Tolkien was really beaten to the punch by Wu Cheng’en when writing his epic walkathon The Lord of the Rings. The book is a highly stylised account of the Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang’s real journey to India to obtain sacred Buddhist sutras (scriptures) to help China achieve a better understanding of the Buddhist faith. Journey to the West was published in the 1500s and is possibly even more epic, since three movies lasting four hours each couldn’t possibly contain it. You’d need a TV series as long as Dragonball and Dragonball Z combined to get close to the mark.
The reason? Purely and simply that Journey to the West is one hundred chapters long – thereby forcing me, yet again, to split this into four quarters. More than that though, the author knew that every good story needed a damn good setup. In this case, the actual journey doesn’t begin for thirteen chapters. Very Tolkien like. In fact, the actual purpose of the journey to the west, having a holy Buddhist monk fetch the official scriptures isn’t even mentioned for eight chapters. Instead, we are introduced to Sun Wukong, or Monkey (or even Goku if you watched Dragonball), his magical abilities as well as his penchant for rebellion, destruction and being a general jerk.
Journey to the West was written in the common tongue, rather than the more formal Chinese language of the time. This makes it simultaneously easier to read and contain some slightly coarse language when translated. The book, unlike the television series Monkey is by no means aimed at children, because there is blood and gore, sexual activities and general swearing. But then again, this is what makes it fun for us grown ups.
The first 25 chapters deal with, in general the origins of the main and supporting characters, mortal or otherwise, and the beginning of their arduous journey. The four central members of the
fellowship pilgrimage are the monk Xuanzang (who really existed), his most famous follower, Monkey and the other two: Pig the lecherous moron and Friar Sand, who doesn’t really seem to contribute much to the storyline, but is there just to fill up space.
One thing I will say is that the story is very written by somebody with a most untamed imagination intersecting with encyclopaedic knowledge of the Buddhist deities who dwell in Heaven, because they too, are heavily involved in trying to get the pilgrims to their destination and attaining their ultimate goal. What I said about magical eagles appearing earlier on is moot, because in this story, ALL the magical beings appear and help, in some way! Actually kind of kills of parts of the story in some respects.
Anyway, I digress. Journey to the West is definitely a hoot to read. If you want to let your imagination run wild and free, and at the same time have a few laughs this is most definitely the book for you. It’s far more entertaining than A Dream of Red Mansions and definitely nowhere near as depressing.