Present at the Creation: The Journey to the West as a Core Text


Paula Berggren
Baruch College of CUNY

"What should they know of England that only England know?"
"The English Flag," Rudyard Kipling

Core courses offer ideal laboratories for "Building the Whole Person," since the foundational narratives that are so central to the canonical Great Books studied in these courses are, among other things, how-to manuals. Creation stories have a powerful effect on students when they recognize that they behave the way they do in part because of their cultures' assumptions about how the world and its inhabitants came to be. That recognition can be reinforced by teaching not only traditional stories of origins themselves, but also later texts in the tradition.

Given the theme of this conference, I want to recommend in particular two texts that describe the making -- or the breaking -- of a whole person. As my title announces, one is the Ming novel called The Journey to the West , published in 1592; the other, traditionally dated 1600 or 1601, is Hamlet . Chronology aside, one might think them too disparate to discuss in tandem. Nevertheless, when seen in the light of their cultures' accounts of origins, they provide surprisingly fertile ground for comparison as well as contrast, and much insight into the possibility of building integrated beings.

To build anything well, of course, one has to start with the right materials. Those of us raised in the monotheistic traditions of the West take it for granted that the God of Genesis, a great gardener, made Adam out of the earth for which the first man is named, and animated the dust of the earth by inspiring -- literally breathing into -- that dust. This duality gives us the prototypical hero of Western culture, a fractured, guilty being who, like Hamlet, crawls between earth and heaven, simultaneously the "beauty of the world, the paragon of animals" and "this quintessence of dust," unable to keep control over his Eden, "an unweeded garden gone to seed."

I need hardly rehearse the other, familiar ways in which Shakespeare's play parodically reenacts the opening sequence of Genesis, culminating in the murder of one brother by another in the orchard. While Claudius is exquisitely conscious that his "offense is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, A brother's murder," our students may very well not be. One of the virtues of teaching Hamlet in a core course is that students will have read the opening chapters of Genesis and know who Cain and Abel are.

Hamlet shows us how the Edenic myth dooms all efforts to escape from the prison of Denmark as a whole person. Hamlet comes closest to achieving the equilibrium lost in the paternal garden on a journey to the west, acting decisively when pirates board the ship carrying him to England. But the journey westward is also a powerful metaphor for death, and mortality, not to say morbidity, corrupts Hamlet. Eden teaches the danger of knowledge, and the knowledge that Hamlet achieves in the course of the play leads him to an empty grave where he can do little more than contemplate a skull. Growing into a whole person exacts from Hamlet --an uneasy amalgam of dirt and divinity -- a terrible price. One would not wish to recommend him as a model to students in the throes of identity crises.

Expanding the canon beyond the traditional texts of the West proposes other models. Virtually alone among the world's cultures, China "has no real story of creation," the great Sinologist Derk Bodde has observed. The generic expression of this cultural selfsufficiency is the absence of a self-defining Chinese epic. Nothing in Chinese letters, it is frequently observed, matches Gilgamesh , the Bible, or the Iliad , The Mahabharata or The Popol Vuh . Although it does not stand at the center of the culture's understanding of itself as does the myth of Eden, the legend of Pangu adopted from China's neighbors to the South has nevertheless been influential enough to warrant our attention. It may be useful to quote the first written account of this story, from the third century A.D.:

In the time when the Sky and the Earth were a chaos resembling an egg, Pangu was born in this and lived inside it for eighteen thousand years. And when the Sky and Earth constituted themselves, the pure Yang elements formed the Sky and the gross Yin elements formed the Earth. And Pangu, who was in the midst of this, transformed himself nine times each day, sometimes into a god in the Sky, sometimes into a saint on Earth. Each day the Sky rose by one Zhang (ten feet), and each day Pangu grew by one Zhang. This continued for eighteen thousand years, and then the Sky reached its highest point, the Earth its lowest depth, and Pangu his greatest size.

Through an analysis of this myth, the literary critic Pauline Yu contrasts Chinese and Western attitudes toward art and poetry; several of her points also help us understand the idea of the whole person inherent in each tradition. The legend of Pangu, says Yu, manifests "the holistic unitary notion of the universe" and lacks "some divinity or demiurge who. . . not only brings the world into being but also provides it with its laws."

I'm going to apply these points, sketchily, to Wu Ch'eng-en's sixteenth-century novel. The Journey to the West absorbs and reshapes a group of traditional narratives about a journey to India taken by a seventh-century Buddhist priest from China in search of authoritative scriptures. The true protagonist of The Journey to the West , however, is not the monk, but the monkey who eventually joins his pilgrimage and guarantees its success. Although the novel includes a detailed personal history of the Buddhist pilgrim, it begins elsewhere, with a creation story that seems to absorb and adapt the legend of Pangu. The Journey to the West profits from the recognition of this precursor, much as Hamlet presumes an acquaintance with the story of Eden.

In contrast to Hamlet , the Ming novel's artful appropriation of a story of origins offers a successful formula for building the whole person. Consider the opening of Arthur Waley's translation, simply called Monkey , which condenses the sequence that begins the full 100-chapter novel properly called The Journey to the West.

There was a rock that since the creation of the world had been worked on by the pure essences of Heaven and the fine savours of Earth, the vigour of sunshine and the grace of moonlight, till at last it became magically pregnant and one day split open, givinq birth to a stone egg, about as big as a playing ball. Fructified by the wind it developed into a stone monkey, complete with every organ and limb. At once this monkey learned to climb and run; but its first act was to make a bow towards each of the four quarters. As it did so, a steely light darted from this monkey's eyes and flashed as far as the Palace of the Pole Star. This shaft of light astonished the Jade Emperor as he sat in the Cloud Palace of the Golden Gates . . . .

This description launches the novel into the holistic universe posited by Yu. ln place of an Adamic hero caught up in the conflict of polar opposites, Wu Ch'eng-en's fictional protagonist emerges from an egg, one of nature's perfect wholes. Produced by the harmonious interplay of the complementary forces of yin and yang, the monkey seems a diminutive version of the huge Pangu, full of energy and quick to acquire the motor skills that will culminate in his mastery of flight and transformacion. Moreover, he is made of stone. To Shakespeare, the inheritor of Western ideas, men of stone are the kind of people wno do not weep when Cordelia dies. To Wu Ch'eng-en and his audience, unburdened by an inherently tragic story of origins, stone is sacred, metamorphic, precious, the very stuff out of which an enterprising simian can transform himself into The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.

Lacking an anxiety-inciting judgmental deity to whom all creatures owe their being, operating instead in a cosmos bursting with the demons and spirits of at least three separate religious creeds, the main character of The Journey to the West manages to be subversive in ways not available to Hamlet. Defiant and respectful as circumstances warrant, Sun Wu-k'ung, the Monkey King, works his way into Buddha's good graces. His deft acquisition of magical powers is forecast in this
opening sequence when the Jade Emperor, theoretically the ruler of an intricate Taoist hierarchy, but actually a weak and rather petulant being, is troubled by the neonate's steely glance.

Like Hamlet, the Monkey King is a cultural icon whose exploits have entranced readers for four centuries. In our core courses, we have the opportunity to set them out together on one more journey westward. Two heroes appalled by the specter of death, they adumbrate two different ways of dealing with a treacherous world where what seems is never the same as what is. The lively monkey and the elegant prince have in common reserves of intelect and high ambitions, but Hamlet was born into a world so out of joint that it can never be set right. Eden must always
sink to grief.

Though imprisoned beneath a mountain for 500 years, Monkey
emerges whole. (In an early adventure, the mischievous Monkey has eaten the Taoist ruler's peaches of immortality; eating fruit in Eden has far different consequences.) Where Shakespeare's play ends with the deaths or a usurper and his queen, The Journey to the West , in one of its many episodes, finds Monkey and his companion Pigsy rescuing from death a king whom an imposter has murdered in his garden. (The parallels between events in the Kingdom of Crowcock and the plot of Hamlet have often been remarked, for both involve a young prince alienated from his mother, who has married her husband's usurper.)

To be present at the creation ushers us into an understanding of how origins determine our future in the created world. Shakespeare's play and Wu Ch'eng-en's novel are infinitely rewarding texts in and of themselves. Reading them together multiplies those rewards by demonstrating how our worldview make us what we are. Especially when many of our students have never heard of Eden, and the native language of more and more is Cantonese, I think it well worth setting out sequentially on each of these two journeys to the West.