Religous Interretations of Wu Chengen’s Novel «Journey to the West»


“Journey to the West” is a great Chinese work of fiction written presumably by Wu Chengen in the XVI century describing a pilgrimage from China to India of a devoted Buddhist monk and his supernatural disciples. The novel derives its material from folk tales and myths, but structures it into a narration both deep and brilliant.

The time when the work was written, imperial China of the late Ming Dynasty, saw co-existence and even syncretism of Neo-Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The three teachings penetrated and influenced each other, sometimes even blending into a kind of syncretical philosophy. Different concepts and categories of different religions were artificially “harmonized” to prove the popular idiom that “Three Religions are One”.

Like many other writings of the period “Journey to the West” employs ideas and concepts of three major religious schools of the period. The author of the novel deliberately uses mutually interpretative terms which allow different experts, scholars and religious practitioners interpret the novel as an allegory of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, ecologism etc. All of these interpretations are based on the spirit and letter of the great novel, emphasizing its various sides. So the novel is in all probability an example of Chinese religious syncretism with hidden hints and allusions, an enormous medieval hypertext with references and quotations from different religious texts.

What the majority of commentators do agree upon is that “Journey to the West” tells a story of spiritual transformation. While the meaning of religious symbolism can be understood in different ways, depending on the interpreter's own beliefs, the basic ascetic and soteriological truths of this story are understood by all interpreters in the same way. "Journey to the West" is a story of a soul seeking truth and salvation. This search leads it through trials, temptations and internal conflicts, but at the same time harmonizes the whole personality of a human, strengthens them in mercy and courage, and ultimately leads to self-awareness and immortality.
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