End of the Journey

15 03 2011

Yesterday I finally finished reading Journey to the West.  If you may remember, I was half way through towards the end of November, and it has taken me the remaining three and a half months to finish the second half of the story.  If you want to know why, continue reading.

As I said before, the book had started getting repetitive.  The book continued this way all the way through to the last few chapters, which is the main reason I took so long.  You can only read so much of the same thing before getting bored out of your skull, and the next time you think about reading, you can only remember the reason you gave up last time.  Anyway, I persevered and made it through to the end.

So, Sanzang and his companions finally make it to visit the Buddha in the West, get the scriptures and make it home in time for tea.  Well not quite, the journey is described as taking many years in the book, and the return journey is unbelievably short when you think about how long it took to get there.  The second half of the book carries on the tale of the journey with the following general formula:

1. Some demons/baddies are in the way of continuing the journey, they want to capture Sanzang to eat him.

2. They trick Sanzang (Every time!! Why doesn’t he ever learn?) in some way and capture him and take him back to their cave/dwelling/hut.

3. Monkey puts forth the plan to rescue him (with the occasional “Let’s just give up and go home” from Pig). 

4. Monkey leads the battle to free Sanzang from the demons and eventually frees him.

5. Rinse and repeat.

This formula is interspersed with some other kinds of problems, but they are few and far between, and generally not much more interesting than the demon scenario.  One of the last chapters attempts to give some explanation as to why there were so many troubles on the way.

After finishing reading, I checked a few online reviews at amazon, and most of the reviews were 4 or 5 star, with only a few 3 and below.  The reviews that were 3 star or below did mostly pick up on the repetitive nature of the story, and thus graded it lower because it isn’t really necessary, in my opinion.  There are other abridged versions of the story, one of which is 30 chapters long.  This version sounds to me like it would work far better as a novel than the unabridged version I read.  To understand the story, you really only need to read the first 20 or so chapters, and the last few chapters, with one chapter in-between describing that the journey from East to West was long, slow, riddled with dangers including demons, fraudsters, bandits etc., and the gang had a real hard time.  It would serve the same purpose and save a hell of a lot of reading time and paper! 

The novel is based upon the story of a real monk named Xuan Zang who did indeed go to India to study the scriptures, because he was concerned about the quality of the Buddhist scriptures that were already in China, since they were poorly translated and so there were many different versions.  After training as a monk, he went to Chang’an (modern day Xian) to request a passport and permission to leave to journey west, along with several other monks.  Their request was denied, so the other monks gave up, but Xuan Zang snuck out of the city with the help of other people of the Buddhist faith.  When it was discovered he had escaped, a document ordering his capture was sent out, though more Buddhists helped him evade capture until he was free of the threat.

He then had to face the Gobi desert alone.  Not only did he have to endure the hardships of the desert, there were also five sentry towers posted that had orders to kill all travellers without a passport.  Xuan Zang managed to evade all five of these towers, though he would get shot at.  He got lost in the desert, and by pure luck when he was near death his horse led him to an oasis, so he was able to carry on his journey. 

He picked up more help along the way, and some followers.  They journeyed on through mountain passes and valleys, and many of his followers died during the journey before reaching India, though Xuan Zang survived and persevered.  In India, the remaining travellers had to deal with the threat of bandits, and were caught several times and nearly murdered.

Eventually Xuan Zang reached the university in India where he set out for, and studied the Buddhist scriptures for five years.  After leaving the university, Xuan Zang travelled throughout India, visiting many famous Buddhist sites.  He then journeyed back home to the East to return with the scriptures.  He had to request permission from the Emperor to return, and the Emperor was impressed with his accounts of his journey, and needed Xuan Zang for information about the Western countries in order to defend against attacks, so permission was granted.  Xuan Zang gave a detailed account of his journey to the Emperor, and then set out to translate the scriptures, for which he received aid from the Emperor.  The journey took 17 years in total.  Xuan Zang died at age 63 in Chang’an. 

The book is aimed more at children than adults, but to me the real story of the journey to the west is far more impressive and possibly worthy of a book all to itself, with a bit of fictionalization thrown in.  Also, the real story shows how brave and persevering the real monk was, but in the book he’s portrayed as quite the wuss.  Quite the injustice.

That’s it for my Journey to the West review.  I’m going to take a break from reading before continuing on my quest to read the four great Chinese novels.