Did you know Journey to the West (1592) was published the same year that Shakespeare‘s Richard III was first performed? Here is a list of other 16th-century world events that took place before and slightly after the novel was published. The chosen source is Eurocentric, but I think this serves to contrast the hyper distillation of Chinese history and culture presented in the book. This list is by no means exhaustive.
c. 1500 – The Incan citadel Machu Picchu is constructed.
The first watches are made in Nuremberg.
1507 – A circulating pamphlet suggests the New World should be named “America” after the explorer and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci.
1508 – Michelangelo begins work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
1510 – Henry VIII becomes king of England.
1519 – Portuguese explorer Magellan sets out to circumnavigate the globe.
The Spanish conquistador Cortes lands in Mexico.
1526 – The Mughal empire is founded in India.
1533 – Spanish Conquistadors sack the Incan city of Cuzco.
1536 – Wales becomes a principality of England.
1539 – The Great Bible, the first authorized English translation of the bible, commissioned by Henry VIII, is published.
The first Europeans are blown ashore to Japan.
1549 – Brazil becomes a Portuguese province.
c. 1550 – The Portuguese begin shipping West African slaves all across the Atlantic.
1553 – “Bloody Mary” the first ascends the English throne.
1564 – The birth of Shakespeare.
Gabriele Fallopia invents the condom.
1569 – The first map with the Mercator projection is published.
1574 – The Ottoman Empire takes control of Northern Africa.
1582 – The Gregorian calendar is introduced.
1583 – The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrives in China and begins his study of Chinese culture.
1585 – Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, becomes the first English colony of America.
1587 – Virginia Dare is the first child of English descent to be born in America.
1588 – The English fleet destroys the Spanish Armada.
1592 – Shakespeare’s Richard III is performed on stage.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST IS PUBLISHED.
1595 – Matteo Ricci introduces the writings of Confucius to the Western world.
1597 – Dafne, the first opera, is performed in Venice.
1599 – The Globe theater, home to many Shakespearean productions, is built.
1600 – William Gilbert concludes the earth is magnetic and coins the term “magnetic pole.”
Gilbert coins the term “Electricity.”
Journey to the West seemingly takes place in a timeless, magical land full of gods, immortals, demons, and ghosts, yet it was published during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe. One should remember that the novel was not a contemporary masterpiece born from the mind of a singular talented author but a product of oral storytelling stretching back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and possibly even before. These oral tales were built upon and adapted over the centuries, eventually starting to solidify into accepted episodes by at least the 15th-century. While Wu Cheng’en is widely considered the author, scholars remain divided on the issue. I instead prefer to use the phrase “author-compiler” since that is a more accurate description of the book’s construction from existing material.