Even if you have not read Journey to the West, a 16th-century Chinese novel attributed to the Ming dynasty poet and politician Wu Cheng’en, you have probably heard of one of its main characters: Sun Wukong. Wukong, better known in English-speaking countries as the Monkey King, or simply Monkey, is an ambitious and mischievous warrior whose unending quest for power and wisdom leads him to challenge just about every demon and deity in the Chinese pantheon. After being defeated by the Buddha, who dares him to jump out of the palm of his hand, Wukong spends 500 years imprisoned under a mountain topped by an unbreakable seal. His freedom arrives in the form of a traveling monk named Xuanzang, who promises to remove the seal if the prisoner agrees to become his peace-loving disciple and come on a long and perilous journey to India to retrieve a set of Buddhist scriptures.

The reasons for Wukong’s enduring popularity are as numerous as they are difficult to explain. As a character, he is simple yet complex, easy to appreciate but tough to analyze. A charismatic trickster in the image of Loki or John Milton’s Lucifer, his archetype is familiar to readers from all walks of life, and his active and impulsive temperament stands out favorably next to that of the calm and collected Xuanzang. True to his species, he is also fond of pranks, at one point tricking three Taoist priests into drinking his urine after mistaking it for “holy water.” Wukong’s untrained mind—his reckless behavior, emotional volatility, and childish sense of humor—contrasts with his unparalleled skill as a martial artist, a compelling duality that can also be found in many modern fictional heroes, from best-selling manga One Piece’s Monkey D. Luffy and Dragon Ball’s Son Goku to award-winning animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Aang.

But just as Wukong’s magnetic personality has historically overshadowed the other characters of Journey to the West (also embarking on the journey are Pigsy, a gluttonous pig demon, and Sandy, a complacent water demon), so too can the novel’s swashbuckling plot—which largely consists of Wukong saving Xuanzang and the other disciples from various monsters-of-the-week—distract from its spiritual subtext. This subtext is so buried that the Chinese diplomat and literary scholar Hu Shih (1891–1962), a leading interpreter of Journey to the West during the 20th century, argued the novel should be accepted for what it appears to be on the surface: an entertaining story without a deeper meaning. C. T. Hsia (1921–2013), a historian and literary theorist, disagreed, writing that Wukong and Xuanzang’s misadventures through China reveal an “unreconciled tension” between its three principal schools of thought: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

According to Hsia, Journey to the West embraces intellectual and religious pluralism, imploring its readers to accept “life in all its glory and squalor.” Of the three schools, Buddhism plays the most significant role in the story. It is the Buddha who manages to stop Wukong’s rampage against the gods, the bodhisattva Guanyin who guides him and Xuanzang on the road to India, and the Buddhists who tend to suffer under the corrupted rule of the other religions. Upon closer inspection, their entire pilgrimage appears to function as an allegory for the winding path toward enlightenment, explaining and illustrating key Buddhist concepts like karma, compassion, and emptiness. This makes the novel a particularly engaging read for anyone who is interested in Buddhism but feels intimidated by its notoriously esoteric canon.

In essence, Journey to the West is an allegory for how to gain wisdom to perceive truths about reality. Xuanzang, described by one scholar as a “well-meaning practitioner whose obsession with the outward forms of piety hinders him from true perception,” proves to be a terribly slow learner. Throughout the novel, he routinely places his trust in demons that take on the appearance of adorable animals, abandoned children, and kindly grandmas, despite repeated warnings from Wukong, who instantly sees through their disguises. One particularly striking example of Xuanzang’s ignorance happens in chapter fourteen, where he lashes out at the Monkey King for killing a group of robbers who stopped them in their tracks. “How can you be a monk when you take life without cause?” Xuanzang asks, oblivious to the dramatic irony embedded in his question. Not only are readers supposed to think that Wukong did have a cause—self-defense—but they may also notice that the robbers seem to represent touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste: the very senses clouding Xuanzang’s judgment.

Although Wukong is Xuanzang’s student, he tends to act like the teacher. His name, which he received from a Taoist priest after completing his training and gaining immortality (as well as the ability to transform into seventy-two different creatures and objects), literally means “monkey awakened to the void,” a quality he demonstrates through his frequently insightful dialogue. “Seek not afar for Buddha on Spirit Mount,” he lectures Xuanzang, “Mount Spirit lives only in your mind. Maintain your vigilance with the utmost sincerity, and Thunderclap will be right before your eyes. But when you afflict yourself like that with fears and troubled thoughts, then the Great Way and, indeed, Thunderclap seem far away.”

Thunderclap is the monastery where Xuanzang must collect the holy scriptures, a place that ends up taking him more than seventeen years to reach. That’s a long time, especially when considering that Wukong—in addition to all his other superhuman feats—is capable of riding on top of a cloud and traversing 54,000 kilometers in a single somersault. Readers often wonder why the Monkey King doesn’t put Xuanzang on his back and jump over all the trials and tribulations slowing them down. When one of his fellow disciples, Pigsy, asks him that same question, Wukong responds that “it is required of Master to go through all these strange territories before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows; hence even one step turns out to be difficult. You and I are only his protective companions, guarding his body and life, but we cannot exempt him from these woes, nor can we obtain the scriptures all by ourselves.”

In other words, Wukong is telling Pigsy that the journey is the destination—an adage that, though reduced to a cliché at present, would have still sounded fresh in the 16th century. Its meaning turns literal when, later in the story, the pilgrims discover that some of the demons blocking their path were sent there by none other than Guanyin. “What a rogue is this Bodhisattva!” Wukong shouts, after somersaulting back and forth to confront her. “She even promised that she herself would come to rescue us when we encounter grave difficulties, but instead, she sent monster-spirits here to harass us. The way she double-talks, she deserves to be a spinster for the rest of her life.” Despite his frustration, he understands her motivations: the demons aren’t preventing them from completing their pilgrimage; they are an indispensable part of the pilgrimage itself. 

All this symbolism comes full circle on the steps of Thunderclap, where the pilgrims discover—to Xuanzang’s dismay as well as the reader’s—that the scriptures they came all this way for do not contain a single word; they are completely blank. 

The sinologist Andrew H. Plaks, subscribing to Shih’s proposition that Journey to the West is a surface-level narrative devoid of deeper meaning, regards the empty texts as a final joke played on the overly analytical reader, suggesting that “the illusion of progress may itself be the greatest impediment to its ultimate attainment.” Francisca Cho Bantly, a professor of Buddhist Studies at Georgetown University, begs to differ, interpreting the novel’s conclusion as a profound statement on the attainment of nirvana. In an article titled “Buddhist Allegory in the Journey to the West,” she writes that “enlightenment does not exist beyond the self and thus cannot be an object of attainment.”

Journey to the West maintains that personal transformation and self-improvement are best achieved through active involvement in the world, rather than through meditation, asceticism, and isolation. Where Xuanzang acts as an ambassador of the latter enclave, Wukong thoroughly embodies the former. Receiving the title of Victorious Fighting Buddha and ascending to Buddhahood upon completing the pilgrimage, Wukong demonstrates that you don’t need to be an apathetic sage to cultivate your spirituality, nor renounce your own identity in order to live in perfect harmony with the rest of the universe. For all its crude humor and explosive battles, Journey to the West leaves its readers with a characteristically unpretentious yet surprisingly wise message: if a monkey can do it, so can you. 

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