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Classical Chinese Novels 101: Journey to the West


For centuries, the literati of China wrote in Literary Chinese, crafted rigidly-structured essays, delighted in allusive poetry—and looked down on fiction as a lesser form of writing. Despite this, the stories and characters of China’s traditional novels have long influenced popular culture, and they are still readily apparent in both modern Chinese and East Asian culture.

This 101 series will serve as a basic introduction to China’s Four Great Classical Novels, as well as the entertainingly divergent (and often banned) Ming classic, Plum in the Golden Vase. In addition to discussing the development of Chinese long-form vernacular fiction, these articles will seek to present different critical interpretations of each novel, as well as highlight the insights that they offer into Chinese culture. As this series is designed for those without knowledge of Chinese or just beginning their studies of the language, Chinese names will be given in English, Chinese pinyin, and characters for the first appearance, and all subsequent references will use the English.

Classical Chinese Novels 101 is divided into six chapters:

4. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Journey to the West

5. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Plum in the Golden Vase

6. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber

Journey to the West, or Xiyouji (西游记), is a late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) novel of comedic fantasy based on the religious pilgrimage of a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk to India in search of religious scripts. Published in the late 16th century, with the earliest extant edition dating back to 1592, Journey to the West is a hundred-chapter novel attributed to the author Wu Cheng’an.

As with Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the authorship of Journey to the West is still disputed (Hsia, 1968; Lee, 2010; Yu, 2008). Also like the earlier two novels, Journey to the West appears to be the lengthy culmination of a long history of narrative development. Based on the historical travels of Xuanzang, a monk who travelled to India in the early 7th century and brought back 657 Buddhist texts, the eventual folk legends that developed out of this historical pilgrimage gained ever-more fantastical elements through centuries of storytelling, from Song dynasty (960-1279) oral stories to Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming dynasty dramas (Hsia, 1968; Lee, 2010).

Sun Wukong Blows on His Hairs.

Though similar in development to Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, Journey to the West represents an evolution in the traditional Chinese novel. While the ultimate identity of its author is still disputed, the novel itself is widely seen as the product of one primary author rather than a product of the type of composite authorship usually mentioned in relation to the earlier traditional novels. As the well-regarded Chinese literature professor Y. W. Ma writes, “There should not be much doubt that a single author is responsible for the extant one-hundred chapter version of the novel” (Ma, 1986:43). Indeed, Ma considers Journey to the West as one of the two novels that represent the height of Ming dynasty fiction (the second being Plum in the Golden Vase) (Ma, 1986).

The basic structure and narrative of Journey to the West are, at first appearance, relatively simple and episodic. It begins with the tale of Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a stone who gains consciousness and then attempts to seek immortality and power. Sun Wukong, also called Monkey, rebels against Heaven and has a confrontation with the Buddha, who defeats Monkey and traps him beneath a mountain. Later, Tang Sanzang, courtesy name Tripitaka, is sent by the Tang Emperor on a mission west to find sacred Buddhist texts. Along his way, Tripitaka recruits companions who serve as his protectors and disciples; his first follower is the freed Monkey, who is bound to obey him by the Bodhisattva Guanyin (Guanyin, also a Chinese goddess of mercy, is an enlightened patron to the travellers; she appears recurringly to save them, and sometimes to test them.). His other companions are Zhu Bajie, or Pigsy in the acclaimed Arthur Waley abridged translation (1942), and Sha Wujing, or Sandy. Together, the pilgrimage members encounter and overcome (sometimes with the help of Guanyin) eighty-one trials involving demon-fighting and resisting temptation before reaching the end of their journey.

Monkey and Pigsy fighting a spider spirit.

Despite its simple structure, the novel stands out among the traditional novels for its vivacious comedy and sense of fun. The 20th-century scholar and Chinese ambassador to the United States, Hu Shih, specifically emphasized the novel as a book of good humor and entertainment (Lee, 2010). Though Hu Shih was arguing for an appreciation of Journey to the West separate from its history of scrutiny and philosophical analysis, the novel is undeniably allegorical, philosophical, and rich with possible interpretations.

To begin with, Journey to the West is a novel based on the historical pilgrimage of Xuanzang. In addition to the religious journey where the main characters discuss Buddhist tenets with each other, the language of the novel borrows heavily from Taoist and Confucian texts, incorporating well-known ideas and phrases from the other two Chinese religions. For example, in his article “Formation and Fiction in Journey to the West,” scholar Anthony Yu (2008) points out that the decision to make the fictional Tripitaka an envoy of the Tang emperor, a marked departure from the historical Xuanzang who went to India in secret and asked for pardon on his return, aligns the character more with the archetype of the traditional Confucian official-scholar. Furthermore, the character Tripitaka is far from the pious, calm traveller that one might expect given his fictional identity as either a reincarnated earth-bound dweller of Buddha’s Western Paradise, or as the fictionalized version of a devoutly religious historical pilgrim. Instead, as C. T. Hsia succinctly puts it, “he is merely helpless” (Hsia, 1968:117). A constant victim of the various ordeals the group faces, Tipitaka is nervous, fearful, and worried about completing his mission for the emperor, and requires continually rescuing. While Tripitaka’s weaknesses, complemented by Monkey’s endless mischievousness and Pigsy’s gluttony, are the main elements of comedy in the novel, they also serve greater allegorical purposes.

Hanging scroll of Xuanzang, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy.

Many scholars, including C.T. Hsia (1968), Andrew Plaks (2015), and Anthony Yu (2008), highlight the division between Tripitaka as the all-too-human leader of the party and Monkey as the representation of the “mind” of the party in accordance with a Chinese idiomatic expression that refers to the “monkey of the mind.” This characterization of the party as separate parts of one being, supports an allegorical reading of Journey to the West which sees the eighty-one ordeals faced by the pilgrimage party, as well as the tensions between them as commentary on the proper cultivation of the heart and mind. Though Chinese expression about the "monkey of the mind" originated in Buddhist texts, by the time of Journey of the West, it was a syncretic Buddhist, Neo-Confucian and Taoist idea. At the same time, other allegorical readings focus on its treatment of Buddhist enlightenment. In The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel, Andrew Plaks (2015) outlines how characteristics like Tripitaka’s concern for his own comfort, Pigsy’s gluttony and sensual desires, and Monkey’s quest for power are allegories for the different kinds of physical and spiritual impediments to Enlightenment. Hsia (1968) goes further in describing how Tripitaka’s continued attachments, both physical and spiritual, cause part of his susceptibility to demons' attacks and temptations; his compassion and other kindly emotions, while well-meaning, lead to more trouble. Meanwhile, Monkey’s humor, liveliness, and general disregard for others, which often offends Tripitaka’s sense of propriety and morality, is more truly aligned with Buddhist non-attachment.

In Hsia’s interpretation of the novel, the Heart Sutra received by Tripitaka at the beginning of his journey is the central message of the allegory (Hsia, 1968). The Heart Sutra teaches that “form is emptiness, and the very emptiness is form,” but Tripitaka and his fellow travellers show through their eighty-one ordeals that they are too attached to their comforts and desires (the form) (Hsia, 1968:119). Monkey, who more easily rejects his physical attachments—in one highly allegorical scene, he kills thieves called Ear, Eye, Nose, Tongue, Mind, and Body against Tripitaka's wishes—fails to find the enlightenment (the emptiness) described by the Heart Sutra because deliberately seeking enlightenment is also a form of attachment. The novel offers a representation of and commentary on the seeming paradox of attaining enlightenment (Hsia, 1968). Anthony Yu (2008) recalls other traditional interpretations of Journey to the West which indicate that the novel represents the Three-Religions-in-One ideology (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) that was common among contemporary Ming scholars. Andrew Plaks, for his part, argues that the novel is ultimately a “psychomania of the process of the cultivation of the mind as construed by sixteenth-century thinkers” (2015:258). In Plaks’ reading, the allegorical meaning of the novel is an exploration of the conflicts relating to the cultivation of the mind while playing with the available language and motifs of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

An example of modern representations of Sun Wukong (Monkey).

The various interpretations, or the arguments against excessive interpretations, aside, Journey to the West remains a beloved novel for its mixture of comedy and fantasy. Though the journey made by Tripitaka, Monkey, and the others is a story that has been retold countless times in Chinese and East Asian culture in dramas, movies, televisions shows, video games, and children's literature, English readers interested in becoming acquainted with this lively story can start with Arthur Waley’s translation before diving into the allegorical complexities of China’s three religions. Waley’s renamed version, Monkey, does great justice to the character who is arguably the most interesting and compelling figure of the novel: the fun, mischievous, and powerful Monkey King.

Bibliographical References

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction = Zhongguo gudian xiaoshuo. New York Columbia University Press.

Lee, W. (2010). Full-Length Vernacular Fiction. In V. H. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia history of Chinese literature. Columbia University Press.

Ma, Y. W. (1986). Fiction. In W. H. Nienhauser (Ed.), The Indiana Companion to Chinese Literature (pp. 31–48). Indiana University Press.

Plaks, A. H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch’i-shu. Princeton University Press.

Yu, A. C. (2008). The Formation of Fiction in the “Journey to the West.” Asia Major, 21(1), 15–44.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Yoshitoshi, T. (Early 1880s). Sun Wukong Blows on His Hairs [woodblock print; ink and color on paper]. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from

Figure 2: Unknown. (1690-1720). Monkey Battles the Spider Spirit [woodblock print]. The British Museum. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from

Figure 3: Donshu, Ohara. (1815-1857). Priest Xuanzang and his attendants from the Xijouji [hanging scroll; ink and color on silk]. The British Museum. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from

Figure 4: Wiyono, L. D. (2014). Sun Wukong, the Infamous Monkey King [digital illustration]. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from


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Mary Behan

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