Journey to the West

Journey to the West
The painting shows the four heroes of the story: Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, Zhu Wuneng, and Sha Wujing. The painting is in the Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo: Rolf Müller

The classic Chinese epic, Journey to the West, is the tale of four travelers (technically five: the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, Monkey, Pig, Sand Demon and a dragon prince who acts as the monk's horse), who experience many thrilling adventures before returning home to China.

This journey is a powerful myth in China, just as the Western frontier myth has been for America, as Chinese empires generally have expanded westwards before contracting back upon themselves, just as America has done, looking westwards and then eastwards again to Europe around the same time Baum was writing his tales of Oz - Henry James, Edith Wharton, and so on.

Journey to the West is attributed to Wu Cheng'en - it was published anonymously in 1592 during the Ming era. The myth also echoes Lao Tzu (Laozi), the legendary founder of Taoism, whose journey into the vast western desert on his water buffalo was interrupted only long enough for him to write down the Tao Te Ching.

Modern Chinese literature has repeated this journey, notably Gao Xingjian's wonderful Soul Mountain (1990), Xu Xing's You Can Have Whatever’s Left (1996) and Ma Jian's Red Dust: A Path Through China (2001), to name but three. Nowadays it's the domain of many urban bloggers traveling to Tibet and Xinjiang. A movie version of 2013, Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons uses the story as its starting point. The film was a massive box office hit in China (poster detail below):


Baum too would make his pilgrimage to the West, moving the family from Chicago to Hollywood in 1910, and calling his new home Ozcot. The house no longer exists.

Last century the journey to the West was repeated by the Communists’ Long March of 1934, before they retook the East, and the Guomintang retreated West to Chungking during World War II before taking refuge in Taiwan. Nowadays, Beijing has designs on “its” western provinces, including opening up Tibet. For the West, its relations with China have been literally a journey to the West, as in the defeat of Japan in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam misadventures and President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.

The image below is from Shanghai Puppet Theatre's advertising for Monkey King Conquers The White Boned Demon. Interesting choice...

The Monkey King Shanghai Puppet Theatre