Sunday, May 16, 2010

Oriental Accents -- Journey to the West

If there's any work of Chinese literature that could be considered as influential in Asian culture as Three Kingdoms, it would have to be Journey to the West.

The journey that the book is about was inspired by the actual journey of a Chinese monk to India to get better translations of Buddhist sutras.

The beginning of the book tells of Sun Wukong, also known as Monkey (and the story is often titled Monkey as well, since he's the main character). Monkey gains Taoist power, and upsets the Heavenly Realm (other-planar Asian adventure fodder here) and the Buddha steps in to trap him.

500 years later, the monk Xuanzang sets off on his quest, and the bodhisattva Guan Yin provides him with Sun Wukong (Monkey), Zhu Bajie (Pig), Sha Wujing (Friar Sand), and Yulong Santaizi (the Dragon Horse) as his companions and protectors on his journey.

The lion's share of the book is their journey, and all the (often formulaic) encounters they have in the exotic wilderness between China and India. They constantly run into demons, goblins, sorcerers, animal spirits, and plain old evil people that want to do them in. Rumor has it that eating Xuanzang will make you immortal and erase your sins, so lots of monsters want to catch and eat him. Many monsters have past beefs with Monkey, so there's double impetus to waylay the group.

Most of the episodes involve someone in the party getting captured (usually Xuanzang), and the others have to effect a rescue. The magical powers of Monkey often save the day, but sometimes Pig, Friar Sand or the Dragon Horse manage to pull off the victory. Often, Guan Yin has to step in to help them out when their usual tricks don't work.

The episodes can get a bit tedious in their repetition, but the monsters and demons do seem to learn, and things that work once or twice stop working in later encounters.

There's a lot of humor in the book, as the pious and pure Xuanzang has to control his protectors. Monkey is violent and prideful, Pig is lazy, lustful and greedy, and Friar Sand is dependable but not so bright. The interplay between their personalities gives life to the repetitious monster encounters along the way.

The books is chock full of magic, monsters, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy and symbolism, unusual locations, devious monsters with motivations besides just hanging out waiting for heroes to show up and slaughter them, and all sorts of great ways to inspire your gaming.

And of course, besides movies, games, comic books and what not based on the original work, they inspired Dragonball (Sun Wukong, read in Japanese, is Sun Goku), sci fi retellings, and all sorts of stuff both in Asia and the West. Wikipedia has a good list here.

Why should you read Journey to the West?

Despite it's length and occasional repetitiveness, it's an engaging, exciting, comic story. It's full of magic and monsters, and exotic strange locations. That alone should make it required reading for any GM running a fantasy Asian game.

Where Three Kingdoms is good inspiration for the Fighters in your game, Journey to the West is great for the Spellcasters, and for giving life to dungeons, wilderness, and especially the monsters.


  1. Journey to the West is also the source material for the apogee of human achievement in television

    (I always wondered why endless Ians wheeled past...)

  2. I read a translation the writer's other book 'Blades from the Willows', interesting but not as good as JTTW - warriors journey from hidden village, meet flying sword immortals, fall in love etc. Nicked bits for my Ruins & Ronin sessions a while back.