The Journey to the West: Familiarity in Foreign Lands

The Journey to the West (henceforth abbreviated JW) is among the most well-known works of Chinese literature. It is also roughly a thousand pages, most of which resemble one another to such an extent that reading it had me doubting my sanity, unable to tell if I had already read a particular passage or if it was merely identical in plot structure to its antecedent. If I could not justify the time spent getting through all hundred chapters by making it everyone else’s problem, I know not to what murky depths my psyche would plunge, and thus I must foist this review upon the Quest.

To briefly summarize, the JW is nominally the tale of the historical scripture pilgrim Tripitaka (née Hsüan-tsang), sent by the T’ang emperor to recover Buddhist texts from India. In reality, the protagonist is Pilgrim Sun Wu-kung, the Handsome Monkey King, pi-ma-wen, Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, whose vast magic powers solve most of his master’s problems. The monk’s other disciples are of far less import, with two (Sha Monk and the horse-dragon-prince) barely meriting mention and the last, Chu Pa-Chieh, existing primarily to eat and sleep. Little of this is important to my argument, and I am excluding the most weighty thematic points in favor of brevity.

The titular journey is fraught with conflict; every mountain houses an army of demons seeking to eat Tripitaka, each river’s guardian bars the path, every king either persecutes Buddhists or has a daughter who lusts after the volcel monk. Almost immediately after departing Ch’ang-an, the pilgrim’s human attendants are eaten by ogres. The wild — along with foreign nations, for that matter — is a threat, with evil immortals lurking in every corner. 

Despite tens of thousands of miles traversed, every locale in the book, with the incomplete exception of India, is almost identical to China. Hence the central paradox of this article: everything past the T’ang borders is simultaneously hostile and foreign and intimately familiar. As Anthony C. Yu, the translator of my edition whose romanizations I use, notes in his introduction, “[i]nvariably the verse refers to precipitous cliffs and exotic flowers, to carved beam buildings and verdant forests of pines and bamboos, to the cries of cranes and phoenixes, and to the congregation of rare and mythic animals.” Just as the novel’s plot retraces its steps, so too does the verbiage of the plentiful descriptive poems. While invariably housing monstrous spirits intent on villainy, no mountain goes without luminous mists, and every temptress’ looks rival those of the celestial beauty Chang’o.

Unchanging flora, fauna, diets, naming conventions, and values such as filial piety situate every mile of the pilgrims’ journey within the T’ang homeland. This is admittedly troubling; a substantial portion of these locales’ monstrous hostility is their foreignness. Following this scheme, the author ought to distance them from home. Indeed, unambiguously favorable locations are more directly linked to China. In one kingdom, “Though the land is beyond a thousand miles, / Its condition is no less prosperous [than China],” and upon reaching the holy region of India, its people “seem no different from those of China.” The T’ang empire is thus the standard against which the world at large is interpreted, and more similarity is found than difference. 

We might resolve the dissonance between these locations’ hostility and their similarity to China by recalling the reasons for which the journey takes place. The people of the East, the novel claims, are indolent, lax in the worship of Buddha and in need of deliverance from their own misdeeds. With this in mind, Chinese qualities become no longer solely emblematic of good or ill, but rather all-encompassing.

Here, two interpretive tracks diverge, one more clearly the case and the other more interesting to me. Perhaps the entire journey is a lengthy stand-in for China. If so, the JW is at once a love letter and a political satire, an ode to the nation’s majesty and a scathing critique of the demons lurking beneath the surface of society. 

The other interpretation is China-as-microcosm: everything looks Chinese because of the shared nationality of its subjects and author. Scenery is described in a manner understandable to its viewer; local particularity is unimportant, but so is the particularity of the framework superimposed over it. Any given nation is nigh-interchangeable; wherever Tripitaka hailed from, all else would have adopted its qualities. Even the strangest of locales contains the mark of home, because the traveler by necessity sees the world through his native filter.

To learn the woeful insufficiency of my synopsis and to determine if I have been spouting bullshit, several copies of all four volumes are available in the library. The introduction in the first provides an insightful overview of the text, a scant 62 pages. Alternatively, you can read the entire book and learn firsthand the extent to which it has frayed the final vestiges of my psychological fortitude.

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