The Journey to the West Volumes 1 and 2
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.