Searching for Bodhisattva Guanyin in ‘Journey to the West’

Before I read Journey to the West, I was intrigued by the syncretic worldview common to Confucian cultures: a synthesis of Confucian philosophy, Taoist practice, and Buddhist religion. As a lifelong student of the social sciences and humanities, I have researched conflicts of the western monotheistic world fueled by the politics of religious identity, including Northern Ireland. Why do some cultures employ faith as a weapon in political conflicts while others embrace a flowing and dynamic perspective on spiritual life is, of course, an open and intriguing question. My personal faith-less life affords me a disinterested perspective able to take from, or reject, the traditions of all cultures. Therein, the very idea of identity politics is foreign to my own personal conception of self and belonging. This is the lens through which I began my study of a grand novel of world literature and its relevance to modern life.

First published in late 16th Century and generally attributed to Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West[1] is one of four classics of traditional Chinese novels. Over the centuries, the tale has been reimagined in text and visual art of many forms. Today, the novel is mostly known through its ubiquitous trickster, The Monkey King, and from many popular culture adaptations in anime, video games, television, and film. Contemporary pop culture conceptions of Monkey (also known as Sun Wukong) portray a grand superhero, a boiled-down caricature of the conflicted protagonist and trickster of legend. While Monkey is infamous and ubiquitous, the true savior of Journey to the West – Guanyin, is more often shown in a severely reducted form. In Mahayana Buddhism, Guanyin is the goddess of mercy and guardian of women and children. The four main characters in Journey are neither women or children but rather represent primal tendencies (Monkey and Pig, also known as Zhu Wuneng or Zhu Bajie) and child-like haplessness (the main character, Sanzang). Guanyin’s salvation and intervention allows Monkey’s journey to India with the monk Sanzang, the Pig, and Friar Sand (Sha Wujing).

It may be trendy in the Western world to co-opt, and often commercialize, the spiritual traditions of Asia, but I took inspiration by reading the unabridged Journey to the West in its original historical context, as a text that is part grandiose fictionalized adventure and part religious text earnestly reflecting the Three Teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.[2] Of specific interest to women’s studies is the role of Bodhisattva Guanyin, a female Buddhist deity who has no counterpart in traditions of the West and Near East. The text in our post-modern world retains its timelessness as a classic of world literature and it adapts easily to contemporary tastes and technology through its brisk pace and cast of colorful human, demi-gods, monsters, and demons. It is as if the ancient and early modern Chinese foresaw the capabilities of CGI graphics and universal appeal of comic book superheroes. However one understands Journey, through the text or through adaptations, Guanyin’s character is a relatable paragon of feminine values and empowerment. As a mother-figure and savior, she, like all bodhisattvas, feels the fate of humanity within her own person.

A figure at the intersection of a deity and mother-figure, Guanyin orchestrates challenges for the party to overcome and prove they have cultivated their conduct. To this end, Guanyin takes on a combined role, first as in traditional Buddhism, and second as a deus ex machina plot device. For example, chapters 32-35 feature a drawn-out conflict against Senior King Gold Horn and Junior King Silver Horn who, like many of the text’s antagonists, wish to become immortal not through merit and practice but rather by capturing and eating Sanzang. In the process Jade Emperor intervenes, blocking out the sky so Monkey could tell the Kings – in disguise as Taoist monsters – that he put the sky into a gourd which the monsters accept as trade for the treasures meant to lure Monkey into submission. Naturally, Monkey uses his cunning trickster nature to deceive the monsters. In the end, all the false gods are defeated and revealed to have been a plot between Lord Lao (the Daoist Laozi) and Guanyin.[3]

In the first eight chapters of the text that comprise Monkey’s backstory before being liberated from Buddha’s Five Elements Mountain by Guanyin, Monkey is more representative of Taoist counter-cultural tendencies, while the Confucian figure of the Jade Emperor, often a remote figure in Chinese tradition, is presented in Journey with a fully formed personality. To fight the corruptness of mind, represented by Monkey’s unrepented behavior, Guanyin’s guidance serves to instill the undistilled and uncorrupted values of Three Teachings within a cosmopolitan cultural atmosphere historically authentic to China under the Tang Dynasty. This type of spiritual flexibility of Chinese and Japanese traditions contrasts against the monotheistic paradigm of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.

The character of Monkey is well diffused into popular culture especially in Asia and the United Kingdom. Often lost in this process is the role of continuity of cosmopolitanism that makes such diffusion possible. The early Tang Dynasty presided over the grandest city in the world at that time, Chang’an, a 7th Century example of the modern state capitol. The Tang consolidated their territory and patronized a sinicized Buddhist establishment. Of all the competitors for trade routes, the Tang were the most successful cross-continental travelers and traders, eclipsing even the Turks and Persians. This is the cosmopolitan milieu of the real monk Xuanzang (ca. 596-664 CE) who set off to India to retrieve Buddhist scripture. Chang’an was the home of many religious establishments representing the schools and teachings of the different traditions. It was also multicultural. Merchants and ambassadors from around the world gathered to trade, to entertain, and to teach. A century later, during the early modern era when Wu was writing’s time, the profligacy of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, particularly with regard to his Daoist pursuits, inspired the parody and social criticism of officials found in the novel. The Jiajing Emperor indulged his sexual appetite and Taoist indulgences. The demons, monsters, and human characters of Journey critique the delusions and misgovernance of the Ming era.

While popular culture adaptations are generally driven by commercial expectations rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of the humanities, the continuity of the narrative and its characters keeps the tale alive in the present tense of our imaginations. In 2008, The Monkey King made a grand appearance in film short animated by Jamie Hewlett and scored by Damon Albarn for the BBC as part of the celebration of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The collaboration between Hewlett and Albarn expanded into a clever album incorporating Asian musical traditions with Brit pop, techno, and soundtracks of retro video games.


The most current film series based on the text has come out of Hong Kong. Director Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King (2014), Monkey King 2 (2016), and Monkey King 3 (2018) were all released to coincide with Chinese New Year, the Asian equivalent of the summer blockbuster. Cheang frames the context of the conflict not as a battle of the human will against our own worst impulses, as would be faithful to the text, but rather as a typically superhero-style battle of good versus evil, erasing the subtlety and transmutability of character that is but one moral of the text.

In the first film, Guanyin (Kelly Chen) retains her role as an omnipotent Buddhist deity, but her role  in the plot warps and is mostly sanitized, especially concerning the ruse of setting up the party by creating demons who have no agency without her. Therein, the idea that the party is tasked with the journey to earn salvation becomes muddled and contradictory. Contemporary critics of the film series are often oblivious to the connection between the movies and the original text. In this degradation of Guanyin’s character, her power as a female deity is not fully transmitted on screen. To be true to the morals of Journey, many demons do not exist of their own volition and can, therefore, be afforded no individual agency. In Hewlitt’s animation, Monkey Bee, and Cheang’s expansive films, Princess Iron Fan plays a contrasting role relevant to a feminist reading of Journey. As a foil to the inherent pureness of Guanyin, Princess Iron Fan is vengeful and unforgiving. Iron Fan was also the subject of China’s first animated film, released in 1941 and animated by the Wan Brothers. The question of how to represent feminine power is a continuing creative choice.

Relevant to the modern feminist movement is that immutable fact that the Three Teachings easily accommodates a feminist perspective and female deity in the form of Guanyin and other figures. For both sexes, the rigors of the journey impart an appreciation for the suffering that forms a tenant of spiritual thought in the traditions of many cultures in the East and West. When we ask what purpose supernatural legends play in modern life, cultivation of conduct transcends the implausible elements that reason supersedes. The mythos of Journey to the West is ever in flux, reimagined for each generation with the available technology in the high arts and popular culture. The logos of Journey is more elusive, but for the astute student of literature, much is to be mined in the unabridged text about the nature of citizenship and the functions, rights, and responsibility of the individual in a multicultural world.

[1] Wu Cheng’an. Journey to the West. Translated by W.J.F. Jenner. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, (1993).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. pg. 808