Posted in Books

Journey to the West Review: Part 0, The hunt

It’s lookin’ to be a cold winter.

Hello folks. How are you all doing? Good? No? Leave those heavy belongings at the doorstep and step inside for some warm cocoa, with marshmallows of course. Now, we brace ourselves for the coming winter and the year ahead. This winter, I’m looking to curl up next to the ol’ electric heater with some Maximum The Hormone and a thick book. Care to join me?

I have set my sights to read two of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature (those four being Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, The Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber.) While this is my goal, I will probably only finish one, Journey to the West. Which is, for me in my current situation, the most easily accessible in its entirety. And of course, a work that important and vast is just begging to be reviewed.

I decided to do something different with my review of Journey to the West. I am going to do an “ongoing” review. I will do things like live-Tweet my thoughts as I am reading and post mini-reviews that are elaborated versions of those thoughts. However, before I get into the reading, I wanted to do a very quick introduction to the book, as well as some recommendations regarding how to read it.

Journey to the West is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, as I’ve mentioned before. Published for the first time anonymously in the 16th century, it is attributed to a hermit named Wu Cheng’en, although it is still up for debate as to whether he was the real author. Portions of the story itself already existed in Chinese folklore before the formal publication or compilation of Journey to the West, so it is not clear whether there is a real author or just an editor who scraped together many different stories along with some extra stuff to produce the novel.

The original text was written in the vernacular form of Japanese, considered to be “vulgar” by the ruling aristocracy. It combined prose with poetic and folk songs to produce a progressive narrative. It contains many features of prose works which set it apart from the more ancient and preserved writing styles that were considered pinnacles of Ancient Chinese writing up to that point by Confucian scholars. Typically, the histories of the Chinese dynasties were treated with the most respect, and historical writing and thinking was the way of the day. However, as the golden dynasties of China began to fade farther and farther into the past, along with an increasing level of literacy among lower members of society and a rapid improvement in printing technology all came together, new and more inventive forms of writing began to take shape, birthing the novel.

Now that we have some ancient history out of the way, let’s get to the relevant modern history: translation. Arthur Waley’s translation in 1942, entitled Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China, was for a long time the most well-known English translation. However, an inaccurate, and seemingly lazy, title is the least of the problems that this translation has. Probably most striking, the poetic nature and the folk-songs within the novel were completely removed, and as Anthony Yu, a later translator of the novel, would note, this is a major transgression and takes away heavily from the feelings within the original work. While the tone of the original work is definitely laden with comedy, Yu argues that Journey to the West is one of the greatest pieces of allegorical fiction, and that the importance of the many songs and poems within should not be forgotten.

It is, in fact, Yu’s translation which I would personally recommend, as it is the translation that I am reading and will reference (so at the very least read it for continuity’s sake) and it is considered to be one of, if not, the best unabridged translations ever. He translates everything, including the poems and songs, and an updated unabridged version was released only 4 years ago by University of Chicago Press. If that weren’t enough, it is available via the Amazon Kindle store, so you can get it via ebook and search up words as you go (something that I have needed to do more than once just to get through the damn Forward! Why do scholars use such crazy words?).

So with all of that gobbledygook out of the way, what is this book? What is it about? The essence is that a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang is ordered by Gautama Buddha to travel to the “Western Regions” (Central Asia and India) to retrieve sacred texts, or sutras, to spread Buddhism through the Eastern kingdoms. This monk is given three disciples who agree to protect the monk in order to atone for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Wuneng and Sha Wujing. He is also given a dragon prince, a horse, who acts as Xuanzang’s steed.

Combining broad elements of Xuanzang’s actual accounts of his travels to the Western kingdoms, it combines elements from Chinese folklore and myth to create a cool and epic story with a vast scope and huge cast of characters.

The reason I wanted to read it, besides the fact that I really need a reason to get back to reading books, is that I love epics. Epics are so easy to get lost in. You have a world crafted in part by the author and in part by your imagination, where colorful characters frolic about, and all sorts of mishaps and hi-jinks can take place. It combines the reality of an abstract existence with the beauty of idealism. I just love being able to imagine things so vast that I am unable to imagine it all.

Well, that’s the preliminary investigation. Keep track of my progress and my thoughts via my twitter: @tap2gg, and I will post mini-reviews as time goes on. Until next time, thanks for reading and have a great day!

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