A Classic Novel’s Journey to the West at Holy Cross

Hui Li ‘21

Co-Chief Graphic Designer

Graphic Design by Hui Li ’21. Background image courtesy of catsweb.org.

What happens when you combine a 16th-century fantasy novel with a pandemic in the 21st century? For Dr. Ji Hao, Professor of Chinese at the College of the Holy Cross, the answer was an online conference. On Tuesday, April 20, he hosted a six-session event called “One Journey, Many Paths: An International Conference on Journey to the West.

The conference revolved around the novel Xiyou Ji (pronounced “she-yo-gee”), which dates to Ming-Dynasty China. Commonly translated as “Journey to the West,” the story is considered one of the “Four Great Classic Novels” of Chinese literature. The earliest versions of the book appeared in the 16th century.

Professor Hao described Journey to the West as a fictional piece that “recounts a group of pilgrims’ lengthy journey (both physical and spiritual) from China to India in [a] quest for Buddhist scriptures and enlightenment” based on the story of the Buddhist Monk Xuanzang and his pilgrimage to India in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty in China. The novel follows four protagonists – Xuanzang’s fictional counterpart Tang Sanzang and his trio of non-human disciples comprised of the monkey-king Sun Wukong, the pig-monster Zhu Bajie, and the sand demon Sha Wujing – on a westward quest.

Professor Hao originally planned to host an international conference about the famous novel in person. However, he had to move the event online due to COVID-19. “On the one hand, I don’t have to worry about some logistics issues such as arranging transportation, meals, and accommodation for our speakers. It also makes the conference accessible to a wider audience beyond the Holy Cross community. On the other hand, I need to pay more attention to possible technical issues with Zoom before and during the conference,” he shared with The Spire.

One of the biggest challenges he faced was scheduling the conference around three different time zones. “Since our speakers come from the United Kingdom, United States, and Taiwan, it is difficult to find a time that would work for everyone. In Journey to the West, the pilgrims collaborate with each other and overcome a wide array of challenges, but they seldom work across different time zones as we do for this conference,” mused Professor Hao.

Regarding the significance of the novel, he stated, “Not only does it reflect social values, beliefs, and customs of the sixteenth-century China, the novel itself is also an important part of a millennium-long Xiyou Ji tradition and points to a long and dynamic formative process in which various cultural threads and historical trends were intertwined.” 

“Furthermore, the novel has inspired numerous adaptations in modern popular culture, and the Monkey King, the main character in the novel, has already become a cultural icon in contemporary China. The novel contains some important themes such as redemption and the second chance, working together to overcome challenges, and coexistence among different beliefs, all of which are still relevant to us today,” Professor Hao added.

He referenced sinologist Arthur Waley’s 1942 abridged translation of the text, titled Monkey, when asked about how the novel has impacted the English-speaking world, This rendition of the story became popular, and Professor Hao quoted Helena Kuo’s 1943 review of it in The New York Times Book Review, “Monkey is the type of story that will enchant many people, even those who have no conception of Chinese literature. It is the kind of book you can pick at any time and dip into for a quiet chuckle.”

Journey to the West is frequently compared to works of western literature like the Odyssey, the Divine Comedies, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Wizard of Oz. Professor Hao stated, “Journey to the West also includes many supernatural and miraculous elements and is characterized by imagination, humor, intellectual vigor, profound depth, and wonderful storytelling. But Journey to the West is also unique in itself. The best way to know this is to read the novel and embark on the “journey” by yourself!”

Professor Hao added that his CHIN 207 – The Legend of the Monkey King course “traces the development of the Xiyou Ji tradition from early antecedents in the Tang dynasty to modern cinematic adaptations.” He stated, “We read and compare different English translations of Journey to the West including the most recent one that is translated by one of our conference speakers,” he explained. He started planning “One Journey, Many Paths” before he started teaching CHIN 207, so he was able to incorporate a lot of the topics from the conference into his syllabus.

The topics covered at the conference ranged from global reception of the work to in-depth analyses of female characters in the novel. “I hope that [my students] can gain a deeper understanding of the novel from different perspectives and learn how established scholars in the field examine the topics and materials that also appear in our class discussion,” shared Professor Hao.

“I hope people can learn more about the multifaceted nature of Chinese culture, its rich diversity and dynamic transformations from the past to the present. The current curriculum at Holy Cross allows students to delve deeper into Chinese culture through different courses such as literature, linguistics, film, history, philosophy, religion, political science, and economics, to name a few,” he said.

Professor Hao also added, “Chinese language also serves as an important window into Chinese culture. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.’ I hope more people can understand Chinese culture in terms of both its differences and commonalities. Just like human beings, each individual is different, but we are all bound together by humanity.”

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