Until the Qing Dynasty, writers in China rarely wrote entire fictional novels by themselves. Most writers simply embellished and improved on existing folklore and legends, including Wu Cheng En, the author of Xi You Ji, Shi Nai An, the author of The Water Margin, and Luo Guan Zhong, the author of The Romance of The Three Kingdoms. The process was somewhat like alchemy. Taking a piece of iron and turning it into gold. That was how the masters of ancient China created their masterpieces. Wu Cheng En was no different.
Wu Cheng En
After Xuan Zang died, his two disciples wrote a biography of him and his pilgrimage, entitled A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty . His disciples wanted their master's name to be spread widely, so they added in some 'extra' elements that made Xuan Zang seem like a demi-god or something. In any case, it was a good read for the public who respected Xuan Zang, a much more interesting and entertaining account compared to the stuffier 'Journey to the West in the Tang Dynasty', which only focused on the countries Xuan Zang passed.
Anyway, the mythical elements of the Tze En biography gave rise to the countless legends about the Xuan Zang's pilgrimage to the west. Somewhere along the way, the legends started to include a powerful monkey companion. Some say it was the influence of Hanuman of Ramayana fame. Some say it was because the monkey was the powerful totem worshipped by many of the minority races in China. Most say it was a mixture of both.
So storytellers, you know, the kind in ancient China that always hang out at coffee shops and places and that and tell nice stories to everyone, those storytellers started telling the story of Journey to the West. Then, in the Bei Song Dynasty, a kind of 'poetic story' (because the storytellers had to tell the stories all from memory, they usually told it in poem form) about the journey emerged, called 'Tang San Zang's Pilgrimage to Fetch the Scriptures in the Tang Dynasty Poem'. The book was more than 16000 words long, and there was a monkey character called 'Hou Xing Zhe' (not Sun Xing Zhe), meaning, literally 'Monkey Traveling Monk'. There was also a 'Shen Sha' God, meaning the God of Deep Sand, obviously the old equivalent of the Sha Wu Jing. There were three parts to the story, and already was a fetus-like form of the storyline of Journey to the West. Extremely basic, though, as the characters and storyline weren't fully developed and it was quite short too.
Now let's fast-forward to the Yuan Dynasty. Chinese operas were all the rage back then and they're still going strong now. One of the most popular chinese operas today is still the 'Journey to the West' opera, which was written by Wu Chang Ling during the Yuan Dynasty. It was in the script for that opera that the characters of Sun Wu Kong, Zhu Ba Jie, and Sha Wu Jing were fully formed, with distinct characters and personalities. The storyline was still not as developed and awesome as the Journey to the West storyline, but still, the characters helped to form the basic plot of the book. So this Journey to the West opera is commonly attributed as the work Journey to the West was mainly based on. There was also another opera, called 'Chen Guang Rui and the River Flow Monk'. Chen Guang Rui is Tang San Zang's father in the novel. River Flow, or Jiang Liu was San Zang's name when he was young. The plot of this opera was used without any major modifications by Wu Cheng En when he wrote about Tang San Zang's origins.
So, when the Ming Dynasty came along, Wu Cheng En got pissed off by the idiotic emperor and the suckiness of the whole government system and the evil Taoists who got into the emperor's favour just by pretending they were working on elixirs of immortality for him and by how the people of the Ming Dynasty suffered. In addition, he became kinda addicted to reading and writing fantasy stories. Thus, the idea of writing a story based on the Xuan Zang legends came to him in his forties and he started to write it in his sixties. Thus the immortal masterpiece Journey to the West was born.
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