SAY WHAT YOU LIKE about the Nobel Prize, it does achieve one thing: through its strong media presence, it draws attention to “serious” literature for at least one day a year. This international spotlight has at times been particularly welcome for writers outside the Anglophone and Western European publishing centers that still dominate our understanding of world literature. And given how little-known many of the masterpieces of the Imperial Chinese literary canon are to Western readers, the Los Angeles Review of Books asked me to nominate one pre-20th-century work or writer deserving of the Nobel publicity boost. I’ve settled upon Journey to the West, which may or may not have been authored by a failed official–turned–hermit poet called Wu Cheng’en (c. 1500-1582). I’ve chosen it for its dazzling combination of slapstick effervescence and thought-provoking meditations on existential conundrums: the tragedy of mortality, the obstacles to self-perfection, the violence and chaos of the human and animal worlds.
Of course, the fact that Wu has been dead for well over 400 years, or indeed may not have been the writer of the novel, would pose difficulties of form for the Nobel Prize ceremony. It would not, however, be the first time that a Chinese laureate’s chair had been left empty at an official Nobel Prize–giving — the precedent was set in 2010 with Liu Xiaobo. The fact that the book’s writer is perhaps unknown and assuredly deceased would at least enable the prize’s committee to avoid the usual storm of political accusations that follows their awarding of a Nobel to an ethnically Chinese writer.
Journey to the West (c. 1580) is one of the masterworks of classical Chinese writing. It recounts a Tang Dynasty monk’s quest for Buddhist scriptures in the 7th century AD, accompanied by an omni-talented, kung fu-practicing Monkey King called Wukong (one of the most memorable reprobates of world literature); a rice-loving pig-spirit able to fly with its ears; and a depressive man-eating monster from a sand dune. It is a cornerstone text of Eastern fiction: its stature in Asian literary culture may be compared with that of The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote in European letters.
The novel commences with a spirited prologue — seven chapters long — recounting the Monkey King’s many attempts to achieve immortal sagehood, in the course of which he acquires knowledge and weapons that will serve him well through the book as a whole: the ability to perform “cloud somersaults” that carry him 30,000 miles in one leap, a gold-hooped staff (weighing almost 20,000 pounds) that can shrink to the size of a needle. He becomes a master of subterfuge by learning to transform himself into 72 different varieties of creature (though his human disguises lack perfect authenticity due to his inability to lose his tail). He studies demon-freezing spells and how to turn each of the 84,000 hairs on his body into other animals (including clones of himself) or objects. Yet time and again he is brought low by his irrepressible love of mischief. Finally, after taking up a bureaucratic sinecure in the heavenly government of the Jade Emperor, he commits the unforgivable crime of gorging himself on the peaches, wine, and elixirs of immortality. Following an epic battle between the monkey and the armies of Heaven, the Buddha pins Wukong beneath the Five-Phases Mountain.
Five hundred years later, one of the founding emperors of the Tang dynasty, Taizong, dispatches a holy monk, Xuanzang, to India to bring back to China the precious Buddhist sutras of “transcendence and persuasion for good will.” On Xuanzang’s way out of China, the Buddha releases Wukong from beneath his mountain so that he can expurgate his sins by protecting the monk on his journey. Joined by two more disciples, the Pig Spirit and the Sand Monster (both fallen immortals also), they advance westwards through the treacherous wildernesses of the Silk Road: through Xinjiang, Tibet, Nepal, and finally India. In the course of their travels, they encounter murderous Buddhists, perfidious Taoists, expanses of rotten tomatoes, and monsters of all shapes and sizes (femmes fatales, elephants, rhinoceroses, rocs, beautiful football-playing spider spirits). They are multiply captured, tied up, lacquered, sautéed, steamed, and impregnated, and come very close to being diced, boiled, liquefied, pickled, cured, and mated with various fiends. Eventually, after exactly 81 such calamities, the pilgrims reach Thunderclap Monastery, the stronghold of the Buddha in India, and are rewarded with armfuls of sutras and posts in the Buddha’s government of immortals.
Populated by gods, demons, emperors, bureaucrats, monks, animals, woodsmen, bandits, and farmers, the novel presents an epic vision of Imperial China. It captures, in splendid, inventive detail, the complex weave of Chinese society, politics, and religious belief, within a framework of comic adventure that is profoundly subversive of many popular Western perceptions of Chinese culture. We still tend to think of Imperial China as self-sufficient, isolationist, xenophobic; strong on a sense of its own cultural superiority, weak on openness to the outside world. Journey to the West — an odyssey out of China, to attain the wisdom of Indian Buddhist civilization — tells a different story, one of Chinese fascination with foreign exotica. We perhaps also imagine Imperial China as hidebound by a solemn, dutiful Confucianism, worshipful of hierarchy and authority. Again, Journey to the West — and its enduring popularity in China over the centuries — contradicts this stereotype. Those chosen to accompany Xuanzang on his quest are not the great and the good, but rather the humblest, most benighted of creatures, all of whom attain immortality at the book’s conclusion. And although the travelers’ quest is ostensibly spiritual, the book sparkles with irreverence toward religious and moral authority. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists, and libidinous Taoists — all are mocked. At one point, the Monkey King even urinates on the hand of the Buddha.
Though we cannot even be sure who wrote Journey to the West (it was not confidently attributed to Wu Cheng’en until the 20th century; his authorship is probable, but not undisputed by scholars) it is an intensely human book. The immortals and monsters that fill the novel — despite their terrifying external attributes — are in many ways reassuringly like us. Their bureaucracies and governments replicate those of the human world: they carefully file petitions to the correct supernatural department; a person cannot expire until the underworld civil servant on duty has checked the mortality schedules in the ledgers of life and death. Like officials everywhere, the Buddha’s subordinates guarding Thunderclap Monastery demand a bribe of Xuanzang and his disciples, before giving them access to the scriptures. The novel’s pilgrims, meanwhile, are not saints but rather plausibly imperfect, fractious individuals. The Buddhist sage Xuanzang piously claims to be reconciled to whatever terrible fate Heaven has allotted to him but moans constantly about being cold, hungry, and uncomfortable; every crisis reduces him to a sobbing wreck. Pigsy is lazy and greedy — susceptible to any demon bearing a bowl of fried rice. And of course, there is the irresistibly naughty Monkey King, with his talent for giggling at the grimmest of situations; his smart backchat to fearsome gods and demons; and his inventive dueling techniques (one favorite being to transform himself into a tempting piece of food, be swallowed by an enemy monster, and thump its insides into submission).
Journey to the West has already proven its global appeal — and its right to a place in the world literary canon — through the number and variety of dramatic adaptations that have been made of it, in China and beyond: plays, musicals, television series (the cult children’s television series from the 1970s, Monkey Magic, to name but one), and films. This past summer, six years after premiering in Manchester and going on to play in other cities on both sides of the Atlantic, a high-octane stage adaptation, Monkey: Journey to the West, featuring animation, kung fu, song, and dance, from the creators of the British group Gorillaz and the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng, enjoyed a much buzzed-about run at New York’s Lincoln Center. Hollywood currently has its own version in the pipeline, scripted by Neil Gaiman and with James Cameron to act as script and tech advisor. As Western publishers and audiences chase the next big literary thing to come out of China, I would urge readers also to look back to a classic novel whose comedy, fantasy, political, and social satire and kung fu sequences remain a crucial imaginative and stylistic resource for Chinese writers and filmmakers today — including China’s own latest Nobel laureate, Mo Yan.