Journey to the West and World History

Did you know that Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 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.

1. Timeline of World Events

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.”

2. Context

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.