Visions of Paradise

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Journey to the West

In my most recent blog, I mentioned that the first novella in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt was influenced by the Chinese epic novel Journey to the West. But most readers of this blog have probably never read that novel, which is a shame since it is one of the classic fantasies of all time.

Journey to the West (Chinese title Hsi-yu Chi) is the story of a real historical Chinese monk Hsüan-tsang, described in the book as one of China's most illustrious religious heroes. In the sixth century the monk undertook a pilgrimage in quest of Buddhist scriptures. Like many legendary epics, his adventures were told and retold in various forms through the years before being written in this 1600+ page epic form by its Sixteenth Century author. English language translations have been sparse and woefully incomplete until the University of Chicago Press recently published a widely-hailed translation by Anthony C.Yu, a professor of English at the University of Chicago.

The epic is comprised of 100 chapters, the first dozen of which are the story of Sun Wu-k'ung, more commonly known as the monkey king, the true hero of Journey to the West. Born and raised an ordinary monkey, he studies under a renowned patriarch and achieves both immortality and magical powers. Being a typical monkey at heart, he is a classic rogue who uses his powers to challenge heaven itself, causing great dismay among the staid and stately denizens there. Eventually Sun is captured by Buddha and immobilized for five hundred years under the Mountain of Five Phases.

During Sun's imprisonment, Buddha decides to send the Buddhist canon to the Chinese and he chooses the monk Hsüan-tsang to travel to India to receive the scriptures. Early in his journey he selects four disciples to accompany him on his pilgrimage. One of them is the monkey king who is freed from his imprisonment provided he swears loyalty to the elder monk and to Buddhism. The other disciples include a dragon king in the guise of a horse, Chu Pa-chieh who has grotesque porcine features and is known as hog, and the imperturbable Sha Monk.

The pilgrims undergo fourteen hundred pages of fabulous adventures. Their journey is hindered by a series of fiends and monsters, denizens of hell, and lowly beasts from heaven who escape and assume human form. Some of them want nothing more than to consume the elder monk since his holiness has imbued his flesh with the ability to confer immortality. Others are mere hindrances who will not let the pilgrims pass. Several adventures result from the compassion of the pilgrims, particularly the emotional monkey king who stops to provide assistance to people in need. In one instance they help a poor king whose wife has been held captive by a monster for two years. In another they rescue one thousand, one hundred eleven young boys who have been imprisoned in geese cages in preparation for being slaughtered so their hearts can be made into a tonic for an ailing king.

The adventures combine wondrous ideas with fabulous images and sense of wonder. At times I was reminded of Roger Zelazny's epic adventure Lord of Light. But what really raises the level of Journey to the West above that of most classic adventure stories is that the entire novel is rich in various types of humor, ranging from pure slapstick (often involving hog who is a burlesque-type character) to subtle satire (usually involving the monkey king's jabs at the overly-proud and self-righteous figures they encounter). At one point the pilgrims enter a land exclusively of women where both elder monk and hog become pregnant. Later the monkey king lets himself be swallowed by a fiend so that he can attack the monster from inside his stomach.

In spite all its fun, the main focus of the epic is really to provide a satirical look at Chinese culture and tradition. Each of the four main characters represents a different aspect of Chinese society: the monkey king is a classic rogue, challenging tradition and authority with regular impunity; hog is lazy, self-indulgent and gluttonous, always looking for an excuse to divide up the elder monk's supplies and abandon the pilgrimage; sha monk is a non-complaining Confucian, shouldering his burdens ever-faithfully without complaining; the elder monk himself is a self-righteous monk, endlessly pontificating about his devotion and asceticism, but at the least hint of danger becoming a whining, crying child.

Buddhism is obviously an important part of the epic, and some of the references to it were confusing to a non-Buddhist such as myself. Fortunately, translator Yu has provided numerous footnotes explaining phrases and situations beyond my realm of understanding. While some of his explanations referred to points so obscure as to be irrelevant, the majority did clarify my understanding of certain scenes and increased my enjoyment at what was taking place.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the style of the epic. The author was a master craftsman, whose writing style is so enjoyable as to be worthwhile reading for its own sake. I am not an avid fan of poetry, so initially I was not pleased at the frequent shifts in the narrative from prose to short verse sections. But very quickly I discovered that those verse sections invariably illuminated a scene or a situation better than prose itself could have done. For example, battles are invariably described in verse, making it possible to enjoy the special effects and wonder of the battles without being tied down in the gritty details.

I could continue with my praise of Journey to the West, but my point should be clear by now. This is one of the truly outstanding epic novels, as important as such legendary tales as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Despite its age it should be as wonderful and appealing to modern fantasy readers as J.R.R.Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and T.H. White's The One and Future King. Actually it pleases me that Journey has not achieved the prominence in America that both Tolkien’s and White's epics have achieved. Both those epics have been somewhat trivialized by the endless imitations and fantasy trilogies based on them. I would hate to see the fabulous monkey king end up as part of a kid's happy meal at McDonald's. He deserves a much better fate than that.

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