Last updated: 11-21-2021
I have previously discussed the 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This 17-chapter storytelling prompt differs greatly from the final version. However, a little known precursor, the early-Ming Journey to the West zaju play (Xiyou ji zaju, 西遊記雜劇), contains many familiar episodes, including the reincarnation of a heavenly being as Tripitaka, the murder of his father, Monkey stealing immortal peaches from heaven and eventually being imprisoned under a mountain, his punishment with the restricting headband, the subjugation of Zhu Bajie (here and here) and Sha Wujing, the addition of a royal dragon-turned-white horse, the ordeal at Fire Mountain, the Country of Women, etc. It is also one of the earliest sources to call the monkey character “Sun Wukong” (孫悟空).  This shows that the centuries-old story cycle was starting to become standardized by the 14th or 15th-century.
But despite the many similarities to the 1592 novel, there are several subtle and very interesting differences. For instance, Sun is trapped under his home of Flower Fruit Mountain by Guanyin, instead of being banished to Five Elements Mountain by the Buddha 600 years prior. In addition, although Red Boy and Princess Iron Fan appear in the play, they are not depicted as mother and son. The demon child is instead the offspring of the monstress Hariti. These are just a few of many deviations.
Early 20th-century scholarship ascribes the play to Yang Jingxian (杨景賢), a 15th-century mongol playwright who served as a minor official to his sister’s husband, the Military Judge Yang (from whom he took his pen surname). Records indicate Yang was fond of music, practical jokes, visiting pleasure quarters, and, of course, writing zaju plays (Ning, 1986, pp. 6-7). This explains the rowdy and often saucy nature of the story, which is replete with cursing, sexual innuendo,  and many beautiful, seductive women. Ning (1986) suggests Yang uses sexualized women as a detriment to the celibate Tripitaka to not only elicit laughter from the male audience, but also to make fun of Buddhism while elevating his own Confucian worldview (p. 81).
Women play a large role in the production, appearing in 13 of the 24 acts. Female characters are abducted in four different parts (Xuanzang’s mother in acts one to four; Monkey’s wife in act 10; the daughter of the Liu family in act 11; and Pigsy’s wife in acts 13 to 16), while women make up the three main obstacles (Hariti in act 12; the Queen of the Land of Women in act 17; and Princess Iron Fan in acts 18 to 20) (fig. 1).
Fig. 1 – A synopsis diagram of the Journey to the West zaju play (from Ning, 1986, p. 9) (larger version).
Below I present the play’s summary as laid out by Dudbridge (1970).
Scene 1: Disaster encountered on a journey to office
The Bodhisattva Guanyin introduces the action: a mortal is required to collect scriptures for the benefit of China; for this purpose the Arhat Vairocana is to become incarnate as the son of Chen Guangrui [陳光蕊] in Hongnong xian [弘農縣] of Haizhou [海州]. Chen Guangrui is to suffer an eighteen-year-long ‘disaster in water’. The Dragon King has been instructed to protect him.
Chen Guangrui, on his journey to office, has reached the Inn of a Hundred Flowers: he has restored life to a fish which, when he bought it, blinked at him. Preparing to continue the journey to Hongzhou [洪州], the servant Wang An [王安] looks for a boatman. The singer in this act is Chen’s wife who, being eight months pregnant, is full of anxieties about the journey. In the event Liu Hong [劉洪], recruited as their boatman, murders first Wang An, then Chen himself; he agrees to spare the wife and her unborn child on condition that she accepts him in Chen Guangrui’s place—as her husband and the prefect of Hongzhou. She has him agree in turn to a three-year delay—a gesture of filial piety on the part of her as yet unborn son.
Scene 2: The mother forced, the child cast out
The Dragon of the Southern Seas explains that in compliance with Guanyin’s direction and in gratitude for Chen Guangrui’s action in saving his life (in the form of a fish at the Inn of a Hundred Flowers), he is holding the murdered Chen secure in his Crystal Palace until the eighteen years are up.
Liu Hong enters and declares his intention of ridding himself of the newly born child who constitutes a threat to his security in office.
The Dragon reappears briefly to ensure protection for the incarnate Vairocana who is to suffer hardship on the river.
The wife—again the singer—completes the scene alone. She has been compelled by Liu Hong to cast her month-old son into the river, and now performs the deed carefully, putting the child into a watertight box, together with two gold clasps and an explanatory note written in her own blood.
Scene 3: Jiangliu [江流] recognizes his mother
The Dragon orders the Arhat to be transported to the island monastery Jinshansi [金山寺, Gold Mountain Monastery].
A fisherman finds the box and takes it off to the Abbot.
The Chan Master Danxia [丹霞] receives it, inspects the contents and resolves to raise the child [whom he names Jiangliu, Flowing River] and preserve the letter with all the details of its history.
Liu Hong here makes a brief appearance, alluding to his present quite life and sense of security.
The passage of eighteen years is assumed: the Chan career of the abandoned child, whom he has brought up as a novice monk and named Xuanzang [玄奘]. He now sends him on a mission of revenge, first explaining the details of his background.
The mother is discovered in a state of anxiety: again she is the singer. Xuanzang enters, there is an extended recognition scene. They arrange for him to return provisionally to Jinshansi.
Scene 4: The bandit is taken, revenge is wrought
Yu Shinan [虞世南] has now, in the year Zhenguan [貞觀] 21 [647/648 CE], been appointed Prefect of Hongzhou. His first official case is an appeal delivered by the Abbot Danxia and Xuanzang, calling for action against Liu Hong. Men are sent secretly to arrest him.
The dissipated Liu Hong is giving orders to his wife, who is again the singer. Official guards enter and arrest Liu; he makes a full confession. Yu Shinan sentences him to immolation on the shore of the river in expiation of Chen’s death. As the sacrificial verses are pronounced Chen’s body is borne out of the water by the Dragon King’s attendants. There is a final explanation.
Guanyin appears on high: she summons Xuanzang to the capital, first to pray for rain to break a great drought there, and further to fetch 5,048 rolls of Mahāyāna scriptures from the West.
The wife sums up the whole action in her closing songs.
Scene 5: An Imperial send-off for the westward journey
Yu Shinan narrates how he presented Xuanzang at court: the prayers for rain were successful, Xuanzang was honoured with the title Tripitaka [三藏] and invested with a golden kaṣāya and a nine-ringed Chan staff. His parents also received honours.
Now, in official mark of his departure for the West, Qin Shubao [秦叔寶] and Fang Xuanling [房玄齡] representing officials civil and military, enter to greet him. Xuanzang is ushered on. The official party is headed by the aged Yuchi Gong [尉遲恭], the singer in this act. He sustains a dialogue, partly in song, with Xuanzang, leading finally to a request for a Buddhist name. Xuanzang names him Baolin [寶林, Treasure Forest].
The pine-twig is planted which will point east when Xuanzang returns. Finally, he gives spiritual counsel to members of the crowd.
Scene 6: A village woman tells the tale
In a village outside Chang’an some local characters return from watching the spectacle of Tripitaka’s departure. The singer is a woman nicknamed Panguer [胖姑兒]. Her songs describe the scene from the crowd’s point of view. There is a good deal of observation of various side-shows and theatrical performances.
Scene 7: Moksha sells a horse
The Fiery Dragon of the Southern Sea is being led to execution for the offence of ‘causing insufficient and delayed rainfall’. His appeals succeed in enlisting the help of Guanyin, who persuades the Jade Emperor to have him changed into a white horse for the transport of Tripitaka and the scriptures.
Tripitaka is discovered at a wayside halt, troubled by the lack of a horse.
Moksha [木叉], disciple of Guanyin and the singer in this act, comes to offer him the white dragon-horse. His songs extol the horse’s qualities. Finally he uncovers the design, reveals the dragon in its original form, and ends the scene with allusions to the coming recruitment of Sun Wukong on Huaguo shan [花果山, Flower Fruit Mountain] (fig. 2) (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 193-195).
Fig. 2 – A depiction of Huaguo shan from a modern videogame (larger version).
Scene 8: Huaguang serves as protector
Guanyin first announces a list of ten celestial protectors for Tripitaka on his journey. The Heavenly King Huaguang [華光天王], sixth on the list, is the last to sign on: he enters and for the rest of the scene sings on this theme of protection, pausing only to receive Guanyin’s greeting. In the last song there is a further allusion to Huaguo shan.
Scene 9: The Holy Buddha defeats Sun
Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] now appears: after an initial poem vaunting his celestial birth, his ubiquity and power, he lists out the members of his ape family, alludes to his career of misdeeds and his wife, the abducted Princess of Jinding guo [金鼎國, the Golden Cauldron Country].
Devaraja Li appears, with orders to recover the possessions stolen by Sun from the Queen Mother of the West. He issues orders to his son Nezha, who enters with troops upon orders from the Jade Emperor to capture Sun Xingzhe in his home Ziyun luo dong [紫雲羅洞, Purple Cloud Cave] on Huaguo shan.
The princess-wife now enters (the singer in this act) and tells in song the story of her abduction and the life on this mountain. She is joined by Sun and they prepare to feast.
The celestial troops surround them, Sun’s animal guards flee and Sun himself escapes. Devaraja Li ‘combs the hills’ and meanwhile finds the princess, who now sings through the remainder of her suite of songs until it is decided to give her escort back to her home.
Sun Xingzhe eludes the forces of Nezha and is captured only by intervention by Guanyin, who has him imprisoned beneath Huaguo shan to await the arrival of Tripitaka, his future master.
Scene 10: Sun is caught, the charm rehearsed
The singer is a Mountain Spirit guarding Sun beneath Huaguoshan: He opens the act with songs about his own permanence and his present duties.
Tripitaka comes seeking hospitality. The Spirit responds with a sung discourse which is interrupted by the shout of Sun Xingzhe eager to be delivered. Tripitaka releases him, and Sun’s immediate reaction is to seek to eat him and escape. Guanyin intervenes to curb his nature will disciplines in the shape of an iron hoop [Tiejie, 鐵戒, Iron prohibition ring], a cassock and a sword. She gives him the name Sun Xingzhe.
To Tripitaka she teaches the spell that works the binding hoop on Sun’s head, and they successfully prove it.
The Spirit adds (in speech) a warning about the demon of Liusha [he 流沙河, Flowing Sands River] and they again set out.
Scene 11: Xingzhe expels a demon
The Spirit of Liusha he, characterized as a monk adorned with human skulls, announces that he has devoured nine incarnations of Tripitaka (nine skulls represent them), towards the total of a hundred holy men he must eat in order to gain supremacy.
Sun Xingzhe enters and is attacked by this Sha Heshang [沙和尚, Sha Monk]. Sun vanquishes him (fig. 3) , and he is recruited for Tripitaka’s band of pilgrims.
A new demon named Yin’e jiangjun [銀額將軍, Silver-browed General] enters, inhabitant of the impregnable Huangfeng shan [黃風山, Yellow Wind Mountain]. He has abducted the daughter from a nearby Liu family.
The father Liu is the singer in this act: he explains his plight to Tripitaka and the party of pilgrims. They fight and kill the demon, and restore the girl to her home. As they set out again, Liu gratefully awaits their return from the West (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 195-196).
Fig. 3 – A stone relief carving of Monkey fighting Sandy (from Wanfu Temple, Tainan, Taiwan) (larger version).
Scene 12: Gui mu is converted [Guiyi, 皈依, Take refuge (in the Buddha)]
The pilgrims are now approached by the Red Boy [Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒] feigning tears. Sun Xingzhe, against his own better judgement, is made to carry the child, cannot sustain the intolerable weight and tosses him into a mountain torrent.
Sha Heshang at once reports that the child has borne away their Master. They go off to appeal to Guanyin; she in turn takes the case to the Buddha, who now appears in company with the Bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī [Wenshu, 文殊] and Samantabhadra [Puxian, 普賢]. He explains that this is the son, named Ainu’er [愛奴兒], of Guizi mu (鬼子母, Hariti) (fig. 4). Four guardians have been sent to capture him with the help of the Buddha’s own alms bowl. The bowl is now brought in, with the Red Boy confined beneath it. The pilgrims return to rejoin their Master.
The mother Guizi mu enters to sing vindictive songs about this action. The Buddha defends himself from her attacks; she attempts to have the bowl lifted clear; finally she is overcome by Nezha. Tripitaka is freed and himself offers her alternative sentences: she chooses to embrace Buddhism (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 196-197).
Fig. 4 – A 1st-cent. BCE Gandharan statue of Hariti (Guizi mu) with children (larger version).
Scene 13: A pig-demon deludes with magic
Zhu Bajie [豬八戒] enters, announces his background, past history and present home (Heifeng dong [黑風洞, Blackwind cave]) and describes a plan by which he means to substitute himself for the young man Chu Lang [朱郎], the bridegroom to whom a young local girl is promised and for whom she waits nightly. (Her father Peigong [裴公], we learn, is disposed to retract the agreed match for financial reasons.)
The girl, with her attendant, expects a visit from young Chu the same night. She (the singer in this act) goes through the actions of burning incense as she waits for him. Zhu Bajie enters, carries on a burlesque lovers’ dialogue with her and prevails on her to elope with him.
The pilgrims appear briefly on the stage, preparing to seek lodging near the frontier of Huolun [火輪] Jinding guo.
Scene 14: Haitang [海棠] sends on news
The girl, again the singer, is now in Zhu Bajie’s mountain home, has discovered the deception and despairs of seeing her home again; she is obliged to entertain the debauched Zhu Bajie, who agrees however to let her visit home.
Sun Xingzhe enters, overhears their conversation and at once attacks Zhu. He offers to carry a verbal message for the girl. She trusts him with this and warns him that her family and the Zhu’s are already disputing the case.
Scene 15: They take the daughter back to Pei
The heads of the Zhu and Pei families argue out their marriage contract and its alleged violation and are stopped from going to court only by the arrival of Tripitaka and his party. Sun Xingzhe produces the message in the form of a little song.
To determine what demon this abductor is they summon up the local guardian spirit (tudi [土地]), who reports that he takes the form of a pig. Sun Xingzhe at once sets out to attack.
The Pei girl sings a series of heartbroken songs. Sun Xingzhe comes and offers to take her home: she now sings gratitude, against some jeering comment from Sun. They leave.
Tripitaka, with the two family heads, await them and welcome back the daughter. She reveals that Zhu fears only the hunting dogs of Erlang [二郎]. The family affairs are now resolved.
Zhu Bajie decides to follow her home. Sun Xingzhe arranges to take her place in the bridal chamber where Zhu expects to find her. They fight: Zhu escapes, taking with him the Master Tripitaka. Erlang must now be called in.
Scene 16: The hunting hounds catch the pig
Erlang, the singer in this act, begins with a series of truculent and threatening songs, then demands Zhu’s surrender to Buddhism. Zhu fights first with Sun Xingzhe, who has entered with Erlang; then the dogs are put on him and finally seize him. Tripitaka is released and instantly urges mercy. Zhu accepts the Buddhist faith.
Erlang’s closing song alludes to the coming perils of the Land of Women and Huoyan shan [火焰山, Flaming Mountain].
Scene 17: The Queen forces a marriage
The pilgrims arrive in the Land of Women.
The Queen enters alone (she is the singer), describes her situation and her longing for a husband, and declares an intention to detain Tripitaka for this purpose.
The pilgrims again enter, warned of their danger in a recent dream granted by one of their guardians—Weituo zuntian [韋馱尊天, Skanda]. The Queen seeks to tempt Tripitaka with wine, then embraces him and finally bears him off to the rear of the Palace. Other women do the same with the three disciples.
The Queen and Tripitaka re-enter, and she continues to sing her entreaties until Wei-t’o tsun-t’ien appears and drives her back. Sun Hsing-che is summoned and Weituo, giving him a brief allocution, retires.
Sun confesses that his own near lapse was forestalled only by the tightening of the hoop upon his brow. He now ends the scene by singing a suggestive ditty to the tune Jishengcao [寄賸草].
Scene 18: They lose the way and ask it of an Immortal
The pilgrims require guidance.
A Taoist in the mountains sings a set of literary verses on the Four Vices. When the pilgrims come and ask the way of him he at once gives details of the nearby Huoyan shan and the female demon Tieshan gongzhu [鐵扇公主, Princess Iron Fan] whose Iron Fan alone is able to put out the flames on the fiery mountain. With more songs, of a warning nature, the Taoist leaves them.
The pilgrims reach the mountain, Sun Xingzhe undertakes to borrow the fan. From the mountain spirit he ascertains that Tieshan gongzhu is unmarried and accessible to offers of marriage. He resolves to approach her.
Scene 19: The Iron Fan and its evil power
Tieshan gongzhu (the singer) enters and introduces herself, giving her background, members of her family.
Sun Xingzhe arrives with his request to borrow the fan; she dislikes his insolence and refuses. They threaten one another, then fight (fig. 5) until she waves him off with the fan and Sun Xingzhe somersaults off the stage.
Sun Xingzhe, in the closing remarks of the scene, prepares to retaliate by seeking the assistance of Guanyin (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 197-199).
Fig. 5 – A postcard depicting Monkey’s battle with Princess Iron Fan (larger version).
Scene 20: The Water Department quenches the fire
Guanyin enters and decides to employ the masters of Thunder, Lightning, Wind and Rain, with all the attendant spirits of the celestial Water Department, to ensure Tripitaka’s safe passage across Huoyan shan.
These characters now enter and introduce themselves. The singer is Mother-Lightning [Dianmu, 電母], and her first series of songs is purely descriptive.
Tripitaka enters to offer brief thanks, and the scene ends with more songs as the spirits escort the party of pilgrims over the burning mountain. The last song predicts the imminent end of their pilgrimage.
Scene 21: The Poor Woman conveys intuitive certainty [Xinyin, 心印]
The party has arrived in India and prepares to advance to the Vulture Peak—Lingjiu shan [靈鷲山]. Sun Xingzhe is sent on ahead to look for food.
The Poor Woman enters and introduces herself as one whose trade is selling cakes and who, without presuming to enter the Buddha’s own province, has attained to great spiritual accomplishments. (She is the singer here.)
Sun Xingzhe appears to announce his mission, and they quickly engage in a sophistical dialogue on the term xin [心, heart/mind] in the ‘Diamond Sūtra‘. It becomes a burlesque in which Sun is ridiculed. Tripitaka enters and sustains a more competent discussion. He asks some plain questions about the Buddhist paradise, and the Poor Woman then urges them on.
Scene 22: They present themselves before the Buddha and collect the scriptures
The Mountain Spirit of the Vulture Peak introduces the situation: the pilgrims are about to be received into the Western Paradise; the householder Jigudu [給孤獨] (Sanskrit: Anāthapindada) is to escort them. He enters, the singer in this act. He introduces Tripitaka to heaven, answers his questions and announces the entry of the Buddha.
The Buddha appears in the form of an image (Buddha leaving the mountains) ‘represented’ [ban, 扮] by the monks Hanshan [寒山] and Shide [拾得] (fig. 6). He decrees that the three animal disciples may not return to the East; four of his own disciples will escort Tripitaka on the return journey. Tripitaka is led off to receive the scriptures.
The character Daquan [大權] is responsible for their issue. All assist in loading them on to the horse, who alone is to return East with Tripitaka and the disciples of the Buddha.
The three disciples in turn offer their final remarks and yield up their mortal lives. Tripitaka remembers each of them in a spoken soliloquy before he sets out on his return journey (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 199-200).
Fig. 6 – An ink rubbing of a 19th-century stone stele depicting Hanshan and Shide, from Hanshan Temple in Suzhou (larger version).
Scene 23: Escorted back to the Eastern Land
The first of the four Buddhist disciples, Chengji [成基], is the singer. The opening of the scene consists solely of his songs on the implications of the journey; he pauses only to reveal that the trials on the westward journey were contrived by the Buddha.
In Chang’an the pine-twig has been seen to turn eastward, and a crowd has come out to welcome Tripitaka’s return. Yuchi [Gong] again appears to receive him.
Chengji’s final song gives warning that the scriptures must be presented the following morning before the Emperor.
Scene 24: Tripitaka appears before the Buddha [Chaoyuan, 朝元]
The Sākyamuni Buddha enters and gives orders for Tripitaka to be led back to the Vulture Peak to meet his final spiritual goal.
The Winged Immortal who receives these orders is the singer. He escorts Tripitaka before the Buddha, whose closing remarks, as well as the Spirit’s last songs, invoke conventional benedictions upon the Imperial house (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 200). 
I’ve decided to upload a PDF of Ning’s (1986) Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju, which is cited above.
Here is an earlier analysis of the play by Howard Goldblatt (1973). He notes evidence points to the play largely being a product of the Ming (e.g. a higher number of acts, singers, and musical scales) and not the Yuan as was assumed at the time. However, he states the play was likely a patchwork of Yuan material, a scene by the playwright Yang in the early Ming, and copious later material borrowed from the standard 1592 edition of the novel. Despite all of this, Goldblatt (1973) suggests the play’s “stylistic unity” points to a single author compiling everything into its present form.
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1) He is called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 孫行者) in the aforementioned 13th-century storytelling prompt.
2) A good example of this appears in act 19 when Monkey tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan with a saucy poem: “The disciple’s not too shallow / the woman’s not too deep. / You and I, let’s each put forth an item, / and make a little demon” (Ning, 1986, p. 141).
3) Source altered slightly. The Wade-Giles was changed to pinyin. The Chinese characters presented in the footnotes were placed into the summary.
Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Goldblatt, H. (1973). The Hsi-yu chi Play: A Critical Look at its Discovery, Authorship, and Content. Asian Pacific Quarterly of Cultural and Social Affairs, 5(1), pp. 31-46.
Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju (UMI No. 8612591) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.
2 thoughts on “Archive #1 – The Early Ming Zaju Play Journey to the West”
Thanks for thhe post