Universe of Journey to the West

By HU SHENG and FENG WEI / 07-28-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A painting from a Ming Dynasty illustrated book, Xi You Ji Tuce, or Journey to the West Album, drawn by unknown artists Photo: CFP

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) novel Xi You Ji, or Journey to the West, is regarded as one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels. Interestingly, when talking about the characters of the novel and related stories, what comes to mind is not only the novel, but also literary and artistic works such as traditional operas, shuo-chang [a form of traditional Chinese storytelling], films and TV works, and images. Most of these works are directly and closely connected with religious and folk activities. Various texts, such as hua-ben [a Chinese story or novella written mostly in vernacular language], bao-juan [a type of performative text or storytelling in China that emphasizes worship of ancient deities from Buddhist and Daoist sects], and gu-ci [the lyrics of a musical entertainment form in which the performers narrate a story while beating a drum], have played a remarkable role in the long history of the evolution and dissemination of the “Journey to the West” [hereinafter referred to as the Journey] stories. These texts provide numerous religious and folk elements, and finally form a diverse universe of the Journey.
Diversified materials
In terms of genres, the folk literature of the Journey includes opera, hua-ben, bao-juan, gu-ci, zidi-shu [a type of Chinese folk ballad song popular during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)], kuai-shu [a form of oral storytelling performance], paizi-qu [a story-telling and ballad-singing opera], and many other forms of literature and art, in which stories and their styles vary. For example, the key plots of bao-juan texts about the Journey and Jianghuai Shenshu [a collection of sacrificial ritual songs in the Jianghuai area] almost cover the main sections of the novel, but there are unexpected changes in details.
Among various Journey stories, the stories of Jiang Liu’er [the name of Tang Sanzang prior to his life as a monk] are most representative. These stories were originally created and disseminated independently. After being absorbed and integrated by the Journey stories, the “life of Jiang Liu’er” became a transitional unit between sections of “Havoc in Heaven” and “Heading West for Buddhist Scriptures.” The story of Jiang Liu’er came into being between the Song (960–1279) and the Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties. However, instead of sharing a full account, Tang Sanzang’s parentage is simply mentioned in the form of poetry in the novel. It was not until the Qing Dynasty that his origins and experiences prior to his pilgrimage were added into the Xiyou Zhengdaoshu [a Qing Dynasty version of the Journey to the West] as an independent chapter. Yet the style and structure of this chapter is somewhat inconsistent with that of the entire book. It is clear that the novel made considerable efforts in tailoring and refining the plot of Tang Sanzang’s early experiences.
Folk literary and artistic works related to the Journey endow the stories of Jiang Liu’er with different meanings. This paper takes the Changshu bao-juan [bao-juan texts found in Changshu and surrounding areas, Jiangsu Province] as an example of the localization of the stories of Jiang Liu’er. 
There are basically two versions of Tang Sanzang’s early experiences recorded in the Changshu bao-juan. The first version is similar to the plot of the most popular version of Journey to the West. The outline of the story is as follows: After being ranked first class in the palace examination, the highest level of the Chinese imperial examination, Chen Guangrui married the Prime Minister’s third daughter, Ms. Yin. Chen brought his wife home to visit his mother, who was ill at the time. When his mother requested fish soup for dinner, Chen bought a live carp. However, he released it into the river after finding that the carp was blinking. The carp was the Dragon King’s third son incarnate, and the prince was grateful to Chen. On his way to take office [after being appointed Prefect of Hongzhou], Chen and his wife were robbed by a man named Liu Hong when crossing a river by Liu’s boat. Chen jumped into the river and was saved by the Dragon King’s third son. Unfortunately, his wife [who was already pregnant] was abducted by Liu, who also took Chen’s place as Prefect. [Out of fear of him being killed by Liu, Yin put the new-born baby on a wooden board and set him floating adrift down a river] The baby reached a monastery and was rescued by a senior monk, who adopted him and named him Jiang Liu’er [lit. a boy floating adrift down a river]. Jiang Liu’er found out who his parents were when he turned 17. He found his mother and brought Liu to justice. Finally, Chen appeared and reunited with his family.
The most attractive part of the Changshu bao-juan is the second version of Tang Sanzang’s early experiences, which includes the origins of the Three Great Emperor-Officials [three of the highest Celestial Deities of the Daoist religion]. After rescuing Chen in the river, the Dragon King’s third son married his three younger sisters to Chen. The three princesses gave birth to three sons. Chen missed his first wife and went to find her despite the three princesses’ dissuasion. Unfortunately, Chen met Liu Hong again and was murdered. His body was unceremoniously discarded in an abandoned well. After Jiang Liu’er grew up, reunited with his mother, and took revenge on Liu, Chen’s other three sons brought Chen back to life. In the end, these three sons were endowed as the Heavenly Official, the Earthly Official, and the Water Official—together known as the Three Great Emperor-Officials.
What makes the second version different from the first one is its local features. However, stories with such strong local characteristics are usually limited to a specific geographical and cultural space, and are not as widespread as the simple legend of Jiang Liu’er.
'Monism' and 'pluralism'
It is worth mentioning that these localized Journey stories were not lost after the novel was published. On the contrary, they have evolved and circulated in a relatively self-sufficient cultural space. Similar to bao-juan texts, storytelling texts such as those collected in the Jianghuai Shenshu and the anthems of Shaman, tell the stories of the Journey in a more down-to-earth way—the stories circulated among common people. These folk texts establish a plural world of the Journey, which is in sharp contrast with the popular “monistic” world.
 The so-called “monistic” world of the Journey is based on the novel, which is accompanied by a single research perspective. Modern research on the Journey shows a strong sense of “monism,” that is, with the novel as the center, while ignoring other colorful folk stories. In this unbalanced context, it is difficult to fully explore the rich connotation of the Journey folk literature.
A comprehensive observation of the folk literature of the Journey can break through the bottleneck of previous research. The folk literature of the Journey presents diversified regional cultures and expands to a more colorful national cultural space.
Hu Sheng is a professor from the College of Liberal Arts at Liaoning University; Feng Wei is a PhD student from Liaoning University.