From Sandmonks to Spirit Bombs: A Taster

In the 7th century, the monk Xuanzang traveled from the capital of China to the middle of India. He journeyed through hundreds of states and countries, over 17 years and brought back 657 sutras. He recounted his experiences to the imperial court, and these were transcribed as Records of Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang. Xuanzang’s disciples / then wrote his biography, embellishing it with encounters and examples of Buddhist teaching. In the same way that any story told often enough begins to grow, the story of Xuanzang’s journey to the west would become the stuff of legends.

The oral tradition of storytelling in the Tang Dynasty evolved into the popular entertainment of the Song Dynasty (10th century), where people would go to teahouses to socialise, and to listen to skilled storytellers. Whilst we know that many of the best story tellers worked from scripts that they tended to steal and buy from each other, the only one surviving to this date of the Buddhist oral tradition, is the Travels of Xuanzang.

It combines prose and poetry, and whilst the “bad men” and the “unenlightened” of previous versions had long ago become demons here, the Monk gets his own disciples. The first, and most mentioned, being a bestial monkey spirit, with a head as hard as copper and arms as strong as iron – who could indulge in all the fighting and trickery that makes for good story telling, but not so goodfor Buddhist teaching. So we also hear about a God of the Deep Sands, who turns away from his bloody habits to follow the Monk.

By the time of late Yuan dramas (circa 13th/14th century), a pig demon had appeared, allowing the story tellers to add lechery to their story with the pig’s carnal nature. By this time the God of Deep Sands had evolved into Sand Monk, a cannibalistic water demon who converts to Buddhism to repent for his gory devouring of unwary travellers. All these folk tales urban legends plays and storytelling scripts were gathered and unified into a single novel. The author is Wu Cheng En and the earliest surviving version was printed in 1592.

It’s best to think of Xi You Ji or Journey to the West, as a work that belongs to the people. It was the product of 9 centuries of literary and cultural evolution, and has in fact, carried on evolving. As a spoken story in front of an often drunken audience, performers would often adapt the story to respond to the hecklers. Even though it has long ceased to be orally narrated, popular modern media such as television, film and comics have never ceased to re-imagine their own journeys to the West to please their audiences. This makes Xi You Ji one of the most adaptable and accessible works of Chinese literature.

The first section of the novel could be called “the Rise and Fall of the Monkey King”. It follows Wukong, the Monkey King as he establishes himself as a powerful fighter and leader on earth, without deference to the hierarchy of Heaven. When he is eventually invited into Heaven, and given the title of “Master of Heavenly Horses”, he finds himself doing little more than shovelling manure. After rebelling and misbehaving, he is eventually fought to a standstill and trapped under the Wuxing Mountains for 500 years. He is released only when the Bodhisattva Guanyin decides to send him on a mission to protect Xuanzang from the dangers of his travels.

The Monk “Xuan Zang”, the Monkey King “Wu Kong”, along with the Pig Demon “Ba Jie” and “Sha Wu Jing” the Sand Monk, are the main characters of this epic. They do meet other Chinese legends, as well as dragons, demons, seductive spider ladies and fallen gods, but it is the progress of these four pilgrims that defines the book. With our four travellers united, lets see how they progress, not only over the 3000 miles from Chang‘An to the heart of India, but the fourteen hundred years from the Tang Dynasty to the present day.

First created and delivered for Kitacon 2011, Northampton. For further information please go to my Contacts page.

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