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Film version of Journey to the West

“Journey to the West” is a 16th century novel by Wu Cheng En that some say has many similarities with “The Wizard of Oz”. It is based on the 7th century wanderings of real life Buddhist monk named Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) who went to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts. In the story the Great Monk is accompanied on his journey by three animal spirits: Pigsy, a dim-witted, awkward, greedy and mischievous(a pig; the Monkey King, a monkey possessed by an immortal, and Sha Wujing, a man-eating feminine water spirit. Together with a dragon prince — transformed into a white horse — the jolly party encounters monsters and faces many obstacles, and overcomes them through their wit and teamwork.

Xuanzang, the Chinese monk who inspired the story, left China for India in A.D. 645 to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He made it to Central Asia and India despite being held up by surly Chinese guards and guides who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. In Central Asia he traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balk, Kashgar and Khoton before crossing the Himalayas into India. Xuanzang spent 16 years in India collecting texts and returned to China with 700 Buddhist texts.

“Journey to the West” is widely regarded as the greatest story of Chinese literature and is well known in Japan and Korea and elsewhere in Asia. The monk Hsuan-tang Zang is kind of an anti-hero, pious but cowardly. He repeatedly has to be rescued by the monkey king and the water spirit. The greatest challenge for the four characters is crossing the 400-kilometer-wide river to Heaven, guarded by a monster that feeds on children. When they return to China with scrolls they went to India to collect the find the scrolls are blank and are told that is the true teaching of Buddha

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press); “Anthology of Chinese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Fourteenth Century” edited by Cyril Birch; Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture,” translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)].

Appeal of Journey to the West

Heather Chen wrote in the BBC: Chinese studies scholar Jason Zhuang says the appeal of “Journey to the West “lies in the powerful narrative of the original 16th Century author. "The pure storytelling dynamics of Wu Cheng'en will never be replicated elsewhere. "It's a great novel that tells of important Chinese qualities. Each character also represents different values." [Source: Heather Chen, BBC April 28, 2017]

"It is the greatest story in classical Chinese literature," says Qu Jingyi, a professor specialising in Chinese literature and history at the Nanyang Technological University. Prof Qu says the novel is "very suited to be adapted because of its appeal with young people". It shows "the imagination and sense of humour among Chinese people". While there are other great Chinese novels, Journey to the West offers strong dramatic and comic content, he says, along with elements like fairy immortals, demons and ghosts. "Readers and viewers love the Monkey King's fighting spirit and optimistic attitude towards life," said Prof Qu.

According to Some scholars propose that the book satirizes the effete Chinese government at the time. Journey to the West has a strong background in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology and value systems; the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas is still reflective of Chinese folk religious beliefs today. Part of the novel's enduring popularity comes from the fact that it works on multiple levels: it is a first-rate adventure story, a dispenser of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India stands for the individual journeying toward enlightenment. .[Source:]

Xuanzang: the Real Life Monk That Inspired Journey to the West

Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) was a real life monk that inspired “Journey to the West” In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, he left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf)]

Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang’s work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China.” [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

Born into a scholarly family at the beginning of the Tang (T'ang) Dynasty, Xuanzang enjoyed a classical Confucian education. Under the influence of his elder brother, a Buddhist monk, however, he developed a keen interest in Buddhist subjects and soon became a monk himself at the age of thirteen. He was fully ordained at the age of twenty. Irma Marx wrote: “Xuan Tsang was born in AD 602. As a child he became absorbed in the study of the Sacred Books of Chinese literature. While still a boy he was ordained as a Buddhist priest to the Temple of Heavenly Radiance in Hangchow, and soon there after was transferred to the Temple of Great Learning in Chang-an, a community of monks who devoted their lives to the translation of the Sacred Books from India. Listening to the variety of their interpretations young Xuanzang conceived the bold plan to travel to India and bring back more Sacred Buddhist Books to China.” [Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation]

History of Journey to the West

Originally published anonymously in the 1590s, “Journey to the West” has been ascribed to the scholar Wú Chéng'en even though no direct evidence of this claim exists. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Journey to the West” is a novel that combines the literary genres of myth, fable, and comedy. In the Ming dynasty, Wu Ch'eng-en (ca. 1500-1582), after years of gathering different versions of story-telling scripts and folklore about the pilgrimage, made a compilation and adaptation into this novel. Using his extraordinary artistic talents supported by a vividly fanciful imagination, he was able to create a remarkably engaging story with unique characters combining various personality traits, supernatural powers, and attributes of animals. With his ingeniously satirical and humorous style of writing, Wu conceived of a fantastic and transformational world of wonder. Journey to the West not only has become one of the most popular and well-known tales in Chinese culture, it has also found a wide audience among foreign audiences.

“Journey to the West”contains many anecdotes and dramatic additions from popular tradition andis greatly loved by the Chinese people everywhere. Print houses once competed against each other in printing copies of this book, and naturally many editions circulated among the public. The famous Taoist priest Ch'eng Shih-pin's annotated version was completed in approximately 1694. In the opening chapters of this book are twenty illustrations accompanied by a narrative. The first four illustrations depict thestory's principal characters while the later sixteen illustrations supplement the narration of the story. After 1694, the book was continuously published. By the end of the Qing dynasty, there were different editions printed in nearly twenty print houses, showing its relative popularity as a book.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Art Inspired by Journey to the West include 1) “A Complete Narrative of Journey to the West” (Shih-te-t'ang edition) annotated by Ch'eng Shih-pin in the Qing dynasty; 2) a Wan-li era (1573-1619) illustrated imprint from the Ming dynasty by the Shih-te Hall; and 3) the exceptional "Album on Journey to the West" by the modern master P'u Hsin-yü.

Sun Wukong – the Monkey King in Journey to the West

Sun Wukong, the monkey king, is arguably the most beloved characters in the Chinese classic, “The Journey to the West”. In the beginning of the story Sun Wukong is very mischievous, determined to take over the world. The Buddha expends a lote energy to bring him under control a lot of effort to bring him under control. Sun Wukong ultimately becomes a loyal companion to the monk in story and accompanies him on his adventurous journey from China to India and back again.

“Journey to the West” is a 16th century novel by Wu Cheng En that has many similarities with “The Wizard of Oz”. It is based on the 7th century wanderings of real life Buddhist monk named Hsuan-tang Zang who went to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts. In the story the Great Monk Tang is accompanied on his journey by three animal spirits: the dim-witted and awkward Pigsy (a pig), the Monkey King (an immortal that possesses a monkey) and the water spirit monk Sha (a feminine spirit).

Sun Wukong is fearless and likes to fight, defending his rights. At the beginning of the story he gate crashes into heaven hoping to become mortal but instead is deemed too self-centered and is imprisoned by Buddha in mountain for 500 years as punishment, and later offered a chance to redeem himself by protecting the monk Hsuan-tang Zang as travels from China to India. The journey takes over a hundred years.

Early Part of Journey to the West

According to ““The novel comprises 100 chapters. These can be divided into four very unequal parts. The first, which includes chapters 1–7, is really a self-contained prequel to the main body of the story. It deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sun Wùkong, a monkey born from a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformations, combat and secrets of immortality, and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qítian Dàshèng, or "Great Sage Equal to Heaven". His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sun's rebellion against Heaven, during a time when he garnered a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mountain for five hundred years. Only following this introductory story is the nominal main character, Xuánzàng, introduced. [Source: //\]

“Chapters 8–12 provide his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that "the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins", the Buddha instructs the Bodhisattva Guanyin to search Táng China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of "transcendence and persuasion for good will" back to the East. Part of the story here also relates to how Xuánzàng becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as the "Golden Cicada" and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by the Emperor Táng Tàizong, who previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official). //\

“The third and longest section of the work is chapters 13–99, an episodic adventure story which combines elements of the quest as well as the picaresque. The skeleton of the story is Xuánzàng's quest to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but the flesh is provided by the conflict between Xuánzàng's disciples and the various evils that beset him on the way. The scenery of this section is, nominally, the sparsely populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India, including Xinjiang, Turkestan, and Afghanistan. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantastic; once Xuánzàng departs Cháng'an, the Táng capital and crosses the frontier (somewhere in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, all inhabited by flesh-eating demons who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give Immortality to whoever eats it), with here and there a hidden monastery or royal city-state amid the wilds. //\

“The episodic structure of this section is to some extent formulaic. Episodes consist of 1–4 chapters, and usually involve Xuánzàng being captured and his life threatened, while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuánzàng's predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various goblins and ogres, many of whom turn out to be the earthly manifestations of heavenly beings (whose sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Xuanzang) or animal-spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms. //\

Introduction of the Monkey King, Pigsy and Water Spirit

According to “Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuánzàng's disciples, who, inspired or goaded by Guanyin, meet and agree to serve him along the way, in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.” / The first is Sun Wukong, or Monkey, previously "Great Sage Equal to Heaven", trapped by Buddha for rebelling against Heaven. He appears right away in Chapter 13. The most intelligent and violent of the disciples, he is constantly reproved for his violence by Xuánzàng. Ultimately, he can only be controlled by a magic gold band that the Bodhisattva has placed around his head, which causes him excruciating pain when Xuánzàng says certain magic words. [Source: //\]

“The second, appearing in 19, is Zhu Bajie, literally Eight-precepts Pig, sometimes translated as Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously Marshal Tian Péng, commander of the Heavenly Naval forces, banished to the mortal realm for flirting with the Princess of the Moon Chang'e. He is characterized by his insatiable appetites for food and sex, and is constantly looking for a way out of his duties, but is always kept in line by Sun Wùkong. //

“The third, appearing in chapter 22, is the river-ogre Sha Wujing), also translated as Friar Sand or Sandy. He was previously Great General who Folds the Curtain, banished to the mortal realm for dropping (and shattering) a crystal goblet of the Heavenly Queen Mother. He is a quiet but generally dependable character, who serves as the straight foil to the comic relief of Sun and Zhu.

“Possibly to be counted as a fourth disciple is the third prince of the Dragon-King, Yùlóng Santàizi , who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father's great pearl. He was saved by Guanyin from execution to stay and wait for his call of duty. He appears first in chapter 15, but has almost no speaking role, as throughout most of the story he appears in the transformed shape of a horse that Xuánzàng rides on.

Twenty-Four Episodes and End of Journey to the West

According to “Chapter 22, where Sha is introduced, also provides a geographical boundary, as the river that the travelers cross brings them into a new "continent". Chapters 23–86 take place in the wilderness, and consist of 24 episodes of varying length, each characterized by a different magical monster or evil magician. There are impassably wide rivers, flaming mountains, a kingdom ruled by women, a lair of seductive spider-spirits, and many other fantastic scenarios. Throughout the journey, the four brave disciples have to fend off attacks on their master and teacher Xuánzàng from various monsters and calamities. [Source: //\]

“It is strongly suggested that most of these calamities are engineered by fate and/or the Buddha, as, while the monsters who attack are vast in power and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped heavenly animals belonging to bodisattvas or Taoist sages and spirits. Towards the end of the book there is a scene where the Buddha literally commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Xuánzàng is one short of the eighty-one disasters he needs to attain Buddhahood.

“In chapter 87, Xuánzàng finally reaches the borderlands of India, and chapters 87–99 present magical adventures in a somewhat more mundane (though still exotic) setting. At length, after a pilgrimage said to have taken fourteen years (the text actually only provides evidence for nine of those years, but presumably there was room to add additional episodes) they arrive at the half-real, half-legendary destination of Vulture Peak, where, in a scene simultaneously mystical and comic, Xuánzàng receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.

“Chapter 100, the last of all, quickly describes the return journey to the Táng Empire, and the aftermath in which each traveler receives a reward in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sun Wùkong and Xuánzàng achieve Buddhahood, Wùjìng becomes an arhat, the dragon is made a Naga, and Bajiè, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars).

Major Episodes From Journey to the West

In the “Journey to the West” story, the Bodhisattva Guanyin, on instruction from the Buddha, gives Xuánzàng' the task of obtaining the Buddhist sutras, He is helped by his three protectors in the form of disciples — Sun Wùkong (the Monkey King), Zhu Bajiè (Pigsy) and Sha Wùjìng (the Water Spirit) — with a dragon prince who acts as Xuánzàng's horse mount.

Taizong (ruled A.D. 626 to 649) was the real-life emperor who consolidated rule in the T'ang dynasty, a time of great prosperity and contact with other cultures in China's history. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei:“In Journey to the West, Taizong consented to save the Ching River Dragon King, but he could not prevent Wei Cheng from beheading it. The Dragon King harassed Taizong to "give back" its life, resulting in the emperor taking fright and falling ill, his soul wandering the Halls of the Underworld. After returning to the mortal world, Emperor Taizong held rites for the release of land and water spirits that had been wronged. The bodhisattva Guanyin also came to preach Buddhism, telling him of this religion in India, in which one was able to reverse wrongs and avert calamities. The monk Hsüan-tsang then informed Taizong that he could go and was thus ordered to journey west to India for original scriptures. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

In one memorable episode of “Journey to the West”, “the Senior Lord used the Eight Trigrams Furnace to sear the Monkey King for 49 days and ordered celestial attendants to be at his side to add wood to the fire. It was hoped to refine an elixir, but it unexpectedly assisted the Monkey King in refining his own insight instead. Flaming Fire Mountain is this furnace that fell to and formed in the mortal world after the Monkey King knocked it over. In chapter 52, Blue Ox stole the Senior Lord's treasured ring to the mortal world and caused havoc there. The heavenly generals were helpless, but finally, with a hint from the Tathagata Buddha, they asked the Senior Lord to come and subdue it.

Buddhist Figures in Journey to t West

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In Journey to the West, the Bodhisattva Guanyin plays a key role and function in the story. From subjugating the Monkey King to locating the monk searching for sutras, Guanyin appears throughout the novel, also creating obstacles to test Ch'an (Zen) thought and converting demons to assist in the journey west. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“In chapters 24 to 26, for example, the Monkey King stole ginseng fruit of Chen Yüan-hsien (Guarding the First Immortal) and knocked over the tree. Unable to free himself, he depended on the elixir of willow branch dew in Guanyin's bottle of purification to save the tree and get himself out of trouble., Chapters 40 to 42 also narrate how the T'ang Monk (Tripitaka) and company were tricked by Crimson Child when passing by the Cave of Fire and Clouds. Also known as the Great Sagacious King Child, he is the son of King Bull Demon and Maiden Net Goblin. When he used wheels of flame and spitfire to attack the Monkey King and capture Tripitaka, the Monkey King sought Guanyin for help. Guanyin convinced the boy to gave up his evil ways, and he became the Golden Child by Guanyin, hence the origin of the story of Sudhana.

In chapters 65 and 66 of Journey to the West, the attendant Yellow Brow, said to be a disciple of the Maitreya Buddha, stole the Master's cloth sack of treasures and descended to the mortal realm to wreak havoc. Flinging the sack in battle, the opponent would be engulfed at once. The Monkey King begged Maitreya, who used his powers to capture the mischievous attendant. In the novel, Maitreya is described as follows:

“"With a wide visage of large ears and broad cheeks, the whole of his body from shoulders to belly is corpulent. He, like the New Year, is overflowing with merry, eyes beautifully bright and vast. He, covered in flowing sleeves of gracious good fortune, has a robust spirit spreading far and wide. He, the foremost Buddha in the land of Paradise, is the laughing Buddhist monk Maitreya."

Many of the demons that appear Journey to the West are related to Buddhism. In chapters 74 to 77, for example, the T'ang Monk (Tripitaka) and disciples were passing by Lion Camel Peak when they encountered three demons. The T'ang Monk was captured and tied up to be cooked. It was said that eating the flesh of the T'ang Monk would ensure immortality. The Monkey King, after talking with them for a while, found out that the lion and elephant demons among them originally were the blue lion and white elephant mounts of the Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra. He thereupon called upon these two figures to come and take their mounts away.

Film, Television, Western and Stage Adaptions of Journey to the West

“Journey to the West” has been staged as a play and made into several Chinese and Japanese films. It was made into a very popular Japanese children's television series in the 1970s. In western countries, the story is also often simply called "Monkey". This was one title used for a popular, abridged translation by Arthur Waley. The Waley translation has also been published as “Adventures of the Monkey God; and Monkey: Folk Novel of China; and The Adventures of Monkey.

Heather Chen wrote in the BBC: The journey story has been retold in China for centuries. It can be seen in artworks, cultural festivals and even as local movie and small screen adaptations. Western audiences might best know the legend through the kitschy 1970s series Monkey, which put Sun Wukong front and centre. The Japanese show, which most people called Monkey Magic after its theme song, was a mainstay of kids TV in the 1980s, and won a cult following for its mismatched dubbing, rudimentary special effects and funk soundtrack.[Source: Heather Chen, BBC April 28, 2017]

"The legend has even made its way into video games. Blizzard title Overwatch unveiled a festive update in time for the Lunar New Year, which featured special holiday items, maps and cosmetic "skins" modelled after the four main characters from Journey to the West. Multiplayer online battle game Defense of the Ancients (DotA) has also incorporated Journey to the West-themed characters in past gaming updates.

In 2007 Chinese director Chen Shizheng collaborated with Damon Albarn of the rock groups Blur and Gorillaz, and James Hewiit, the Gorillaz cartoonist, to do a stage and opera version of “Journey to the West”. It is a unique blend of animation, dance, acrobatics, martial arts and video game elements. The Times of London called it “an improbable combination of The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil and Crouching, Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Chen is the one who brought the 20-hour, 55-act Ming dynasty opera “Peony Pavilion” to New York and directed the film “Dark Matter” with Merlyn Streep. Dalmon’s score by an electronically-enhanced pit orchestra is eclectic and minimalist but is perfect for the show. Fei Yang is delightful and acrobatic as the Monkey King.

"Monkey King: Hero is Back" was a 3D animation adaption of"A Journey to the West" released in China in July 2015. It pulled in $80 in its first week, making it the most successful Chinese animation in history. “Director Tian Xiaopeng credited the movie's popularity, according to Chinese news sources, to the special story, which revolves around Chinese hero the Monkey King, who is forbidden from using his all-mighty powers in the latest film. “He said unlike superheroes in Hollywood movies such as Captain America,the latest rendition of the Monkey King simply looks like a close friend with a bit of oriental heroic spirit, which includes helping strangers in danger. [Source: Xinhua, Global Times, July 21, 2015],

In 2017, Netflix did a version of “Journey to the West” in collaboration with broadcast companies in Australia and New Zealand Chen wrote in the BBC: The Legend of the Monkey will revamp the classic as a "big budget fantasy drama", with a whiff of Game of Thrones about it. The decision proved to be a controversial one, however. There's a noticeable change in location, this time being filmed on set in New Zealand, and early promotional photos released last week show no Chinese actors have been cast. The lead actor is Thai, while others have Maori or Pacific Island backgrounds, but it caused a now familiar outcry. "My childhood favourite just got a whitewashing reboot," said Khoo Fooi-Ling on Twitter. "Is this Journey to the West or Lord of the Rings," wrote a user from Beijing on China's popular micro-blogging Sina Weibo site. "Everything looks wrong, they've butchered and insulted our history. Expect an unwelcome from viewers in China and zero ratings."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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