Lessons from Journey to the West

Satire, ridicule, lampoons – history tells us that they are things of their times, and we should as early as possible allow ourselves to laugh at them.

Before the story was depicted in films and movies, Xuan Zhang’s mythical journey and the monkey’s adventure were re-enacted on many an opera stage across China.

At the beginning of the week and the year, I hosted the current Chancellor of Nalanda University himself, George Yeo, who is also the former Foreign Minister of Singapore. The modern Nalanda was built about 10km away from the site of the ancient university in the state of Bihar in eastern India. The ancient Nalanda, founded in the fifth century and in operation for 800 years until its sacking in the 11th century, was reputed to be the oldest university in the world. (Al Azhar in Cairo was founded in 972, University of Bologna in 1088 and Oxford in 1167). The Buddha and his disciple, Sariputra, were said to have preached there. Monks and learners from all over the world had undertaken perilous journeys along dangerous ancient highways to reside there.

As I congratulated Yeo on his chancellorship, a position he was appointed to in July last year, taking over from Nobel laureate Prof Amartya Sen, we inevitably spoke about the Tang dynasty monk, Xuan Zhang, whose travelogue provided one of the best descriptions of ancient Nalanda. The monk spent at least 15 months there, being personally instructed by the abbotchancellor of the university, the sagely scholar Silabhadra.

Western Scholastic Haven

Xuan Zhang’s disciple and biographer, Hui Li, described Nalanda – no doubt from listening to his master’s narration – as “the most remarkable for grandeur and height” among the myriads of monasteries and temples in India.

Nalanda had richly adorned towers like heavenly pagodas and pointed hilltops built near each other, and their turrets “seem to be lost in the morning mists and the upper rooms tower above the clouds” so that “from the windows one may see how the winds and the clouds are formed and above the soaring roof, one may observe the transitions of the sun and moon.”
But physical grandeur was not the only charm of Nalanda. At the university were 10,000 students who studied not only the great texts of Buddhism but also logic, grammar, medicine and philosophy. Among these, “a thousand can explain 20 collections of sutras (scriptures) and sastras, 500 can explain 30 collections and 10 (including Xuan Zhang himself) can explain 50...” There were 100 seminars conducted in a day and students busied themselves to hear the exposition of great teachers.

Western Spiritual Heaven


The story of Xuan Zhang’s travel was later fictionalised during the Ming dynasty into a novel familiar to many of us: Journey to the West. In this version, based loosely on the real travel, Xuan Zhang journeyed from Tang China to India to bring back original Buddhist sutras, and he was aided by four magical disciples: a monkey, a pig, a monk and a white steed. Instead of the earthly Nalanda, this semi-fictional Xuan Zhang and his motley crew were headed towards Vulture Peak, an actual hill 20 minutes’ drive away from Nalanda but fictionalised into a mythical abode of the Buddha in the story.

Urinating on the Buddha: Journey to the West was Charlie Hebdo of its Time

Like many things in Malaysia, recently, this well-loved folklore became controversial. In the latest silver screen rendition of the novel, the pig character, known as Zhu Bajie, was removed from its promotional poster.

But the thing is Journey to the West has always been controversial. The novel was written at a time when Buddhism had taken root in Imperial China for at least 1,400 years, with the Emperor and other powerful lords becoming patrons of Buddhist monasteries and monks. It was said that the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang himself, was a Buddhist monk before leading a rebellion against the Mongols’ Yuan dynasty.
Against such a background, the author of Journey to the West wrote how the monkey, Sun Wukong, took up a wager with Sakyamuni Buddha to jump out of the latter’s right palm with a single somersault. Sun Wukong, after leaping what seemed to be light years away from the Buddha’s palm, arrived at what he thought were the five pillar mounts at the end of the universe.

“‘I’d better just leave a record of some kind, in case I have trouble with Buddha...’ and he wrote: THE GREAT SAGE EQUAL TO HEAVEN REACHED THIS PLACE. Then, to mark his disrespect, he relieved himself at the bottom of the first pillar…”

It turned out the pillars were actually the five fingers of the Buddha; the monkey’s magical leap was barely a skip in the omnipotent palm of the Sakyamuni. But a monkey urinating on the Buddha? Not only that. Before that incident, he flung the sagely founder of Taoism, Lao Zi, head over heels as the latter tried to burn the monkey alive in his furnace.

And the pig… Chinese know in their guts that pigs are not exactly “noble” animals. Hence Zhu Bajie was characterised as lazy, gluttonous and lustful. As the plot of the novel unfolds, Zhu Bajie time and again demonstrated his carnality towards female fairies, demons and humans, thus guaranteeing him a place as the symbol of lewdness in Chinese culture. And true enough, at the end of the story, when all the protagonists were awarded with “sainthood”, Zhu Bajie was merely made “Cleanser of the Altar” due to his still-base nature.


The fictionalised Xuan Zhang on the other hand displayed his ignorance of even his own teachings. While he is portrayed as often reciting the Heart Sutra, “emptiness is form, form is emptiness”, especially at impending dangers, the self-same monk always failed to look beyond superficial forms and often misunderstood his disciple, Sun Wukong, for attacking demons masquerading as weak humans; so much so that towards the end of their journey, having reached the foot of the Vulture Peak, when Xuan Zhang said, “Monkey, that’s a fine place”, the monkey replied in utter sarcasm, “Considering how often you have insisted upon prostrating yourself at the sight of false magicians’ palaces and arc impostors’ lairs, it is strange that when at last you see before you Buddha’s true citadel, you should not even dismount from your horse.” There you go, a monk of high attainment being mocked by his imp of a monkey disciple.

As if all the vulgarities against the Chinese religions were not enough, when the pilgrims finally reached Vulture Peak, Ananda and Kasyapa, the right and left-hand disciples of the Buddha assigned to present the pilgrims with the sutras, demanded a “donation” from them! “Having come here from China you have no doubt brought a few little gifts for us. If you will kindly hand them over, you shall have your scriptures at once.” Only after the pilgrims shouted and threatened to inform the Buddha did the two disciples concede and allow them to fetch the sutras. But later, Xuan Zhang and his disciples found out that because they had not given Ananda and Kasyapa their “commission” (the exact word used in the book “Monkey”, translated by Arthur Waley), they had given them blank scriptures!

Now, boy, isn’t this a book in which Buddhas and gods and immortals were mocked and lampooned. Journey to the West if anything was the Charlie Hebdo of its time.

Let History be our Mirror

I think the author of the book knew that this work would be highly offensive. Perhaps that was the reason why he did not lend his or her name to the work. What the Malaysian film distributor did – isn’t it the same act of self-censorship done by the original author of the novel 400 years ago?

The Buddhists at that time could very well have raged against the book, burnt it or worse, and demanded the author’s head. After all, the novel touched every raw nerve of Buddhist sensitivity; and not just Buddhists, but Taoists and Confucianists as well. To think that we have not even begun to discuss the political dimension of the novel…
Thus, it seems like we did not just inherited this amazing ancient literature but also the timeless fear of angry self-righteousness which may any time explode at the slightest provocation.

Tang dynasty mural depicting Xuan Zhang returning from India.

The novel came to be hailed as one of the Four Great Chinese Classic Novels. Before the story was depicted in films and movies, Xuan Zhang’s mythical journey and the monkey’s adventure were re-enacted on many an opera stage across China.

A few hundred years later, we have learned to look beyond the superficial mockery into the allegorical and satirical lessons of Journey to the West; from the simple narrative of the basest creatures attaining greatness to the profound philosophy of Buddhism exemplified by the Heart Sutra.

We are now able to laugh at the comedy of that motley crew, of that fat Zhu Bajie wobbling his way to the West. The novel has become, in the words of the brilliant Chinese scholar-diplomat, Hu Shih, “a book of good humour, profound nonsense, good-natured satire and delightful entertainment.”


What I really want to say is this: when we are confronted with this situation of a missing pig, perhaps it is good to revisit the manylayered lessons accumulated over centuries in the story of the Journey to the West; from the original travelogue of Xuan Zhang to the Charlie Hebdo-style fictionalisation of the journey, and how its audience received it over these hundreds of years. We need to appreciate afresh these lessons, to feel the weight of the characters and their stories lost on us against the comic we have come to love – think about it again, a monkey urinated on the Buddha!

When we have relearned the lessons, then we can look back at the self-censorship and the self-righteousness 400 years ago and confidently say, “Why were we so sure and so wrong?” If not, then we must realise that society today is no different from society centuries past – if we can be offended, we must allow others to be offended as well. Let history be our mirror. But if so, we can look back four centuries and realise that our rage was unfounded; we must then imagine what will be said of us today 100 years from now and act accordingly. Let history be our mirror.

This article was first published in Malaysiakini on January 8, 2016.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is a fan of Journey to the West and had watched the latest movie on the story over Chinese New Year.

Related Articles

May 2016

The Political Economy of Malaysia’s Migrant Worker Business

The import of foreign workers rakes in hundreds of millions each year, but for whom?

Apr 2017

The Sad Lot of Migrant Workers Affects Us All

Female migrant workers in Malaysia face a myriad of challenges

Apr 2016

Selfie Politics: Perhaps We Need Superheroes After All

The best solutions are those which are able to deal with the smallest of issues.