Every summer, the full 40 episodes of “Journey to the West” series are broadcasted on Vietnamese national television. It is a TV series by Chinese CCTV dated back in 1986, based on the Chinese classic of the same name (one of China’s Four Great Masterworks). You can watch it with English subtitle on YouTube here. Vietnamese kids and adults love it. So do I. I can’t remember how many times I had watched it. (While writing this, I had to stop to watch an episode, ha ha.)
There are several newer TV series of “Journey to the West” but no one can surpass the 1986 version in popularity. Despite low-tech editing and visual effects, it is a true masterpiece of performing art. Its music is excellent, from the curious and exciting opening theme, the majestic and heroic ending song to this beautiful, heart-melting love song. The actors and actresses are superb that make Hollywood celebrities look robotic.
But in this post, I want to talk about something fundamental: the overarching storyline, relationship and meaning, per my own interpretation.
The main characters
It is the story about a team of four characters (and a horse) setting out a trip to the Buddhist land in the West of China (i.e. India) to bring back the sacred Buddhist scriptures. It is a long, difficult and dangerous journey. The team travels through many kingdoms and encounters all kinds of obstacles and evils along the way. Each episode is a distinct adventure with its own background and development, sometimes very complex.
The team lead is a highly respected Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang. He is assigned and the only one in the team able to request the Buddhist scriptures. That’s why he is the leader and all effort has to be made to keep him alive, given that he is the physically weakest one. He has no power or magic. Instead, he has a warm heart, good mind and exceptional self-control (most of the time), as typical of a monk. But he is gullible and hence is cheated so many times. Overall, he practices high virtues but lacks the ability to detect fakes and handle adversaries. There is a myth among evils that if they eat him, they can attain immortality. That’s why Sanzang is the target of most of the evils encountered on the trip.
There is another trouble-maker in the team: Zhu Bajie, or Pigsy. Actually, he is even worse: he has no virtue at all. As his name suggests, he is lazy and stupid; he likes food and women; he can fight a bit but rarely defeats any evils. But he knows how to get along with the leader Sanzang who normally doesn’t like him much but sometimes needs an ally. Of course if only the two of them go for the journey, they will soon end up being gulped down by evils.
The most beloved character in the story is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. He has a humble origin, being born an orphan with no parents in the wilderness. But he is extremely smart, curious and courageous. He learns magic so effectively and in no time becomes a superpower that most deities and evils don’t want to mess up with him. But he is sometimes too pragmatic, arrogant, and short-tempered. Nevertheless, Wukong is usually the one who saves the team out of trouble.
The fourth member is Sha Wujin, or Sandy. He is very quiet, makes no argument and just follows the herd. While Wukong and Pigsy have the responsibility to hunt for food and drink, Sandy’s job is to carry the luggage which is absolutely not pleasant. But he carries it out with no complaint whatsoever.
The characters of the characters
Apparently, Sanzang the Monk represents Virtue. He is the symbol of Benevolence, with its by-product Gullibility. He can control himself very well, but doesn’t have the power to control other people/creatures, except his teammates (who are spelled to follow him). He, the combination of virtue and good will, is often the target of attacks.
Pigsy represents Desire, rudimental human and animal instincts. He lives by immediate gratification and cares nothing. He plays politics in his team, most of the time takes side with Sanzang. Ideologically, he is the opposite of Sanzang, but the two are more in common when dealing with external threats: they don’t have the ability to tell real from fake and can’t fight against evils.
Wukong the Monkey King represents Talent. He is a pragmatic problem solver, he can detect and fight off evils. He attains his invincible ability by curiosity, courage and hard work. That’s how Talent is born in real life, too. The dark side of it is Arrogance. People, evils and other creatures are scared of him, respected him of his ability, but nobody likes him except his teammates and his monkey minions, those spend long enough time with him to understand that under his smug appearance lies a conscience.
Sandy represents Labor. He is the hardest worker in the team. He patiently works without complaint. He never creates any trouble for the team. Evils don’t give a damn about him. He lives in the background, quietly carries out his duty. Why is his invisible existence necessary? Because Sanzang (Virtue) is good at mental labor but extremely weak in physical labor. He even needs a horse to ride! Pigsy (Desire) is notoriously lazy. Wukong (Talent) doesn’t have enough patience for perpetual, monotonic work. So who will carry the luggage? Without Sandy’s labor, the team can be safe and sound at one place but never progress.
Notable in the team dynamics is the relationship between Sanzang (Virtue) and Wukong (Talent). Wukong is Sanzang’s most trusted teammate. Whenever he is in trouble, he always calls on Wukong to save him. Wukong, on the other hand, looks up Sanzang as a virtuous idol. Many times they run into arguments, mostly on how to deal with danger (which Wukong has an upper hand). On a couple of occasions, the argument goes too far that Wukong decides to leave the team for good. Those times are when the two of them realize that they need each other: Sanzang needs Wukong to keep him out of trouble, while Wukong loses his purpose in life without Sanzang’s journey. Virtue and Talent must accompany each other. Virtuous incompetence and immoral power are useless, even dangerous.
While the other teammates stay essentially unchanged, Wukong learns a lot from Sanzang. He becomes increasingly virtuous and well behaved. Wukong no longer picks unnecessary fights, knows how to pay respect to deities and Buddhas and develops good relationship. Yes, virtues can and must be nurtured. Eventually, most of them attain Buddhahood, except Pigsy who stays in a mundane but gratifying life full of food and sleep.
The inseparable union
Why do the four of them stay together? It seems only Sanzang and Wukong are sufficient: Buddha gives the sacred scriptures only to Sanzang the monk, and Wukong is powerful enough to protect him. Why do we need the other two, especially the lazy and stupid Pigsy?
That is because they are not separate characters. Rather, they represent the four fundamental constituents of a complete human being. It’s easy to see when we compare them with our four stages of life. We are born childish and instinctive like Pigsy; we want basic needs and pursue immediate pleasure such as food, sleep and sex. But we are also equipped with curiosity and courage like Wukong. Many of us have the will and opportunities to develop talent to deal with the complex reality. Once being competitive, we also soon become arrogant and careless like youngsters. In our middle ages, we learn that slow and steady wins the race. We then become patient and diligent, just like Sandy. Finally, toward old ages, we realize that only virtues can lead the way to enlightenment and happiness. We give up fighting and find peace within ourselves, we become more of Sanzang.
The journey to the West is indeed a journey of a person through life. Sanzang and Pigsy are both gullible and draw a lot of troubles, just like old people and children do. Wukong can handle the complexity of life, practically solve problems, is energetic and arrogant, just like the young. Sandy lives quietly in the background, just like the middle aged. Their relationships are also characteristics of a human. Sanzang and Pigsy appear to be opposite to each other, but they agree on a lot of things, especially Pigsy often takes side with Sanzang to criticize Wukong. If you live in a three-generation family, you will understand how. Wukong admires Sanzang, that explains why the ideologist and seemingly virtuous Bernie Sanders is so popular among youngsters. Sanzang always calls on Wukong, just like any elderly person misses the good old days.
Of course, at any given time, a person can be a combination of some or all of the characters. Pigsy is encoded in our genes, he is here to stay. It is advisable to have all the other three. Without Sanzang, we keep working and fighting without purpose in life and internal peace. We also need him to earn respect and relationship with other people. Without Wukong, we will run into a lot of troubles, be cheated and defeated in no time; we will end up a good loser, but loser nonetheless, and incompetence is not only useless but also harmful. Without Sandy, we can’t carry the everlasting heavy burden of life, we will give up and we will likely whine.
We need all of them to get through life, to fulfill our basic needs, to fight off evils, to carry on and to find peace at the end. That’s why the four have to travel together to the Buddhist land. When we finish our life journey, if any character we must drop to attain Buddhahood, that is Pigsy, our instinctive desires. But Pigsy isn’t expelled from the beginning, even isn’t hated by other teammates. He is accepted. This is very important. It suggests the acknowledge of all our characters, even undesirable ones, and to let them go naturally when the time comes. What’s most important is a harmonious balance between them to get us through the exciting journey to the West and through Life.