Archive #42 – PDFs of Journey to the West Translations

Note: My blog is not monetized, so I am not making any money from this post. My hope is that the PDFs will make this legendary story more accessible to a wider audience. If you enjoyed the digital versions, please, please, please support the official releases.

Last updated: 08-17-2023

I’m happy to host a number of foreign language translations of the noted Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji西遊記, 1592 CE). This archive currently houses the following editions:

  1. English
  2. French (only part two of two)
  3. German
  4. Hungarian
  5. Italian (see below)
  6. Polish
  7. Romanian
  8. Russian
  9. Spanish
  10. Thai
  11. Vietnamese

As of this writing, I don’t yet have a modern Japanese translation. But you can read an original copy of the 1835 translation here.

I have also included translations of the unofficial sequel, A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), in the following languages:

  1. English
  2. Hungarian

I will add more languages to this archive as they become available. Please let me know if you have access to other editions.

Journey to the West (Xiyouji)

1. English

1.A. Complete

1) This is a PDF for The Journey to the West (2012 Rev. ed.) translated by Anthony C. Yu.

Archive #11 – PDFs of the Journey to the West 2012 Revised Edition

2) This is a text PDF for Journey to the West (1993/2020) translated by W. J. F. Jenner.

PDF File

Click to access Wu-Chengen-Journey-to-the-West-4-Volume-Boxed-Set-2003.pdf

The four-volume box set in my collection (larger version).

1.B. Abridged

1) This is a PDF for Monkey (1942/1984) translated by Arthur Waley in 30 chapters (1 to 15, 18 and 19, 22, 37 to 39, 44 to 46, 47 to 49, and 98 to 100). See past book covers here.

PDF File

Click to access Wu-Chengen_-Arthur-Waley-Monkey-Grove-Press-1984.pdf

2) This is a PDF for The Monkey and the Monk (2006): An Abridgement of The Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu in 31 chapters (1 to 15, 18 and 19, 22 and 23, 44 to 46, 53 to 55, 57 and 58, 84, and 98 to 100)

PDF File

Click to access Anthony-C.-Yu-The-Monkey-and-the-Monk_-An-Abridgment-of-The-Journey-to-the-West-2006.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

1.C. Audio Drama

I just learned of “The Fifth Monkey” and their Journey to the West – An Audio Drama Series, which presents a new English translation alongside the original Chinese. They explain:

One reason that led our team to start this audio drama project is to correct some of the mistranslations found in the Yu/Jenner translations. Most of them are very minor and we certainly understand what could have led to those mistakes, but we think it is worth exploring how we can help bring a more accurate presentation of the original text in the English language (source).

The official logo (larger version).

2. French

This is a PDF for volume two (of two) for La Pérégrination vers l’Ouest (Xiyou ji) (1991) translated by André Lévy in 100 chapters. I was told by one French academic that this edition “is one of the best available in Western languages.” Hopefully I will find a PDF for volume one in the future.

Thank you to jyeet on the Journey to the West discord for locating the file.

PDF Files


Vol. 2

The original two-volume boxed edition (larger version). Image found here.

3. German

This is a PDF for Die Reise in den Westen. Ein klassischer chinesischer Roman (2016) translated by Eva Lüdi Kong in 100 chapters. It was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair prize in 2017. This version was converted from an ebook.

PDF File

Click to access German-JTTW-Die-Reise-in-den-Westen.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

4. Hungarian

These are text PDFs for Nyugati utazás: avagy a majomkirály története (1969/1980) translated by Barnabás Csongor in two volumes. While the work covers the full 100 chapters, I’ve been told that it deletes the poems and occasionally paraphrases long-winded sections of text.

Thank you to Twitter user Jakabfi Károly for locating the files.

PDF Files

Vol 1

Vol 2

The official covers for volumes one and two (larger version). Image found here.

5. Italian

[Note 10-19-23: I was asked to remove the PDF from the archive per the publisher. I’m leaving the title here so others will know an Italian translation exists.]

The Italian text is called Viaggio in occidente (1998/2008). It was translated by Serafino Balduzzi and published in two volumes. It is based on the French edition published in 1991. The work covers all 100 chapters.

6. Polish

This is a PDF for Małpi bunt (1976) translated by Tadeusz Żbikowski. It is a 14 chapter abridgement of the first 20 chapters of the original.

Thank you to Twitter user Friend_Pretend for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Polish-JTTW-Malpi-bunt-1976.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

7. Romanian

This is a text PDF for Călătorie spre soareapune (1971) translated by Corneliu Rudescu and Fănică N. Gheorghe. It appears to be an abridgment.

Thank you to greencicadarchivist on the Journey to the West discord for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Romanian-JTTW-U_Ceng_En_Calatorie_Spre_Soare_Apune_pdf.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

8. Russian

8.1. Complete

These are PDFs for Путеше́ствие на За́пад (1959) translated by A. Rogachev (vols. 1-2) and V. Kolokolov (vols. 3-4). It covers all 100 chapters.

PDF Files

Vol 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4

The four-volume hardcover edition (larger version).

8.2. Abridged

This is a text PDF for Неприятность в небесах. Из китайской мифологии (1926) translated by Yakov Arakin. It is a poetic retelling of the first seven chapters of the novel.

Thank you to Adelar Eleramo for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Russian-JTTW-poem-Yakov-Arakin.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

9. Spanish

This is a text PDF for Viaje al Oeste: Las aventuras del Rey Mono (2022) translated by Enrique P. Gatón and Imelda Huang-Wang in 100 chapters.

PDF File

Click to access viaje-al-oeste-las-aventuras-del-rey-mono.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

10. Thai

This is a PDF for ไซอิ๋ว (2004/2010). It appears to be based on a four-volume edition translated by one Mr. Tin (นายติ่น) and published from 1906 to 1909. I believe it covers all 100 chapters.

Thank you again to greencicadarchivist for locating the file.

PDF File

Click to access Thai-JTTW-ไซอิ๋ว.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

11. Vietnamese

This is a text PDF for Tây Du Ký translated by Như Sơn, Mai Xuân Hải, and Phương Oanh. The 100 chapters were originally split between 10 volumes and published from 1982 to 1988. The volumes were later transcribed and combined to make a single eBook via an online community in 2013 (see here). I have converted it into a PDF.

PDF File

Click to access Vietnamese-JTTW-Tay-Du-Ky.pdf

The covers for the original ten volumes (larger version). Image found here.

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu)

1. English

A) This is a PDF for Further Adventures on the Journey to the West – Master of Silent Whistle Studio (2020) translated by Qianchng Li and Robert E. Hegel.

PDF File

Click to access Further-Adventures-on-the-Journey-to-the-West-Master-of-Silent-Whistle-Studio-2020.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

B) This is a PDF for Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West (2000) translated by Shuen-fu Lin and Larry J. Schulz. This version was converted from Mobi.

PDF File

Click to access English-Xiyoubu-Lin-Shuen-fu_Dong-Yue-Schulz-Tung-Yueh-The-tower-of-myriad-mirrors_-a-supplement-to-Journey-to-the-West.pdf

The official cover (larger version)

2. Hungarian

This is a text PDF for Ami a nyugati utazásból kimaradt (1957/1980) translated by Barnabás Csongor.

My thanks again to Twitter user Jakabfi Károly.

PDF File

Click to access Hungarian-Xiyoubu-tung_jue_ami_a_nyugati_utazasbol_kimaradt.pdf

The official cover (larger version).

Update: 08-17-23

I forgot to mention that I have previously archived two other Chinese classics. The first is Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620; a.k.a. Investiture of the Gods), a sort of prequel to JTTW.

Archive #17 – PDFs of Creation of the Gods Library of Chinese Classics Chinese-English Bilingual Edition (Vols. 1-4)

The second is Journey to the South (Nanyouji南遊記, c. 1570s-1580s). This is NOT a direct sequel to JTTW. It instead follows the adventures of a martial god from Chinese folk religion. However, Sun Wukong makes a guest appearance in chapters one and seventeen.

Archive #40 – Journey to the South (Nanyouji) English Translation PDF


These have been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you enjoyed the digital versions, please support the official releases.


The Tang Monk Tripitaka and the Buddha Candana Merit

The Tang Monk Tripitaka is elevated in spiritual rank at the end of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE; hereafter “1592 JTTW”) for braving untold dangers and successfully retrieving the scriptures from India. The Tathagata enfeoffs him as the “Buddha of Candana (Sandalwood) Merit” (Zhantan gongde fo, 旃檀功德佛). Many readers may be surprised to learn that this is actually an established Buddhist deity and not just the creation of author-compiler Wu Cheng’en. In this article, I would like to briefly explore this Buddha’s religious background, iconography, purpose, and relationship to the worship of Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664 CE), the historical Tang monk on whom Tripitaka is based.

Readers familiar with my past work will notice that this piece shares many similarities with my article on Sun Wukong’s Buddha title. I’m using it as a template since the information here is closely related.

1. Literary enlightenment

In chapter 100, the Buddha states:

“Sage Monk,” said Tathagata, “in your previous incarnation you were originally my second disciple named Master Gold Cicada. Because you failed to listen to my exposition of the law and slighted my great teaching, your true spirit was banished to find another incarnation in the Land of the East. Happily you submitted and, by remaining faithful to our teaching, succeeded in acquiring the true scriptures. For such magnificent merit, you will receive a great promotion to become the Buddha of Candana Merit (emphasis added) (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381).


Jenner (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020) translates this title as “Candana-punya Buddha” (vol. 4, p. 2311). However, this appears to be a strange reverse Chinese to Sanskrit translation. Punya (Sk: पुण्य) means “merit.” As you’ll see in sec. 2, this isn’t the actual Sanskrit name of the Buddha.

Fig. 1 – Tripitaka and the other pilgrims receiving their elevation in spiritual rank at the end of the novel (larger version). Image from the original 1592 JTTW. Reading from right to left, the heading says: “The Five Sages Return to the West, Becoming Buddhas Comes True” (Wusheng guixi, Zuofo chengzhen, 五聖歸西,作佛成真)

2. Religious background

The 1592 JTTW closes by “submitting” or “prostrating” (namo, 南無) to a long list of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats. The Buddha of Candana Merit is placed second to the last of 47 Buddhas and ahead of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. A section of the list reads:

I submit to the Buddha of Great Perfect Light.
I submit to the Buddha of the Gift of Light.
I submit to the Buddha of Candana Merit (emphasis added).
I submit to the Buddha Victorious in Strife.
I submit to the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin.
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 385).


Many of the Buddhas mentioned in the novel appear in assorted real world canonical lists, including the 88 Buddhas (Bashiba fo, 八十八佛) from the Great Repentance Text of the Eighty-Eight Buddhas (Ch: Bashiba fo da chanhui wen八十八佛大懺悔文). [1] This group is comprised of the 53 Buddhas (Ch: Wushisan fo, 五十三佛) and the 35 Confession Buddhas (Ch: Sanshiwu fo chan, 三十五佛懺) (fig. 1).

The Buddha of Candana Merit (Sk: Candanaśrī or Candanashri, चन्दनश्री; lit: “Glorious Sandalwood”) is the 18th of the 35 Confession Buddhas, [2] who are individually called upon during a confessional prayer to absolve oneself of sins. They appear in a number of sources, such as The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Ethical Downfalls (Ch: Pusa duochan / Pusa chanhui wen, 菩薩墮懺 / 菩薩懺悔文) from the Three Heaps Sutra (Sk: Trīskhandhadharmasūtra; Ch: Sanyun jing三蘊經) and the Names of the Thirty-Five Buddhas Spoken by the Buddha (Ch: Foshuo sanshiwu foming lichan wen佛說三十五佛名禮懺文). 

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the 35 Confession Buddhas (larger version). The Buddha of Candana Merit is third from the left on the topmost left row. Image found here.

2.1. Iconography

The Buddha of Candana Merit is depicted in Buddhist art with the traditional features of a Buddha (i.e. urṇausnisa, long ear lobes, robes, etc.). He has three forms depending on the tradition:

Candanasri Buddha — (Skt.) (Chin.: Chou-t’an-kung-te fo; Mon.” Cogtu candan; Tib.” Tsan-dan-dpal) A Sanskrit variant for the Jina Candanasri. One of the Buddha images found in the Pao Hsiang Lou [寶相樓] temple of the Forbidden City, Beijing, and one of the thirty-five “Buddhas of Confession.” Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: right hand in bhumisparsa mudra, left in dhyana mudra [fig. 3]; mudra: bhumisparsa and dhyana; body: monastic robes; legs; two; asana: vajrasana; vahana: lotus throne.

— (2) — (Mon.: Cogtu candan; Tib.: Tsan-dan-dpal) One of the Buddhas of Confession pictured in the Mongolian Kanjur (Mon.: Mongol ganjur-un) (1717-1720) Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: two, holding a small [sandalwood] tree in dhyana mudra [fig. 4]; mudra: dhyana; body: monastic robes, right shoulder uncovered; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; attributes: 32 major and 80 minor signs; vahana: lotus throne (Bunce, 1994, Vol. 1, pp. 81-82).

A plate in Bunce (1994) portrays him with the varada and dhyana mudras (fig. 5). And a source associated with the scholar-saint Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE) connects Candana Merit with the color orange (see sec. 2.2. below) (fig. 6).

Fig. 3 – (Top Left ) The first form of the Buddha of Candana Merit with the bhumisparsa and dhyana mudras (larger version). Image from Clark, 1937/1965, p. 249. Fig. 4 – (Top Right) The Buddha’s second form with a tree and dhyana mudra (larger version). Image from Chandra, 1999, p. 90. Fig. 5 – (Bottom Left) His third form with the varada and dhyana mudras (larger version). Image from Bunce, 1994, vol. 1, p. 82. Fig. 6 – (Bottom Right) Candana Merit portrayed with orange skin (larger version). Image found here.

2.2. Location and purpose

Nagarjuna’s Discourse on the Ten Stages (Sk: Daśabhūmikavibhāṣā; Ch: Shi zhu piposha lun, 十住毘婆沙論, c. 3rd-century CE) names the Buddha-land in which Candana Merit lives and the effect of his name/scent on the hearts of men:

In the south, after passing innumerable and immeasurable Buddha-lands, multiplied by the number of the sand-grains of the River Ganges, there is a land called Nanda. The Buddha of that land is called Candanashri. At present he lives there teaching the Dharma. [His glorious virtue is] like sandalwood (candana) which is fragrant and refreshing. His name reaches everywhere, just as scent pervades far and wide. It eliminates the fire of the three poisons, thereby cooling the passions of all sentient beings (based on Inagaki, 1998).


This work uses an alternative Chinese name for the Buddha, Zhantande (德), or “Virtuous Sandalwood.” Zhan () is used in place of zhan (旃), and gong (功) is completely removed.

A Running Commentary on the Confession of Transgressions of Bodhi[sattvas] (Sk: Bodhyāpattideśanāvṛtti; Ch: Puti duofan falu huichu shi, 菩提墮犯發露悔除釋), another work connected to Nagarjuna, associates the Buddha with a different location, as well as the color orange:

He is seated in the North-western region in a world called “Pervaded by Miraculous Fragrance.” He is orange in color and his hands hold a branch of a Sandalwood tree and an auspicious fruit, which settles the mind (based on Lai, 2016).

西北妙香遍滿剎土中佛栴檀吉祥 [ 如來 ],紅黃,持栴檀樹與吉祥果而安住。

He is also given a slightly different name, Zhantan jixiang (栴檀吉祥), or “Auspicious Sandalwood.” And once again, zhan () is used instead of zhan (旃).

3. Relationship to Xuanzang’s worship

Evidence for the veneration of Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664 CE), the historical Tang monk on whom Tripitaka is based, first emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1127 CE) (Liu, 2019). For example, he appears as one of the famed famed 500 Arhats (Luohan, 羅漢) in a large set of late-12th-century ritual scrolls (fig. 7 & 8). [3] This likely explains why an early-Ming JTTW zaju play, which predates the 1592 JTTW, depicts Tripitaka as the reincarnation of one such Buddhist saint. [4]

But most importantly, I was surprised to learn from Dr. Benjamin Brose that Xuanzang was actually associated with the Buddha Candana Merit at some point during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644):

In a nutshell, during the Ming some salvational associations claimed that Xuanzang was one among several later incarnations of the Sandalwood Buddha sent to the human realm to deliver divine texts. These occurrences predate the publication of the [1592 JTTW] novel” (B. Brose, personal communication, June 3, 2023). [5]

(The above information will be expanded upon in Dr. Brose’s forthcoming book, Embodying Xuanzang: The Postmortem Travels of a Buddhist Pilgrim (September, 2023).)

This association appears to have been short-lived, however, for I am unfamiliar with any modern temples that worship Xuanzang as Candana Merit. Why is this? I think the simplest answer is that the Buddha already had a long-established following and therefore couldn’t be subsumed under the late-blooming cult of the Tang Monk.

Fig. 7 – Lin Tinggui and Zhou Jichang, The Tang Monk Procures the Scriptures (Tangseng qujing, 唐僧取經), no. 77 of 100 scrolls from Images of the 500 Arhats (Wubai Luohan tu, 五百羅漢圖, 1178-1188 CE). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk (larger version). Image from Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo, 2014, p. 86. Courtesy of Dr. Liu Shufen, a research fellow at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica. Fig. 8 – A detail of Xuanzang on his his horse. He is led by a spirit-soldier(?), and the “Monkey Pilgrim” appears to be visible in the clouds behind him (larger version).

4. Conclusion

At the end of Journey to the West, the Tathagata promotes Tripitaka to the “Buddha of Candana Merit” (Zhantan gongde fo, 旃檀功德佛). This is one of the Chinese names of Candanaśrī or Candanashri (Sk: चन्दनश्री; lit: “Glorious Sandalwood”; a.k.a. “Virtuous or Auspicious Sandalwood,” Zhantande/jixiang, 德/吉祥), the 18th of the 35 Confession Buddhas called upon during a confessional prayer to absolve oneself of sins. He is portrayed as a sometimes orange-skinned, robe-wearing Buddha making the bhumisparsa, varada, and dhyana mudras and/or holding a fruit-bearing sandalwood tree in his lap. Conflicting sources place his Buddha-land in either “Nanda” (Huanxi, 歡喜) in the South or “Pervaded by Miraculous Fragrance” (Miaoxiang bianman, 妙香遍滿) in the North-West. However, scripture agrees that his name/scent has a calming or “cooling” affect on the passions of mankind.

Xuanzang, the historical Tang monk on whom Tripitaka is based, came to be revered as an arhat during the Song dynasty. This likely explains why he is portrayed as the reincarnation of one such Buddhist saint in an early-Ming JTTW zaju play. But at some point during the Ming, salvational groups connected Xuanzang to Candana Merit, believing the monk to be one of his incarnations. This association took place prior to the 1592 JTTW. However, Xuanzang doesn’t appear to be worshiped as said Buddha in modern practice. This is because Candana Merit could never be subsumed under the Tang Monk’s late-blooming cult.


1) Compare the list from the Chinese version to those listed here. The characters may vary slightly.

2) Thank you to Jose Loayza (Twitter) for telling me that Candana Merit was also one of the 35 Confession Buddhas.

3) To learn more about these Arhat paintings, see Zhou (2021).

4) The early-Ming JTTW zaju play sees the Arhat Vairocana (Pilujia zunzhe, 毗廬伽尊者) willingly reincarnate as Tripitaka in order to obtain the scriptures (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 193). The sage later returns to paradise upon completing his mission (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 200). 

5) I don’t know for certain why Xuanzang was associated with Candana Merit during the Ming. However, my educated guess is that it has something to do with the monk’s historical connection to sandalwood statues. Morse (2007) explains:

“Xuanzang played an important role in popularizing sandalwood imagery when he brought ‘four carved sandalwood images of the Buddha’ back to Chang’an from India in 645″ (p. 168)


Bunce, F. W. (1994). An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons: With Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes (Vols.1-2). New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Chandra, L. (1999). Buddhist Iconography: Compact Edition. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture & Aditya Prakashan.

Clark, W. E. (Ed.). (1965). Two Lamaistic Pantheons. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp. (Original work published 1937). Retrieved from

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Inagaki, H. (1998). Path of Easy Practice: Igyohon – The Ninth Chapter of the Discourse on the Ten Stages by Nagarjuna. MIT.

Lai, D. (2016, September 3). 35 Confessional Buddhas. Retrieved from

Liu, S. (2019). Songdai Xuanzang de shenghua: Tuxiang, wenwu he yiji [The Sanctification of Xuanzang in the Song Dynasty: Images, Artifacts and Remains]. Zhonghua wenshi luncong, 133, 161-219.

Morse, S. C. (2007). The Buddhist Transformation of Japan in the Ninth Century: The Case of Eleven-Headed Kannon. In M. Adolphson, E. Kamens, & S. Matsumoto (Eds.), Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries (pp. 153-176). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo henshū [Nara University Tōkyō Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Ed.)]. (2014). Daitokuji denrai gohyaku rakan zu [Daitoku Temple’s Tradition of the 500 Arhats Paintings]. Kyōto: Shitau bungaku.

Wu, C. & Jenner, W. J. F. (2020). Journey to the West (Vol. 4). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Zhou, Y. (2021). The Daitokuji Five Hundred Arhats Paintings and Their Beholders [Master’s dissertation, University of Alberta]. Education and Research Archive.

A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 11-04-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru. The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another (see the 02-14-23 update below). This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see the 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise (see the 11-04-23 update below). However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where:

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After he awoke and mounted his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by Guanyin (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs… (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [4] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think that the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [5]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.

Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [6]


As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.

Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya (Sk: संयुक्त निकाया; Ch: Xiang ying bu, 相應部, c. 250 BCE) notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.

Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).


This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.

Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel that I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.

Update: 08-26-23

Tumblr user digitalagepulao has drawn lovely versions of the JTTW pilgrims (fig. 11). This is for their own “Expedition to the West au” (JTTW alternate universe) storyline based on the info presented above in the original article. They explain their design choices based on the countries where the disciples are recruited:

Sha Wujing (435cm): His outfit is mostly inspired by Mongolian clothes since he’s found in the Gobi desert stretch of the journey. His bangles are made of fossil bone, and he can use the waist cloth as a headwrap during adverse weather. His markings are inspired by African Lungfish and Mudfish fins, as they are species that exist somewhere between water and dry air. The beasts on his knees are an extension of him, and he can see and speak through them as needed. His beard and long hair can have Ghibli physics depending on his mood and emotions.

Zhu Wuneng (~300cm): Inspired by Northern Tibetan clothes, as that’s the region the group recruits him. Traditional clothes tend to have way more accessories and golden details so I had to simplify a bit. His features are a mix of wild boars and Indonesian babirusa, with the iconic bristles on his head. I leaned on ceremonial Tibetan swords and necklace beads for the decorations on his rake. His vest can be closed, he just prefers not to most of the time.

Sun Wukong (125cm): I’ve already commented on his design over here, but I’ll elaborate that the yellow shirt is the one he gained from Tripitaka soon after he was released, while the pants and red half-robe were the garments he was given by Guan Yin. The hoops on his feet and purple beads were reacquired back in Huaguoshan when he first fled the pilgrimage, heading to his family instead of Ao Guang’s palace. (A-ma and Jinju gave them to him so he’ll always have something to home to remember them by, as well as where he first started, as the beads were gained during his lessons with Subodhi.)

Tripitaka (163cm): This is but one of his many outfits since travel can be rough on clothes, and even more so when you get kidnapped by demons and thrown off your horse all the time. He wears the usual orange monk robes, with some kind of travel clothes over them. He gains some fur boots from Boquin for cold weather but usually prefers sandals most of the time. He seldom uses the cassock and crown he received from Guan Yin, save for when he pays respects to temples and holy sites, but the staff is a constant companion.

Ao Lie (167cm, 130cm at the shoulder as horse): Being effectively in exile until the journey is complete, he wears less fancy clothes than he usually would as a prince, but his status still shows. I tried to balance more casual hanfu of the era with some armor parts, like the waist guard and armored boots. He was given the skill to shapeshift into a horse by Guan Yin when she commanded him to wait for the chosen pilgrim monk, so he can shift at will, but preferably when the tack has been taken off. Speaking of, tack is lost and replaced multiple times during the journey, so I didn’t depict any specific one.

Fig. 11 – Digitalagepulao’s JTTW character designs (larger version). Used with permission.

Update: 11-04-2023

Above, I stated: “They [Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing] would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise.” But I’ve never really liked the idea that Monkey would forever abandon his people. This is especially true since his rebellion led to heaven decimating the monkeys and burning their cave (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). So, I think a better ending for this historical version would be for the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (fig. 12) to return to the Mountain of Flower and Fruit, where he transforms it into his own Pure Land (Jingtu, 淨土). The monkeys killed in years passed would be reborn there, and everyone would receive periodic lessons on the dharma between bouts of play. It would be a paradise even grander than when the Great Sage was at the height of his power.

Fig. 12 – A religiously accurate drawing of Monkey as the Yuddhajaya Buddha by NinjaHaku21 (larger version).


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

5) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

6) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Vols. 1-2). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Last updated: 06-04-2023

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230 CE) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century CE). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).


The tribute references elements that would later appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century CE), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127 CE) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102 CE) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his (missing) hands are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102 CE) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century CE) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104 CE) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104 CE) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269 CE) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century CE, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686 CE) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century CE stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 CE (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237 CE) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century CE (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 CE (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century CE and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century CE. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 CE as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century CE painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A closer detail showing people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

Update: 06-04-23

I was happy to learn that the Monkey Pilgrim appears among a large set of late-12th-century ritual scrolls portraying the famed 500 Arhats. [6] He is depicted as a monkey-headed, black robe-wearing figure with the lower half of his body obscured by clouds, making him hard to see unless you zoom in on the image. He holds what appears to be the head of a staff in his left hand (fig. 21). Our hero is located just behind Tripitaka, who is riding a white horse led by a spirit-soldier(?) or perhaps Sha Wujing’s antecedent (fig. 22). The full scroll shows this scene happening above the heads of four arhats (fig. 23), indicating that the Tang Monk is considered to be one of these Buddhist sages.

I actually found the simian immortal by accident while researching an article about Tripitaka’s Buddha title. Dr. Meir Shahar tells me that this depiction of Monkey doesn’t appear to have been mentioned in previous JTTW scholarship (personal communication, June 3, 2023). [7] Therefore, I’m so very happy that I can share this discovery with my readers!

This depiction predates the Monkey Pilgrim’s appearance in the 13th-century JTTW by a century. His counterpart in that version is described as a “scholar dressed in a white robe” (Baiyi xiucai白衣秀才) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). This completely differs from the primate head and black robe from the scroll. And while the 13th-century Monkey Pilgrim mainly wields a golden-ringed monk’s staff (jinhuan (xi)zhang, 金鐶錫杖/金鐶杖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example), this simian cleric appears to have a traditional staff with an orb finial. 

Fig. 21 – (Left) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). From Lin Tinggui and Zhou Jichang, The Tang Monk Procures the Scriptures (Tangseng qujing, 唐僧取經), no. 77 of 100 scrolls from Images of the 500 Arhats (Wubai Luohan tu, 五百羅漢圖, 1178-1188 CE). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Image from Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo, 2014, p. 86. Courtesy of Dr. Liu Shufen, a research fellow at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica. Fig. 22 – (Center) A detail of Xuanzang on his his horse (larger version). Fig. 23 – (Right) The full scroll (larger version).


1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).

6) To learn more about these paintings, see Zhou (2021).

7) Dr. Benjamin Brose tells me that the painting appears in a Japanese source, but the Monkey Pilgrim is only listed as a “monkey attendant” (personal communications, June 3 and 12, 2023). See Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo henshū, 2014, p. 86.


Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo henshū [Nara University Tōkyō Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Ed.)]. (2014). Daitokuji denrai gohyaku rakan zu [Daitoku Temple’s Tradition of the 500 Arhats Paintings]. Kyōto: Shitau bungaku.

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Zhou, Y. (2021). The Daitokuji Five Hundred Arhats Paintings and Their Beholders [Master’s dissertation, University of Alberta]. Education and Research Archive.

Archive #15 – Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in the “Hsi-Yu Chi”

Last updated: 04-03-2022

Readers may be surprised to learn that chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version anonymously published by the Shidetang (世德堂) publishing house in 1592. Chapter nine of course tells the story of how Tripitaka‘s parents, his scholar-official father Chen Guangrui (陳光蕊) and mother Yin Wenjiao (殷溫嬌), meet (fig. 1); Guangrui’s murder and the pregnant Lady Yin’s kidnapping by a bandit; Tripitaka’s birth and Moses-like trip down a river (hence his nickname “River Float,” Jiang liu, 江流); his rescue, rearing, and initiation into the Buddhist order by the abbot of Gold Mountain; Lady Yin’s rescue and the bandit-turned-official’s arrest; and Tripitaka’s later reunion with his mother and father, the latter’s body having been preserved and brought back to life by heaven.

Some scholars, such as Glen Dudbridge, suggest the current ninth chapter is a forgery, having been written by one Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Canton because it appears in his slightly later edited version of the novel titled The Chronicle of Deliverances in Tripitaka Tang’s Journey to the West (Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni zhuan, 唐三藏西游释尼傳, circa 1595). (See the 01-02-21 update for new information about Zhu’s version of the novel.) Other scholars posit there is internal textual evidence for a possible lost chapter and that the current ninth chapter was salvaged from these internal clues. 

Tripitaka's Parents

Fig. 1 – Tripitaka’s parents from the 1986 television show. 

Anthony Yu‘s (1975) paper “Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in the ‘Hsi-Yu Chi'” supplements previous analyses of said internal textual evidence. He demonstrates that references to the Chen Guangrui episode litter the book. For example, a poem in chapter twelve (ch. 11 of the original Shidetang version) reads:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man.
He met misfortune as he came to Earth,
And evildoers even before his birth.
His father: Chen, a zhuangyuan [1] from Haizhou.
His mother’s sire: chief of this dynasty’s court.
Fated by his natal star to fall in the stream,
He followed tide and current, chased by mighty waves.
At Gold Mountain, the island, he had great luck,
For the abbot, Qian’an, raised him up.
He met his true mother at age eighteen,
And called on her father at the capital.
A great army was sent by Chief Kaishan
To stamp out at Hongzhou the vicious crew.
The zhuangyuan Guangrui escaped his doom:
Son rejoined sire—how worthy of praise!
They saw the emperor to receive his grace;
Their names resounded in Lingyan Tower.
Declining office, he chose a monk’s life
At Hongfu Temple to seek the true Way,
This old Buddha-child, nicknamed River Float,
With a religious name of Chen Xuanzang. [2]


Yu (1975) notes “this passage…which introduces Tripitaka to the reader, has, with the exception of one major discrepancy (i.e. the name of the monk who took in the river-borne orphan), all the crucial elements constitutive of the Chen Guangrui story” (p. 296).

After providing several more examples, he concedes external textural evidence for a lost chapter has yet to be discovered, but suggests the author-compiler of the Journey to the West was surely familiar with established Yuan-Ming dramas involving Tripitaka’s birth and life:

I think that the foregoing analysis, admittedly brief, is sufficient to show the significance, if not the indispensability, of the Chen Guangrui episode in the narrative, though as I have remarked earlier, these later allusions certainly cannot be construed as incontrovertible proofs for a “lost chapter.” The existence of such a chapter has to be established by further discovery of textual materials hitherto unknown, if such discovery is indeed still possible. It may be safely asserted, however, that the author of the hundred-chapter novel, Wu Cheng’en or whoever he might be, is thoroughly familiar with the tradition of the birth and adventures of the infant Xuanzang popularized in the dramas of Yuan and Ming China, and that he has consciously and skillfully exploited this tradition in his narrative (Yu, 1975, p. 306).

Yu (1975) goes on to counter Dudbridge’s criticism that the Chen Guangrui episode doesn’t progress the overall plot by saying it should, instead, be accepted as an “organizing principle”, one that explains the reason for the monk’s ordeals:

[T]he theme of the river and its attendant perils utilized by the author of the hundred-chapter novel reinforces the theme of Tripitaka’s this-worldly identity as the incarnation of the banished Gold Cicada. Both themes in turn support the threefold aetiology developed in the narrative for explicating the meaning of Tripitaka’s ordeals: as a form of chastisement for his preexistent transgression, as a test of endurance for the earthly pilgrim, and as an exemplum of the high cost of obtaining sacred writings from the West (p. 307).

Furthermore, he counters Dudbridge’s claim that the concept of a lost chapter would be stronger if the novel provided more than just passing references to background info of the central characters. In fact, the novel does provide lengthy info on our heroes. For example, Yu (1975) presents a very long poem from chapter nineteen detailing Zhu Bajie’s life, from his early Daoist training, achievement of immortality, and rise to heavenly rank to his drunken flirting with the moon goddess (fig. 2), banishment from heaven, and mistaken reincarnation on earth as a pig-man.

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – a Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess Chang’e.

In the end, Yu (1975) states Qing-era editors of the novel were justified in their suspicion of a lost chapter given the lack of detailed info about Tripitaka’s life, unlike the other pilgrims:

In the absence of chapter 9, Tripitaka is the only member of the pilgrimage, in fact, whose origins are presented in the manner which Dudbridge ascribes to the disciples: in allusion or indirectly, in moments of retrospect. The early editors of the Xiyouji, therefore, were not wholly unjustified in their protest that a theme of such significance as the Chen Guangrui story had not been more fully accounted for by antecedent narrative (p. 310).

Paper link:



This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.

Update: 01-02-21

Zhu Dingchen’s edition of Journey to the West actually predates the 1592 edition. This shows that the aforementioned internal clues in the 1592 edition are based on previous material.

Update: 12-01-21

I’ve archived a book that shows how Tripitaka’s exile from heaven is similar to ancient Greek and Egyptian beliefs.

Update: 04-03-22

I’ve posted an entry discussing the characterization of Tripitaka as a Confucian in the novel.


1) A scholar rank. All quotes from Yu (1975) originally use Wade-Giles. I have updated them with Pinyin.

2) Yu, 1975, p. 296. See Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 275 in Yu’s updated translation of the novel.


Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Yu, A. (1975). Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in The “Hsi-Yu Chi”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 34(2), 295-311. doi:10.2307/2052750