An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Xiyouji 西遊記

Dec 22, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Xiyouji 西遊記 "Journey to the West" is the most popular traditional Chinese novel. It narrates, on the backdrop of a world of spirits, ghosts, deities and supernatural characters, the journey of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (596-664) to India. The novel of 100 chapters length belongs to the "four great novels" in traditional Chinese literature, the others being Sanguo yanyi 三國演義, Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳, and Hongloumeng 紅樓夢.

Authorship of the book is usually attributed to Wu Cheng'en 吳承恩 (c. 1500-1582).

The story of Xuanzang and his adventures has already been told in older literature, such as Da-tang Sanzang Fashi qujing ji 大唐三藏法師取經記 or Da-tang Sanzang Fashi qujing shihua 大唐三藏法師詩話. In these story collections, the monk is already accompanied and protected by the monkey novice Hou Xingzhe 猴行者 ("Sojourner Monkey"). There were also ballads and dramas on the topic, but only fragments have survived. The story of the monkey possibly goes back to the Indian story of Hanumān, who helps King Rāma fight various demons. The oldest version of the full novel was published in Nanjing in 1592 by the Shide Hall 世德堂. However, this version does not contain the stories about the birth and early life of Xuanzang, which are included in the version Tang Sanzang xiyou shini ezhuan 三藏西遊釋尼厄傳 by the publisher Zhu Dingchen 朱鼎臣. This in turn is built into more recent versions.

Figure 1. Page from the Shide Hall 世德堂 edition

The stages of the story are the birth, power and rebellion of the Monkey King (often told as a separate story, Da nao tiangong 大鬧天宮); his overthrow by the power of the Buddha; Heaven's decision to send Xuanzang (called "Tripiṭaka" Sanzang 三藏), assisted by Zhu Bajie 豬八戒, the Sand Monk 沙和尚 and the Dragon Horse 龍馬, and finally the monkey Sun Wukong 孫悟空. The individual characters reflect archetypal human emotions. It follows the adventurous journey to India, and the heroes' return and their evaluation by the Buddha. Unlike the hodge-podge plot of the Shuihuzhuan, the Xiyouji story has a clear, distinct thread of action.

Figures 2a-d. Main characters of the novel
Images from Xinshuo Xiyouji 新說西遊記, showing Monkey (Sojourner Sun), Xuanzang (Tang Monk) and Dragon Horse, Zhu Bajie, and Sandmonk. Each of them possesses distinct weapons and powers.

The novel is characterised by religious aspects, magic, fighting, dialogues, humour, types of individuals (like the "glutton" Zhu Bajie), satire (society) with a simultaneous emphasis on religion, poems, colloquial language. It contains countless Buddhist terms (including the Xinjing 心經 "Heart Sutra" as an allegory), Daoist terms (especially in the realm of the Jade Emperor at the beginning), as well as Confucian ideas (including the self-taming of the monkey as xiuxin 修心). The novel thus embodies the unity of the three Chinese teachings. However, individual figures were also identified with the five agents of transformation.

The novel is in itself an allegory of Buddhist enlightenment, described as a journey through various perils. Accordingly, there were various exegetical texts on the novel, such as Xinshuo Xiyouji 新說西遊記 by Zhang Shushen 張書紳 (1736 xxx).

Figure 3. Page from the Xinshuo Xiyouji 新說西遊記
Xinshuo Xiyouji 新說西遊記, a commented edition from 1748 xxx, compiled and published by Zhang Shushi 張書紳. The small character are commenting on the main text, which starts at the right with the words 蓋聞天地之數.

Despite all the comedy found in the individual stages of the novel, the reader is always aware that all actions are symbolic: The rebellious monkey, who obeys his instincts, will be tamed, and the pig, who stuffs everything into himself, must learn to do tame himself. But the monkey in particular shows that seemingly morally high orders such as those of the Jade Emperor or even the Buddha disciples Ānanda and Kaśyapa are not really infallible. Ultimately, the monkey's contribution to enlightenment, i.e., to the eradication of evil, is always accompanied by violence, or evil.

In the Maoist era, the monkey's rebellion against the order in the palace of the Jade Emperor and the Queen Mother of the West was interpreted as an allegory of the class struggle at the beginning of history.

Figure 4. Page from a commented version
Wuyizi pidian Xiyou zhenquan 悟一子批點西遊真詮, "corrected and newly arranged" edition of Chen Shibin 陳士斌, with the preface dated 1696, and printed in 1780.

The most important English translations are William Jenner, W. 1983. The Journey to the West. Peking: Foreign Language Press; Arthur Waley. 1953. Monkey. London: Allen & Unwin; Anthony Yu. 1977. The Journey to the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Li, Wai-Yee. 2001. "Full-Length Vernacular Fiction", in Victor H. Mair, ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, 620-658. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yu, Anthony C. 1986. "Hsi-yu chi", in William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 413-418. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.