Reflections on Journey to the West

Childhood Memories of Journey to the West

When people think of Journey to the West, the image that often comes to mind is the TV series starring Liu Xiao Ling Tong, which is a cherished childhood memory for many, including myself.

As a child, one of my most anticipated moments was rushing to a nearby shop after school (we didn’t have cable TV at home) to watch Journey to the West. The theme song would fill me with excitement, making my day simple and delightful.

I remember watching the show on CCTV1, which had a distinctive animated logo effect that signaled the beginning of the episode. Whenever I saw that logo, I knew Journey to the West was about to start, filling me with joy and anticipation.

The Childhood “Golden-Hooped Rod”

The most vivid memory of Journey to the West is fantasizing about being Sun Wukong. I spent summers wielding a bamboo stick, pretending it was the Golden-Hooped Rod. I would drape a red bed sheet over my shoulders, imitating Sun Wukong’s cape, and mimic Liu Xiao Ling Tong’s movements, spinning the “rod” between my fingers and wrists while exclaiming, “Here comes the Great Sage!” I felt invincible.

I even slept with my bamboo stick, but it would always disappear by morning. I wondered if Taishang Laojun had taken it away. Later, I found out that my mother would throw it away while I was asleep, which made me sulk for a long time.

Eventually, I got smarter and bought a mini version of the Golden-Hooped Rod from a stationery store, hiding it from my mother. I would sneak peeks at it before sleeping, feeling incredibly cool with my mini but exquisite Golden-Hooped Rod.

First Encounter with the Original Journey to the West

By the time I reached middle school, my vocabulary had expanded, and I started reading more profound books, including the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

Fascination with Water Margin
I was particularly obsessed with Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. My obsession was so intense that I couldn’t put down Water Margin even during meals. I could effortlessly recall the nicknames, weapons, and stories of the 108 outlaws of Liangshan (e.g., Timely Rain Song Jiang, Wanderer Yan Qing, White Stripe in the Waves Zhang Shun, Leopard Head Lin Chong).

Passion for Romance of the Three Kingdoms
My obsession with Romance of the Three Kingdoms was equally strong. A small shop near my school sold snack packets called “Magician Crispy Noodles,” which contained collectible character cards from Three Kingdoms. It was akin to today’s blind boxes. The rare character cards were highly coveted, and owning one brought a sense of pride and distinction.

I was among the first in my grade to collect all the cards, which brought me immense pride. To achieve this, I consumed countless packets of noodles and negotiated numerous trades. Each rare card was a treasure to me.

This experience taught me perseverance and the value of hard-earned achievements, shaping my future behaviors and attitudes.

Later Disinterest in Journey to the West
Although I read portions of the other three classics seriously (only part of Dream of the Red Chamber), I dismissed Journey to the West after a few chapters, assuming it to be identical to the TV series. This misunderstanding persisted until after I graduated from my master’s program and entered the workforce.

Second Encounter with the Original Journey to the West

I revisited the original Journey to the West in the summer and autumn of 2020. I had just completed an internship in Kanagawa Prefecture and moved to the coastal area near the Pacific Ocean for my first job.

During this time, I was involved in a challenging project, working late into the night. Despite the exhaustion, I found solace in reading Journey to the West every night. To savor the book, I limited myself to a few chapters each night, sometimes sneaking in an extra chapter or two.

Reading Journey to the West became my nightly retreat, offering me comfort and joy amidst the daily grind.

The Experience of Reading the Original Work

It’s hard to articulate the feelings evoked by reading the original Journey to the West. If I must describe it, it was a blend of awe, astonishment, beauty, and exhilaration.

Awe and Astonishment
I was amazed by the book’s profoundness and craftsmanship, feeling that Western classics paled in comparison. The book’s grandeur and intricate emotions left me in awe, and its humorous, romantic, and charming narrative enchanted me.

Beauty
The beauty of the language was striking. Simple scenes were depicted with exquisite detail, showcasing the richness and depth of Chinese culture and language.

For example, the description of the fruit arrangements on Flower Fruit Mountain was breathtaking:

“Golden marbles and pearls, red and yellow, fresh dragon eyes, sweet and tender; fire lychees, with small cores and red pulp; apples in green skins, loquats in yellow husks. Pears like rabbit heads, dates like chicken hearts, relieving thirst and curing headaches. Delicate peaches, luscious apricots, like jade nectar and ambrosia; crisp plums, sour bayberries, like lipid sour cream. Ripe watermelons with red pulp, large persimmons with yellow skin. Pomegranates burst open, revealing ruby-like seeds; chestnuts peeled, hard meat like gold and agate. Walnuts and ginkgo nuts for tea, coconuts and grapes for wine. Hazelnuts, pine nuts, almonds, and crab apples fill the plates, oranges, sugar cane, and tangerines overflow the table. Cooked yams, boiled yellow essence, pounded poria and coix seeds, simmered slowly in a stone pot. Human delicacies cannot compare to the joy of mountain monkeys.”

Exhilaration
Reading through 700,000 words was exhilarating, and finding in Journey to the West the affirmation of my long-held beliefs was immensely satisfying. Different people, with varied experiences and perspectives, will derive different meanings from the book, making it a kaleidoscope of insights.

My Perspective on Journey to the West

The opening poems of the Four Great Classical Novels are grand and majestic, setting a high tone. For example, the opening of Romance of the Three Kingdoms:

“The great river flows east, washing away heroes. Right and wrong, success and failure, all become empty. Green mountains remain, how many sunsets red?”

However, I feel the opening of Journey to the West has a strong promotional flavor:

“Before chaos was divided, heaven and earth were one; all was murky and indistinct. From the time of Pangu’s breaking of the great void, a clear distinction began. All living things were nurtured, and the world became clear and orderly. If you wish to know the origin of creation, you must read the story of the journey to the West.”

Despite its promotional tone, Journey to the West indeed delves into profound philosophies and the essence of life. It integrates Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and Daoism with a humorous and playful narrative, making it an enlightening yet entertaining read.

Reevaluation of Sun Wukong
Before reading the original work, I saw Sun Wukong as powerful yet rebellious. However, the original Sun Wukong is more of an enlightened guide, leading Tang Sanzang towards the West. He is not only skilled and intelligent but also the most spiritually advanced among the four disciples, surpassing even Tang Sanzang. Tang Sanzang, despite his human flaws, possesses a pure and devout heart, which is his greatest strength.

One scene that deeply impressed me addressed a childhood question of mine.

Crossing the Flowing Sands River
When the trio is stopped by Sha Wujing at the Flowing Sands River, Zhu Bajie asks Sun Wukong:

“Brother, since it’s so easy for you, why don’t you just carry Master on your back and leap over the river with your cloud somersault? Why bother fighting?”

Sun Wukong replies:

“My somersault cloud is indeed fast, but carrying Master is different. As the saying goes, ‘Lifting Mount Tai is easier than taking an ordinary person out of the dust.’ These demons and monsters use sorcery and wind, making it impossible to carry Master in the air. Though I can perform various magical feats, we must endure this hardship for Master to experience the journey and understand its true meaning. If we took the easy way, even if we reached Buddha, he wouldn’t grant us the scriptures. As the saying goes, ‘If easily obtained, it would be taken lightly.’”

This passage highlights the true purpose of the journey. The process is what imparts the true essence of the scriptures, which lie in one’s heart and are realized through perseverance and experience.

The Heart of Journey to the West

Ultimately, I believe Journey to the West is a story about the heart’s journey—how it is tempered, matures, and learns to overcome inner desires and external temptations while maintaining its initial purity and sincerity.

On our long journey, we encounter countless “demons and monsters,” both internal and external. If we view each challenge as a test to refine our hearts, we will eventually attain our own “true scriptures.”

“If you wish to know the origin of creation, you must read the story of the journey to the West.”

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