Journey to the West: Initial Reactions

Think back for a minute to the last time you read a piece of Chinese literature for a class.  Asian studies majors may skip this exercise; the question is, for those of us who weren’t specifically interested in Chinese culture: When was the last time you were exposed to it in a classroom setting?

I’ll give you a minute.

Okay, let’s expand the question to include all Asian literature (not counting Asian-American literature).  And African literature.  And all other literature that isn’t from Europe or North America.

For me, as well as I can remember, there is still absolutely nothing.  The closest I’ve got is learning about haikus and cinquains in third or fourth grade.  Perhaps I was just an inattentive student–that’s the most charitable explanation–but I recall thinking that the cinquain was a Chinese form of poetry, a misconception that I held for years until my linguistics skills had developed enough to see the problem with that explanation, whereupon I looked it up and discovered that it is in fact a twentieth-century American form of poetry popularized–you guessed it–for use with elementary students.

Something is wrong here.  China is a rather large country with a rather long history, including a long literary history; surely there was room in sixteen years of curriculum for one story or poem from that canon.  Once you account for the lack of representation from other prolific cultures (Japan, India, and so on), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that my literary education–and perhaps yours as well–was incredibly xenophobic.  Perhaps the clearest sign is the name of the class where we studied literature: English class.

All of this is only a roundabout way of justifying the fact that, until quite recently when I randomly started poking around in Chinese mythology, I’d never even heard of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.  Please don’t judge me.

I’m only a quarter of the way through this megalith, but here are my initial reactions:

  • I love the mixed poetry and prose.  It’s a style we neglect here in the West (although I did once write a mixed poetry and prose novella, it has since been relegated to the shelf of old shame).
  • Zhu Bajie is totally the best character.  He’s a pig with a rake!  How is that not awesome?
  • Also, a casual translation of his name might be “kosher pig.”
  • I was expecting this book to be good.  I wasn’t expecting it to be so funny.  Many types of humor don’t translate, but monkey antics are universal.
  • While it has only been about seventy years in the English-speaking literary canon, there are already countless homages to it that I’ve been missing all this time.  I loved the Dragon of the Lost Sea books when I was a kid (and I heartily recommend them to all 9- to 12-year-olds who like a good, thick adventure book) and I always assumed that the monkey with the changeable staff was an original character.

It makes me appreciate how many literary references I’m no doubt still missing.  Luckily, the solution is simple and fun: Read more!  Maybe I should tackle The Tale of Genji next.  Or some Sanskrit literature.  I still haven’t read a single one of the Russian novelists.  There are so many options.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

1 Comment


  1. I suddenly feel more charitable towards my Texas public school education; we had a decent amount of non-West stuff. I mean, not including college, we read the Ramayana (India), Things Fall Apart (Ibo folks of Africa), Kaffir Boy (South Africa)… I recall at least one Chinese folk tale from elementary school, but I can’t remember whether it was us reading from the textbook on our own or if it was part of the school class proper, so maybe it shouldn’t count. Plus, I took Japanese through high school, so I was familiar with stories from there–Momotarou, it’s own version of Journey to the West, and so on.

    Then you get college in there, and shit hits the wall, because we were a Japanese minor (so LOTS of Japanese readings), and also read classics like Gilgamesh,

    Tale of Genji is DENSE, just a warning. I have it, and it’s not something I can read easily, just because there’s SO MUCH CONTEXT.

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