1001 Reads

Regularly updated blog charting the most important novels of the last 2000 and something years

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

13. Wú Chéng'ēn - Journey to the West (a.k.a. Monkey, a.k.a. 西遊記) (1592)


Well, this was a fun book. For some reason it is the most popular of the several classic Chinese literary works we have had here. Firstly the more widely available version of the work, published by Penguin is abridged and entitled Monkey, translated by Arthur Waley, however it is really what you should read, you will enjoy it more. If you have a deep interest in the text you should go on to Anthony C. Yu's translation.

Then it is one of those works that at least the UK you will have seen adaptations of, either in a TV series or as a Damon Albarn Chinese Opera/Circus thing, which was pretty amazing.

As a book, it is a fun filled action-fantasy-adventure tale, full of monsters and wisecracking, very funny but with an interesting historical background. And it is this historical background that particularly interests me. Tripitaka, the monk in the book is an example of the Chinese who travelled to India in order to bring back Buddhist texts. He is actually based on Xuanzang, a real monk who did an amazing trip to India. In that sense it is fascinating, but then he has demons, a crazy monkey-God and a guy who was turned into a pig as assistants, as well as a magical horse. A great read.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

The classic story of the Journey to the West was based on real events. In real life, Xuanzang (born c. 602 - 664) was a monk at Jingtu Temple in late-Sui Dynasty and early-Tang Dynasty Chang'an. Motivated by the poor quality of Chinese translations of Buddhist scripture at the time, Xuanzang left Chang'an in 629, despite the border being closed at the time due to war with the Gokturks. Helped by sympathetic Buddhists, he travelled via Gansu and Qinghai to Kumul (Hami), thence following the Tian Shan mountains to Turfan. He then crossed what are today Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, into Gandhara, reaching India in 630. Xuanzang travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent for the next thirteen years, visiting important Buddhist pilgrimage sites and studying at the ancient university at Nalanda.

Xuanzang left India in 643 and arrived back in Chang'an in 646 to a warm reception by Emperor Taizong of Tang. He joined Da Ci'en Monastery (Monastery of Great Maternal Grace), where he led the building of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in order to store the scriptures and icons he had brought back from India. He recorded his journey in the book Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty. With the support of the Emperor, he established an institute at Yuhua Gong (Palace of the Lustre of Jade) monastery dedicated to translating into Chinese the scriptures he had brought back. His translation and commentary work established him as the founder of the Dharma character school of Buddhism. Xuanzang died on March 7, 664. The Xingjiao Monastery was established in 669 to house his ashes.

Popular stories of Xuánzàng's journey were in existence long before Journey to the West was written. In these versions, dating as far back as Southern Song, a monkey character was already a primary protagonist. Before the Yuan Dynasty and early Ming, elements of the Monkey story were already seen.

The Damon Albarn Opera, go see it if you can:


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