Invitation to World Literature
Journey to the West Journey to the West – Getting Started
There and Back
The first thing to know about Monkey is that it is a version of a story called Journey to the West. Journey to the West was first published in 1592 with the Chinese title Hsi Yu Ki, (Records of the Western World); this was translated into English as Journey to the West.
We’re reading a classic translation of Hsi Yu Ki called Monkey. The English translator, Arthur Waley, chose this title because of the importance of the Stone Monkey King to the chapters he chose to translate (Waley translated only thirty of the original one hundred chapters of Wu’s book). When you’re looking through this Web site, you’ll find both titles used to describe the story (for example, in the works listed on the Connections page). When we discuss the original text, we use Journey to the West; when we discuss the Waley translation, we use Monkey.
The story of the Stone Monkey King who is our hero is very popular in China, and has made its own journey to the West through movies, TV, and books inspired by the story. Western writers from Octavio Paz to Maxine Hong Kingston have written stories that include the Monkey King. And as twenty-first century Western culture continues to embrace supernatural creatures such as vampires, ghosts, and wizards (from Twilight to Harry Potter), the story of Monkeyis even more likely to entertain and enthrall American readers, just as it does readers in China.
David Henry Hwang
Playwright and Screenwriter:
“Growing up in the West you have this notion that Chinese culture is all about selflessness and not living in the material world and having respect for your elders and all that kind of thing, and Monkey is the opposite version of that. He’s anarchic he’s disrespectful he’s selfish, and he’s a lot of fun.”
Chinese emissaries to India introduce Buddhism to China
Hsuan Tsang, the Buddhist priest who is the basis for the character Tripitaka, travels a path that would cross modern-day India, Pakistan, and Nepal
Song dynasty; Buddhism goes underground in China
Ming dynasty; Buddhism re-established in China as Chan or Zen Buddhism
Journey to the West is published anonymously, most likely by scholar and writer Wu Ch’eng-en
Arthur Waley is born in England; as a young man, he teaches himself Chinese and Japanese and becomes his generation’s leading literary translator of both languages
Waley’s translation of Journey to the West, called Monkey, is published
Like much Chinese folk fiction of its time, Journey to the West was published anonymously; serious Chinese writers were supposed to write poetry, and those who also wrote folk fiction kept it under their hats. The author of Journey was most likely a man named Wu Ch’eng-en who lived from 1500-1580 and spent his entire life in an atmosphere of reverence for and imitation of classical Chinese writing style (formal poetry) and topics (court life, beautiful objects, almost like a still life that was written instead of painted).
Secretly, however, he was also a fan of the booming folk tale culture in China. Ghost stories, folk songs, adventure stories of judges who solved crimes, and supernatural heroes made up the bulk of this folk literature, which was considered unacceptable by Ming Chinese writers and scholars.
The low status of these stories, however, did not prevent them from being widely read. The large and eager audience for these books helped make Journey to the West a hit, and it has remained a very popular story in China to this day. The book tells the story of the journey of a real Chinese Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang (called Tripitaka) who went on foot to India in the 600s CE to bring back Buddhist scriptures to China.
Building on popular legends, the novel is full of ghosts, dragons, monsters, gods, spirits, animals, and men. Battles rage for days, supernatural powers abound, and there is no sharp dividing line between the real and unreal, as Tripitaka pursues his journey in the company of three faithful companions: Pigsy, a sensual creature, half-human, half-pig; the strongman Sandy; and above all, Monkey, an exuberant, anarchic trickster, around whom most of the adventures revolve.
A little over 300 years after Journey to the West was first published, an Englishman named Arthur Waley published his translation, called Monkey. Much as George Smith, the translator of Gilgamesh, had done forty years earlier, teaching himself to read Akkadian when assigned to clean cuneiform tablets, Waley taught himself Chinese while working as an assistant in the Oriental Prints and Manuscripts division of the British Museum in the 1910s. His abridged translation of Journey to the West, called Monkey, was published in 1942 to great acclaim, and remains the most popular version of the story of Tripitaka.
In Wu’s time, proper literature was written in classical Chinese, a formal language reserved for literature that was very different from vernacular or commonly spoken Chinese. Journey to the West uses the common, “vulgar” language. Chinese is made up of characters rather than letters. Each character represents a spoken syllable with a basic meaning. Many words in Chinese require two or more characters to write out. Fluency in Chinese today means knowing 2,000-3,000 characters.
Journey to the West was originally printed on woodblocks. Woodblock printing was developed in China in ancient times. A piece of wood would have characters carved into it, and once the wood was filled with carved-out writing, it was covered in ink and pressed onto paper or cloth to print words. (Paper was one of the great Chinese inventions, and was used there for centuries before it reached the rest of the world.) In contrast to European printing with movable type, which required elaborate machines for printing, books could be produced quickly and cheaply in China, only requiring a skilled carver, some blocks of wood, ink and paper.
The Enlightened One, source of Buddhism, is the only being able to subdue Monkey, trapping him inside a mountain for 500 years. Monkey, as escort to Tripitaka, will meet the Buddha again in India and worship him properly.
Hsuan Tsang has been brought up an orphan in a Buddhist monastery. As a young man, he learns of his father’s murder at the hands of a villain named Liu and hears that his mother is still alive. When he finds her, she gives him a token to take to the Emperor, along with the story of his father’s murder. The Emperor is outraged. Liu is killed, and Hsuan Tsang is made a priest in the Emperor’s temple, where he is found by Kuan-yin. Kuan-yin renames Hsuan Tsang Tripitaka, and sets him on his journey to the West.
The Jade Emperor
The Jade Emperor is the King of Heaven, whose court is completely upset by Monkey, who gives himself the outrageous title of Great Sage, Equal to Heaven. The Jade Emperor is at last forced to call on the Buddha himself to subdue Monkey.
Kuan-yin, the Great Compassionate Boddhisatva
A Boddhisatva is someone who has achieved enlightenment but chooses to remain on earth in order to help others. A Boddhisatva of great sanctity and magic powers, Kuan-yin is sent by Buddha himself to find a disciple to journey from China to India for scriptures. It was Kuan-yin who predicted Hsuan Tsang’s birth, and she tests his virtue before revealing herself to him. She finds Tripitaka’s three disciples (Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy), and helps all four pilgrims on their dangerous journey.
The Stone Monkey King—the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven—lives for hundreds of years, fighting and tricking all he meets. He finally redeems himself for his many sins in heaven and on earth by ramming a safe path to India through many wildernesses for Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk.
Pigsy was once a marshal of the hosts of heaven, but he had an improper relationship with the Goddess of the Moon. For acting above his station and insulting the dignity of the Jade Emperor (and the Goddess of the Moon), he was banished from heaven and reborn as a pig-like monster. He too is found by the Boddhisatva and promised illumination and rebirth if he helps Tripitaka.
Sandy was also once a marshal of the hosts of heaven, driving the Jade Emperor’s Phoenix Chariot. In a heavenly banquet he insulted the Jade Emperor by breaking a crystal dish and was transformed into a monster. He recognizes Kuan-yin and promises to help Tripitaka when he arrives at Sandy’s river. Sandy is eventually Illuminated by the Buddha for his protection of Tripitaka.
Hsuan Tsang’s father was killed by Liu before Hsuan Tsang was born. Liu then forced Hsuan Tsang’s mother Wen-Ch’iao to marry him. Wen-Ch’iao is forced to set her baby Hsuan Tsang adrift on a river so that her false husband won’t kill him. She lives to see her son and true husband restored to her through her virtue.
Recommended Translations & Editions
Arthur Waley, Monkey, (Evergreen Books, 1994)
- This is our recommended text. Arthur Waley’s translation of Wu Ch’êng-ên’s original tale was first published in 1942. It is a superb abridgment of the very long original, fast-paced and highly readable, giving a good selection of key episodes focused on the novel’s most popular character, the monkey-king known as “Aware-of-Vacuity.”
Anthony C. Yu, trans., Journey to the West (University of Chicago Press, 4 volumes, 1977-1983)
- Professor Anthony Yu stays close to Wu Ch’êng-ên’s original, and is particularly effective in translating the many poems scattered through the text. Even people lacking time to read all four volumes can gain a lot from reading the first volume. This is the first full edition of the work in English.
W. J. F. Jenner, trans., Journey to the West (Foreign Languages Press; Reprint edition, 4 volumes, 1984); also available in a one-volume abridged version (Asiapac Books, 1994)
- Written fifty years ago by a British translator, it is still very readable, and falls in between Waley and Yu in terms of faithfulness to the original story.
The Enlightened One whose life inspired the religion and way of Buddhism.
A city that Tripitaka and his disciples visit in order to avenge a king who has been killed and replaced by a wizard.
Holy Iron Staff
A magic weapon given to Monkey by the dragon king. It changes size from tiny as a pin to 20 feet long and is invincible.
Buddhist sutras that will be translated into Chinese to help the spread of the religion into the wayward south of China.
(or Tripitaka) The Chinese Buddhist monk who makes the journey west to India to get Buddhist scriptures.
The Buddhist process through which one’s earthly being is transcended and immortal life is achieved.
The Jade Emperor
The king of Heaven
(or the Boddhisatva) An Illuminated being sent by Buddha to find and protect Tripitaka and his disciples.
The Stone Monkey King, Great Sage, Equal of Heaven — the hero of the story. He has many names, including his religious name “Aware of Vacuity.”
Mountain of the Five Elements
Monkey is imprisoned inside this mountain for 500 years by the Buddha for his crimes against heaven.
Mountain of Fruit and Flowers
Monkey’s original home, where he is king of the other monkeys.
The Peach Garden
This heavenly garden’s magic peach trees grant immortality and other powers to those who eat them. When Monkey is in heaven he eats all the peaches, ruining the Jade Emperor’s Peach banquet.
A fallen resident of heaven who also accompanies Tripitaka. Pigsy is a military marhsall who has been transformed into a pig.
A thwarted former resident of heaven who accompanies Tripitaka to India. Formerly a heavenly general, he has been transformed into a river dragon before becoming a helper to Tripitaka.
Monkey helps to free the Buddhist priests who are enslaved in this city, killing three False Immortals in the process.
The state of illumination (or enlightenment), which Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy reach at last in India.
Tripitaka’s mother, whose courage and virtue eventually reunites her family.
Video Transcript: Journey to the West
Invitation to World Literature: Journey to the West Video Transcript
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.