in general. 8 During the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Mao Zedong even cited Monkey’s visionary boldness by way of example to other Party leaders critical of the Chairman’s unorthodox economic policies: “The Monkey King disregarded the laws and the heavens. Why don’t we all emulate him? His anti-dogmatism was demonstrated in his courage to do whatever he wanted.”9 Later, when Mao wished to attack the USSR, he had Monkey represent the forces of revolutionary puritanism, sweeping away the pollution of Soviet revisionism.

The golden monkey furiously wields his thousand-jun club,
And the jade sky is swept clean of ten thousand li of dust.
Today we greet Sun the Great Sage with cheers,
For it appears that the demon mist has come once more.10

And during the Cultural Revolution that same poem became a rallying cry to mobilize the masses against revisionism within the Chinese Communist Party.

Even though Mao Zedong employed Monkey as a revolutionary touchstone, the metaphorical figure of Sun the Great Sage, when taken as a whole, eventually embodies impulse restrained, the revolutionary will withheld. In the novel, despite the inability of the Taoist master, Lao Zi, to destroy Monkey, there is one force in the universe that ultimately does overcome him. Sent for by the Jade Emperor, Buddha comes to Heaven’s aid and scolds Monkey for his presumptuous attempt to take over the Celestial Palace, then wagers that the ape is so inconsequential that he cannot somersault clear of his right palm. Knowing that he can vault hundreds of thousands of leagues at a single leap, and seeing that the Buddha’s hand is only the size of a lotus leaf, Monkey contemptuously accepts, jumps on the palm of the Buddha’s hand, and somersaults away. Whirling along he suddenly sees five enormous pillars in the distance. There he stops, and on the middle pillar he writes: “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, has made a tour of this place.” Then, like any animal marking the spot, he leaves “a bubbling pool of monkey urine at the base of the first pillar,” and somersaults back to his starting point. There he orders the Buddha—Tathagata—to honor the bet by turning over the Celestial Palace to him.

“You stinking, urinous ape!” scolded Tathagata. “Since when did you ever leave the palm of my hand?” The Great Sage said, “You are just ignorant! I went to the edge of Heaven, and I found five flesh-pink pillars supporting a mass of green air. I left a memento there. Do you dare go with me to have a look at the place?” “No need to go there,” said Tathagata. “Just lower your head and take a look.” When the Great Sage stared down with his fiery eyes and diamond pupils, he found written on the middle finger of the Buddhist Patriarch’s right hand the sentence “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, has made a tour of this place.” A pungent whiff of monkey urine came from the fork between the thumb and the first finger. Astonished, the Great Sage said, “Could this really happen?” (1:174)

Before the amazed ape can leap away, the Buddha flips over his hand and the five fingers become five linked mountains—the “Five-Phases Mountain”—which pin Monkey down and make him prisoner, finally subduing the cosmic rebel.

The final comic defeat of Monkey’s attack upon Heaven is the beginning of the ape’s own redemption and Tripitaka’s voyage to India. In The Journey to the West, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guanyin, visits Five-Phases Mountain on her way to send Tripitaka upon his quest for the Great Vehicle scriptures that will save mankind. When Monkey, imprisoned beneath the mountain, implores her to rescue him, he assures Guanyin that he now knows the meaning of penitence and wishes to practice religion. Guanyin is pleased, and promises to have the Tang Monk rescue him, which will give Monkey an opportunity to seek the fruit of virtue and practice the teachings of Buddha until he has attained righteousness as the disciple of Tripitaka. And, indeed, when Tripitaka passes by Five-Phases Mountain on his way to India, he releases the seal of Tathagata restraining Monkey there, and Sun Wukong emerges to become his guide and protector.

Needless to say, the imprisonment has not changed Monkey into an utterly compliant companion. Part of the charm of the novel lies in its depiction of Monkey as constantly torn between his desire to hold to the teachings of Buddha, and his quick temper and mighty rage. By himself alone, Sun Wukong would not be able to control the “Monkey Mind” (a phrase which quite apart from the novel has come to mean the impulsive will of man, which has to be curbed) that dominates his desire for virtue; and even Tripitaka is only able to keep Monkey under control when Guanyin gives him a golden fillet which he tricks Monkey into wearing as a cap. The fillet can be tightened by reciting a spell, the Tight-Fillet Sutra. When Monkey grows unruly, the Tang Monk chants the sutra, the fillet contracts, and the ape’s head swells with pain.

After demonstrating the device, Tripitaka asks if “Pilgrim” (Monkey) will be attentive to his instructions, and the ape promises not to disobey again.

Although he said that with his mouth, Pilgrim’s mind was still devising evil. One wave of the needle and it had the thickness of a rice bowl; he aimed it at the T’ang Monk and was about to slam it down on him. The priest was so startled that he went through the recitation two or three more times. Falling to the ground, the monkey threw away the iron rod and could not even raise his hands. “Master,” he said, “I’ve learned my lesson! Stop! Please stop!” (1:313)

However, Monkey is unwilling to relinquish thoughts of rebellion against the monk until he learns that Guanyin taught Tripitaka the Tight-Fillet Sutra in the first place. And even when he does sincerely promise to obey, he still must wear the golden fillet on the journey to the west. As a paradigmatic folk rebel, then, Monkey is ultimately controlled by the religious mastery of a scholar-priest—an apt metaphor for the potentially rebellious Chinese peasantry held in check by the ideological controls of the elite.

In his preface to the American edition of Arthur Waley’s translation of Xiyou ji, Dr. Hu Shi wrote: “Freed from all kinds of allegorical interpretations by Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist commentators, Monkey is simply a book of good humor, profound nonsense, good-natured satire and delightful entertainment.”11 Anthony Yu disagrees with this interpretation and, in the introduction to his own translation of the novel, he notes that most modern criticism “has not made any serious investigation into the significance of the supramundane, the mythic, and indeed, the religious themes and rhetoric that pervade the entire work.” In his view—which is finely documented and persuasively argued—The Journey to the West has an “underlying religious vision” which is drawn from the late-Ming syncretism of the Unity of the Three Religions (Sanjiao guiyi) of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Monkey is able to protect Tripitaka because he has acquired immortality through Taoist self-cultivation and internal alchemy. Tripitaka in turn offers Monkey the occasion to check his “antinomian and anarchic tendencies” through the Buddhist concept of mutual interdependence and ultimate metaphysical detachment.12

So far, in his own translation of Xiyou Ki, Anthony Yu has sought to bring out this underlying religious vision as vividly as possible. Taoist incantations and Buddhist invocations are sprinkled throughout the entire text of the novel, and in the two volumes that have already appeared (two more are yet to come), Yu translates these esoteric passages in a way that is both faithful to the original Chinese and comprehensible to his English audience. He also translates all of the difficult poetic passages in the text, and readers familiar with Arthur Waley’s truncated version will be astonished by the riches now available to them in this truly complete translation of the novel.13 They will also be convinced, I think, by Yu’s constant attention to religious allusions in the poetry that The Journey to the West really is “an allegorical pilgrimage in self-cultivation” (1:37). By the time Tripitaka and his guardians have returned to Tang China, they have not only acquired the sutras of the Great Vehicle; they have also attained a higher level of spiritual self-control that is not so different from another sort of pilgrim’s progress. Just before entering the City of God, John Bunyan’s Christian observes that for the temporary believer there is only “the fear of the halter,” because “let but this man have his liberty, and he will be a thief, and so a rogue still, whereas, if his mind was changed, he would be otherwise.”14 Monkey, about to return to the Buddhist Paradise, also learns to recognize that wisdom. As the novel ends, he tells Tripitaka:

“Master, now that I have already become a Buddha the same as you, is it fair still to wear the Golden Fillet, so that you can force me to do what you want by reciting the Tight-Fillet Sutra? How about reciting a Loose-Fillet Sutra right away, so that I can take it off and smash it to pieces? Be sure not to let that old Boddhisattva go on again and meddle around with other people.” The Tang Monk said, “That method was used then to keep you under control only because you were hard to govern. Now that you have already become a Buddha, it has disappeared by itself. What reason would there be for it to still be on your head? Rub yourself and see.” Novice raised his hand and rubbed, and sure enough it was gone.15

His spiritual odyssey completed, Monkey’s mind needs no halter now. His will is tamed within, and he, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, is truly “otherwise.”

This Issue

May 29, 1980