Journey to the West

Wu Cheng'en

Cover of Journey to the West

Rank: A+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Summer, 2004 to Summer, 2009

Author Name: Wu Cheng’en – Wu Chengen – 西游记 – 西遊記 – 吴承恩 – 吳承恩

Review: Talk about a long, strange trip… Journey to the West is, by far, the longest book I’ve ever read (my edition was over 2,000 pages divided into 100 chapters), and certainly one of the most unique. It is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and of those, is probably the most fantastical. It took me five years to read, but it was well, well worth it.

I’ve got quite a lot to say about this book, so either strap yourself in, or leave this review for later. This one’s going to be a doozy…

Let’s take it from the top. What is this book?

Calling Journey to the West a novel, and suggesting that it was written by Wu Cheng’en is a bit misleading. While it’s true that Wu Cheng’en is the most likely author of this particular version of the story, he was by no means the first—nor did he invent this tale wholecloth. Instead, the version of the story we have today can be considered the endpoint of centuries of collaboration and oral history passed down from generation to generation.

The story of Journey to the West was inspired by an actual journey. In the seventh century, a monk named Xuanzang was said to have traveled from China to India to obtain the Buddhist scriptures for the Tang emperor. It took him seventeen years, and he even wrote an autobiography, so there’s plenty of detail about his journey (and was at the time this book was being compiled). Nevertheless, fantastic stories began springing up from all corners about his adventures traveling from China to India and back, and these stories formed the basis of the novel Journey to the West.

Though the stories changed hands many times and were elaborated and exaggerated over the centuries, there are a few overriding themes and characters which I’ll sketch out briefly before delving into a full summary. Sanzang, the incarnation of the Buddha, is sent by the Tang emperor to India to obtain the scriptures. On his journey he’s helped by three disciples: A stone ape called Monkey, a pig beast named Pig, and a kind of ogre named Sand.

With that basic outline down, let me give you a more detailed summary.

In the days of old, lightning strikes a great stone on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and produces a monkey. This is the character known as Monkey, the great hero of Journey to the West. Monkey quickly becomes the ruler of all the other monkeys, and trains under a Taoist master to become more powerful. Not being satisfied with all this, though, Monkey undertakes a series of adventures to become the most powerful being in the universe.

First he travels to the Underworld and removes his name from the rollsheets of the dead, assuring himself (and his fellow monkeys) immortality. Then he goes up to heaven and basically wrecks up the place. He demands to be given the title “Great Sage Equalling Heaven” to show that not even the ruler of heaven is better than he. While in heaven, he eats a fruit that gives him immortality, and then gets drunk. Thinking they can be rid of him, the heavenly soldiers stuff him into a furnace to burn him up. Ho, ho, but that only makes him stronger (not kidding)! The fires refine his essence, so that Monkey becomes invincible. In order to calm him, they give him an official task (he’s made the protector of the horses), but that’s not enough for him, of course.

Then Monkey meets his “match” (see below for my comments on this). The Buddha decides to fix Monkey once and for all. He grabs Monkey and puts him in his hand and tells Monkey that if he can jump out of his hand, he’ll be the ruler of heaven. If not, the Buddha will imprison him. Monkey fails, and the Buddha slams Monkey down to earth, imprisoning him beneath a mountain where he’s trapped for five hundred years, with nothing to eat but hot gravel.

At this point, the novel enters its second stage. The story shifts to the Tang empire, where the emperor has a terrifying dream. In it, he mistakenly beheads the king of the dragons, and as punishment, he’s ordered to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures or else. He engages a holy monk named Sanzang to do so, and Sanzang sets off on his task.

Before he sets off, Sanzang meets with Boddhisattva Guanyin (basically a deus ex machina). She gives him a special headband and instructs him to find three disciples to help him on his journey (as well as gives him a horse that used to be a dragon). It’s Sanzang who, a chapter or two later, frees Monkey from underneath the mountain. He frees him on the condition that he become his disciple, and agreeing, Sanzang puts the headband the Boddhisattva gave him on Monkey’s head. This is the only thing that can control monkey. See, the headband is magic, and if Sanzang says a particular magic spell, he can tighten the headband, causing Monkey endless torment. Monkey absolutely hates the band tightening spell, and will do anything to get Sanzang to stop saying it, or to prevent him from saying it in the first place.

After this, Monkey helps Sanzang get two more disciples: Pig, a lecherous lout who’s Monkey’s comic foil, and a nondescript fellow named Sand. With the band all together, they set off for the Thunder Monastery in India to get the Buddhist scriptures.

Now comes the bulk of the novel: More than 80 chapters that are nearly identical. All of them go roughly like this:

Sanzang and the gang have traveled x number of miles and come upon a foreboding mountain/city/castle/cave/monastery. Monkey takes a look at it and says, “We should stay away from there. There are demons in there.” Sanzang, Pig and Sand (none of whom have Monkey’s powers) can’t see any demons, so they berate Monkey, saying he’s being superstitious, and that they should move on. Monkey protests, and Sanzang, getting upset, threatens to say the band tightening spell. Monkey recoils, and they press on, heading to the foreboding mountain/city/castle/cave/monastery.

Once inside, the demons spy Sanzang, and, having heard a rumor that anyone who eats his flesh will gain immortality, abduct him straight away. Pig, terrified and lazy, says they should all go their separate ways. Monkey says, “No, we have to save him.” Reluctantly, Pig agrees to help. Monkey tells Sand to stay with the horse and the luggage (Sand’s most important [and only] task).

Monkey goes to the mouth of the cave/castle, etc. and insults the leader, saying something like, “Hey, you dirty tadpole! This is your great, great grandfather speaking! If you give up the Tang priest now, I’ll only beat you half to death! You better do as I say!” The big bad guy hears this and sends out a junior devil to see what’s going on. The junior devil sees Monkey and is terrified. He reports back and says that there are two ugly monks outside, and that one of them looks like a Thunder God (for some reason, Thunder Gods look like monkeys, and anytime anyone sees Monkey, they say he looks like a Thunder God [rather than he looks like a monkey]).

The big bad guy, fed up with the insults, goes out to fight. He and Monkey and Pig fight a hundred and twelve rounds, with no one gaining the upper hand. Seeing that he might be losing, the big bad guy unleashes his super secret weapon, and manages to escape and/or capture Pig. Monkey, annoyed, gets on his somersault cloud and flies up to the Western Gate of Heaven for help.

The guys up in heaven just can’t stand Monkey, of course. They know what he did once upon a great long while ago, and they just want him to leave, so they agree to do whatever he asks. They send down some soldiers to fight the big bad guy, and so they all go down to the cave/castle, etc.

Unfortunately, not even this works. The big bad guy uses his super secret weapon and bests the armies of heaven. Humiliated, they all go back, and Monkey makes more of a clamor, and so they give him someone who’s really good (like Prince Nezha or the Boddhisattva). When they get there, they manage to get the big bad guy out and capture him, and Monkey’s about to kill him, when some heavenly person cries, “No, stop! I know who that is. It turns out that’s my stag/horse/lion/tiger that went missing hundreds of years ago. He must have come down to earth to cause mischief. What a naughty stag/horse/lion/tiger you are! Come back at once!” And so the big bad guy, who is actually some pet of the heavenly being, goes obediently back, Sanzang and Pig are safe, they make a couple jokes, and they move on.

Now imagine reading an expanded version of that (this is the short version) about fifty times over. That’s what it’s like to read Journey to the West.

But hey, unlike a bad anime, this one actually does have an ending! And what an ending it is! Unbelievable!

So, after like 96 chapters and more than 2,000 pages, you, the reader, along with Sanzang and the gang get to the Thunder Monastery. After reading all that, it feels like you too have been journeying for fourteen or fifteen years (or, in my case, five). What happens is nothing short of astounding.

First, in a small section I actually found a bit sad, the gang has to cross the river that separates the living from the dead. Monkey, Pig and Sand, who are already immortal, can walk right across without any problems. Sanzang, however, tries to get in and sinks. He’s afraid. Monkey tells him not to worry and snickers, and in something that seems like a dream, he points out to Sanzang that he’s okay. He lifts him up on the water, and points to his body (Sanzang’s) floating away downstream. And so, their lives behind them, they head up to the Thunder Monastery.

Along the way, they’re stopped by two lesser buddhas. The buddhas bug them to give them…something; I forget what (money?)—and as the travelers have nothing on them, the buddhas decide to play a trick on them (more on that later).

They get to the top and a great vegetarian feast is laid out for them. Then they meet with the Buddha and ask him for the scriptures. The Buddha, naturally, refuses. Yeah, that’s right: He refuses. He says the scriptures are too important to just be handed out willy nilly, but he says he’ll have some of his disciples copy out some of the less important scriptures, and they can take those with them. And then he shoos them away. The entire scene probably takes up less room than my description of it.

So they go to his disciples, and who do they turn out to be but the lesser buddhas that were bugging them on the way up. They recognize the gang, and decide to copy out what scriptures they’re allowed to take with them in disappearing ink. They load up these scriptures on the horse, and the gang heads down the mountain.

Monkey, being a bit sharper than the rest, decides to look at the scriptures at some point, and he notices that they’re blank. Ticked off, they all go back, and Monkey reads Buddha the riot act. The Buddha kind of laughs it off, but then, finally, has half of the scriptures copied out (in real ink), and they leave Vulture Peak.

After this, they get back in four days (magically), Sanzang gives his sermon, and each of them receives a reward. Both Monkey and Sanzang become buddhas; Sand becomes an arhat; the horse (the dragon prince, remember) becomes a naga; and Pig becomes an altar cleaner (he eats whatever’s leftover when people leave offerings).

And there you have it.

If you’ve gotten this far (and, no we’re not even close to being done yet), you may be wondering, “Why should I read this if it’s so dull and repetitive?” Repetitive it may be, but dull it is not, and that’s thanks to two characters: Monkey and Pig.

First, Monkey is one of the most extraordinary characters in the history of literature (though you won’t find him in any top ten list since no one reads anything written east of Russia). He’s whimsically wistful, arguably invincible, and utterly incorrigible. I mean, he goes down to the underworld to strike his name off the registers of the dead so that he’ll never die! He makes the gods in heaven tremble! And yet he’s one of the most likable characters you’ll ever come across. He literally laughs in the face of danger (multiple times a chapter), and never shows any concern over anything (except that band-tightening spell).

Combining him with Pig was a stroke of genius. Pig is lazy, loud, stupid and coarse, and he and Monkey are always at loggerheads. Their over-the-top antics are reminiscent of The Three Stooges. I remember one scene in particular. Sanzang has been captured (for probably the twelfth time), but this time, Pig all of a sudden grabs the luggage, throws it on the ground and proclaims, “Well, it’s over! Let’s split the luggage up and go our separate ways.” Then Monkey, of course, conks him on the head and tells him they’re going to save the master. The book is filled with little scenes like this that make the whole thing (yes, the whole thing) a joy to read.

Despite this, the book has some serious flaws. Consider, for example, one of the four “main” characters, Friar Sand. What’s his deal? I don’t really know, and I’ve read the book. That’s because in all 2,317 pages, you can probably fit Friar Sand’s lines on five pages—and most of them will come from the chapter where he becomes Sanzang’s disciple. I figure that Wu probably realized around chapter 40 that Sand wasn’t getting much action, and he figured at that point that it was too late to rescue it, so he just gave it up.

It’s hard to imagine what role Friar Sand would play, anyway. In battle, Monkey’s the invincible one, Sanzang’s the weak one, and Pig is the bumbling one. Friar Sand is…pretty good at fighting? And that’s it.

In social settings, Sanzang alternates between pious and wise and a blubbering coward. Monkey alternates between brash and brilliant, and Pig is…well, Pig (they don’t call him “the Idiot” for nothing). Friar Sand doesn’t add to this dynamic, and interjecting him would only intrude. Some of the best scenes in the book involve Monkey, Sanzang and Pig all arguing over something (Monkey makes Pig upset, Pig complains to Sanzang, Sanzang tries to punish Monkey, Monkey tries to explain, etc.). In fact, if you removed Friar Sand from the book entirely, no one would notice—and the result would probably be better. That’s something that shouldn’t be said about one of the main characters of a book.

In addition to the troubling issue of Friar Sand, the book isn’t very well written. The prose doesn’t “sparkle”: it’s merely there. That might have something to do with the poetry (I’ll get to that in a minute), but for one of the greatest novels ever written, it’s just not written very well. It’s adequate, and that’s the best you can say for it.

The repetition has already been mentioned, but I haven’t said anything about the curious dei ex machina. Frequently Wu will have a great big battle, and then the monster will be defeated somehow, and then after that, someone like Monkey (or the narrator) will explain, “Wu Bajie was lucky, because he remembered his Ring of Golden Rain, which made him invulnerable to the monster’s attacks”. Of course we haven’t heard of the Ring of Golden Rain before, but that’s just the beginning. This thing isn’t even introduced when it’s relevant (i.e. when Pig’s in danger). Wu will introduce it after the conflict has already been resolved as a further explanation of how it was resolved!

The book is filled with issues like this. If you want to read Journey to the West, you have to take all of them and just swallow them up whole. If you stop at every issue like this that arises, you won’t get past chapter 1.

One of the most notable features of the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet is the poetry. If the book comprises more than 2,000 pages, I can say, without exaggerating, it also comprises more than 3,000 poems (and yes, I realize that comes out to more than a poem a page; I’m still probably underestimating). In chapter 94, for example, there are 21 pages and 23 poems. Some of them are short (just two lines), others longer (the longest is about four pages long), most are somewhere in between (a quarter of a page to half a page long), but all of them are important if one hopes to describe the structure.

Each chapter of Journey to the West usually begins with a small poem, and then the action moves thus. Sanzang et al. come across some mountain or castle (as mentioned above), and there’s a poem to describe it. Then when they meet up with someone, Sanzang or Monkey will have some little poem to explain a point (or make a joke). Then when Sanzang is abducted, Monkey will battle with some demon, and the entire battle will take place in a poem that usually sounds something like this:

Cudgel and sword clash in the sky!
The cudgel booms like thunder,
The sword flashes like lightning.
One fights to save his master,
The other to defend his cave.

Plus a few more lines like that. Then the narrator will find a way to insert six to ten more poems here and there before the chapter is up, and the chapter will always come to a close with a little two line poem. By the end of the book, I was able to recognize the different types of poems, even though the poetic styles themselves weren’t translated (by this I mean you can translate the meaning of something like a sonnet without preserving the strict structure of a sonnet. These translations were similar).

What fascinates me about the function of the poems is that they’re considered…authoritative, I guess you can say. Most poems are introduced by the stock phrase, “and here’s a poem to prove it.” To prove it! So, for example, they’ll come across a woman who’s very beautiful, and the author will say as much in prose, but that, evidently, isn’t good enough (I mean, since it’s in prose, it could be false!). In order to say anything with any authority, it must be proven with a poem. Just wild!

Though the book’s content is a delight, there are several plot issues that trouble me—or that, at least, still have me thinking. The first is Monkey’s encounter with the Buddha.

As I mentioned before, the Buddha dares Monkey to jump out of his hand. If he can do so, he’ll admit defeat. Monkey fails to do so, though, and the Buddha imprisons him under a mountain.

Now, it’s clear why this makes sense allegorically. Monkey is trained by a Taoist monk, and one of the main points of the book is that Buddhism is “the” way. Therefore, Monkey, as a representative of “inferior” Taoism, is supposed to be defeated by the Buddha. But despite what happens, I maintain that that matchup is unfair.

When Monkey is given the challenge, he leaps for what he considers to be miles and miles and miles. When he lands, he urinates to mark his territory, and then he jumps back into the Buddha’s hand (why, I can’t fathom). Then, of course, the Buddha opens his hand, revealing that the urine puddle Monkey left was just in the corner of his hand (again, allegorically, the Buddha is omnipresent, blah, blah, blah), and thus the Buddha gets to exact his punishment.

But the Buddha tricked him! Monkey thought he was out of the hand, so he stopped trying to escape. If Monkey had realized he was still trapped in the Buddha’s hand, he would have tried again to leap out, and would have been wary of his instincts which told him he had escaped. It wasn’t a real defeat: It was trickery—knavery! As far as I’m concerned, the battle between Monkey and the Buddha isn’t over.

Plus, the Buddha’s a jerk.

But, of course, that’s not the only time the Buddha disrespects Monkey. There’s the biggest one: The arrival at the Thunder Monastery. Monkey, Sanzang et al. spend years traveling to receive the scriptures—and Sanzang dies, even!—and when they get there, the monastery dwellers treat them like dirt, and they don’t get all the scriptures—the Buddha even insults them when they ask for them. And this is supposed to be their deity?

After 90+ chapters, this climax is short, disappointing—even insulting. It’s not just Sanzang and his monks that take a long journey to reach that point: the reader does, too. Pragmatically, one might consider it a dodge of some sort—that is, perhaps the author didn’t feel up to the task. After all that build up, he simply wasn’t equal to an incredible ending, so he went the totally opposite route. Another possibility is that it’s actually a “lesson” we’re supposed to learn—that even after a long and epic struggle, we’re nothing but crumbs to the greatest forces in the universe, and we should consider ourselves lucky that they don’t wipe our existence off the face of eternity. Perhaps it’s a lesson in humility. Whatever the reason, though, I know that that ending was a lot easier to write than a super fantastic mega-epic ending. You got off easy, Wu.

It would be criminal of me to finish this review without mentioning the terrible, terrible edition I read. The best translator ever to touch the story is widely considered to be Arthur Waley. Unfortunately, he only ever produced an abridged version (only 30 of the 100 chapters), which means that to get an unabridged version, you have one of two choices: A complete translation by Anthony C. Yu with an “extensive scholarly introduction and notes”, or the one I read: a complete translation by W. J. F. Jenner with…notes. First, the translation is a bit clunky. I have to praise Jenner for his work translating all those poems, but the writing simply isn’t crisp. This, I’m sure, is partly the writer’s fault, but I can’t help but wonder what a full translation by Arthur Waley would look like.

That aside, though, truly understanding this book requires a wealth of knowledge about Chinese culture, literature and history. As I don’t have that, I was hoping to make good use of the notes and annotations provided in this edition. That, however, was a big mistake.

First, the book has 51 notes. With the book totaling 2,317 pages, that’s about one note every 45 pages. By way of comparison, Canto 19 of Paradise in my edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy has 25 notes. Canto 19 of Paradise is four pages long. Given that The Divine Comedy is 428 pages, that comes out to about 2,675 notes in The Divine Comedy, or a little over 6 notes per page—which, I might add, sounds about right, and is what I would expect from an annotated text.

The paucity of notes might be forgiven if their quality were exceptional. But read some of these notes!

  • A name for the planet Venus. (This was a note attached to the phrase “the Great White Planet”. Oh really, translator? Thanks for clearing that up! Now would you mind telling me what the significance of the planet Venus is in Chinese astrology, and in this section of the book—you know, something useful?)
  • The insect Lycorma delicatula. (Oh, thanks! You pointed out one of the hundreds of creatures that I’ve never heard of and given me its scientific name. That helps, really!)
  • This poem is full of technical terminology from boxing. (Outstanding! And what might those technical terms be, pray tell…?)

Journey to the West was written in 16th century China. Is this really what I need to know?

It’s literally impossible to fully grasp this book reading the Foreign Language Press edition. Every single sentence is packed with allusions to Chinese history, cosmology, geography, literature, agriculture… Everything. Not to mention the Buddhist and Taoist stuff. All of this would have been background knowledge for an average 16th century Chinese reader. Things have changed quite a bit since then, though—and I’ve never even lived in modern China—and the book is translated into English!

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg with the FLP edition. If the book is 2,317 pages long, there are probably at least 4,634 typos (i.e. two per page). It’s like either no one proofread the copy, or the ones setting the copy were incompetent. One can expect at least one transposition (e.g. “teh” for “the”) on every page, and several more troubling errors every couple of pages. I’m not saying that I or the average web surfer is any better, but we’re not being paid to do it!

And hey, speaking of who’s doing it, this brings me to another troubling issue. The Foreign Language Press is a Chinese company, and, as such, is under the same strict surveillance that the entire population of China is. This FLP edition of Journey to the West comes with an introduction written by Professor Shi Changyu from the Institute of Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And what an introduction it is! For example, apparently Wu Cheng’en “pokes fun at Sanzang’s dogmatic defense of the sacred tenets and the malpractices prevalent in contemporary Buddhist circles.” Furthermore, “Pig’s clumsy actions and speech are invariably hilarious, but the laughter he elicits is tolerant but sad at the same time. This is because the weaknesses in Pig’s character are not unique or accidental; they are common traits of the Chinese character.” Do tell!

While sometimes informative, the introduction is just torturous to read. The book must be defended at every turn for being somehow beneficial to China, while at the same time praised for being critical of religion and every time period but the present. The introduction itself is a sad commentary on the state of intellectual discourse in modern China.

In case it still isn’t obvious, I do not recommend reading the Foreign Language Press version of Journey to the West. Perhaps the edition by Anthony C. Yu isn’t any better; I don’t know. But the cons of the FLP edition outweigh the costs of trying out a version one hasn’t seen before.

The impact that Journey to the West has had on the world since its publication is…staggering. I don’t think I would be overstating things to say that most (if not all) modern manga/anime have been directly influenced by Journey to the West (and certain shows, like One Piece and Dragon Ball, make direct references to the book). Perhaps a better way of characterizing it is that Journey to the West changed popular storytelling in China and all countries for whom China served as a cultural beacon from the 16th century on. The book even spawned an inquel—an entire novel whose action takes place between two chapters of Journey to the West! Measured purely by its influence, Journey to the West is probably one of the greatest literary works in the history of the world (pretty good for a book whose writing isn’t stellar!).

Now comes the toughest question of all: Should you read it? The book is long, no doubt about that. It’s certainly worthwhile, but the cons of the FLP edition are numerous. None of that, though, can take anything away from the comic genius of Monkey, Pig and Sanzang. Their antics are so much fun! Even though the action is repetitive and formulaic, the banter and back-and-forth makes it all seem fresh, and makes one want to keep reading. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the time lost reading the book. So while we can all hold out hope that the perfect edition of Journey to the West will come our way some day, in the meantime, I maintain this is certainly one to read at least once before you die. It was truly a delight.

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