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Journey to the West


Journey to the West (西遊記) is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. It was written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century. In English-speaking countries, the tale is also often known simply as 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, Monkey: [A] Folk Novel of China, and The Adventures of Monkey, and in a further abridged version for children, Dear Monkey.

The novel is a fictionalised account of the legendary pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, and loosely based its source from the historic text Great Tang Records on the Western Regions and traditional folk tales. The monk travelled to the “Western Regions” during the Tang Dynasty, to obtain sacred texts (sūtras). The Bodhisattva Guan Yin, on instruction from the Buddha, gives this task to the monk and his three protectors in the form of disciples — namely Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing — together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuanzang’s steed, a white horse. These four characters have agreed to help Xuanzang as an atonement for past sins.

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 some Chinese religious beliefs today. Enduringly popular, the tale is at once an adventure story, a spring of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India represents individuals journeying toward enlightenment.

Synopsis

The novel has 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 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 Qitian Dasheng (simplified Chinese: 齐天大圣; traditional Chinese: 齊天大聖), 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 Sūn’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, 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 Guan Yin 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 Xuánzàng becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as a disciple of the Buddha named “Golden Cicada” (金蟬子) and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by Emperor Taizong of Tang, 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 in which Xuanzang sets out to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but encounters various evils along the way. The section is set in 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 Chang’an, the Tang capital, and crosses the frontier (somewhere in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, inhabited by demons and animal spirts, who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give immortality to whoever ate it), with the occasional hidden monastery or royal city-state amidst the harsh setting.

Episodes consist of 1–4 chapters and usually involve Xuánzàng 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 demons, many of whom turn out to be 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.

Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuanzang’s disciples, who, inspired or goaded by Guan Yin, 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 (simplified Chinese: 孙悟空; traditional Chinese: 孫悟空), 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 unbearable headaches when Xuanzang chants the Tightening-Crown spell.
The second, appearing in chapter 19, is Zhu Bajie (simplified Chinese: 猪八戒; traditional Chinese: 豬八戒), literally Eight-precepts Pig, sometimes translated as Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously Marshal Tianpeng (simplified Chinese: 天蓬元帅; traditional Chinese: 天蓬元帥), commander of the Heavenly Naval forces, banished to the mortal realm for flirting with the Princess of the Moon Chang’e. A reliable fighter, 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.
The third, appearing in chapter 22, is the river-ogre Sha Wujing (simplified Chinese: 沙悟净; traditional Chinese: 沙悟淨), also translated as Friar Sand or Sandy. He was previously the celestial Curtain-lifting General (simplified Chinese: 卷帘大将; traditional Chinese: 捲簾大將), 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.
The fourth disciple is the third prince of the Dragon-King, Yulong Santaizi (simplified Chinese: 玉龙三太子; traditional Chinese: 玉龍三太子), who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. He was saved by Guan Yin 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 Wujing 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 eighty-one 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 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, 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 posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang achieve Buddhahood, Sha Wujing becomes an arhat, the dragon horse is made a nāga, and Zhu 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).

Journey to the West (1986 TV series)

Journey to the West (1996 TV series)

Journey to the West (1996 TV series)

Journey to the West (2010 TV series)

Journey to the West (2011 TV series)

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