China and East Asia

Journey to the West

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Xuanzang, 602-664 CE., was a Buddhist monk from Chang’an, today’s Xi’an, who in the year 629 decided to travel all the way to India. Buddhism was a relatively recent arrival in China at the time and Chinese Buddhists often had to make due with very poor translations of the Buddhist scriptures. The purpose of Xuanzang’s journey was to look for original texts in the Buddha’s own homeland from which more faithful translations could be made. He traveled westward into Central Asia and then southward through Afghanistan, and once he reached his destination he spent the next thirteen years visiting various sites of pilgrimage, studying with renowned teachers, and looking for manuscripts. Xuanzang returned to Chang’an in 646, and received a warm welcome. He obtained the emperor’s support in building a pagoda where the manuscripts could be stored, and an institute was founded where the arduous task of translation began. Xuanzang recorded his journey in the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. He died in 669 and a monastery was built to house his ashes.

Journey to the West is an immensely popular Chinese novel from the sixteenth-century which gives an account of Xuanzang’s story but told as a comic adventure which mixes fantasy and folktales. In Journey to the West, Xuanzang is given four traveling companions by the Buddha himself — a monkey, a pig, an ogre, and a white steed, who actually turns out to be a dragon prince. The story, which has been filmed several times, and exists both in gongfu and children’s book versions, soon becomes the vehicle for a series of amazing events, miraculous transformations, and extended fighting sequences. For several chapters Xuanzang’s quest is set aside as we follow the adventures of the other protagonists — the pig, Jubadie, has, for example, an insatiable appetite for food and for romance. Much of the book is set in the wild lands which separate China and India, where the deep gorges and tall mountains turn out to be populated with demons and animal spirits. When Xuanzang is captured by some of these, his friends use both cunning and violence to liberate him. Eventually they all return home and are amply rewarded for their troubles — Xuanzang, for example, attains buddhahood and Jubadie is put in charge of eating all the excess offerings that worshipers bring to the altars of Buddhist temples. Journey to the West is a comic adventure, but also an allegory of a group of pilgrims who travel together towards enlightenment, where the success of one of them depends on the success of the others.