The Journey to the West (西遊記): The book
Journey to the West is one of the great Chinese novels. A true window into a world largely unknown to Europe. Journey to the West shows their culture as much as our Don Quixote, Ulysses, Emma Bovary,… show ours. As soon as it begins, it already places us in a new point of reference: if India «is to the west», we have to adopt a new way of seeing the world. Populated by gods, demons, emperors, bureaucrats, monks, animals, woodsmen, bandits, and farmers, the novel presents an epic vision of Imperial China. It captures, in splendid, inventive detail, the complex weave of Chinese society, politics, and religious belief.
Journey to the West was written by Wu Cheng’en, a novelist and poet of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). His work is based on the actual pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664) to India in search of sacred texts. The story itself was already part of the Chinese popular and literary tradition before Wu Cheng’en transformed it into a lengthy novel full of humour.
Buddhism was introduced to China in the 6th century, when the Han dynasty brought Buddhist sacred texts and translated them. It seems as if the texts “did not clarify the way to enlightment” so in the year 627, a young monk named Hsuan Tsang (玄奘) (c. 596-664) not yet satisfied with what he had learned, and against the opinion of the emperor (the earthly and celestial powers always have been wary of knowledge), decided to undertake a long journey along the Silk Road to reach India and try to get the necessary sacred scrolls and thus have a clearer vision of Buddhism.
On this perilous journey Hsuan Tsang will not have a single companion like Don Quixote had his faithful squire Sancho Panza. He will be accompanied by the Monkey (Sun Wu Kung, 孫悟空), the Pig, the Sand and the Dragon Horse, all mischievous citizens previously expelled by the Daoist Heavenly Court due to their misbehaviour (maybe as a result of being ill-adapted to the existing social order). If they helped the restless Hsuan Tsang on his pilgrimage they would be accepted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy).
But, of course, such a high honor and reward will require facing enemies that will pose all kinds of obstacles, dangerous rivers, monsters, etc. until the outer journey is completed and, with it, the inner journey of each of the pilgrims who will thus ascend to the inner Enlightenment. It is then that we realize that the journey actually represents the continuous effort to break the attachment to worldly things, such as fame and money, which often make the mind susceptible to moral corruption (just take a look at the «frugality» with which the gods live in the Daoist Heavenly Court).
Journey to the West is not a book that is complacent about political and religious structures. The gods -or the power- (the GOOD ones) are the Imperial Court and that is full of officials, envious creatures who aspire to an important position with which to secure their lives, and who do see the Monkey as unworthy of them. Their bureaucracies and governments resemble human ones: they painstakingly submit requests to the right supernatural department on the right form and after being reviewed by a endless chain of validators; a person cannot die until the underworld official on duty has checked the mortality schedules in the books of life and death. And like too many politicians and some officials around the world, the Buddha’s minions who guard the Thunder Monastery demand a bribe from Xuanzang and his disciples before they would give them access to the scriptures. Nothing new under the sun….
Xuanzang’s companions on the other hand do not have immaculate resumes (shall we call them the BAD ones?), but are rather the lowliest and most ignorant of creatures. Although the journey to the East has a spiritual goal, the book is conspicuous by its irreverence towards religious, moral and political authority. The protagonists of the journey are not saints, but rather flawed and unruly individuals: The Buddhist sage Xuanzang piously claims to be reconciled to the terrible fate that Heaven has assigned him, but he constantly complains of being cold, hungry and uncomfortable, and every crisis leaves him sobbing; Pigsy is lazy and greedy, and will indulge any demon with a nice plate of fried rice; and, of course, the irreverent and mischievous Monkey King who uses his talent for laughing at the most frightening situations and his loquacity to seduce the fearsome gods and demons – though always ready to use his ingenious combat techniques-.
In summary, in the form of a journey in search of knowledge, the author seems to criticize the vices of society. First of all, those of the heavenly and earthly power, classist, careful that humans cannot enjoy their privileges and distancing them from the sources of knowledge and education. Secondly, criticizing the bourgeoisie, represented in the images of the dirty and greedy monkeys that Wu Cheng-en opposes to the noble pilgrims. Those, whom the monkey king meets on his journey, are petty, insignificant and of no less merit than himself. The Monkey’s own vices are a caricatured depiction of human and social vices. These people are affected by greed, aggressiveness, self-interest and power. Thirdly, Wu Cheng-en also touches on the theme of the gods, considering that religion should be free of dirt, lust for power and money, and free of artifice, and should be «natural».
Wu Cheng-en achieves all this through an entertaining travelogue, full of humour (white, black, cynical), with the very different, complex, colorful characters. As in «The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha», each of the characters, all of them very singular, offer us their vision of the world in an amusing way not exempt of acidity. Both in «Don Quixote» and «The Journey to the West», the main characters are looking for their place in the universe that gets them into trouble and amusing adventures. They live in a world they don’t understand and will try to change (hopefully for the better). In both cases, Don Quixote, the madman, and The Monkey King, the irreverent, are the ones who, from their madness or their bravado, speak the truth about the society in which they live.
“The Journey to the West” grabs you from its very beginning: «The scripture says: In the beginning there was only Chaos…«; and keeps your engaged at the end of each chapter proposing that “Anyone who wishes to find out what will happen next… should therefore listen carefully to the explanations given in the following chapter…”.