Lesson 25

From the Longman Anthology of World Literature, read Wu Cheng’en,
Journey to the West

Then skim the page below and journal for an hour.

Finally, students enrolled in the course should take the quiz
and submit the journal on the Angel site.


1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote







































                           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?

1200 BCE Dark Age in Greece. Fall of Troy, Greek Thebes,
and all other cities. Collapse of the Hittite Empire and Near Eastern cities generally. Raiding by pirate "Sea Peoples" into Egypt. Original Odyssey and Iliad composed? Original Ramayana? Rig Veda

1070 BCE. Fall of New Kingdom in Egypt

1046 BCE Fall of Shang dynasty in China and beginning of the Zhou?

1000 BCE Sin-liqe-unninni's Gilgamesh; Zarathustra

950 BCE First Jerusalem Temple; Solomon

900 BCE Carthage founded; Upanishads

753 BCE Rome founded

612 BCE Burial of Ashurbanipal library

587 BCE Nebuchadnessar II destroys temple of Solomon;
Babylonian captivity; Jeremiah

515 BCE Second Jerusalem Temple constructed;
Ezra compiles Jewish scriptures

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

210 BCE Death of First Emperor of China,
beginning of Han dynasty

202 BCE Rome defeats Hannibal and Carthage

200 BCE Jewish scriptures compiled in Greek septuagint;
Ramayana completed?

31 BCE Death of Cleopatra; ascendancy of Octavian (Augustus)

19 BCE Death of Virgil with Aeneid unfinished

30 CE Crucifixion of Jesus;
 65 CE earliest surviving Christian gospel,
Gospel of Mark

71 CE Roman destruction of Jerusalem Temple

80-85 CE Luke and Matthew gospels, Book of Acts

90 CE John gospel; Asvaghosha's life of Buddha

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

410 CE Rome sacked by Goths; Augustine City of God

416 CE. destruction of the great classical library at Alexandria

536 CE Year without sunlight, according to Procopius.
Death of King Arthur? Irish famines

540 CE. Completion of Saxon conquest of England; Gildas

541 CE Plague of Justinian


566 CE death of Beowulf? (516 CE Death of Hygelac)

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

1453 CE Fall of Constantinople, end of Byzantine Empire;
movement of Greek scholars to Italy, beginning the Renaissance

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

1521 CE Fall of Aztec Empire to Cortes

1572 CE. Lusiads of Camoes

1592. Wu Cheng'en Journey to the West

1599-1613 CE Shakespeare's Globe Theater

1605, 1615 CE Cervantes, Don Quixote

Recovery of the World
through recovery of the word

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.
















Henry Fuseli, The Artist Moved to Despair by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments (1779), Kunsthaus, Zürich





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.

Below: 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 the stupa, originating from Buddhist traditions of protecting sutras in ancient India.





















Portrait of Xuanzang in Tokyo National Museum. His name means in Mandarin "Tang (Dynasty) Monk," so his personal identity is unknown. 


Wu Cheng’en and
the Big Wild Goose chase

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:

Lyric poetry, songs, descriptive verses, poetic exposition, parallel prose, dramatic arias, doggerels, quotations from and summaries of historical texts and other fictional works, and the rhetoric of oral performance are often woven into the fabric of narrative. The best examples of the genre almost never fail self-consciously to exploit the interplay of different generic traits and stylistic levels to achieve ironic disjunctions or visions of totality based on complementary opposites and balanced juxtapositions. (Wai-yee Li, “Full-length Vernacular Fiction,” in The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, ed. Victor Mair, 2001, p. 620)

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
and optional readings

1. What does this text mean?
Do you think that The Journey to the West celebrates or satirizes Xuanzang or Buddhist beliefs? Or was the writer's intention neither to promote nor to attack the old story of the Wild Goose Pagoda?  How can you tell?  

2. English translation: the best-known abridged translation of this novel into English, published by Arthur Waley in 1942, is known as Monkey, rather than by its Chinese title, Xi you ji, which translates as Journey to the West.

Anthony Yu’s translation, which is excerpted in the Longman Anthology, preserves all of the poetry from the original text. Waley’s Monkey leaves it out, but poetry plays a bigger role in Journey to the West than in many other traditional novels, and it is also unusually exuberant, characterized by greater than usual formal variety (“Introduction,” Journey to the West, vol. 1, 1977, p. 30).

 Damrosch questions and commentary:

The following commentary is from Damrosch
Teacher's Guide to the Longman Anthology

Is Journey to the West an allegory of spiritual enlightenment? Can it be compared fruitfully with a work like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? . . . Critics have pointed out that on the literal level the pilgrims’ “progress” in Journey seems to retrace its steps if not go in circles, with identical landscapes reappearing, and the promised land looking suspiciously like the Tang capital from which they departed. There is no clear rationale for the sequence of the episodes, whose ultimate number (81) is simply mandated by the Buddha’s wish to have their total be a multiple of the ideal number 9. The sample episodes taken from the journey itself are typical in that they could have appeared at almost any point in the narrative and appear to be excuses for amusing or thrilling storytelling, rather than instruments for moving the group closer to its goal.

The visit to the Nation of Women of Western Liang (Chapter 53; Damrosch C 66), for example, offers an opportunity to invert conventional hierarchies, poke fun at the clueless heroes, and indulge in some scatological description as well. And the rescue of the king’s wife recounted in Chapters 69–72, included in the Anthology (Damrosch C 73) because of its resemblance to an episode in the Ramayana, is primarily a vehicle for a display of Pilgrim’s pyrotechnics and guile.

From this perspective, at least, it could be argued that excerpting the novel inflicts less damage than it might to a tightly organized and teleological whole, although there is an obvious diminishment of the sheer power of the massive repetition.

We might well ask why the journey—or its simulacrum—needed to be undertaken at all. Given his supernatural powers, why could the monkey not simply have somersaulted his way over the mountains to fetch the scriptures?

And what are we to make of the “wordless scriptures” given to the pilgrims by Ananda and Kaspaya? Is it simply a joke played by corrupt and venal guardians of the Buddha’s treasures? Or are empty scriptures more real, either because they are—in Buddhist thought—more reflective of the ultimate emptiness, i.e., the contingent and transitory nature of all beings, or because any truth worth knowing transcends language? In that case, what is the value of the “real” scriptures with which the pilgrims eventually return? . . .

[I]nterpretations of Journey to the West have clearly gone through cycles of their own. Its early readers were quick to argue for an allegorical structure, among other reasons to validate it as a work of literature worth taking seriously. By the early twentieth century these impulses had yielded such strained readings that critics were happy to discard them all. In his preface to Waley’s 1942 abridged translation, for example, Hu Shi claims that “Freed from all kinds of allegorical interpretations by Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist commentators, Monkey is simply a book of good humor, profound nonsense, goodnatured satire and delightful entertainment” (“Introduction to the American Edition,” Monkey, 1942, p. 5). Waley himself, and later scholars writing from a humanist tradition, staked a greater claim for the novel as a moral drama of human possibilities, whereas Marxist critics saw it enacting the sociopolitical resistance of a rebel monkey against entrenched celestial authority. If contemporary critics have succeeded in reminding us of the philosophical and religious depth of the novel, they have not lost sight of the fact that its characters and events are also deeply engaging. (Sun Wu k'ong’s battles with heavenly deities are still some of the most popular performances in the Peking opera repertoire.)

4. Some lessons for comparison and contrast:

Journey 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.

Journey to the West
vs Genji (lesson 19) or Asvaghosha's Buddha (lesson 14) as Buddhist fictions. 

Journey to the West
vs Genji (lesson 19)
in mixing prose and verse.

Journey to the West
vs Daoism (lesson 16).

Journey to the West
vs other quest stories,
such as those in Gilgamesh (lesson 2), Alexander (lesson 8), Aeneid (Lesson 9), Buddhakarita (lesson 14), Knight of the Cart (lesson 20), Wife of Bath's tale (lesson 24)
or Dante (lesson 21-23).

India in Journey to the West vs. Plutarch's Alexander (lesson 8) or Ramayana (lesson 12)
or Sakuntala (lesson 13).

Animals in Journey to the West vs Homer
(lessons 5 and 6)

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:

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
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