This year, my Literati Corner selection will be Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. I will be splitting it into six parts that will be reviewed in posts between each of my regularly scheduled series. This novel is at 16th century Buddhist-Taoist satirical fantasy that is very, very long, having an even 100 chapters. It is based on historical events, chronicling the trip of Buddhist monk Xuanzang to India to get better copies of the sutras in around 630 AD. He went from Chang’an, China to Nalanda, India, and he traveled for something like 18 years.
I’ll be using the 1984 translation by W. J. F. Jenner, which in the bilingual Simplified Chinese-English edition I’m using runs about 3,375 pages in six volumes, but half of those pages are Chinese. I really like Anthony Yu’s four volume translation, which is also widely available, but I already own Jenner’s, so I’m making that my official version just for my own convenience. Pick whichever edition you would like to read along with me, but if discussing a textual variation bothers you, get the one I’m reading. Since I’m doing the bilingual edition, I have the added bonus of being able to throw out an occasional quote from the original text for those interested. The text is a mixture of poetry and prose, so there will be a lot of interesting passages to ponder.
Whether reading this over the course of the year is manageable remains to be seen, but we’ll try it. Since my version is split into 6 volumes, it fits my schedule of one post roughly every two months, so I will give my chapter range for each based on that arrangement. Here is the reading list so anyone who wants to can read along with tentative dates as to when I’ll post my commentary:
This post, post 1, will cover chapters 1 through 15.
Post 2 will cover chapters 16 through 33, and it will be posted in March, 2017.
Post 3 will cover chapters 34 through 50, and it will be posted in June, 2017.
Post 4 will cover chapters 51 through 67, and it will be posted in August, 2017.
Post 5 will cover chapters 68 through 83, and it will be posted in October, 2017.
Post 6 will cover chapters 84 through 100, and it will be posted in November, 2017.
You can get the Jenner translation here:
I have details on the other translation in my PDF guide with more details on the reading circle:
The PDF study guide has more resources and study questions. I am not running a contest this year since I had such little response last year, but feel free to discuss in the post comments.
Some of the media adaptations I want to mention, which are elaborated upon in the PDF, include 2001 miniseries “The Lost Empire” with Thomas Gibson that is very hard to find anymore in any format. I thought was a lot of fun but was probably highly underrated since I doubt the critics were that familiar with the goofiness of the original source material. This was my first introduction to the story, in fact. And Russell Wong was a totally awesome Monkey King, my favorite even of all of the Chinese series I’ve seen since. So there. I’m also not sure if most people are aware that this mini-series was written by David Henry Hwang, an award-winning Chinese-American playwright.
The other one I will mention here that is probably not widely known is the CCTV cartoon version from 1999 that is available on VCD or DVD – see my PDF for details. This is mostly only in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but I think there’s an excerpt available with English subtitles. I will be using screenshots from my own copy of that series to highlight our reading of the text.
One thing about the history of this novel is the timing of its translations. Of course, in East Asia, the elites of Japan and Korea could read Chinese, so they didn’t need vernacular versions, but for modern readers, there would be a gap in access since they didn’t learn to read Chinese fluently and were used to reading the modern scripts. According to the introduction to the version I’m reading, the novel was translated into modern Japanese in 1831. The English-speaking world got its first translation in 1913. It first appeared in Modern Vietnamese – Vietnam also was once in China’s cultural orbit like Korea and Japan, though I don’t cover that part of the region on my blogs – in 1961. Korea got a complete modern translation in 1966.
The section that I’m covering today is rather special since it covers the origins and training of Sun Wu Kong. He is born miraculously from a magic stone:
There was once a magic stone on the top of this mountain which was thirty-six feet five inches high and twenty-four feet round….There were no trees around it to give shade, but magic fungus and orchids clung to its sides. Ever since Creation began it had been receiving the truth of Heaven, the beauty of Earth, the essence of the Sun and the splendor of the Moon; and as it has been influenced by them for so long it had miraculous powers. It developed a magic womb, which burst open one day to produce a stone egg about the size of a ball.
When the wind blew on this egg it turned into a stone monkey, complete with the five senses and four limbs. When the stone monkey had learnt to crawl and walk, he bowed to each of the four quarters. As his eyes moved, two beams of golden light shot towards the Pole Star palace and startled the Supreme Heavenly Sage, the Greatly Compassionate Jade Emperor of the Azure Vault of Heaven, who was sitting surrounded by his immortal ministers on his throne in the Hall of Miraculous Mist in the Golden-gated Cloud Palace. (JTTW, pp.7-9)
Once the monkey is born, he finds some other monkeys in the forest and go to a waterfall where one monkey issues a challenge that whoever can find the source of the waterfall will become king of the monkeys. Of course, the stone monkey figures it out, becomes king, and names his paradise “The Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.” They all move into the Cave Heaven of the Water Curtain, a cave just beneath the water, and the author observes:
Monkeys are born naughty and they could not keep quiet for a single moment until they had worn themselves out moving things around. (JTTW, p.15)
The monkey king requests that his name be changed to Handsome Monkey King, and the monkeys have a good time in their new kingdom for awhile. But one day, the Handsome Monkey King starts to worry about the future even though everything is peaceful. He decides he needs to go find a human sage to explain to him his sudden enlightenment and train him. Masquerading as a human, he is directed to a cave with doors and a stone announcing that this is Spirit-Tower Heart Mountain. Here he meets Patriarch Subhuti, who gives him the name Sun Wukong, which means “Monkey Awakened to Emptiness.”
This part where Wukong is getting his Taoist training is a lot of fun, especially since he is a rather precocious student with a touch of silliness. He pesters the Patriarch to tell him the secret to immortality. After a bit, he promises to teach Wu Kong the seventy-two earthly transformations, which Wukong foolishly uses to turn himself into a pine tree to demonstrate his powers to his fellow disciples. The Patriarch is furious at Wukong for doing it in front of the other disciples and is concerned they might kill him out of jealousy or press him to teach them. Although Wukong has been training there for at least 3 years, the Patriarch tells him to leave and admonishes him not to tell anyone he was his master since he is sure Wukong will get into no end of trouble on his own.
When Wukong returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he must fight the Demon King of Confusion that has taken over the cave, the first of his many legendary fights with demons. Wukong then decides they need weapons to defend themselves against intruders, and he goes around stealing them. Finally looking for a suitable weapon for himself, he ends up at the palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea.
After intimidating them all, Wukong finds an iron beam that anchors the Milky Way in the sea that cannot be moved by anyone but him. It is inscribed with a reference to a cudgel, and it has the magical ability to grow or shrink to any size Wukong tells it to be. Pleased, he takes off with it after extorting the Dragon King and his brothers out of a suit of armor and helmet.
Back at home, Wukong has a terrifying dream:
In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach him with a piece of paper in their hands on which was written ‘Sun Wukong’. Without allowing any explanations they tied up his soul and dragged it staggering along till they reached a city wall. The Monkey King, who was gradually recovering from his drunken stupor, looked up and saw an iron plate on the wall on which was inscribed WORLD OF DARKNESS in large letters. In a flash of realization he said, ‘The World of Darkness is where King Yama lives. Why have I come here?’ ‘Your life in the world above is due to end now,’ his escorts said, ‘and we were ordered to fetch you.’…
Sun Wukong went into the Senluo Palace with his club in his hand, and sat down in the middle of the hall facing south. The Ten Kings then ordered the presiding judge to fetch the register, and the judge hastened to his office and brought out five or six documents and ten registers. He looked through them all one by one, but could not find Sun Wukong’s name in the sections devoted to hairless creatures, hairy creatures, feathered creatures, insects, or scaly creatures. Then he looked through the monkey section….There was another register, and Sun Wukong looked through this one himself. Under ‘Soul No. 1350’ was the name of Sun Wukong, the Heaven-born stone monkey, who was destined to live to the age of 342 and die a good death. ‘I won’t write down any number of years,’ said Sun Wukong. ‘I’ll just erase my name and be done with it. Bring me a brush.’ The judge hastily handed him a brush and thick, black in. Sun Wukong took the register, corssed out all the names in the monkey section, and threw it on the floor with the words, ‘The account’s closed. That’s an end of it. We won’t come under your control any longer.’ (JTTW, pp.89-93)
Meanwhile, the Dragon King has sent a memorial complaining about Wukong to the Jade Emperor of Heaven, who realizes he must subdue and control the Monkey King. He summons Wukong to heaven for a meeting and appoints Wukong to be protector of the horses in the heavenly stables, which Wukong is unhappy with when he finds out it is a low and unimportant office. Instead, he returns home and declares himself “Great Sage Equalling Heaven.” He even puts it on a big banner. This starts a war with heaven.
Among Wukong’s other antics include tending the heavenly Peach Orchard guarding the peaches of immortality, but he eats them all when they are supposed to be taken to a party. He also steals pills of immortality from another pavilion, which also gets him into trouble. I think this passage contains one of the first where Wukong’s hair trick is mentioned:
The Great Sage could not stop himself from drooling, and he longed to drink some [liquor], but unfortunately all those people were there. So he performed a spell by pulling several hairs from his body, chewing them up, spitting them up, saying the magic words, and shouting ‘Change’; whereupon the hairs turned into sleep insects, which flew into the faces of all the liquor-makers. Watch them as their hands go limp, their heads droop, their eyes close, and they drop their symbols of office and all fall asleep. (JTTW, p.151)
No one is happy with him, and they want the Jade Emperor to punish him. It just so happens, though, that the Bodhisattva of Compassion Guanyin was invited to the Peach Banquet that Wukong wrecked, and she hears about his activities.She decides to intervene.
She recommends they send the god Erlang to capture him, then Wukong is marched to the Demon-beheading Tower to execute him. However, instead of executing him, he is confronted by the Buddha, whose hand he defaces with graffiti and urinates on. As he tries to somersault to escape the Buddha, the Buddha grabs him with his hand, which turns into the Five Elements Mountain under which Wukong would be imprisoned for 500 years.
When the party ends, Guanyin and the Buddha discuss the mortal man who will come fetch the scriptures. As Guanyin goes along her way, she encounters a few monster who promise to reform and become a disciple of the man going to fetch the scriptures. The first one she finds she names Sha Wujing, or “Sand Awakened to Purity.” The next one she names him Zhu Wuneng, or “Pig Awakened to Power.” The third one is the son of the Dragon King who has committed a crime, and she tells him to wait in a certain place to meet the man coming to fetch the scriptures. Finally she arrives at the mountain where Wukong is imprisoned and prepares him to meet the man fetching the scripture who will become his new master.
The story then switches to the great Chinese city of Chang’an where Emperor Taizong is presiding over the civil service examination and a marriage that results in the birth of a boy who ends up at Jinshan Temple and becomes the monk Xuanzang. This part goes into his training in the temple and his miraculous reunion with his mother. This story arc goes on for a few chapters, and you can read that one on your own.
Finally in Chapter 12, Guanyin meets with Xuanzang in Chang’an after spending time there and looking for someone virtuous enough for the assignment to fetch the scriptures from the West. They select his courtesy name as Sanzang, which is what he goes by after this. He sets off and immediately meets some unsavory looking creatures. Saved by a few minor characters, one of them guides him to the mountain where monkey is imprisoned, and Sanzang releases him. Facing the monkey, Wukong introduces himself and helps him by carrying his luggage. They immediately face a tiger, but Wukong kills it in a single blow and uses the skin for clothing. Sanzang is amazed at Wukong’s martial prowess.
After spending the night with an old man at his house, Sanzang and Wukong are nearly robbed, but Wukong knocks the bandits back with his cudgel and slaughters them, which upsets Sanzang to no end. He demands to know why it was necessary to kill them all and calls Wukong evil. Wukong leaves him in a rage. As Sanzang continues along the road, he encounters a woman who gives him a hat and tells him a band-tightening spell to use with it. Sanzang recognizes the woman as Guanyin only too late. But the Monkey King is returning home, and Guanyin meets him to send him back to Sanzang.
Returning to Sanzang, they make up. Sanzang tricks him into wearing the hat and uses the spell to subdue him. Wukong can’t get the hat off no matter what he tries, though it hurts his head. Next they encounter a dragon who eats Sanzang’s horse. But after some confusion, it comes out that this is the Dragon King’s son who is waiting for Sanzang to serve him, but he has eaten the monk’s horse instead. Again, Guanyin intervenes, and from this point on, the dragon is forced to become Sanzang’s horse for the journey:
The Bodhisattva then went forward, broke off some of the pearls from the dragon’s head, soaked the end of her willow twig in the sweet dew in her bottle, sprinkled it on the dragon’s body, and breathed on it with magic breath, shouted, and the dragon turned into the exact likeness of the original horse. (JTTW, p.515)
Sanzang and monkey have to procure a saddle and bridle, which turns into another farce, before they can continue their journey, and this is where volume one ends.
Part one of a six part series.