|Wu Cheng’en and based on The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions by Chen Xuanzang|
|During the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century AD|
Journey to the West is an epic story. It is also many things. It is part comedy, part fellowship adventure, partly about the origins of the world and its environment and even partially a treatise of Buddhist teachings. It also details a lot of the mysticism and folklore of the gods, spirits and deities of Ancient China. Most importantly of all, it’s a fantastic story.
Predictably, at the end of the novel, there is a very happy ending, though it is hilarious in its outcome and sets the scene for many jokes about its characters, especially the gluttonous, lecherous and predominantly stupid Pig. Despite all the good natured infighting between the three disciples, there is genuine brotherhood between them, leading to daring rescues of their master, the monk Xuanzang, and of each other.
In the final leg of the book, the fellowship finally reaches India, named the Western Heavens in Ancient China, the birthplace of Buddhism. Though they still encounter the odd mystical foe, the trials and tribulations focus mainly upon the people the fellowship encounter in and around India. The monsters they encounter also appear to be far less powerful than many they have encountered before. Then again, it might be that Monkey, Pig and Friar Sand are able to work more effectively as a team than when they originally began their journey together.
We also find out that the many adventures and trials faced by our tight knit band of monks can be partly blamed on Heaven itself. Seeking to reward the travellers, they must go through 81 different sufferings (though marriage isn’t one of them, in the case of Xuanzang) and when the deities of Buddhism discover that they are one short, there is one trial that is engineered by them to ensure that Xuanzang is able to attain his ultimate reward of becoming a Buddha in his own right. Kind of sucks to jump through so many hoops. Worst rat race ever!
Of the four great books of Chinese literature, Journey to the West is only the second I’ve finished after A Dream of Red Mansions. I was recently told that people ranked A Dream of Red Mansions as the best out of all the books ever written in Asia. I don’t know why. That’s like saying you have a preference for counting how many grains of sand there are on a beach. Thankfully, Journey to the West is a fantastic read, requiring imagination and instilling a sense of adventure. Compared to reading A Dream of Red Mansions, where nothing actually happens, most of the characters are useless sods missing a good dose of reality, and is likely to be the inspiration for a lot of soppy Chinese soap operas, reading Journey to the West is like attaining Buddhahood through joy and laughter.
Should I read this?
Yes, and be very patient. It’s a long book, but a goody.