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Xuanzang: The Monk who Brought Buddhism East

Statue of Xuanzang

The life and adventures of a Chinese monk who made a 17-year journey to bring Buddhist teachings from India to China. Xuanzang subsequently became a main character in the great Chinese epic Journey to the West.

In 629 C.E., a Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuanzang wanted to go west to India to learn more about Buddhism, but at the time, the emperor had forbidden travel outside China. Xuanzang respected authority and he struggled with a decision on whether or not to make the journey. Xuanzang, a brilliant and devout man, in the end believed that going to India was the only way to answer questions that troubled Chinese Buddhists. He started a seventeen-year journey that year, much of it spent as a fugitive and traveling under the cover of darkness.

Xuanzang traveled along what we now know as the Silk Road. He survived the dangerous Taklamakan Desert and continued through the high and harsh mountains of Tian Shan (literally, mountains of the heavens or sky). The Silk Road took him through countries ruled by powerful leaders who sometimes wanted to keep him in their kingdom rather than allow him to travel on. His intelligence and calm devotion to Buddhism convinced these leaders to help him in this quest to reach India. He was to have many adventures as he worked his way through India, on to Nepal, the home of the Buddha, and then to Nalanda where he spent many years living with the greatest teachers and thinkers of this time. Before he returned home, Xuanzang had converted priates who meant to rob and kill him, survived deadly typhoons, and won a Great Debate in front of thousands of wise men in India. The return trip was no less difficult and he slowly made his way back studying, teaching, and learning about the cultures of the people he met along the way. Xuanzang was still officially a fugitive in his homeland, China, because he had left without permission. Xuanzang wrote a letter to the emperor describing what he had learned and as a result, the emperor not only welcomed him back, but appointed him a court advisor. The rest of Xuanzang's life was spent in teaching, advising and translating manuscripts that made the journey home with him. Following his journey, Buddhism became more prevalent and more widely understood in China and subsequently elsewhere in the world. The record of his pilgrimage helps us to study and understand Buddhism and the cultures along the Silk Roads.

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The journey to the west: a platform for learning about china past and present.

painting of a monkey leading a man on a horse

In US college students’ first course on China, the challenge for instructors is to pack the maximum amount of punch into the experience so that the course will inspire them to seek more opportunities to learn about China at and beyond the college level. One way to achieve this goal is to use a rich text with many applications to help students unpack the complexities of Chinese history, language, politics, economics, and thought. For this purpose, the sixteenth-century novel The Journey to the West, with its many incarnations, is ideal. 1 It features a rousing adventure story, which can be read as historical fiction, political satire, and religious allegory. The novel has been reproduced for many types of audiences in many different media, including children’s books, puppet shows, operas, comics, TV series, and movies; each version is different enough to allow instructors to discuss them in the context of important Chinese historical events and cultural elements. Because well-told stories help us make sense of the world, instructors can use this novel as a foundational element to facilitate students’ connections with and between the various elements of the course. In this article, we show how The Journey to the West and its multiple incarnations can be used to help students unpack the complexities of China as a subject and develop a critical awareness or appreciation for a culture different from their own. We first show how the story may be introduced in a way that sets students’ minds for embracing the immense complexity of humanity and Chinese culture. Then, we show how various elements and incarnations of the story can be used to facilitate discussions about some outstanding aspects of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Maoist China (1949–1976), and postreform Communist China.

A Glance at The Journey to the West

Developed into its full length in the sixteenth century, the 100-chapter novel The Journey to the West (The Journey hereafter) is believed to have its historical basis in the epic pilgrimage of the monk Xuanzang (c. 596–664) to India and has been a popular subject for storytellers since the late Tang dynasty. The fictionalized pilgrimage as depicted in the novel sees Xuanzang accompanied by four nonhuman disciples: Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, and Dragon Horse. The four disciples have been expelled by the Daoist Celestial Court (i.e., Heaven) due to misbehaviors, but will beaccepted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin (AKA the Goddess of Mercy) into Buddhism on condition that they promise to assist Xuanzang’s pilgrimage.

The mischievous Monkey character and his dedicated master Xuanzang have the central roles in the novel, and the first thirteen chapters establish the backstories of how the two became destined for the journey. The exciting part of the tale begins in chapter 14, when Xuanzang releases Monkey from a mountain and together they embark on a journey filled with the humor of Monkey’s mischievous battles against bandits and demons, interspersed with moments of Buddhist enlightenment. Starting here, students get a taste of the original novel and are introduced to the two main characters. A useful in-class exercise is to brainstorm words to describe the two characters. Through this activity, students come to understand the complexity and contrast of the characters’ personalities and why this dynamic is so important not only for the success of the story, but also metaphorically for understanding the complex nature of Chinese culture and society. For example, how have the three distinct and often-contradictory teachings—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—been able to operate relatively harmoniously in the lived religious experience of everyday Chinese? An understanding of how each individual has contradictory tendencies and how a story needs such individuals to be successful will set students’ minds for embracing the complexity of the topics to be discussed in the course, such as the various adaptations of Monkey and The Journey, and how they relate to different aspects of China.

Learning about Traditional China through The Journey

photo of a monkey-man

Written in the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and based on a true event during the Tang dynasty (618–907), The Journey offers the opportunity to introduce two of the “golden eras” in Chinese history. With almost 4,000 years of written history, there is a lot of Chinese history to potentially cover, but for a course that seeks to introduce China studies through multiple disciplinary lenses, a focus on the Ming dynasty, alongside the more recent events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, may suffice. The chapter on the Ming in Patricia Ebrey’s Cambridge Illustrated History of China offers a vivid depiction of Ming society. 2 After reading the chapter and watching episodes 2 and 3 from the 1986 TV series of The Journey , students can quickly map the hierarchical structure of the court of the Ming government onto that of the Celestial Court in The Journey . 3 Students can also connect Monkey’s eagerness to seek a position in the Celestial Court with the civil service examination in the Ming dynasty. 4 From these connections, students can get a sense of China’s hierarchical social structure and its traditional emphasis on self-improvement through education. These connections serve as foundations for students to understand the historical continuities and differences when discussing the political structure and educational system of contemporary China.

photo of a monkey man in armor

The history of the Ming dynasty is also important because it is one of the wealthiest eras in China’s history and has some interesting correlations with contemporary China, such as both being periods of international economic interactions. Employing The Journey as a fictional account of history offers a unique opportunity for the correspondences and differences between traditional and contemporary China to be highlighted and analyzed.

The syncretism of the three major teachings of traditional China, namely Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, culminated when Ming General and statesman Wang Yangming’s (1472–1529) teaching of “learning of the mind” became popularized in the empire. Inspired by Chan (Japanese, Zen) Buddhist philosophy, Wang emphasized that a true understanding of the essence of morality can only be achieved through cultivating one’s own mind, which means persistent personal enactment of moral principles. The Journey depicts the lived religious experience of everyday Chinese. To help appreciate the interplay of belief systems, students can read Asian Studies Professor Joseph Adler’s Chinese Religious Traditions , accompanied by some application exercises to highlight the distinct reasoning patterns of the three major teachings. Such application exercises might include asking students to play the roles of hardcore Confucianists, Daoists, and Buddhists, who are requested to comment on such phenomena as family reverence, gender roles, death, humanity, and the vicissitudes of life.

At this point, students begin to realize that the journey actually represents the ongoing effort to end attachment to worldly things such as fame and money, which often make the mind susceptible to moral corruption. Students will also be able to identify the Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist elements as they read other selected chapters from the novel and view other adaptations of the story, such as the movie Conquering the Demons . 5 Conquering the Demons is a fun movie to watch, and it presents a lively and modern interpretation of The Journey as Buddhist allegory. 6

The three major teachings and their syncretism should be included in an introductory course in their own right, but they also frame the Chinese worldview and inform people’s daily practices across much of East and Southeast Asia. A solid understanding can provide a useful lens for appreciating the perspectives and practices prevalent across the region. Further, discussing the three teachings offers the opportunity to remind students of the limitation of English translations of Chinese concepts, which is an important issue involved in cross-cultural studies. For example, the Chinese word zongjiao (the clan’s teaching), a compound that first appeared in Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras referring to different schools of Buddhist thoughts, has often been equated as religion and applied to Confucianism and Daoism. 7 Reflecting on what they have learned about traditional Chinese thought, students may discuss whether the three teachings, especially Confucianism, count as “religions” in the English sense.

The fact that novels like The Journey proliferated during the Ming dynasty reveals the advanced printing technology and expanded readership during the period. 8 This opens up a variety of different inquiries. For example, what kinds of books got printed? How was copyright handled? Who read the books? What social changes came with the printing technology? Questions like these lead students to discussions about various aspects of social life in the Ming, such as the role of media, censorship, literacy, leisure, and women’s education and social status. These topics could and should be revisited and expanded throughout the course. The roles of technology and media also provide a useful lens for understanding contemporary China.

Learning about Maoist China through The Journey

animated character of a monkey man

Maoist China refers to the period from the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 to the launch of the Reform and Opening Up initiative in 1978. 9 The founding of the PRC was celebrated by much of the nation at the time as a great victory of the Chinese people over the oppression from imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism. Mao Zedong, the national leader of China from 1949 until 1976, was given the status of perfect hero or “the people’s great savior” by his cadres. 10 Of course history proved that despite some positive reforms, Mao was, along with Stalin and Hitler, one the twentieth century’s most evil tyrants. It was in such historical context that the mischievous Monkey was transformed into a proletarian revolutionary hero, as depicted in the cartoon movie Havoc in Heaven (AKA The Monkey King) and several of its immediate antecedents in popular art forms and in print. 11 To facilitate the discussion of the cartoon movie, background readings may include chapter 3 of Hongmei Sun’s book Transforming Monkey, which reviews the various adaptations of Monkey’s story up to the Mao years and discusses how the Monkey character was then transformed from trickster to hero.

From the 1963 cartoon movie’s depiction of the officials in the Celestial Court, students can see a prevalent Communist Chinese view of the backwardness of the alleged Chinese feudal system and the corruption of elites. By comparing the storyline of this cartoon with either the two episodes they have watched from the 1986 TV series, which also emphasize the story of Monkey’s uproar in Heaven, or chapters 3 to 7 in the novel, students will notice how the changes to the details of the cartoon make Monkey almost entirely an innocent victim of the Celestial Court. The cartoon’s ending with Monkey’s victory over the celestial troops without being subjugated by Buddha is also an interesting point for discussion. It symbolizes the victory of the proletarian revolutionaries, while ignoring religion.

Since media resources about Maoist China abound both online and in print, instructors can provide students with a list of events during this period, such as the Korean War (1950–1953), the Great Leap Forward (1958–1963), the China–USSR border dispute in the late 1960s, and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Students can do research outside class and then present in class their analyses of why and how the events happened and were related. As a starting point, students should watch the documentary titled China: A Century of Revolution 1949–1976 on YouTube or read Clayton Brown’s EAA article, one of the most succinct and useful introductions to the Great Leap Forward. 12 The research and discussions should get students ready for the economic reformto come, which has been the direct cause of the economic boom that lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of abject poverty and a series of side effects, including corruption, environmental issues, and intensifying social inequality.

illustration of a monkey man holding a torch in front of a large bowl of fire with the caption "olympics"

Learning about Postreform Communist China through The Journey

The launch of the Reform and Opening Up initiative by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) in 1978 marked a new era for China. Through a series of dramatic economic reforms and opening China’s economy to the outside world by 1980, this initiative transformed China into, until a few years ago, the world’s fastest-growing industrializing country and now the world’s second-largest economy. The famous Taiwanese cartoonist Tsai Chih-Chung’s comic version Journey to the West, first published in 1987, is an amusing way to introduce how the story was adapted to mock the popular social practices and perspectives during the early days of the economic reform. 13 The inclusion of this text allows instructors to remind students why The Journey remains relevant to China and Chinese peoples, as the numerous twentieth- and twenty-first-century adaptations demonstrate. It also offers a lighthearted insight into the impact of the economic reform period. Students may also read the first two chapters of Chinese–American journalist Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls and chapters from major contemporary Chinese author Yu Hua’s book China in Ten Words for vivid depictions of Chinese society during the economic boom, and discuss where China might go next.

Themes to be explored about contemporary China can revolve around media and the concept of “soft power.” Since the early twenty-first century, soft power has been a component of China’s national development strategy and the alleged goal of the PRC’s foreign policy. Media has been employed as an important tool for manipulating soft power. For some initial knowledge of media’s role in soft power, students may read the introduction and Wanning Sun’s chapter in Screening China’s Soft Power. Sun’s chapter raises the distinction between “soft power by design” and “soft power by accident.” 14 A nice media resource is the BBC’s two-minute cartoon ad for the Beijing Olympics. The cartoon features Monkey’s “journey to the East,” assuming a familiarity with the story among at least the BBC portion of the world audience. 15 A discussion of why the BBC chose Monkey for the ad will introduce students to questions about China’s viability for cultural export. Later in the course, The Journey can be related more directly to the Silk Road and in turn to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to be discussed in a later section.

For general knowledge of how different disciplines, such as economics and political science, have made sense of soft power and what soft power may mean for China, students can read China studies scholars Young Nam Cho and Jong Ho Jeong’s article “China’s Soft Power: Discussions, Resources, and Prospects” and social psychologist Kwang-kuo Hwang’s article “Face and Favor: The Chinese Power Game.” These readings present students with scholars’ ideas about China’s soft power potential and strategy. Cho and Jeong’s article also briefly describes the global context for China’s soft power initiative. To get a sense of China’s aggressiveness in cultural exports, students can read Media Studies Professor Aynne Kokas’s book Hollywood Made in China (particularly chapter 3), which discusses how China’s movie policy influences Hollywood, and media and democratic studies expert Shanthi Kalathil’s article “Beyond the Great Firewall,” which includes a comprehensive report of the measures China has been taking to manipulate the global information system. 16 With background knowledge obtained from these readings, students will be able to generate interesting discussions as they view the media products produced in contemporary China, such as the ones to be discussed in the following sections.

photo of a monkey man

As Chinese society drastically changes, Monkey also experiences a major transformation—from a fighter to a lover who struggles to find his own identity. The transformation was marked by Stephen Chow’s movie A Chinese Odyssey (1995). Produced by a Hong Kong director two years before Hong Kong’s return to China, this movie has been interpreted as Hong Kong’s uncertainty about its fate after returning to China. 17 Discussion questions invite students to consider the symbolism of Joker’s (a human bandit leader who is initially unaware that he is the reincarnation of Monkey) resistance against transforming back into the hero Monkey. Further, the ending, which leaves the viewer with a deep sense of sadness and helplessness, can spark discussions about the physical and emotional losses that the characters undergo in their spiritual journey and the hard choices they are forced to make in order for their journey to be successful.

It is also worth comparing A Chinese Odyssey with the same director’s 2013 adaptation of The Journey, Conquering the Demons. A comparison of the different endings of the movies will make students curious about events occurring during the years between the two movies, notably the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the CCP’s increasing interference in Hong Kong’s administration. The comparison can also illustrate the fall of Hong Kong’s Cantopop (i.e., pop music sung in Cantonese) in the age of China. 18 Reflecting this language shift, the 2013 movie adaptation, though produced in Hong Kong, is made in Mandarin instead of Cantonese and features more actors from Mainland China.

Aside from facilitating discussions of the politics and economics of language use in contemporary media, it is fair to say that A Chinese Odyssey has started a fad in more recent productions of The Journey . Not only do new movie adaptations of The Journey come out almost every year, there have also been cartoons, games, online novels, and even songs inspired by Monkey. Jin Hezai’s novel Wu Kong, first posted online in 2000, became so well-received in China that it was republished in print the following year. The novel is not available in English yet, but a movie adaptation of the same name, directed by Derek Kwok, was released in 2017, starring Eddie Peng, Shawn Yue, and Oho Ou, all of whom are popular young faces on the screen in China.

Wu Kong may be watched in its own right for its award-winning action choreography and the rebel spirit demonstrated by Monkey and his fellow fighters. The movie can be seen as an allegory of the individual fighting against the authoritarian system, which is represented by the Destiny Council in the movie. 19 Every 1,000 years, the Destiny Council administrates an exam to choose new immortals who can join the Destiny Academy and become candidates for positions in the Destiny Council. This exam mirrors China’s gaokao (college entrance examination), which brings about dramatic effects on people’s lives. Discussions of the movie can be supplemented with readings about China’s education system, especially the preparation and consequences of gaokao. 20 Students can explore gaokao independently and share their findings in class.

photo of a monkey man

When connecting Wu Kong and gaokao, discussions can be guided to the role of family and authority/face in China. This brings back the Confucian worldview, whose fundamental metaphor is the family. In the Confucian tradition, the goal of self-cultivation is to keep the family in order, which is the prerequisite for being a leader who can put the nation in order and bring peace to the world. This understanding of the Chinese worldview becomes critical for coming to terms with some of the other elements of contemporary China’s engagement with the rest of the globe. 21

The concepts of family and authority/face, by themselves may sound familiar to students, but their unique interactions in Chinese society may go beyond students’ imaginations. A discussion of these concepts in relation to business practices and China’s foreign policy can provide very important lenses for understanding contemporary Chinese society and its global ambition, epitomized by the BRI and “the Chinese dream,” both associated with current Chinese President Xi Jinping. 22 The BRI has been a hot topic in the media, so after briefly introducing the “belt” and the “road” with a map, instructors may ask students to each identify a country of their interest and do research to find out what the BRI might mean for that country. Sharing their findings will provide the class with a more general picture of what the Chinese dream may entail and how China’s “journey to the West” may have extended beyond seeking the true teachings of Buddha from India and been geared toward exporting the traditional China-centered world order through the BRI.

Discussions about the China-centered world order will involve reviewing the Confucian concepts of self, family, nation, and the world (or tianxia in Chinese). Zhang Yimou’s movie Hero (2012) serves as an illustration of how a peaceful tianxia is traditionally believed to be achieved. Comparing the sacrifices and contributions of the protagonists in Hero and those of the protagonists in The Journey, students may consider the traditional Chinese ideal of “hero,” how it may adapt to the contemporary context, and how it differs from their own culture. This discussion may also lead to a discussion of China’s projected global role in the remainder of the twenty-first century and how it may be received by the rest of the world.

The purpose of an introductory course is to get students interested enough and academically prepared to explore the complexity and novelties of the subject. Using The Journey as the foundational element for an introductory course on China, instructors will be able to provide a tantalizing glimpse at the breadth of Chinese history, demonstrate the continuing importance of that history for understanding today’s China, and help students develop a critical awareness and appreciation for Chinese society and culture. The various adaptations of The Journey give students ready inroads for exploring the relevant content for an introductory course on China and introduce them to a variety of lenses to appreciate another culture while critically reflecting on their own.

illustration of a monkey man

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1. Since a few selected chapters will suffice for the purpose of the course, we recommend using an English version of the full novel. This could be either W. J. F. Jenner’s Journey to the West , 4 vols., reprint ed. (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984) or Anthony C. Yu’s The Journey to the West , 4 vols., revised ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

2. Patricia B. Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 190– 219. The titles suggested in this article are intended to be taken as suggestions found to be useful from experience rather than prescriptive requirements.

3. The 1986 TV series produced by CCTV is probably the version understood as the most authentic for many Chinese people. When the names of the characters of The Journey are mentioned, the images created by this TV series would be what many Chinese people picture in their minds.

4. The discussion about civil service examinations can be connected with contemporary China’s college entrance examination, AKA gaokao. Background readings may include Benjamin A. Elman’s article “Civil Service Examinations” in Education in China: Educational History, Models, and Initiatives, ed. Qiang Zha, Ruth Hayhoe, and Heidi Ross (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2013); chapter 6 of Yong Zhao’s book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World (San Francisco: Jossey–Bass, 2014); and Hoi K. Suen and Lan Yu’s article “Chronic Consequences of High-Stakes Testing? Lessons from the Chinese Civil Service Exam” in Comparative Education Review 50, no. 1 (2006): 46–65.

5. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, directed by Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok (Hong Kong: Bingo Movie Development, 2013).

6. The movie Conquering the Demons may be seen as essentially about the spiritual transformation of Xuanzang, who was eventually able to get rid of his worldly attachments by facing and conquering them one by one. The three demons, whom Xuanzang encountered and conquered with the help of the demon hunter Ms. Duan (whose family name shares the same sound as the Chinese word for “to cut off”), may each symbolize a stubborn worldly attachment. That the conquered demons became Xuanzang’s companions on his journey to the west may be a symbol of his spiritual maturity as a Buddhist pilgrim.

7. Shenglai Zhou, “Origin and Evolution of zongjiao, a Word in Chinese,” Journal of Shanghai Normal University (Philosophy & Social Science Edition) 40, no. 5 (2011): 114–119. According to Zhou, the use of zongjiao as the Mandarin counterpart for “religion” is actually a nineteenth-century borrowing from the Japanese, who expanded the meaning of the term to match the Western concept.

8. Two useful readings on these topics are Anne E. McLaren’s chapter “Constructing New Reading Publics in Late Ming China,” in Cynthia J. Brokaw and Chow Kai-wing, eds. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and Raymond Chang’s article “The Renaissance of Book Arts in the Ming Period,” The Journal of Library History (1974–1987) 16, no. 3 (1981): 501–508. 9.We readily acknowledge that events between the Ming dynasty and the Communist China period, such as two opium wars and two world wars, left significant traces on Chinese and world history. However, the Communist China period is more relevant to the students, most of whom (if they are interested in Asia at all) are interested in career opportunities outside the academic field. Therefore, it is appropriate for an introductory course to put more emphasis on Communist China when talking about modern China.

10. This term has been extracted from the Chinese song titled “The East Is Red,” whose lyrics idealize Mao as a perfect hero. This song was the de facto national anthem of the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

11. Hongmei Sun, Transforming Monkey (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018), 83.

12. Clayton Brown, “China’s Great Leap Forward,” Education About Asia 17, no. 3 (2012): 29–34.

13. For instance, the social phenomena mocked in the chapter “A Duel with Buddha” include pirating, pursuit for instant profits, the enthusiasm for studying abroad in the USA, the serious littering at tourist sites, the attraction of the movie industry, and the popularity of instant noodles and other Western goods such as perfume, etc. Tsai Chi-Chung’s Journey to the West comic series is now available in English versions and bilingual versions. For the purpose of the course, selected chapters from the English translations published by Asiapac Books Pte. Ltd. in 1993 would suffice. For interested readers, the entire set of thirty-eight volumes were made available in 2006 by Modern Publishing House in China.

14. Wanning Sun, “Soft Power by Accident or by Design,” in Screening China’s Soft Power , eds. Paola Voci and Luo Hui (London: Routledge, 2017), 196.

15. Ollie Williams, “Monkey’s Journey Begins,” BBC Sport , May 28, 2008, https://tinyurl.com/54v79w.

16. Articles and books mentioned in this paragraph: Young Nam Cho and Jong Ho Jeong, “China’s Soft Power: Discussions, Resources, and Prospects,” Asian Survey 48, no. 3 (2008): 453–472; Kwang-kuo Hwang’s “Face and Favor: The Chinese Power Game,” American Journal of Sociology 92, no. 4 (1987): 944 –974; Aynne Kokas, Hollywood Made in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017); and Shanthi Kalathil, “Beyond the Great Firewall,” Center for International Media Assistance, accessed April 4, 2019, http://tinyurl.com/y2xrsmke .

17. A Chinese Odyssey , directed by Stephen Chow (Beijing: Xi’an Film Studio, 1995). Also see Hongmei Sun, Transforming Monkey, 95.

18. Yiu-Wai Chu, Hong Kong Cantopop (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017), 184–195.

19. Wu Kong, directed by Derek Wong (Beijing: New Classics Media, 2017). Based upon the 2000 online novel Wu Kong’s Biography by Jin Hezai. See also Derek Elley, “Review: Wu Kong (2017),” Sino-Cinema, 2017, accessed July 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yx9ckaeg .

20. See note 4 above for suggested readings on gaokao.

21. Some background readings about the China-centered world order may include David Bell’s chapter “Realizing Tianxia: Traditional Values and China’s Foreign Policy,” in Chinese Visions of World Order, ed. Ban Wang (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017) and Suisheng Zhao’s article “Rethinking the Chinese World Order: The Imperial Cycle and the Rise of China,” Journal of Contemporary China 24, no. 96 (2015): 961–982.

22. The Chinese Dream, popularized in 2013, refers to the personal and national ideals for individuals and the government in China, including Chinese prosperity, collective effort, socialism, and national glory.

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Journey to the west --- Xuanzang

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     The place was Chen He (Old River) Village of Henan (South of the River). TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     In northern China, where the climate was cold and dry, Chen Yi was born. No one even suspected at the time that the youngest boy of this respected family would one day grow up to be the famous scholar and pilgrim, Xuan Zang. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     The Chen family consisted of a long line of government officials and scholars of Confucianism. Chen Yi was also expected to follow in his ancestors' footsteps. Fortunately for all Buddhists, his father, Chen Hui, was also extremely interested in Buddhism, and studied both of these religions at home. Naturally, this was a major influence on the little Chen Yi, and when his second elder brother became a Buddhist monk at Jing Tu (Holy Land) Monastery, he also went there to practice and study Buddhism. In the same year, when he was merely six, he became a novice monk. Usually, only boys who are at least 7 years old are allowed be ordained as novice monks. However, he passed the rigorous tests, and therefore was ordained into the Buddhist order as an exception, taking on the name of 'Xuan Zang'. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     From then on, he studied with his elder brother at Jing Tu Monastery. He studied both Theravada (Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism, showing a preference for the latter. 'Greater Vehicle' refers to teachings that can 'ferry' all beings towards salvation, as opposed to the 'Lesser Vehicle' teachings that focus on personal awakening or enlightenment. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     From an early age, Xuan Zang's extraordinary intelligence stood out. By listening to a lecture on a scripture one single time and studying it by himself another time, he could memorize an entire scripture. This was amazing considering that each scripture consists of millions of words. His fellow monks hailed him as a genius. When his father died in 611, he and his brother continued studying at Jing Tu monastery, until political unrest forced him to flee to the city of Changan (Eternal Peace - now known as Xi An). After that, he went to Chengdu of Sichuan (Four Rivers) for further studying, growing in knowledge and reputation. At age 20, Xuan Zang was fully ordained as a Buddhist monk. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    The more Xuan Zang studied, the more he was dissatisfied with the quality of the Buddhist texts available. There were many different interpretations of a single scripture, most contradicting each other. There was no one single standard version of the scriptures. This was because the translations of the Buddhist scriptures of that period were mostly done by foreign monks, from India and elsewhere. Language barriers hindered accurate translation, compounded by the fact that each translator had different understandings of the original scriptures themselves, which were inherently hard to understand. Different branches of Buddhism also complicated the process of interpretation. The followers of each branch had different views of the teachings, which were frequently disputed by members of different sects. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     All these led Xuan Zang to a conclusion: In order to gain true understanding, he would have to go to the West to get the original holy scriptures. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     As fate would have it, a disciple of Abbot Silabhadra (the president and highest ranking monk of Nalanda University) arrived in Changan by sea. When he knew that Xuan Zang was planning a pilgrimage to India, he told Xuan Zang: "To really understand the true meanings of the holy texts, you must go to Nalanda University and study under the Abbot Silabhadra." TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     Therefore, Xuan Zang fixed his goal as Nalanda University in India - the real life equivalent of the fictional Thundersound Monastery of the Western Heavens in the novel Journey to the West. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     Pilgrimage TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     In 629, Xuan Zang was about 28 years old. It was three years after the Emperor Tang Zhen Guan ascended to the throne. The Gokturks (Eastern Turks) were constantly attacking at the western borders, therefore the government had closed down the roads to the west, prohibiting everyone except merchants and foreigners from traveling in that direction. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     It was at this time of unrest that Xuan Zang and some other monks with the same goal applied for passports (known as 'guo shuo' at the time) to journey to India. The government refused to grant their request. The other monks gave up. Xuan Zang, determined to make the journey, sneaked out of Chang An. Along the way, he was stopped at Liang Zhou as he didn't have a passport. A renown Buddhist abbot helped him to slip out. He rode by night and hid by day, eventually reaching Gua Zhou. However, a government document ordering his capture arrived at the same time. Luckily, the officials there were devout Buddhists and suspended the document, letting him go. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Xuan Zang had now successfully evaded capture by the government. However, the real dangers still lay before him. Unlike in the fictional Journey to the West, the threats came not from demons, waiting to kill him and eat his flesh. The dangers the real life Xuan Zang faced were more mundane, but equally life-threatening. And as Xuan Zang left the safety of the Yu Men Guan (Gates of Jade), he stepped right into the first danger - the vast, dry Gobi Desert, with its extreme temperatures, both the scorching heat of the day and the freezing cold of the night deadly to travelers. The extreme temperatures together with the lack of water, food, and shelter made the desert a death trap for travelers of that century. Death lay along the road to the west, literally. As Xuan Zang rode his horse into the desert, a lonely, desolate figure in the shifting sands, he saw human bones, evidently the remains of travelers that, like him, had the courage to take on the challenge of the dangerous Gobi Desert without permission from the government. Unlike him, they had lost. Some of them, Xuan Zang knew, were pilgrims to the west like him. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     As if the natural dangers weren't enough, there were five sentry towers in the Gobi Desert. The sentries were ordered to shoot and kill all travelers without a passport. When Xuan Zang sneaked past them, he was almost shot to death by arrows. In his efforts to evade them, he got lost and wandered for days in the Gobi Desert without water or food. He was close to death when his mount, a horse who had often traversed the desert, brought him to an oasis, which saved his life. In the 'Biography of Master Tripitaka of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty' by his disciples, it is recorded that on the fifth night, when Xuan Zang lay in the sand, unable to go any further, a mysterious man with the height of a giant came to him in his dreams and commanded him to get up and move! After Xuan Zang got to his feet and wandered aimlessly for some distance, his horse got excited and rushed in a certain direction, leading him to an oasis, thus saving his life. The formation of the character Sha Wu Jing (Friar Sand) was modeled after this man of Xuan Zang's dream. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

      After escaping certain death, Xuan Zang plodded on resolutely to Kumul, an oasis city, and followed the Chu River valley into Central Asia. He arrived at Turfan, known then as Gao Chang (Height of Prosperity) Country. The king of Turfan was a devout Buddhist who sent four novice monks and twenty five other people to journey with him, in addition to giving him letters of introduction and supplies. After they left Turfan, they had to cross a mountain of ice, the Victory Peak, also known as Mount Ling. While traversing the mountain which was covered with glaciers, one third of Xuan Zang's entourage died. The luckier ones suffered quick deaths when they were hit by great chunks of ice, broken off the glaciers by the wind. Others were buried alive by avalanches. Some, while traveling on the dangerous mountain paths, lost their footing and fell to their deaths. Others froze to death. Some fell through cracks in the glaciers, finding their resting places in coffins of ice. Yet Xuan Zang's determination to reach India did not diminish in the least. He continued to cross the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), and finally reached what is now known as Kyrgyzstan through the Bedal Pass. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     Xuan Zang's journey to the west continued, passing various countries, visiting sites of Buddhism along the way. He arrived at the Nava Vihara (New Monastery), where he acquired the Mahavibhasa text, and studied Theravada Buddhism with the master Prajnakara. However, he was a devout advocate of Mahayana Buddhism, which preached that monks should not merely strive for personal enlightenment, as advocated by the Theravada sect, but instead, should be compassionate and help all beings to achieve salvation. His motive for studying the Theravada scriptures was not because he revered them, instead, he studied them so that he could attack the weaknesses in the Theravada teachings. After leaving, he traveled through other places until finally, he reached India through the Khyber Pass. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

   It took three years for Xuan Zang to reach India. For the most part, he journeyed alone. It was a miracle that he survived the deserts, the mountains of snow, the desolate plains, the heat, the sandstorms... Getting to India alive and in one piece was a great accomplishment in of itself. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     India TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Xuan Zang had had to undergo many hardships and obstacles in his journey to India. Even after he reached India, he still had to face the hot climate, wild animals, bandits, diseases etc. For example, in order to reach India, Xuan Zang traveled through the Khyber Pass. Not only were the roads narrow, bandits were everywhere. It was sheer luck that Xuan Zang passed through unscathed. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Historical records tell us about encounters Xuan Zang had with bandits during his journeys within India itself. Below is the first: TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Xuan Zang and his party was passing through a jungle when bandits leapt out. They were bound and stripped of their clothing and belongings, then forced into a dry pond, where the bandits planned to kill them. Xuan Zang and his entourage could only wallow helplessly in the mud. Above them, the bandits began squabbling about the stolen goods. Luckily, a sharp young monk noticed that there was a small hole half hidden by rushes in the side of the pond, big enough for a person to crawl through. He silently tugged at Xuan Zang's sleeve, and taking advantage of the bandits' distraction, both of them crawled into the hole. The hole turned out to be a tunnel, and they crawled on their knees through the mud. After less , darkness gave way to light and they emerged into a village. With the villagers' help, they went back to the jungle where they had been ambushed. To Xuan Zang and his follower's immense relief, Xuan Zang's companions were unharmed, as the bandits were still fighting about the division of the spoils. Together, the villagers drove away the bandits, thus saving the rest of Xuan Zang's entourage. If it weren't for that observant young monk, Xuan Zang and his companions would surely be dead at the bottom of the muddy pond. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    One of the other encounters goes like this: TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Xuan Zang and his companions were navigating a river when they were accosted by bandits once again. And this time, the bandits weren't satisfied by just money. They wanted a strong, healthy human to sacrifice to their gods. And Xuan Zang fit the bill perfectly. Enthusiastically, they began setting up a temporary altar. When they finished, they pushed Xuan Zang onto the altar and began preparing to sacrifice him. However, Xuan Zang showed no signs of fear or anger, only a calm acceptance of the inevitable. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     "Since you are making a sacrifice to your gods," he said to the bandits, "be patient. Let me be of service to your gods in peace." He then sat in a meditating pose on the altar and began chanting the names of the bodhisattvas, showing no signs of struggling. His desperate companions started to cry and rage, but he didn't respond. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    By sheer luck, all of a sudden, a strong wind whipped up, the force breaking the trunk of a large tree on the bank. Thunder and lightning clashed in a terrible display of light and sound. Even some of the bandits' boats overturned, dumping the bandits into the river. The bandits cowered on their decks, scared out of their wits. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    A courageous companion of Xuan Zang took advantage of the situation by shouting: "This man you are planning to sacrifice is the great Master Xuan Zang of Great Tang! If you kill him, you risk the wrath of the Buddha. Look!" He spread his arms. "Don't you know that you have already angered your own gods?!" TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    The overwhelmed bandits immediately prostrated themselves before the altar, pleading with Xuan Zang to forgive them. Xuan Zang, however, had already reached a meditative state on the altar. His eyes were closed, and nothing, not even the wind, not even the rain, could break him from his concentration. Only when the head of the bandits went onto the altar and touched him gently, calling his name, did Xuan Zang start and look up. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    "Is it time for the sacrifice?" was all he said. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Such calm in the face of death and adversity. Such unwavering serenity. Truly, Xuan Zang was a holy monk. But let us return to his journeys within India. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    After crossing the Khyber Pass, he arrived in Peshawar, where Buddhism had once flourished. He was greatly saddened by the sight of the once great capital of Gandhara, destroyed by war and invasions. He passed through many other places and Buddhist sites until he arrived at Kashmir. This was one of the most important centers of Buddhism, with over 5000 Buddhist monks. He stayed in the valley of the Jhelum River for two years, studying under a famous monk. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     He then continued his journey, stopping at many other places. Of these, the most impressive was the great capital, Kanauji, which had 100 monasteries and over 10,000 monks of both of the Mahayana and Theravada sects. Here, Xuan Zang studied the Theravada texts. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     His next stop was the homeland of the Yogacara school, on which he based the Fa Xiang school he would found later. The Yogacara school states (and so Xuan Zang believed) that only the mind truly exists, and everything else is an illusion, including the body. After that, he went around visiting sites of Buddha's life, like the place where he was born and died, before eventually reaching Nalanda University, his ultimate destination. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     Nalanda University TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    The Nalanda University was the biggest of all the Buddhist temples in India, and the earliest university in the world. The best students of Buddhism flocked to this place, some of them from foreign countries like Xuan Zang. The head of this prestigious university, Abbot Silabhadra was more than a hundred years old. He had mastered all of the Buddhist scriptures and religious texts, so he bore the honoured title of "Zheng Fa Zang". TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     Zang is Chinese for the Sanskrit word pitaka, literally meaning bamboo container or basket, thus the translation of Tripitaka (or San Zang, as Xuan Zang is commonly known) as three baskets. 'Basket' actually refers to the meaning 'containing everything', obviously describing the Buddhist scriptures as 'all-compassing'. Tripitaka ithe name for a Buddhist canon of scriptures, or pitaka, which have three categories, thus the name tri-pitaka. A person who has mastered and understood the meanings of every single Buddhist scripture is honoured with the title "Zheng Fa Zang". Next, a person who has mastered at least fifty of the Buddhist scriptures is conferred the title of "San Zang", or in Sanskrit, "Tripitaka". This is no mean feat, as each scripture has millions of words, and the meanings are extremely hard to understand. In the tens of thousands of monks at Nalanda University, only about a thousand had mastered twenty scriptures, and about five s hundred had mastered thirty. Only nine had mastered fifty scriptures and bore the title of 'San Zang'. And of course, Abbot Silabhadra alone had mastered all of the scriptures. However, there was a rule stating that there had to be at least ten 'San Zang's  in Nalanda University. And until Xuan Zang showed up, prostrating himself before Abbot Silabhadra and asking to be his disciple, they just could not manage to produce another San Zang. Abbot Silabhadra was extremely pleased to have Xuan Zang as a disciple. He lectured Xuan Zang on the Yogacaryabhumi-sastra, taking seventeen months to fully explain the content of that single scripture. After a lot of study and hard work, Xuan Zang finally managed to master fifty of the Buddhist scriptures, becoming the tenth 'San Zang' of Nalanda University. Many readers of Journey to the West misunderstand 'San Zang' as being a name given to him by the emperor of Great Tang. That is ridiculous compared to the hardships Xuan Zang had to undergo in order to get the title 'San Zang'. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

     After studying for five years at Nalanda University, Xuan Zang traveled throughout India, including the southern countries, visiting sites of Buddhism, and even crossed the sea to reach Sri Lanka, where Buddhism flourished. The further south he went, the hotter the climate became. His journeys there become remarkable when you recall that Xuan Zang was born and grew up in the northern part of China, which is extremely cold and dry. All in all, Xuan Zang visited more than 130 countries in the entirety of his journey, which, although the countries were small countries that had not been unified, was still an amazing feat, given that Xuan Zang made the journey on foot or on horseback. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    Home TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    After years in India, Xuan Zang finally made the journey home, with many companions, some of them sent by the king of India, so the journey home was not quite as dangerous as before. Still, the powers of nature and murderous bandits depleted their numbers. Xuan Zang himself was almost buried under an avalanche when crossing the Celestial Mountain Range. When Xuan Zang reached Sin Jiang, 16 years after he first started out on his journey, there were only seven people left. It is fortunate that Xuan Zang himself wasn't among those who died. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    In Sin Jiang, Xuan Zang sent a letter to the Emperor of Great Tang, describing details of his journey and asking permission to come home. In autumn, when the leaves were just beginning to turn red, the letter reached Chang An, only to be redirected to Luo Yang, where the emperor was preparing to attack Liao Dong. The emperor was very impressed by Xuan Zang's accounts of his journeys. Moreover, at that time, the emperor was in great need of one thing - detailed information about the countries west of China. As you recall, the Gokturks were a constant threat at the western borders, forcing the government to close down the roads, severing their ties with the western countries. The prosperity of the Silk Road and the great influence China once had over the countries of the west became history. The emperor knew that his knowledge of the western countries was now extremely inadequate. Xuan Zang's return from the west was a golden opportunity for him to improve his understanding of those countries. Thus, the emperor himself wrote a reply letter to Xuan Zang, welcoming him back to Chang An. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    With the permission of the emperor, Xuan Zang returned to his homeland, taking with him over 600 Buddhist scriptures, most of them Mahayana Buddhism scriptures. This was one of his greatest accomplishments. In the spring of the year 645, 17 years after his began his momentous journey, Xuan Zang finally arrived back at Chang An, only to find the streets lined with people and government officials, all welcoming him home. The emperor invited him into the palace and Xuan Zang calmly answered all his questions about his journey and experiences. Pleased with Xuan Zang's knowledge and insights, the emperor asked him to became an official of the court. Xuan Zang, of course, declined, because he wanted to focus all his efforts on translating the Buddhist scriptures he brought back. However, knowing the emperor's desire to spread his influence to the western countries, he promised the emperor that he would write a detailed account of the politics, economics, culture, geography and other aspects of the countries of the west. This became another of his great achievements, the famous book, "Journey to the West in the Tang Dynasty", which has remained, till this day, an important source of information on the countries of Central Asia, and is also an important work to those studying the history of the interaction of China with the western countries. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    In order to show their thanks, the emperor and his father helped Xuan Zang in his efforts to translate the Buddhist scriptures he brought back, by providing all the manpower, including renown monks of that time, and all the writing supplies. Moreover, a translation center, Da Yan Tower, was built. This was where Xuan Zang and his helpers systematically translated 73 Buddhist scriptures, 1335 volumes in all, from Sanskrit to Chinese. These translations contributed greatly to the rise of Buddhism in China, and was probably his greatest achievement of all. During this time, he also wrote the Cheng Wei Shi Lun, a commentary on the translated texts. Wei Shi means consciousness-only, which is the basic philosophy of the Yogacara school. As I stated above, this means they believe only the mind is real, and the rest of the world is not. Based on this school of thought, Xuan Zang also founded the Fa Xiang school, which gained popularity during his lifetime and his disciple's, but faded away into obscurity after their deaths. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

    At the age of 63, due to complications in his health arising from overwork and exhaustion, Xuan Zang passed away in Yu Hua Monastery of Chang An. Five years later, the burial tower on Mount Zhong Nan was completed, and Xuan Zang's remains were transferred there with great ceremony. For two hundred years hence, Xuan Zang's remains lay peacefully among the beautiful greenery and streams of Mount Zhong Nan. Sadly, after that the tower was destroyed by war and for many centuries after that, Xuan Zang's remains were alternatively found and lost again and again because of war. In the 20th century, when the Japanese invaded China, they found the remains of Xuan Zang in Nanking, which consisted of a piece of bone and a bag of ashes, and planned to take them back to Japan as Buddhism was also a major religion there. In the end, after much negotiations, Xuan Zang's remains were broken into five parts, with one part going to Japan, and the rest in various monasteries or museums in China. People still go to pay respects to his remains. Even to this day, Xuan Zang has remained one of the most revered figures of history. TJtSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

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‘Journey to the West’: Why the classic Chinese novel’s mischievous monkey – and his very human quest – has inspired centuries of adaptations

xuanzang journey to the west

Associate Professor of Chinese Studies , College of the Holy Cross

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Ji Hao does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Two rows of performers in neon costumes on stage in front of a huge, blue statue of the Buddha.

One summer afternoon in the late 1980s, my mother and I passed by a tea house on our trip out of town. The crowded building was usually a boisterous place filled with chatter, laughter, and the happy, clacking shuffle of mahjong tiles. At the moment we were passing, however, a great hush came over the teahouse: People were held spellbound by the black-and-white glow of a small TV in a corner, playing an episode of the series “Journey to the West.”

The TV series was adapted from a 16th century Chinese novel with the same title that has undergone numerous adaptations and has captured the imagination of Chinese people to this day. Like many kids in China, I was fascinated by the magic Monkey King, the beloved superhero in the novel, who went through amazing adventures with other pilgrims in their quest for Buddhist scriptures. While I had to quickly walk by the teahouse in order to catch our bus that day, this moment flashed back to me from time to time, making me wonder what made “Journey to the West” so fascinating for people of all ages and backgrounds.

After graduating from college, I embarked on the next chapter of my academic journey in the United States and reconnected with “Journey to the West” from a different perspective. Now, as a scholar with expertise in traditional Chinese literature , I am interested in the development of literary and cultural traditions around the story, including how it has been translated and reimagined by many artists .

A dozen children in bright gold costumes and red face paint pose in a dance formation.

While deeply enmeshed in Chinese traditions, the story also resonates with readers from diverse cultures. “Journey to the West” creates shared ground by highlighting the quest for a common humanity, epitomized by its best-loved character, the Monkey King – a symbol of the human mind.

One journey, many stories

Scholars usually trace the beginning of this literary tradition to a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang , who set out on an epic pilgrimage to India in 627 C.E. He was determined to consult and bring back Sanskrit copies of Buddhist scriptures, rather than rely on previous Chinese translations. He did so after nearly 17 years and devoted the rest of his life to translating the scriptures.

A detail from a Chinese scroll painting of a man with short hair in a green robe and sandals.

The journey has inspired a wide variety of representations in literature, art and religion, making a lasting impact on Chinese culture and society. Legends began to emerge during Xuanzang’s lifetime. Over centuries, they gradually evolved into a distinct tradition of storytelling, often focused on how Xuanzang overcame obstacles with the help of supernatural companions.

This culminated in a 16th century Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” By this point, the hero of the story had already shifted from Xuanzang to one of his disciples: the Monkey King of Flower-Fruit Mountain, who serves as Xuanzang’s protector. The Monkey King possesses strong magical powers – transforming himself, cloning himself and even performing somersaults that fly him more than 30,000 miles at once.

Despite this novel’s dominance, the broader tradition around “Journey to the West” encompasses a wide variety of stories in diverse forms. The canonic novel itself grew out of this collective effort, and its authorship is still debated – even as it continues to inspire new adaptations.

The deeper journey

Central to all Journey to the West stories is a theme of pilgrimage, which immediately raises a question regarding the nature of the novel: What is the journey really about?

Centuries-long debates about the journey’s deeper message center on the 16th century novel. Traditional commentators in late imperial China adopted a variety of approaches to the novel and underscored its connections with different religious and philosophical doctrines: Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and syntheses of those teachings.

For example, all these teachings highlight the role of the “xin” – a Chinese word for mind and heart – in self-cultivation. While Confucian readers might see the plot of “Journey to the West” as the quest for a more moral life, Buddhists might decipher it as an inward journey toward enlightenment.

Four small, brightly painted clay figurines of people and animals in clothing.

In the early 20th century, Chinese scholar and diplomat Hu Shi criticized traditional allegorical interpretations, which he feared would make the novel seem less approachable for the general public.

His opinion influenced Arthur Waley’s “Monkey ,” an abridged English translation of “Journey to the West” published in 1942, which has contributed to the canonization of the novel abroad . To a considerable extent, “Monkey” turns the pilgrims’ journey into Monkey’s own journey of self-improvement and personal growth.

Recent scholarship has further underlined religious and ritual connotations of the novel from different perspectives, and debates over the issue continue. But few people would deny that one idea plays a crucial role: the Monkey King as a symbol of the mind.

Mind monkey

There has been a long tradition in Chinese culture that associates the image of a simian creature with the human mind. On the one hand, a monkey often symbolizes a restless mind, calling for discipline and cultivation. On the other hand, an active mind also opens up the opportunity to challenge the status quo and even transcend it, progressing to a higher state.

The Monkey King in the novel demonstrates this dual dimension of the mind . He vividly displays adaptability in exploring uncharted territories and adjusting to changing circumstances – and learning to rely on teamwork and self-discipline, not merely his magic powers.

A Japanese ink sketch of a monkey creating small, flying creatures out of his breath.

Before being sent on the pilgrimage, the Monkey King’s quest for self-gratification wreaked havoc in heaven and led to his imprisonment by the Buddha. The goddess Guanyin agreed to give him a second chance on the condition that he join the other pilgrims and assist them. His journey is fraught with the tensions between self-discipline and self-reliance, as he learns how to channel his physical and mental powers for good.

The Monkey King’s human qualities, from arrogance to fear, endow him with universal appeal. Readers gradually witness his self-improvement, revealing a common human quest. They may frown upon how the Monkey King is entrapped within his own ego, yet respect his courage in challenging authority and battling adversity. While his mischievous tricks give a good laugh, his loyalty to the monk Xuanzang and his sense of righteousness make a lasting impression.

Reviewing Waley’s “Monkey” in 1943 , Chinese-American writer Helena Kuo commented of the pilgrims: “Humanity would have missed a great deal if they have been exemplary characters.” Indeed, each one depicts humanity’s quest for a better self, particularly the main character. Monkeying around on the path of life, this simian companion captivates readers – and makes them consider their own journey.

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Literature / Journey to the West

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In the novel, Xuanzang note  Xuanzang is also called Sanzang, which is the name of the Three Baskets Scriptures in Chinese, or Tripitaka, which is their name in Sanskrit. is accompanied (at the request of the bodhisattva Guan Yin) by three supernatural beings who have been assigned to guide and protect him as penance for past misdeeds. Zhu Bajie, pig-like in appearance and a greedy hog in behavior, and Sha Wujing, a river monster whose fierce appearance belies his thoughtful nature, are former heavenly dignitaries exiled to their current existences. The third companion is Sun Wukong.

Sun Wukong deserves a paragraph to himself. Warrior, magician, and trickster, the Handsome Monkey King (by acclamation of his subjects) and Great Sage Equal of Heaven (self-proclaimed) gets seven chapters devoted to his rise and fall before the novel's nominal hero first appears, and continues to steal the limelight throughout with practiced ease. Every reader has a favourite Sun Wukong story — the one about his bet with the Buddha is particularly popular — but alas, this page is too small to do them all justice. He also has tons and tons of imitators.

There's also Yulong, a dragon who eats Xuanzang's horse and in restitution is required to transform into horse shape and carry Xuanzang the rest of the way. But even the author seems to forget most of the time that he's not just a horse.

After many adventures, in which Sun Wukong and his allies defend Xuanzang from thieves, robbers, cannibals, vamps, false priests and monsters of all varieties ( not to mention the horrifying affair of the escaped goldfish ), they reach India and everybody lives happily ever after. Hooray!

While it is popular in Japan, it's omnipresent in its native China. For example, there was a 1980s Journey to the West TV series in China that was so popular, it's said that to this day there's always at least one television station rerunning it anywhere in the nation (and also in Vietnam, where it's just as famous and widely loved.) The show is amusing even if you don't understand Chinese.

The tetralogy from Shaw Brothers made in the late 60s, The Monkey Goes West , is in particular the first instance of a ground-breaking adaptation of the novel series. Jeff Lau's A Chinese Odyssey films renewed the popularity of the novel for young Hong Kong audiences during the mid-'90s.

The movie The Forbidden Kingdom adapts the encounter of Xuanzang and Sun Wukong, complete with the "main" character being named Jason Tripitakas , and just like in Journey to the West , Xuanzang/Jason has the carpet pulled out from under him by the Monkey King.

The team responsible for Gorillaz , Damon Albarn (of Blur ) and Jamie Hewlett (of Tank Girl fame), adapted the story into an opera in 2007. They also did a two-minute animated version for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which was used as a title sequence for the BBC television coverage of the event.

There are many works based, more or less, on Journey to the West ; for a list, see the Referenced By page . (The distinction between "based on Journey to the West" and "contains many references to Journey to the West" is not always clear.)

This story provides examples of:

  • Achilles in His Tent : When Wukong quits the quest (sometimes at the same time as being fired by Tang Sanzang) he goes back to his mountain kingdom of monkey demons, and does not come back until Tang Sanzang has been turned into a tiger and everyone has been trounced by the demon. Bajie is sent to plead for Wukong's help, but he doesn't succeed until he tricks Wukong by saying the demon was insulting him.
  • Action Girl : Several she-devils qualify as this when they're not busy seducing Xuanzang. Bonus points if they are animal demons and have fighting styles that match, i.e. spider demons.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness : The original novel gleefully describes how hideous Xuanzang�s three disciples are at every opportunity (Wukong apparently has red eyes and a "face like a thunder god"), and it's even a minor plot point at several parts. Most of the adaptations - especially the cartoons - tone this down a lot .
  • Adaptational Heroism : The portrayals of Sun Wukong and Tang Sanzang in the novel aren't so noble compared to the more popular adaptations. In the original, Sun Wukong lacks mercy in countless instances and Tang Sanzang is continually naive and acts inconsistently or even hypocritically. Their two-dimensional individual characterization and negative portrayals can both be explained by dissonance with today's values, and also by the fact that the novel's main characters were intended to be an allegory for the state of a single individual's spiritual journey - each character represents a different aspect of human nature.
  • Adaptation Species Change : Probably due to some form of Lost in Translation . Sha Wujing was originally a demon dwelling in a river of sand. When the story was brought over to Japan, it seems the part about the river being sand got left out, and so Sha Wujing, now Sha Gojyo, was turned into their river-dwelling man-eating (ish) monster, the kappa, hence why all Japanese references to Sha Gojyo at least give him kappa traits.
  • A Day in the Limelight / This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman : Whenever the enemy has a lair underwater, and only then, Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie will outshine Wukong.
  • Adventure-Friendly World : Ur-Example . Humans are clustered together in walled-off cities, with all the land in between being infested with man-eating demons, but the cities themselves are somehow demon-free (with a few exceptions) despite this. Even within the cities, there seems to always be a quest of some sort in need of conveniently-timed protagonists to solve, usually involving killing something and/or proving the righteousness of Buddhism in some way.
  • When Wukong demands a place in Heaven near the beginning, he gets assigned the job of Heavenly... Stable Boy. This becomes a Chekhov's Skill later in the story, because all horses gain an innate respect/fear for Wukong because of this. Cultural joke because monkeys were once kept with horses because people believed they could keep horses healthy. Wukong's literal title for this job is "Ban Horse Plague."
  • Bajie's reward for completing the quest is to become the deity who is charged with actually eating all of the food and drink that is sacrificed to Buddha from every altar in the world, for the rest of eternity. Buddha explains that Bajie, for all he improved, is still far too crude and earthy to become a Boddhistva like the others, but he still deserves a reward and it was hoped that this would suffice. Needless to say, as far as Bajie is concerned, he has the best job in Heaven.
  • Sun Wukong manages to thrash the entire celestial army, but Erlang Shen matches him in single combat. You can read more into this if you remember Erlang Shen is supposed to have the same powers as Wukong. Also an example of Conservation of Ninjutsu .
  • The Buddha is the one who finally and definitively subdues Wukong by winning their bet and dropping a mountain on him.
  • Wukong also respects/fears the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, because she's got a bunch of equipment that can genuinely hurt him (such as the infamous Headband of Agony), but also because she's usually nice to him and helps them out.
  • In the book, it's implied that the Big Three Religions/Representative Heads (Buddhism/Buddha, Taoism/Laozi, Confucianism/Jade Emperor) are having a power struggle in the background. Buddhism consistently wins out in many instances, although Laozi likes to show off every now and again too. The author also makes it a point that Buddha is the one that beats Wukong, and that Wukong has only kowtowed to three people: Buddha, Guanyin, and Xuanzang.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence : Xuanzang and company after they successfully bring back the sacred scriptures. At least, Xuanzang and Wukong do. Bajie and Wujing were already immortals in the first place, and Wujing gets the best promotion as arhat. The dragon horse gets to be a naga.
  • The Scorpion Lady is an evil demon who tries to get Tripitaka to sleep with her. Her true form is that of a large scorpion.
  • The Spiderling Spirits are seven spider demons who take the form of human women and try to eat Tripitaka.
  • The Hundred-Eyed Demon Lord is a centipede demon and the adoptive brother to the aforementioned Spiderling Spirits. He tries to poison the main protagonists and takes Tang Sanzang hostage, refusing to let him go even when Monkey threatens his sisters.
  • Badass Boast : These are frequent and often in verse. Usually proceeded by "Listen to my recital." Can be about everything from powers, to weapons, to really simple things. In later chapters, Wukong and Bajie do this just to recite their backstory for the demons' benefit.
  • Big Damn Heroes : Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie do it all the time . The dragon horse tried it once, but didn't succeed. Wujing does not get to do this.
  • The Yellow Wind Demon King, whose fiendish winds can blind even Sun Wukong.
  • One Fetch Quest was to get a magical fan so that they could blow out a supernaturally powerful volcano and pass through the area unharmed. Unfortunately, said magical fan was owned by Princess Iron Fan, the mother of Red Boy (Hong Hai'er), whose ass Wukong had soundly kicked in an earlier story arc. Princess Iron Fan is not very welcoming. Unfortunately, they not only cannot continue on the quest without blowing out the volcano, the volcano was created by Wukong when he burst out of Laozi's Eight Trigrams Brazier.
  • Boring Return Journey : The journey to the West takes 86 chapters. The return to the East (with supernatural assistance loaned by the Buddha) takes 1.
  • Bring My Brown Pants : Literally happens to Baije during one run-in with a monster though he has the decency to drop trou.
  • Broken Aesop : Buddhism is supposedly very important. In contrast, most of the conflicts are solved through a combination of cunning and violence.
  • �But He Sounds Handsome : In chapter 42, Sun Wukong takes the appearance of the father of Red Boy (Hong Hai'er), a monster who kidnapped his master. Under this disguise, he tells the monster that Sun Wukong is an unrivaled fighter.
  • Can't Default to Murder : Sun Wukong frequently has to be held back from killing people by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang via the enchanted headband stuck on his head, even when it's genuinely the best solution.
  • Wukong's weapon is an iron rod/cudgel that is able to grow to an enormous size and is said to weigh 8100kg . (Acquired, full size, from an undersea dragon king that had no idea what to do with it. Which was then shrunk with monkey magic. And put behind Wukong's ear.) It also qualifies as Martial Arts Staff , or at least this is how Wukong usually uses it.
  • Sha Wujing and several other demons frequently employ clubs and hammers as weapons.
  • Casanova Wannabe : The story introduces you to Bajie as a demon that Wukong must subdue, because he pretended to be a normal man and convinced a rich man to marry off his daughter to him. After he got drunk at the wedding and his disguise wore off, he locked the girl in a part of the house and refused to let her leave. As the story goes on, Bajie fights a continual battle against gluttony and lust. (The whole reason he ended up as a pig-demon in the first place was that he made inappropriate remarks to Chang'E, the goddess of the moon. In one translation, he actually committed sexual harassment/tried to rape her.) Bajie does not improve by the end of the story, although that's largely because he represents the base human desires/id, including sexual desire.
  • Cave Behind the Falls : Sun Wukong's home and some other fiendish lairs. Wukong's home is literally behind a giant waterfall. He becomes the Handsome Monkey King by betting the other monkeys he could jump through the waterfall. He does, finds the beautiful cavern home, and duly is crowned the Monkey King.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy : All of reality works because of the Jade Emperor issuing decrees to lesser heavenly officials who do a given duty. For instance, he tells a water dragon where to send rain. Sun Wukong occasionally uses his connections/influence with certain officials to acquire some object or other objective. For someone who was sentenced as a criminal twice by Heaven, he gets along shockingly well with many Heavenly immortals. During the quest he manages to borrow a number of precious objects from other immortals, and also gets a few of them to help him fight off the demons.
  • Celibate Hero : Xuanzang is a celibate monk, but keeps getting abducted by beautiful women and female demons who find him attractive, good to eat, or both because of the rumor that eating Xuanzang would grant you immortality and magical power. For female demons, they get the option of not only eating Xuanzang, but also having sex with him to achieve the same goal. The big deal, is that the female demons only want him for sex, which depending on the monster is either physically harmless (Xuanzang considers it A Fate Worse Than Death ) or Out with a Bang . Either way, they want him to make the first move and keep it consensual. Then there's the part that by having him consent to sex, he would be breaking his vows which is kind of important. Because monks believe that you should preserve your inner "essence" and not have sex, having sex was believed to remove some of that essence from you.
  • Character Development : Just as important as kicking demon-ass is Wukong�s personal journey to becoming a decent person. He is not so much fundamentally-bad as he is a selfish Manchild who needed the guidance of a loving, patient and wise father-figure to truly grow up, which he found in Xuanzang. By the time he is deemed worthy of truly joining the Gods at the end of his journey, he has grown from a tantrum-throwing tyrant into a kind-hearted, compassionate and noble protector of the weak.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome : The Journey would not have taken nearly so long if Xuanzang didn't insist on helping everyone they met along the way. However, this is part of the point of the journey; we find out that 81 trials/hardships are demanded by the Buddha as part of their quest to reach enlightenment, and he even adds an extra one after they've finally gotten the scriptures and are on their way back because he realized they're still one short.
  • In the opening chapter, Wukong almost single-handedly (albeit with the aid of his clones) routs the best warriors of Heaven along with 100,000 heavenly troops only to be defeated by Erlang Shen.
  • Whenever the group encounters large numbers of nameless demons expect Wukong or Bajie to kill all of them on their own.
  • Wukong suffers from this whenever he makes copies of himself once the journey begins. The demon he is fighting always has a power or weapon that defeats the copies.
  • Continuity Nod : Occasionally the group will meet characters they met earlier or talk about previous adventures, such as the "River of Heaven" arc where Xuanzang complains about always having trouble at river crossings.
  • Cool Sword : Many demons wield scimitars and swords in battle. The most notable one is the Seven Star Sword.
  • Covering for the Noise : In the 1999 animated adaptation, Zhu Bajie was supposed to be pretending to be a mute to remain undercover. However when he speaks in agreement and almost tips off the authorities, Sun Wukong covers for him by saying that was the sound of his stomach growling.
  • Crossover Cosmology : Taoism and Confucianism with their immortals and celestial bureaucracy is shown as existing in (sorta) harmony with the bodhisattvas of Buddhism.
  • Deus ex Machina : Whenever Wukong can't resolve something himself, he generally goes to Guan Yin for help, or if it's beyond her abilities, Buddha himself. He's also lodged his share of complaints against the Celestial Court.
  • Diabolus ex Nihilo : The Scorpion-Woman. There were no mountains (for once) so she literally just appears in a crowd.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu? : Wukong's various pranks during the banquet of Heaven.
  • Wukong beats up whole armies, including several gods .
  • By the time of the journey, he already is one of the strongest and most feared of all beings... but the Scorpion Lady, who has managed to hurt Buddha himself in the past, manages to defeat Wukong with one tail strike .
  • Disproportionate Retribution : Shā Wùjìng, a general of heaven, was given 800 lashings and forced to reincarnate as a flesh-eating demon, and every week a flying sword would come and stab him in the breast and in the side 100 times. The only way he could avoid this last part was to hide in a river. His crime? Accidentally breaking a crystal cup at one of the Festivals of Immortal Peaches.
  • Distressed Dude : Being abducted ( for food or otherwise), deceived and generally harassed seems to be a main occupation of Xuanzang. Usually just to show how badass Sun Wukong is.
  • The Dreaded : Sun Wukong once fought every army in Heaven. Alone. And almost won. Anyone who knows who he is tends to freak out and panic in his presence purely because of how nightmarishly powerful he is, even people who are on his side.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu : Wukong finally meets his match with Buddha, who imprisons him for 500 years under a mountain after he wins their bet. The bet was that Wukong could somersault out of Buddha's palm. He does, and sees five pillars at the end of the earth. Wukong writes Great Sage Equal to Heaven was Here, and then pees on one of the pillars, and somersaults back. Then Buddha shows him his hand, which says the same message on it and even smells faintly of monkey pee. Buddha then flips his hand over and traps him under the Five Phases Mountain to lie there until Guanyin recruits him for Xuanzang's journey.
  • For example, the 1942 abridgement by Arthur Whaley (missing out most of the chapters and nearly all of the poetry) is about a fifth the size of the full 4-volume translation by Anthony Yu.
  • Eat Me : A very effective strategy of Wukong. Wukong's 72 transformations make disguising as food pretty easy for him and the baddies are defenceless once Wukong finds his way into their stomachs no matter how powerful they are outside. A very powerful monster in the midstory, Huangmeier (aka Yellow Eyebrows), against whom Wukong had virtually no chancing of winning in normal battles, was eventually subdued by using this strategy.
  • Enlightenment Superpower : Many of Sun Wukong's powers, including the shapeshifting, the ability to summon duplicates of himself, and the ability to leap large distances in a single bound, were gained as side-effects of studying the secrets of the universe under the sage Subhuti. Subhuti eventually asked him to leave when he realized he was more interested in the superpowers than the enlightenment, and forbids Wukong from telling anyone who he learned his skills from.
  • Evil Twin : After Wukong is falsely accused of murdering some bandits, Xuanzang kicks him out of the group again and Wukong runs off in tears. Then Xuanzang runs into another Wukong that knocks him out and steals their stuff. By the end of the story, the whole team ends up with their own Dopplegangers; naturally, Sun Wukong's is the hardest to deal with. Buddha later explains the fake Wukong is actually a six-eared macaque, although the animal had never been heard of before and never again makes an appearance in the series. The fake Wukong could represent Xuanzang's own false beliefs about Wukong's character, and at the end he is set right. Conspiracy theories have suggested it could have been Wukong's own double, and he did it to get back at Xuanzang.
  • This may be a throwback to the oral storytelling tradition, where a marketplace storyteller would entice his audience to come back (and pay him again) the next day to hear another part of the story.
  • Giant Spider : The Seven Spider Ladies. Bonus points for them being sexy and having webs everywhere.
  • Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen : In chapter 72, the seven spider ladies are bathing in a hot spring. Sun Wukong in the guise of a falcon steals their clothes, so they are forced to stay in the water until Zhu Bajie attacks them.
  • Hot as Hell : At least three female demons (the Scorpion Woman, the Earth Flow Lady and the Jade Hare) are very beautiful and want to achieve immortality by taking Xuanzang�s "yang". (or having sex with him, if you prefer.) Literal evil temptation.
  • Horrible Judge of Character : Sanzang always, always, always thinks that he's being approached by a harmless old lady, or a nice stranger offering their Sacred Hospitality for the night, or...
  • Human Pack Mule : The horse carries Xuanzang, but Zhu Bajie carries everything else — when he's not convincing Sha Wujing to do it for him.
  • I Ate WHAT?! : Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing trick some Taoists into drinking their urine by passing it off as holy water. The Taoists get mad and challenge the four travelers to various magical challenges, like meditating on a stack of tables, using magic to survive decapitation, and taking a bath in boiling oil. Wukong makes sure to succeed in all of them, and then uses the challenges to kill off each of the Taoists.
  • Impossible Task : Jumping out of the Buddha's palm. Monkey's legendary leap only takes him to the end of the Buddha's fingers. It's an allegory.
  • Improbable Weapon User : Zhu Bajie's nine jade-toothed rake. Other examples include pots, bells, cymbals, an iron gorse, a scraper and a pestle. That said, a weapon that looked very much like a rake was actually used as a part of Chinese warfare at one point.
  • In a Single Bound : Wukong can travel "108,000 li " in a single backflip. note  That's about 35,000 to 45,000 kilometres depending on what definition you use for "li", an ancient Chinese unit of length that has varied considerably over the centuries. For comparison, the length of the equator is about 40,000 km. It's basically hyperbole for "a very long distance" and 108 is a significant number in Buddhism , because it's a multiple of nine.
  • Indy Ploy : What Sun Wukong usually does after Xuanzang gets kidnapped again , only his go off like he's really Crazy-Prepared . At one point, Sun Wukong lampshades this, by explaining to another character the structure of a typical adventure episode .
  • Informed Ability : Xuanzang�s much-vaunted holiness is undercut by his tendency to tell petty lies, how easily he can be swayed by Bajie, his readiness to torture Sun Wukong, and the fact that his Buddhist stoicism breaks down any time he thinks his journey might be delayed. He also stops asking his disciples not to kill after the first couple of times. Allegorical as he represents the normal person and their struggle between human nature and enlightenment.
  • Sun Wukong, before his imprisonment, literally beats up, steals from, and terrorizes nearly everyone he meets. He scares a Dragon King to such an extent that he gives Wukong the nail holding the ocean in place just to get him out of his house. He gets better... sort of.
  • After they collect the scriptures, the Buddha's servants hand over a bunch of blank scrolls after realising that the pilgrims didn't bring any gifts, although Buddha does comment that blank scriptures like them are true scriptures. Zen, eh?
  • While Xuanzang and co. were being flown back to China by the Eight Vajrapanis, Guanyin asked how many ordeals they had suffered on their way to him. After finding out it was 80, she decided to have them go through another one because they were one short of the number required to reach the truth, and as soon as the Vajrapanis hear of the command they instantly drop the group where they are.
  • All the gods in the series, to some extent, are this. They know full well that they can subdue all the monsters on Earth and save countless humans, yet they refuse to do so. It's only when the monsters get in Xuanzang's way that they decide to take action. The fact that many monsters were formerly their pets, and only became monsters because they failed to contain them increases their moral failing. Sort of excused by saying that Heaven orchestrated this whole journey for Xuanzang, and made sure there were enough demons along the way to challenge him. But Heaven can also just be cruel in general...
  • In one story, a kingdom had been suffering under a heavy drought for years, because the king once had an argument with his wife and he got so mad he overturned the table of offerings for Heaven onto the floor. Then he let the dogs clean it up. To answer this double insult, Heaven organized for a mountain of rice, a mountain of flour, and a padlock hanging above a single lamp. Until this one chicken ate all the rice, and one dog licked up all the flour, AND the padlock finally melted, Heaven would not grant rain to the kingdom.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold : Wukong, after he was stuck under a rock for a few centuries, is so grateful to Xuanzang that he swears everlasting loyalty (though Xuanzang, being a monk, doesn't approve of Wukong's more violent problem solving methods).
  • Just Eat Him : Some larger devils try to get rid of Sun Wukong by swallowing him. They end up with an awful case of stomach ache to say the least. In some stories Wukong realizes how effective his threats are when he says them inside someone's stomach, so he actively finds ways to get swallowed in order to rescue Xuanzang.
  • Killer Rabbit : Even a goldfish can turn into a fearsome ogre. To make it worse, it was one of Guanyin's goldfish, and the demon had been forcing the village to sacrifice small children for him to eat once a year.
  • Kilroy Was Here : Wukong leaves his name (and piss) on what he thinks is a mighty pillar when trying to escape from Buddha's grasp. Nope, those were Buddha's fingers. It's an allegory.
  • Knight Templar : Sun Wukong can be like this when it comes to dealing with demons and bandits, all of whom he sees as evil monsters who prey on the weak (especially those who want to eat Xuanzang). This is most notably seen during the White Bone Demon and the Doppelg�nger chapters. In some adaptations, Xuanzong kicks Wukong out not because of what he did (like killing an innocent human which was actually a demon in disguise or a group of bandits), but because of his Knight Templarish attitude.
  • Let's You and Him Fight : Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing each fight Sun Wukong before discovering that they're on the same side. Then they each give up their demon lifestyle and become one of Xuanzang's disciples.
  • Last of His Kind : The 6-eared Macaque. Then Wukong makes sure the species is extinct.
  • Many yaoguai are either secretly minor immortals or immortal creatures, or are animals that have cultivated their conduct and begun working towards enlightenment.
  • MacGuffin : The Three Baskets scriptures in the Thunder Monastery are the reason for the pilgrimage.
  • Made of Indestructium : Wukong survived being thrown into a brazier filled with samadhi fire, said to be able to kill immortals and gods , for 49 days ! That he had previously gorged himself on the Peaches of Immortality, the Elixir of Immortality, and the Pills of Immortality helped. In fact, all the fire did (having originally been used to produce the immortality medicines) was cause them to harden inside his body, making him not just immortal but Made of Diamond as well. The smoke of the fire also affected Wukong's eyes, granting him the ability to see through illusions, disguises and transformations. Some versions of the story however state that Wukong survived because he stood in the currents of wind made by the fanning of the servants to keep the fire going. Either way, Heaven really screwed itself over big time.
  • Mister Seahorse : Although it was averted before something actually happened, there is a section of the novel (beginning in chapter 53) about Sun Wukong going to retrieve a pregnancy antidote because Zhu Bajie and Xuanzang unknowingly drank magical pregnancy-inducing river water flowing through a town filled with nothing but women. Wukong then has to fight a demon that's been hoarding the magical abortion water to himself, before Bajie and Xuanzang have to give birth.
  • Monster of the Week : All the action in the story comes from Xuanzang being abducted by one demon after another, and his disciples having to figure out a way to rescue him.
  • Morphic Resonance : An extreme case — although his 72 transformations include many perfectly shaped animal disguises, Sun Wukong can only turn his head into that of a human and must conceal the rest of his body. His tail also comically never seems to cooperate with the transformations.
  • Small list of examples: Flying on either a magical cloud or by turning somersaults that propel him several tens of thousands of miles with each turn, changing into 72 different shapes, being able to change his hairs into different shapes (such as dozens of miniature versions of himself to help fight), see through illusions of all sorts, Super-Strength , can't die due to a mixture of having crossed himself out of the Book of the Dead and eating immortality substances before being baked in a divine furnace, and is able to see for miles. And then there are his abilities to see through illusions, disguises and transformations , manipulate the wind , part the waters , create barriers , summon gods , walk through fire unharmed , survive underwater , pass through metal and rock , walk on Solid Clouds , freeze any kind of creature, including demons and gods, or make them fall asleep , have horses listen to his every whim , learn new spells with just a few glances and the bare minimum of instruction and open any lock . Wukong also has great knowledge of medicine and his 72 transformations actually allow him to take the form of anyone and anything , including growing extra body parts and transforming other objects by spitting his blood on it. Wukong can go as far as turning objects into living beings and then using them as puppets (though they lack souls. Movement and speech needs to be programmed into them). Add in Wukong's indestructibility plus his ability to fly across the Earth with a single somersault and you've got the most bizarre/awesome set of powers in classic literature.
  • In one instance, Wukong acts as a traditional Chinese medicine doctor and takes a king's pulse and diagnosis, in another room, with only some thread tied to the king's wrist. The diagnosis was heartache and severe constipation. In another instance, Wukong puts out a fire happening miles away by taking a glass of wine and throwing it behind him.
  • This is partly because Chinese mythology largely does not have specific hardline rules regarding powers. Some deities have specialties, but very few specific limits and even less regard for rules like physics. The overarching theme is that Heaven still holds all the cards, and you are merely a pawn on Heaven's chessboard. You can't fight destiny or change your fate. As a political allegory, Wukong is refreshing as a character with the ability to see the truth and the strength to see it through, no matter how powerful the higher authority is or how restrictive the class hierarchy is. It's a novel concept for a culture deeply steeped in Confucianism's idea of don't rock the boat.
  • Nepotism : Why the Black River God couldn't get the celestial bureaucracy to kick out Tuolong/Kid Croc after he usurped the river. Ironically, Tuolong's uncle, the Western Dragon King Ao Run was very not okay with said usurpation.
  • Non-Action Guy : Xuanzang does nothing but pray and complain and despair. Ironically, his nine-ringed staff is a khakkhara, which monks can use to fight with. He does not use it to fight.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution : The other main characters are all bound to Xuanzang out of duty rather than personal choice to begin with. Though all three, to varying degrees, come to genuinely care about the monk as a father-figure.
  • Not Quite Flight : Wukong travels via very, very powerful jumping. Either that or riding on a cloud.
  • One-Man Army : During the journey, Wukong is able to fight and defeat just about every Mook , Elite Mook and the fricking Dragon of the Heavens, each said to fight like a god himself. Before that, he fought the heavenly army of 100,000 strong at the same time , ripped through heaven's greatest champions and not just survived every single thing they could throw at him, but HE GOT EVEN STRONGER. By the time he was punished by the Buddha, he was on the brink of actually becoming the Emperor of Heaven himself.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield : The Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean has in his armory a piece of magic iron that was used to measure the depth of the Milky Way. It is 20 feet long and as thick as a barrel. No one can lift it. Then one day it begins to glow, and soon Wukong arrives seeking a weapon. He picks up the rod and tells it to become smaller: it shrinks to fit him (but is still as thick as a rice bowl and weighs many thousand pounds). He can get it to be any size he wants, and when not in use, he reduces it to the size of a needle and stores it in his ear.
  • Only You Can Repopulate My Race : During a hilarious incident in a kingdom entirely populated by women. They can reproduce without him via a magic spring , but they understandably want men too. Poor, poor Xuanzang ...
  • It may also be culture shock for some to see the Dragon Kings talk and act like regular people, including having pretty human-looking wives. Generally they are depicted as standing upright, wearing richly-made silk robes, and participating in Heaven's bureaucracy.
  • Xuanzang rides one, after the dragon submits to being made into a horse as penance for his errors. The dragon is also a prince, and like the other dragons, can turn into a human.
  • Our Vampires Are Different : The Lady of the Earth Flow is actually the spirit of an albino bat/rat, dual wields swords and has a bit of Hot as Hell too.
  • Out of Focus : As one DeviantArt user said, "No one likes you, Yu Lung. Not even your dad." The author even seems to occasionally forget he's not a real horse and what few moments of action he does are only because Wukong's gone and everyone else has been captured. He also never gets an actual name, and is only referred to by different nicknames.
  • Paper Fan of Doom : The Banana Leaf Fan, which manipulates fire. The aptly named Iron Fan Princess wields a magical fan which can Blow You Away .
  • Playing with Fire : Several examples, including the Gold Horned King's Banana Leaf Fan, Red Boy's Samadhi of Fire and a magical bell which can summon flames.
  • Plot Hole : Early on, Stone Monkey and a bunch of other monkeys find a palace in a cave behind a waterfall. The palace has bowls of food, plates, and beds, but no actual inhabitants. Rather than ponder who built this palace and where the inhabitants went, they just set up shop in there themselves. Fortunately for them nobody ever comes home to kick them out.
  • Purple Prose : It's not purple prose , it's friggin' purple poetry , but descriptive asides peppering the novel defy any other definition. It gets downright florid when they reach Thorn Ridge and Xuanzang takes part in essentially a freestyle poetry jam with some magical sentient human-looking trees. One is an female apricot tree that tries to seduce him after he's shown off his superior poetry skills.
  • Physical God : Ironically, The Buddha matches this much, much better than the gods themselves. This is as much a translation issue than anything else as Eastern gods aren't really equivalent to the Western idea of such.
  • Quest to the West : The whole premise and reason for the novel is Xuanzang has to bring the holy Three Baskets sutras from India, and he needs protection and help on the way, opening the way to a lot of wacky hijinks. This four-people quest format has led to a lot of adaptations and loosely inspired works, such as Inuyasha.
  • Rage Against the Heavens : Sun Wukong takes on the Celestial Bureaucracy single-handed... and almost wins.
  • Redemption Quest : The whole reason Sun Wukong and the other bodyguards go on the quest is to earn redemption for past crimes.
  • Remember When You Blew Up a Sun? : Any given story arc has a good chance of someone mentioning how Monkey trashed Heaven 500 years ago.
  • Allegorical as Wukong represents Xuanzang's mind and an enlightened mind. There are times when Xuanzang doesn't believe Wukong is telling the truth and punishes him by giving him magical migraines, thus showing that Xuanzang isn't enlightened yet.
  • Rhino Rampage : The three rhino kings near the end. The Rhinoceros King, despite his name and single horn, is actually a bull.
  • Running Gag : Whenever Xuanzang is in trouble, Zhu Bajie suggests that he, Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing should share out the luggage and go back to where they came from.
  • Seductive Spider : The series spider-demoness and her cronies, shapeshifting spider-women who tries to seduce Tripitaka into giving up his quest and submitting under their order. Their default forms are giant spiders, while there are adaptations that depicts them as the classical half-woman half-spider seductress.
  • Early in the story, Sun Wukong transforms himself to escape the god Erlang. However, Erlang's magical third eye gives him an advantage, as no matter what form Wukong takes, Erlang can see through the disguise and transform into an appropriate predator. Wukong tries to make a last escape by disguising himself as a temple, but Erlang catches him and ultimately brings the Monkey King to Heaven for trial.
  • During the journey itself, Sun Wukong engages in another such battle against the Bull Demon King. It climaxes with the Bull Demon King turning into his true form, a colossal white bull, and Wukong making himself gigantic in turn. The ensuing Behemoth Battle proves so intense that the gods have to intervene and help Sun Wukong subdue the Bull Demon King for good.
  • Transforming into a beautiful woman is one of the most common tactics employed by the demons that Tripitaka's group encounters in order to eat the buddhist monk.
  • Sun Wukong does this several times as well, transforming into the wives of several demons in order to trick them into lowering their guard.
  • Take a drink everytime Wukong or someone else mentions his past conflict with Heaven, or whenever Bajie is complaining or being lazy.
  • Spell My Name With An S : Sun Wukong's teacher, Bodhi/Bhuti/Subhuti/Xuputi.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad : Thy name is Sun Wukong.
  • Stock Shout-Out : The modus operandi of many East Asian artists seems to be: "When really, really, really stumped for ideas, nick them from Journey To The West ."
  • Stock Wushu Weapons : Nearly all the immortals and monsters encountered are experts of martial arts to varying extents. When they aren't Improbable Weapon User (rakes, pestles, triangular canes...), they tend to wield the appropriate weapons, including sabers, polearms, spears and axes. Curiously enough, there are only two istances in the novel where Sun Wukong and his opponent actually engange in proper weaponless kung fu.
  • Stupid Good : Every time a demon disguises itself as a human in peril, you can wager your donkey that Xuanzang will insist on helping said disguised demon. Despite knowing that demons can take human form, and that Wukong can see through their disguises, Xuanzang gladly ignores Wukong's advice because he's just that compassionate of a guy. Only once in the entire book, in one of the later chapters, does he consider that Wukong might be right... only to revert back to Stupid Good when the demon (disguised as a child) puts on the puppy dog eyes. This is justified by the very fact that he is suppose to be a really good Buddhist monk . It wouldn't be particularly Buddhist to be selectively compassionate and only help the people he wants to help.
  • Summon Bigger Fish : As powerful as Sun Wukong and his companions are, occasionally they encounter threats beyond their ability to deal with. Often, they have to get help from Guan Yin, Buddha, or other gods to help subdue the demons they are fighting. Or, very occasionally, the horse, when the author actually remembers that said horse is a transformed dragon. This also lets the author do immortal cameos with Nezha and other important deities.
  • Supernaturally Delicious and Nutritious : Xuanzang is considered a "super food" by demons because of his high degree of holiness.
  • Sun Wukong almost won it, if not for the fact that he's almost useless in water.
  • Amongst his opponents there's the Rhinoceros King, whose ring can suck in every single weapon you use against him , including Sun Wukong's rod, the weaponry of a whole army of gods and an army of flame beasts.
  • Take That! : Some scholars believe that the work is one against the decadent government at the time.
  • Team Mercy vs. Team Murder : This is one of the main conflicts Tang Sanzang has with his disciple Sun Wukong. As a Buddhist monk, Sanzang would rather get through his pilgrimage without heads flying off and with as much diplomacy as possible, but Wukong and his companions are of the belief that their teacher's pacifism is silly and impractical. The story sometimes echoes this, since Wukong's might and violent acts do, in the end, save the day and get the constantly-in-duress Sanzang out of the hands of hungry demons (a fact that Wukong even mocks him over years into their journey); but the story is just as much about Wukong learning to temper himself and not resort to killing all the time.
  • That's No Moon : Those weren't pillars that Wukong vandalized, those were Budda's fingers!
  • This Was His True Form : Inverted — Many of the antagonists are wild animals that have learned to mimic human form (the Chinese version of the henge described on the obake page); they revert to their true form when killed.
  • Too Dumb to Live : Xuanzang is incapable of seeing through the disguises of the demons that kidnap him. It's understandable since he's a human, but you would think after the first few times of his blindness getting him kidnapped and almost raped or eaten he would wise up and listen when Sun Wukong and the others tell him not to trust the pitiful looking stranger seeking their assistance.
  • This is what led to the incident with the Scorpion-Woman, as even Buddha and Guanyin didn't want a damn thing to do with her.
  • The Dragon-Horse even points this out when the group needs his piss to make a medicine ; even if he pisses in a stream, the fish will turn into dragons.
  • The Trickster : Sun Wukong, the devious and rebellious monkey, is China's most well-known trickster.
  • True Sight : Wukong, as an unforeseen side effect of trying to melt him down in Lao Tzu's furnace, gained the ability to see through illusions.
  • Unusual Euphemism : Whenever accosted by beautiful women on his quest, Xuanzang's admirers offer to unite the male to the female .
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story : The historical journey of Xuanzang to India - except he mostly did the entire thing himself, occasionally with a handful of human assistants. Real Xuanzang is also a badass: When he left he defied the emperor's order that no one leave the kingdom and snuck out, therefore putting himself at risk for decapitation. The Buddhist Sutras he brought back and translated became the basis for East Asian Buddhism, and his detailed records about his journey and what he saw became the foundation for historians' understanding of the Silk Road.
  • Vow of Celibacy : Xuanzang has a considerable number of opportunities to reject the celibacy that is expected of him, including several offers from supernatural sources , but he doesn't do so.
  • Weapons That Suck : Several examples, including the Crimson Gourd and Jade Pot (which both melt the victim), the Vajura Ring (which can suck and snatch every weapon, flame or danger around), the Human Bag (which sucks people inside it) and finally, the most dangerous one, the Yin Yang Pot, which destroys whoever's inside it with flames, serpents and dragons.
  • We Want Our Jerk Back! / We Cannot Go On Without You : Happens each time Wukong gets expelled from the group (or quits himself).
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human? : Zigzagged depending on the story arc. Killing humans is always very bad but the demons that kidnap Xuanzang are more likely to be imprisoned/reformed than killed. Guanyin outright says this trope to Wukong after one of his numerous freakouts as even innocent Half-Human Hybrid children are fair game but when subduing Red Boy/Boy Sage King she made sure to clear out every insect, bird and reptile within a hundred miles so they wouldn't be caught in the flood she released. When Red Boy makes another appearence, he lives on her island and has done a Heel�Face Turn thanks to her.
  • Wukong and the Lion King have backstories of defeating big celestial armies alone.
  • Bajie and Wujing only exist to get the crap beaten out of them to show that Wukong needs to swoop in and save the day again.
  • Equally commonly is that Wukong is beaten as well and needs to fall back on greater Divine Intervention . Even then, some enemies like the Bull Demon King and the One-Horned King still give trouble to divine reinforcements.
  • Younger Mentor, Older Disciple : Tang Sanzang is a mortal monk in his twenties or thirties at oldest, while his three disciples are all immortal demigods who are centuries old, with Sun Wukong being over 500 years old due to his imprisonment under a mountain as punishment.
  • Zerg Rush : Wukong can create numerous clones of himself. A Zerg Rush of Wukong clones is nothing to sneeze at. This doesn't work with the Yellow Wind demon (who blows the clones away like straw) and the Gold Horned King and Red Boy (who both torch the clones into oblivion). Otherwise they can be frighteningly effective, as every Wukong flies around wielding the same staff he does.

Video Example(s):

The child stream incident.

Red from OSP retells an infamous chapter of Journey to The West, in which Tripitaka and Piggsy end up becoming pregnant, while at a Women-Only Town, after drinking from a childbearing stream. Luckily, they're able to get rid of it, before it becomes an issue.

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Sun Wukong, The...

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xuanzang journey to the west


  1. Xuanzang’s Journey To The West

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  2. journey to the west : Xuanzang by DeepMazenta on DeviantArt

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  3. Xuanzang’s Journey To The West

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  4. Silk Road Photo Journal

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  6. Pilgrimage and Education: The Real Xuanzang and His Journey to the West

    xuanzang journey to the west


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  8. The Journey to the West: A Platform for Learning about China Past

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