Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Journey to the West

Of the four Chinese classic novels, this is by far the most entertaining and frequently translated into English.  It is (very) loosely based on the pilgrimage that a Buddhist Monk made in the 7th century A.D. to India to study and copy the scriptures.  Indeed some such scriptures are today available only through the Chinese translations that Xuanzang made (he established a translation project upon his return).  The novel was written 700 years later and contains much of a fanciful (?paranormal) nature, mostly showing the superiority of Buddha's magical powers over others (those of the Daoists, for example).  Scholars are kind to say that it tells us much about Chinese folk religion and beliefs.  A very short translation was made by Arthur Waley and published as Monkey since in it the main character was the King of the Monkeys, one of three companions/bodyguards chosen to accompany the Monk on his pilgrimage.  Many other translations exist (easily found through online bookstores) including a recent (1980s) work by Anthony Yu, a professor (emeritus) at the University of Chicago.  Online searches will yield millions of hits, including one, not to be missed, of the recent production created by Richard Oberack and others, see musical.

Xuanzang himself wrote about his journey and this has become an invaluable source of information about the sites he visited in Central Asia (the Silk Road)--he is said to have been meticulous about distances and the time it took to travel from on site to another--as well as the state of Buddhism in those places.  The Great Tang Records of the Western Regions has been translated into French and English.  The record left by an even earlier Chinese monk-pilgrim, Faxian, who travelled to India and Sri Lanka around 400 A.D. is also available as A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, also translated into English by the indefatigable James Legge.  It is available online !  I am currently reading this but have no plans to make this or the Journey another writing project.

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