Sunday, June 7, 2015

Journey to the West: a synopsis

There are a few things I wish I had known to know before I went to China so I could mingle with a better understanding of what makes China tick. One such thing would have been to read the foundational Chinese classic Journey To The West. It functions much like Greek mythology in the West.  So I was grateful when Victory, one of my sophomore written English class students, gave a presentation on this epic collection of classic Chinese folktales. His excessively long sentences which are typical among student writing since the Chinese language lacks the sentence structure common in English writing. I enjoyed hearing something I needed to know. These stories are depicted in Chinese movies and TV shows. Should you have the opportunity to mingle in China,  this "Cliff Notes" version of Journey To The West may serve you well.

     The novel JOURNEY TO THE WEST comprises 100 chapters. These can be divided into four very unequal parts. The first, which includes chapters 1-7 is really a self-contained introduction to the main story. it deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sun WuKong, a money born form a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformation, combat, and secrets of immortality; and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qitian Dasheng 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 mount and sealing the mountain with a talisman for five hundred years.

     Only following this introductory story is the nominal main character, Xuanzang, introduced. 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 Tang 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 Xuanzang become a monk (as well as revealing his past life as a disciple of the Buddha named "Golden Cicada" and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by the Emperor Tang Taisong, who previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official.

     The third and longest section of the work is chapter 13-99, an episodic adventure story which combines elements of the quest as well as the picaresque. The skeleton of the story is Xuanzang's quest to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but the flesh is provided by the conflict between Xuanzang'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 Xuanzang departs Changan, the Tang 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 ate it), with here and there a hidden monastery or royal city-state amend the wilds.

     The episodic structure of this section is to some extent formulaic. Episodes consist of 1-4 chapters and usually involve Xuanzang being captured and having his life threatened while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuanzang'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 heaven beings (who sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Xuanzang) or animal -spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms.

     Chapter 13-22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuanzang's disciple, 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 Xuanzang. Ultimately, he can only be controlled by a magic gold band that the Bodhisattva has placed around his head, which causes him bad headaches when Xuanzang chants certain magic words.

     The second, appearing in chapter 19, is Zhu Bajie, literally Eight-precepts Pig, sometimes translated a Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously Marshal Tian Peng, 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, which causes significant conflict with Sun Wukong. Nevertheless he is a reliable fighter. 

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

     The fourth discipline is the third prince of the Dragon -King, Yulong Santaizi, 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 Xuanzang rides on.

     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 Xuanzang from various monsters and calamities.

     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 Xuanzang is one short of the 81 disasters he needs to attain Buddhahood. 

     In chapter 87, Xuanzang 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 14 years, (the text actually only provides evidence for 9 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, Xuanzang receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.

     Chapter 100, the last of all, quickly describes the return journey to the Tang Empire, and the aftermath in which each traveler receives a reward in the form of post in the bureaucracy of the heaven. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang achieve Buddhahood, Wujing becomes an arhat, Santaizi the dragon prince horse is made a naga, and Bajie, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars).



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