Journey to the West: Book Summary & Characters

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

'Journey to the West' is an epic tale of the journey of the monk Xuanzang and is one of the most influential works in Chinese literature. It is a large, complicated text that incorporates various elements of Chinese folklore and storytelling.

What Is Journey to the West ?

Journey to the West is an epic Chinese novel published in the 16th century. It is considered to be one of the four great classical novels of China, a group of books which form the foundation of Chinese literature. In addition to being an exciting narrative, Journey to the West is also a storehouse of knowledge on ancient Chinese culture, mixing folktales, history, and religious teachings.

Due to its vivid characters and the way in which it mixes serious Buddhist philosophy with thrilling action and comedy, Journey to the West is perhaps the most popular of the four classical novels within China, spawning all manner of adaptations and spinoffs, such as films, TV series, cartoons, and comic books. It is also the most well-known of the four classical novels outside of China, thanks largely to Monkey, a popular English translation by Arthur Waley.

Like all of the classical Chinese novels, Journey to the West is intimidatingly long and complex. It's comprised of 100 chapters and features a complicated web of stories that are intertwined with the simple main narrative of the monk Xuanzang's journey to recover a set of sacred texts.

Journey to the West Summary

The novel's 100 chapters are divided into four uneven parts, each containing a collection of largely unrelated histories and folktales threaded into a single narrative by the anonymous author.

Part 1: The Story of Sun Wukong

The first seven chapters form a self-contained narrative which tells the story of Sun Wukong, a monkey who is born from a stone and learns the way of the Tao, a philosophy at the heart of Chinese religion, as well as mastering combat and learning the secret of immortality. The story ends with the Buddha, the central figure of the Buddhist religion, trapping Sun Wukong under a stone for five hundred years.

Part 2: Introduction of Xuanzang

Chapters 8-12 introduce Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who is the hero of the story. This section gives Xuanzang's background. It also tells of how the Buddha had hidden sacred scriptures in the West and was looking for someone worthy to recover them and take them back to the East.

Part 3: The Journey to the West

Part 3 is by far the largest, comprising chapters 13-99. This long section tells of Xuanzang's journey to the West to recover the sacred Buddhist texts, recounting his many adventures along the way. Xuanzang takes the Silk Road, the famous trading route that connected China and India, to reach the temple at Vulture Peak in India where the scriptures are hidden.

This section also introduces Xuanzang's disciples or followers, who agree to follow him on his journey to atone for past sins. There are four in total, though the most notable is Sun Wukong, the 'Monkey King' whose backstory was described in Part 1.

On their journey, the travelers encounter all manner of danger, including monsters, evil magicians, mountains of fire, and evil spirits. The four disciples prove their worth by repeatedly saving Xuanzang and allowing him to complete his journey.

Part 4: The Journey Home

Chapter 100 makes up the shortest section, describing the journey back East with the sacred texts. All of the travelers are spiritually rewarded, with Sun Wukong and Xuanzang achieving the status of Buddhahood, the highest state of enlightenment in Buddhism.

Journey to the West Characters

The main characters in Journey to the West are Xuanzang and his four disciples.

Xuanzang

The protagonist of the story, Xuanzang, is a Buddhist monk who is tasked with recovering the sacred texts from the West. Having taken a vow of nonviolence as a monk, Xuanzang is unable to defend himself on his journey, so he must rely on his disciples. Along the journey, Xuanzang is frequently captured and kidnapped, only to eventually be rescued by his disciples.

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