Journey to the West and World History

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

1501Michelangelo begins to carve his David

1503Leonardo da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa

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

1510Henry VIII becomes king of England

1517Martin Luther nails his Protestant 95 Theses to the church doors

1519 – Portuguese explorer Magellan sets out to circumnavigate the globe

The Spanish conquistador Cortes lands in Mexico

1520 – Europe’s printing presses fuel a pamphlet war arguing for and against the Reformation

1526 – The Mughal empire is founded in India

1533 – Spanish Conquistadors sack the Incan city of Cuzco

1536Wales becomes a principality of England

1539 – The Great Bible, the first authorized English translation of the bible, commissioned by Henry VIII, is published

1540 – Spanish explorer Vasquez de Coronado penetrates America looking for fabled cities of gold

1543 – Polish scientist Copernicus suggests the Earth orbits around the sun

The first Europeans are blown ashore to Japan

Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius publishes his treatise on human anatomy

1549Brazil 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.

1576 – Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe builds the Uraniborg, the world’s leading observatory

1582 – The Gregorian calendar is introduced

1583 – The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrives in China and begins his study of Chinese culture

1585Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, becomes the first English colony of America

1586Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded for plotting to usurp the English throne by assassinating Queen Elizabeth I

1587Virginia 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


1595 – Matteo Ricci introduces the writings of Confucius to the Western world

1597Dafne, the first opera, is performed in Venice

1599 – The Globe theater, home to many Shakespearean productions, is built

1600William 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.


Leave a Reply