Journey to the West is a fictional story by Wu Cheng’en, a poet and novelist of the Ming dynasty, who wrote it more than 500 years ago. The story is based on the real journey to the West made by a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang in the 600s.
Besides the journey itself, the rest of the story shows both religious and cultural stories and many interesting events unfold. These make reading it a must for whoever seeks to understand China in depth.
The story is also filled with satire towards the Chinese bureaucracy and promotes cooperation and selflessness.
The Stone Monkey becomes the Monkey King
The beginning of the novel shows the ascension of Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a stone.
Sun Wukong, thanks to his strength and wit, quickly becomes the Monkey King.
After the death of a old monkey, he leaves his subjects to learn the magical arts of Dao and the secrets behind immortality.
Sun Wukong is an excellent student and learns everything that needs to be learned, but he grows even more ambitious and confident. He decides to go to Heaven – where all the deities live and work – to demand a place for himself.
Alone against Heaven
Sun Wukong, being a monkey, is also a prankster. His arrival in Heaven upsets many, and his actions make things worse. He requests a position to the Emperor of Jade, who is the equivalent of the Chinese Emperor in Heaven. He eventually gets one in the stable of Heaven. Once he noticed this was a clever trick to keep him out of the way, Sun Wukong decides to get what he truly deserves. While he does get a promotion, he also shows that nobody can practically stop him.
This worries a lot the deities in Heaven, who fear and despise him.
While there is no God able to withstand Sun Wukong’s powers, he still is no match for the wisdom of Buddha. After a big mess caused by Sun Wukong, Buddha challenges him: if he could reach the end of the Universe and come back, the entire Heaven would surrender to Sun Wukong. But if he couldn’t, he would be punished and exiled. Sun Wukong accepts and believes he achieved the feat easily, thanks to his powers. But, then, Buddha shows that no matter what the Monkey King does, he still did not leave the palm of Buddha’s hand.
Sun Wukong, therefore, lost and ends under a mountain for five hundred years.
The Journey to the West
500 years later, Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, start a Journey to the West, to find more wise texts to study and help the Tang dynasty from its spiritual decadence. He is instructed to do so by Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Tripitaka will soon meet Sun Wukong, still trapped under the mountain.
That meeting and most of their journey, they will find out, was part of Guan Yin’s plans.
Sun Wukong, albeit deserving his long punishment, could use a second chance, and Tripitaka needed somebody to protect him on the way.
And so, the two started traveling. Sun Wukong would have to be kept in line by his new master, the monk Tripitaka, using a special magic. Yet, his intelligence, originality and violence protect Tripitaka from all kinds of danger.
The two soon meet another companion, called Pigsy, whose name reminds of his attachment to food and women. Like Sun Wukong, he was also punished from Heaven for his misdeeds, and was given a second chance by protecting Tripitaka as well.
Other two companions would be joining later on: Sandy, the hard working and serious river ogre; Yulong, son of the Dragon King of the West Sea.
While facing many challenges and meeting different kinds of people, the group of bodyguards slowly grows in spirit and morals, with Tripitaka as a guide.
After 14 years of traveling, the group reaches India and receives the scriptures from Buddha.
Both Sun Wukong and Tripitaka will achieve spiritual perfection and become Buddhas themselves. The other companions grow spiritually as well, although not as much.
The Heaven provides new occupations for all the companions once they head back to China, and so the story ends.
The cultural influence of Journey to the West
Journey to the West is a powerful story, and its influence in modern media goes much further than just China. The legend inspired all kinds of stories and Sun Wukong is the favorite character of all times in the story. That’s due to both the originality of the character and his own story: Sun Wukong is a child slowly growing into an adult.
Son Goku, the famous main character of the Japanese manga Dragon Ball, has the same name of Sun Wukong in Japanese. The story inspired both the character and his famous special items.
Sun Wukong is also present in the famous online videogame League of Legends.