Xuanzang And The Monkey in Chinese Novel ‘Journey to the West’

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Though the monkey’s association with the pilgrim could already be found in snippets of verse as early as the twelfth century and in further development thereafter in narrative and dramatic form, it remains for the hundred-chapter novel of late Ming to endow this simian character with its grandest and most compelling delineation. The importance assigned to Xuanzang’s chief disciple may be seen in the fact that seven full chapters at the beginning are devoted to relating Sun Wukong’s birth and development, his training and attainment in esoteric Daoist self-cultivation, his daring exploits throughout Heaven and Hell that climax in his wreaking horrific havoc at the Celestial Palace — episodes that not only read like those of an independent tale by itself but also have actually been adapted as such in the Beijing opera and other dramatic media.

Nonetheless, the question remains: Why would the novel’s scripture-seeker require an animal companion-guardian of such complexity and magnitude in personality and character? The simplified and partial explanation surfacing already in the Flowing-Sand River episode (chapter 22) is that the human pilgrim, who must experience in person the ordeal of traversing “all these strange territories” for the scriptures, is in need of his disciples as “his protective companions, guarding his body and life,” but this necessity cannot fully account for the peculiar characterization of Xuanzang. In this regard, it may be useful to remember that, oddly, this scripture-seeking story actually begins with another story of an ostensibly different quest: “the sprouting of [Monkey’s] religious inclination” in chapter 1 that leads to his search for the Way and its eventual acquisition.

When he succeeds in the first stage of learning the secret of realized immortality from the Patriarch Subhodi, the narration’s emphasis (chapter 2) at first seems to accentuate his superhuman powers and physical transformation: “I left weighed down by bones of mortal stock./The Dao attained makes light both body and frame.” At the height of his battle in Heaven, however, the commentarial verse in chapter 7 refines and deepens the polysemia of the Monkey figure by a regulated poem’s opening lines: “A monkey’s changed body weds the human mind./Mind is a monkey — this, the sense profound.” Because the Monkey of the Mind (Xinyuan) was a stock idiom common to Buddhist and Daoist usage long before the novel’s formation and appearance, most readers past and present may not have been inclined to heed the punning assertion of the poem’s second line and explore further how vastly meaningful this seemingly trite appellation can become in the entire work.

The narrative context of this cited poem locates it at the moment when Monkey will soon face the comic but disastrous wager with Buddha himself, who addresses his insolent opponent as “only a monkey who happens to become a spirit, . . . merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation,” amply justifying the epithet of bogus immortal tagging him in another context. In the religious/magical cosmos presumed by the full-length novel, the attainment of magical or transcendent powers (Dao) is clearly a privilege open to both humans and such non-humans as plants, animals, and even inorganic materials like rocks and mountains, or artifacts like swords and lutes. But the process also entails a form of hierarchy more consonant with Confucian culture: for non-humans, the goal of their first stage must be the acquisition of human speech, manners, and other symbols of human culture. That was what Monkey learned in chapter 1, whereas the giant white turtle of chapter 49 had acquired speech but not the human form (by shedding his shell), and the giant python monster of chapter 67 could not even speak.


Thus, one legitimate question we may be led to ask is whether the Monkey of the first seven chapters has truly been united with the human heart-and-mind or whether that kind of union begins only with his submission to Tripitaka, an event receiving the titular summary as “The Monkey of the Mind Returns to the Right” (chapter 14).


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