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Using “Monkey” to Teach Religions of China

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Like most classics of literature, Journey to the West (also known as Monkey, after its main character, the wondrous Monkey King) can be read on many levels. Besides being a tale of epic adventure on the scale of Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings, Monkey has been read as political and religious satire, as allegory, and as fantastical historical fiction. In this essay we will undertake a journey to discover what Monkey can reveal about Chinese religion. First, we will show bow, in the early chapters of the novel, Monkey depicts Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist deities living side-by-side in an amalgamated but coherent cosmology, rather than existing as distinct and contradicting visions of the spiritual world. We will ask how this unified cosmology matches with the reality of the Chinese religious experience. Secondly, we will investigate how the later chapters of the novel can be read both as a quest story following the four main characters, Monkey, the monk Xuanzang, Pigsy, and Sandy, on their pilgrimage to India, as well as an allegorical quest for inner enlightenment.

THE ORIGINS OF THE STORY

The Journey to the West that comes down to us today was written in the late Ming Dynasty (circa 1580 CE) by the scholar Wu Cheng’en. In many respects, Wu Cheng’en’s role was more that of compiler of an extensive story cycle dating back as far as the mid-Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), rather than as original author. Nonetheless, since its publication, Wu Cheng’en’s version has assumed the position of definitive text, and all versions published after 1592 CE derive from the Wu Cheng’en text.1

NOTES

1. W. J. P. Jenner (translator), Journey to the West (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2003), 16.

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