Portrait of Xuanzang in Tokyo National Museum. His name means in Mandarin "Tang (Dynasty) Monk," so his personal identity is unknown.
Longman Anthology of World
Novel as counterculture
World Literature Timeline
The Longman anthology conventionally divides part one of the literary history of the world into three periods (ancient, medieval, early modern). This course has split it more broadly in two (ancient, modern) because there have been only two worldwide disasters large enough to produce a general dark ages in the literary record. A major catastrophe ended the Bronze Age after 1627 BCE and a lesser but substantial disruption terminated the classical period after 536 CE. In the past 1500 years, despite the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, world wars and other setbacks in human population from time to time, there has been no similarly global eclipse of world literature or cultures.
Although medieval and modern periods cannot be separated on the basis of any global catastrophe, they obviously can be distinguished clearly on the basis of technology. In terms of the technology of literary production, the age of manuscripts passed away in the fifteenth century, following Gutenberg's introduction of moveable metal type which ushered in the age of print. (And perhaps the age of print is passing now, with the advent of electronic media.) Print brought credibility to text, and it reduced cost and expanded production so that for the first time text could be distributed widely. It defeated all who tried to censor literature, and it enabled popular literature.
At about the same transition time, the history of world literature also was impacted by non-literary technologies, especially advances in ship design and navigation. New mastery of the seaways permitted the African slave trade to expand substantially in the 1440's, Columbus to reach the Caribbean and Vasco da Gama to reach India in the 1490's, Magellan to circumnavigate the globe 1519-1522, and Cook to complete the explorations necessary to map the inhabitable world in the 1770's. These and other developments in travel, commerce and arms brought cultures increasingly into contact, from which arose new multicultural forms of literature and the beginnings of colonialism and globalization.
Literature and culture after the fifteenth century differ substantially from their "medieval" antecedents. The new "early modern" age brought huge increases in literacy, expanded reliance on vernacular languages, and great advances in scholarship. Like Shakespeare who named his theater The Globe, increasing numbers of authors in the new era thought of themselves as people of the world--not the world as distinct from heaven but the geophysical and geopolitical planet as it is.
3400 BCE development of picture hieroglyphs and cuneiform writing?
2700 BCE King Gilgamesh rules Uruk
1800 BCE Abraham?
1750 BCE Hammurabi's Law Code
1627 BCE Thera explosion; destruction of Minoans; destruction of Atlantis?; destruction of Harappan civilization in South Asia and beginning of "Aryan migration"; Hyksos invasion of Egypt; Hebrew Exodus from Egypt; collapse of Xia dynasty in China
1300 BCE: Phoenician script invented?
BCE Dark Age in
Greece. Fall of Troy,
1070 BCE. Fall of New Kingdom in Egypt
950 BCE First Jerusalem Temple; Solomon
900 BCE Carthage founded; Upanishads
753 BCE Rome founded
612 BCE Burial of Ashurbanipal library
483 BCE Death of Gautama Buddha?
479 BCE Death of Confucius
400 BCE Dhammapada?
399 BCE Death of Socrates
333-323 BCE Alexander's conquests
232 BCE Death of King Ashoka in India
202 BCE Rome defeats Hannibal and Carthage
19 BCE Death of Virgil with Aeneid unfinished
71 CE Roman destruction of Jerusalem Temple
120 CE Plutarch's Life of Alexander.
312 CE Constantine makes Christianity the religion of Rome
350 CE completion of Mahabharata\?
400 CE Kalidasa Sakuntala
416 CE. destruction of the great classical library at Alexandria
540 CE. Completion of Saxon conquest of England; Gildas
541 CE Plague of Justinian
629-646 CE Xuanzang's journey to the west
632 CE Death of Muhammad
653-654 CE Standard text of Qur'an established and published
712 CE Japanese Kojiki
761 CE Ibn Ishaq life of Muhammad
800 CE Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
1010 CE Tale of Genji
1095-1270 CE. Crusader period in Holy Land
1191 CE Death of Chretien de Troyes
1223 CE Death of Saint Francis
1321 CE Death of Dante
1350 CE Black Death peaks in western Europe
1400 CE Death of Chaucer, Canterbury Tales unfinished
1452 CE Gutenberg's printed Bible
1492 CE Columbus' first voyage to West Indies
1497-1498 CE De Gama's first voyage to India
1517 CE Martin Luther's 95 theses
1599-1613 CE Shakespeare's Globe Theater
Recovery of the World
The catastrophe of the sixth century had literary repercussions down to early modern times, one thousand years later. During the medieval, Renaissance and neo-classical periods, the retrieval of ancient literature remained a central project in the general attempt of peoples everywhere to pick up the pieces of the shattered classical world. Through that whole millennium, educated people generally understood that civilization had declined, but many believed that they could perhaps recover the advanced knowledge possessed by the ancients.
Among the document recovery projects following the sixth century disaster were attempts in East Asia to gather original Buddhist scriptures from "the west" where Buddhism was believed to have originated. A legendary adventurer in quest for these manuscripts was the "scripture pilgrim" Xuanzang (c. 602 - 664), a monk at Jingtu Temple in Chang'an (then the largest city in the world, now named Xi'an, "western peace"). He lived during the early Tang Dynasty, a period notable for Du Fu, Li Bo, Bo Juyi and other famed Chinese literati.
The journey must have been extraordinary. Xuanzang left Chang'an in 629, traveling through Gansu, Qinghai and Kumul provinces, then following the Tian Shan mountains (in Daoism the Goddess of the West is believed to guard the peach trees of immortality in the Tian Shan) to Turpan, crossing what are today Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, into Gandhara, finally reaching India in 630. For the next thirteen years, Xuanzang visited what remained of Indian pilgrimage sites, and he studied at the ancient university at Nalanda (believed to have been founded by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great).
Xuanzang left India in 643 and arrived home in 646 to an enthusiastic reception by Tang Emperor Taizong who then built the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to store the scriptures and icons that the scripture pilgrim had brought back from the west. Xuanzang is supposed to have dictated the story of his journey in the book Great Tang Records of the Western Regions. He is also supposed to have translated into Chinese the scriptures that he had brought back. His translation and accompanying commentary apparently helped to establish him as the founder of the Dharma character school of Buddhism. After his death in 664, Xuanzang's fame kept growing. Xingjiao Monastery was established in 669 to house his ashes.
The Dharma character school is sometimes referred to as the "consciousness only" philosophy, since it emphasizes that the mind produces reality, as opposed to empirical facts producing it. Possibly because of the radical subjectivity of this philosophy, fantasy and mental distortion became attached to popular re-tellings of Xuánzàng's journey long before Wu Cheng’en's version of The Journey to the West. After the fall of the Tang, stories of the scripture pilgrim dating as far back as Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 CE) and Yuan dynasty (Mongolian rule 1271-1368) shifted the focus from monk to monkey. The Wu Cheng'en version of the journey was not published until the 1590's.
the Great Goose Pagoda of Xian, China, supposed to have been built by
Tang Emperor Taizong to house the
Buddhist scriptures that Xuánzàng had brought back to China from India.
Chinese pagoda towers (for storing Buddhist scriptures) evolved from
originating from Buddhist traditions of protecting sutras in ancient
The Xuanzang story stands behind the Big Wild Goose Pagoda as a foundation myth not unlike the Enuma Elish, Ezra's scriptures, Plato's Socratic dialogues, the Book of Acts, the Qur'an, and other institutional cult texts that we have encountered earlier in the course. That is, it is a foundation myth when it is told, supposedly by Xuanzang or one of his disciples, to promote the Tang pagoda or related institutions. A satiric, parodic or comic version of the story, such as that by Wu Cheng'en in the Longman Anthology (Damrosch C30-107), can be called a foundation myth only in a specialized or derivative sense, since it is meant for amusement rather than instruction. Perhaps it is better called a fantasy, legend or tall tale, but it is generally classified today as a novel.
This novel is remarkable for having been written not in classical Chinese but in vernacular Chinese, the "vulgar" language used in everyday life among the common people. Most of the characters are drawn from folk beliefs including the mythology of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas. Little doctrine or propaganda is presented; indeed, scant attention is paid to Xuanzang's scriptures or historical elements of his journey. The book gives every indication of having been written for popular audiences, rather than government bureaucrats or monks.
Though it was published anonymously, the book must have been recognized from the outset as a virtuoso performance of a gifted artist. As one scholar notes:
As in Canterbury Tales, literary imitations of every sort are assembled within a pious frame story that generally is overwhelmed by them.
Some readers nonetheless read Journey to the West as an allegory, having hidden meanings. For instance, as the translator Anthony Yu writes, the meaning of the journey is not really the acquisition of sacred scriptures by the Tang government; what the journey represents for the pilgrims is a new beginning in their shattered lives, an opportunity for self-rectification and merit-making to earn Buddha’s mercy (“Introduction,” Journey to the West, p. 55). The monkey Sun Wu k'ung is self-important, seeking immortal life and trying to take over the place of the gods instead of seeking selfless service and acts of compassion, as Buddhist enlightenment demands; in the journey he uses his powers for the good and earns salvation. Xuanzang's other companions are similarly portrayed as having abused their powers and privileges and as expiating their wrongdoings through the performance of good deeds on the journey.
Another allegorical reading of the book sees Xuanzang as an Everyman figure, an embodiment of the human condition, with the monk's emotions and appetites projected and objectified in his sidekicks. It is Xuanzang who must awaken to nothingness (Wu k'ung), awaken to purity (Wu ching), awaken to power (Wu-neng) and ride the white horse. If he is not on his best behavior, he seems to be a monkey, idiot, or monster on a dragon.
Still another allegorical reading finds the story illustrating ancient Chinese cosmological theory which portrayed nature and history as moving inevitably through five cycles. These "Five Phases" of earth, fire, water, metal and wood have been said to correspond to the five major characters in The Journey to the West.
The tone resonates differently with me. In the end, each traveler receives a reward in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sūn Wù k'ung and the Monk achieve Buddhahood, the Sand Monster becomes an arhat, the white horse becomes a nāga, and Pig is promoted to an altar janitor (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars).
Left: Monkey Goes West, the movie, from Shaw Brothers Studio (China) 1966. The book has also been made into TV series, theater, musicals and many adaptations.
Lesson Summary: The Journey to the West takes the foundation myth in an altogether new direction, that of the novel. Spiritual development forms the frame narrative, but the purpose is to provide popular entertainment and to dazzle readers with the author's virtuosity as an entertaining writer of all different kinds of literary forms.
Suggested journal topics
2. English translation: the best-known abridged translation of this novel into English,
published by Arthur Waley in 1942, is
rather than by its Chinese title, Xi you ji,
which translates as
Journey to the West.
commentary is from Damrosch
to the West vs Chaucer (Lesson 24) and/or Dante (Lessons 21-23) in
terms of pilgrimage, comedy or parody, popular entertainment, vernacular
language, or commoners as characters.
5. Four "classical" Chinese novels: though none were produced in the classical age, four novels are commonly listed as the greatest of China's early novels: