The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of The Journey to the West - Wu Cheng'en, Anthony C. Yu
In the Táng dynasty, a monk named Xuánzàng set off alone, under a political cloud, to seek Buddhist scriptures in India. Seventeen years later, at the end of an arduous, successful journey, he returned to a hero's welcome and spent the last years of his life translating and popularizing the scriptures. That's history; but such a memorable, legend-inspiring accomplishment also became part of the complex, syncretic religious and cultural lore of China, accreting plenty of supernatural elements. Nearly a thousand years later, during the Míng dynasty, a skillful anonymous author (probably identified as Wú Chéng'ēn) shaped a long, adventure-filled, allegorical novel out of this stock, the richness of which is likely to bewilder anyone coming to Chinese writing for the first time.

Xuánzàng, or Tripitaka as he is more often called, may be the virtuous center of the Journey to the West, but readers don't find him the most memorable character in the novel. That honor belongs to Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, a fantastic folkloric figure of outrageous proportions. An indestructible warrior who fights and defeats gods, whose pride and ambition don't stop even at the throne of Heaven, impulsive and arrogant, always quick with an apt insult, he almost shatters the bounds of the novel whose pious pilgrimage he's been recruited into. No god, it turns out, can defeat him save the Buddha; yet when the divine preceptor ordains that he shall act as Tripitaka's protector on the journey, it remains an uneasy partnership, only kept from falling apart by the coercion of a golden fillet around the monkey's head.

The difficult joining of disparate elements is an important theme throughout the novel. The author is introducing arguments in favor of sānjiào héyī, the joining of three religions in one (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism), even though they can only with difficulty be seen to harmonize, as a court historian points out at one point (only to be firmly silenced by the emperor). Though the author takes Confucianism and Daoism seriously, he gives pride of place to Buddhism as the great unifying, peacemaking factor. The repeated invocation of Buddhism to contain turbulent spirits, bring political peace, and act as mediator, contains an unmistakable political message.

The Journey to the West is also a very elaborate religious allegory, drawing from the symbolism of Daoist alchemy and Buddhist scriptures equally; this is the aspect of the book least accessible to outsiders. Although perhaps it is admirable if you wish to draw a religious message from it, from my point of view the religious reshaping of the material almost fatally undermines the novel. Consider: the Buddha has declared that the selfish, turbulent people of China need scriptures for their salvation; but they won't value them if they're just handed over. Thus, they need to have their attention captured and be educated by an exemplary pilgrimage. So, Xuánzàng's journey, so long and so apparently dangerous, is really an act of theater; he is being shepherded at every step by the Bodhisattva Guānyīn, and every event is planned in advance. The monk may often tremble with fright, but he is really in no danger at all; he simply will not be allowed to fail. This, in my opinion, is like seeing the wires behind a puppet show. But I know that there are cultural perspectives from which the simple carrying out of the foreoredained is not only a satisfying narrative, but the only sensible way to think about the world. From a similar perspective, the role of the dragon-horse in the pilgrimage makes sense: although he did nothing but steadfastly carry the monk on his back for so many miles, he achieved immortality just as much as the other members of the party. To do his job, to keep walking ahead, was his merit. And all the others, too, kept walking, though some of them, notably Sūn Wùkōng and the carnal Zhū Bājiè, needed much prodding from the Bodhisattva to do so.

Luckily for the possibility of non-Buddhists enjoying the Journey to the West, it is written with tremendous brio, full of colorful incident, comic situations, snappy witticisms, fierce demons, wild battles, and lush descriptions of scenery. It frequently drops into verse, which actually comes across well in Yu's translation, and enhances scenes like combats. These qualities, rather than its edifying ones, are what has made it widely beloved for so long.