Invitation to World Literature
Journey to the West – Map & Timeline
The real, historical monk Hsuan Tsang actually walked on foot from China to India, and then throughout the Indian subcontinent. The distance, scholars believe, is like walking from Maine to California, only you’d have to cross an enormous desert and the Himalayan Mountains, home to Mt. Everest (and much taller than the Rocky Mountains). The land at Hsuan Tsang’s time was mostly unmapped, and early listeners to the stories that would make up Journey to the West might well have believed there were monsters, dragons, and demons lurking there.
Chinese emissaries to India bring missionaries and sutras back home with them, introducing Buddhism to China.
The first documented translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.
Hsuan Tsang is born.
T’ang dynasty is founded (holds power from 618-907).
Hsuan Tsang states that a dream has convinced him to go to India to study at Buddhist monasteries there and bring back sutras to China for translation.
Hsuan Tsang travels in regions that are now India, Pakistan, and Nepal.
Hsuan Tsang returns to China and is welcomed by the emperor. He spends the rest of his life translating the sutras.
Hsuan Tsang dies.
T’ang Emperor Wuzong, who detests Buddhists as loafers and beggars, orders the destruction of 4,600 Buddhist monasteries and 40,000 temples in China, leaving about 250,000 Buddhists monks and nuns homeless.
Buddhism goes underground, its teachings partly adopted by Confucianism and Taoism.
Ming dynasty scholars and authors promote literature that copies Han dynasty prose (206 BCE-220 CE) and early T’ang poetry (written before 770 CE).
Scholar and writer Wu Ch’eng-en is born.
Wu publicly conforms to literary expectations, writing stories that imitate Han literature.
Wu Ch’eng-en dies.
Journey to the West is published anonymously; it is most likely the work of Wu Ch’eng-en.
A local history of Huai-an, Wu’s home region, cites him as the author of Monkey.
(Zen) Buddhism is once again the official religion of the Chinese court.
Arthur Waley is born in England.
Waley is made Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum in London. He teaches himself Chinese and Japanese.
Waley quits his job to devote himself to translation.
Waley’s translation of Monkey is published.
Around 1 billion Chinese Buddhists.
China has the largest Buddhist population in the world, and the religion is tacitly supported by the Communist government.
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.