I use Wade-Giles romanization following the practice of Gary Seaman’s Journey to the North (Berkeley: University of California, 1987). The self-indulgent digression on Modern Library Giants has, I am aware, little excuse. I might argue that biblio-nostalgia is the more useful as books are ever more eclipsed.
It is a curiosity of literature that, whereas early European works of fiction masqueraded as fact , in Chinese fiction overtly fantastic elements play an important role. There is, nonetheless, a continuum from the recording of precise details of everyday life in The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin P’ing Mei) or the Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng) to utterly implausible tales such as the Journey to the West (Hsi Yu Ki or Monkey, in Waley’s version) with material drawn from fanciful folktales. The anonymous Journey to the North (Pei Yu Chi) translated by Gary Seaman falls clearly into the latter category. Though Seaman includes an “ethnohistorical analysis,” his work rewards the common reader as well as the specialist, with its stories of marvels staged around the borderline of the divine and human realms.
Just as in the West, the novel in Chinese has had a long path to literary respectability. Written in vernacular rather than literary language and often arising from oral narratives, until the twentieth century, fiction could not aspire to the prestige of poetry.  Still, for the reader fatigued with the pellucid nature images and intricate intertextuality of Chinese poetry and the terrifically challenging conundrums of the Zen masters, Ming and Ching fiction continues to offer first-rate entertainment, whether from a realism that reminds the Western reader of Balzac or a fantastic imagination something like the world of the Odyssey.
I myself have always felt a particular kinship with a broad range of the old Chinese poets and storytellers.  Reading Chuang Tzu or Wang Wei I have the illusion that the cultural and temporal distance between me and these old worthies has vanished. As a child I read Joseph Gaer’s How the Great Religions Began and the Life book The World’s Great Religions, which allowed my belated sensibility to glimpse now and then a numinous glow in spite of my rejection of my culture’s Christianity. While fascinated by the theater and complexity of Indian myth and the powerful hammerblows of the Buddha’s story, I felt at once most at home with Lao Tzu. In that grand period of inexpensive classics, I soon progressed to certain Dover reprints of Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series and to a Modern Library giant, Lin Yutang’s The Wisdom of China and India.
(The Modern Library giants, for many years of my youth, cost $2.95. Lin’s book had almost eleven hundred pages. Could there have been a better bargain? I value still my copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essayes and a complete Donne and Blake bound up together, as are Keats and Shelley – what dizzying riches! I have others as well. A copy of Ulysses, once a close companion, now unread for decades, a complete Lewis Carroll which served me and two younger generations to date, complete novels and selected tales of Hawthorne, but Lin’s is the one to which I have returned more often than any other. It was in this most accessible form that I first encountered the Vedas, the Ramayana, Shen Fu’s Floating Life, and even Lu Xun [or Lusin as he is called here].)
Grateful as I must be to Lin (and to Waley and Pound and D. T. Suzuki, among others), as a popular work, the volume is at times, reductive, even misleading. In introducing the Chinese texts in his anthology, Lin notes the influence of the social Confucian “religion” and comments that China is generally regarded as “human, rational, and easily understandable,” more pointedly, “non-mystical.”  Lin does differ from this supposed consensus in several ways, but in fact Chinese writing of every era except the most recent has gloried in a vast body of fanciful supernaturalism.
Though philosophical Taoism may well seem a sort of “natural religion” even when borne aloft by a certain afflatus, popular Taoism has always offered magicians, alchemy, divination, and an elaborate cast of supernatural beings. Zen (chan in Chinese) may itself face life straight on, offering the most austere of practices, but in China it became conflated with Pure Land Amidism (Jìngtǔzōng) which imagines access through the recitation of a spell to a fabulous realm with all sorts of exotic divinities, flora and fauna. Much Chinese fiction consists of stories of sorcerers, ghosts, gods, fairies, and semi-divine figures of all sorts  and even the histories commonly feature interventions from heaven and other fantastic explanations. While it is difficult to determine to what extent author and audience accepted these marvels literally,  they contribute whimsy, entertainment, and metaphorical value. Surely such fanciful tales have a good deal in common with the horror and science fiction films of today.
The Journey to the West (Pei-yu chi), an anonymous novel published in its current form in the early 17th century,  originally appeared as one of a set of four journey narratives, one for each direction.  The book contains wonders enough for any fantasy film fan. Not only amazing transformations, but the most peculiar self-confrontations insist that even one’s own ego, the last retreat against the skeptic, may be questioned, divided, and exploded. The human reincarnation of the heavenly ruler, the Jade Emperor, practices austerities with such assiduity that he fails to notice when his guts are removed. His stomach becomes an independently acting turtle demon and his intestines a snake demon. (112) His meditations are so effective that the Emperor promotes him in a bureaucratic interoffice memo to “the ranks of Heavenly officials.”  Conquering his own innards, he makes them his generals in the service of order and virtue.
Chen Wu is repeatedly characterized as a sort of intermediary between heaven and earth. In one version  he is a reformed sinner, a butcher who attracts the attention of Kuan Yin when he wraps his cleaver in his own bowels before tossing it to ensure that it is not used for slaughter in the future. In the Journey to the North he appears as the Jade Emperor, a heavenly ruler who nonetheless willfully descends to a human consciousness since he covets a beautiful plaything. At times his celestial form communicates with his human one. (109) Despite his superhuman status, he not only may be tempted; he can also be injured (132). The same is true of other figures. Kuan Yü, for example, though an immortal, still studies sutras to continue on the road to enlightenment. (134-5)
Furthermore, the book’s translator, an anthropologist, seeks at length to demonstrate that the text is a transcription of spirit voices delivered through a shamanic medium. Whether this be in fact true or not, the book confines itself for the most part to Amazing Stories , while there is little of revelation or moral exhortation. The primary focus, judging from internal evidence and much of Seaman’s own contemporary findings, is to establish the bona fides of Chen Wu, the true warrior, a deity also called the Emperor of the Dark Heavens (Hsüan-t’ien Shang-ti), worshipped at Wu-tang Shan in Hupei Province and in a great many other temples. His authority is manifested in episodes resembling other superheroes, vanquishing one foe after another, while occasionally lapsing into weakness himself and slipping through his own error some rungs down the karmic ladder. He continues to climb, though, and his setbacks doubtless only endear a divinity to the fallible human, while his every triumph is a sort of plaintive wish for similar success on the more contested earthly field.
The notion that narrative arises when the divine and the mundane mix is symbolically represented in a number of Chinese novels. For instance, the text of the Dream of the Red Chamber is supposed to be transcribed from a divine stone descended to earth to enter human form, and Water Margin’s hundred and eight heroes are onetime demonic overlords, now repentant and reborn as virtuous outlaws. Sun Wukong in Journey to the West is repeatedly exiled from celestial realms only to be readmitted until his ordeal-filled quest to fetch scriptures if finally successful. As in the Hebrew scriptures, it is when the divine and the human interact that action follows. Before the Fall, Eden must have been altogether uneventful.
If one is accept Seaman’s theory of the ritual role of the story, Chen Wu is a sort of culture hero/savior/granter of wishes, a wonder-working yet accessible deity not unlike Jesus. He is said to have subdued the malign forces just as he had defeated the barbarians (112), even if the latter campaign seems more to do with worldly goals than with enlightenment. Despite the rarified air of frothy fairy fancies, the hero returns to the human-centered Confucian values of filial piety and just rule. (86)
In one of the most striking images of the book Chen Wu, in the role of the Venerable Teacher who has abdicated rule to pursue meditation in the mountains, encounters an old woman rubbing an iron pole on a boulder with the aim of wearing it down to an embroidery needle (102). Next an old man “pecking” at a cliff with an awl, intending to construct a canal tells his that “the heart is harder than stone.” (103) He persists in his work. The image encapsulates the vision of the virtual impossibility of achievement in the human realm while insisting on the value of constant striving, the continual if never wholly successful effort to exert one’s will in the face of what Marvell called “the iron gates of life.”
The reader of this volume appreciates Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West all the more for its clear focus throughout on enlightenment and its consistently scintillating humor. Though the Journey to the North is a markedly less satisfying narrative, it shares to some extent Wu’s delight in wonders and his absolute confidence in the rightness of the cosmos. Here Taoism is a wondrous intersection of philosophy, superstition, and a delightfully whimsical play of imagination.
Yet the book amounts to something more eloquent and poignant than entertainment. For me the current popular cult practice Seaman studied in which Chen Wu is yet today the goal of pilgrimages, the patron of exorcisms, the prophetic voice that continues to speak through the mouths of possessed shamans is more significant than any of the cult’s details. The story’s simple reinforcing fables, so repetitively iterated, constitute a sort of entertainment that reinforces cult practices and social attitudes through a simple sympathetic magic. Our hero wins, and thus we all win. Retributive justice prevails in spite of upheavals and struggles. As in any superhero story, the end is never really in doubt. Surely the people Seaman accompanied on pilgrimages to temples of Chen Wu in Taiwan were seeking similar reassurance. If such supernatural reassurance escapes the contemporary reader, he can still appreciate the deeply human yearning behind such a wildly fabulous story, and join with Chen Wu’s devotees in relishing a ripping tale.
1. All the epistolary novels include this pretense of lived reality as do works like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and many others.
2. Lu Hsun’s A Brief History of Chinese Fiction provides a detailed historical account.
3. Lao-Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu remain for me the wisest sages. I count a small group of Tang Dynasty Buddhist poets among the world’s greatest. I find in the Transmission of the Lamp (Ching-te Ch'uan teng lu) the most profound sublimity. The appeal of Confucius and Szu-ma Chien continues to elude me.
4. See page 567, though in his introduction to “Chinese Tales” (937) he notes that “Chinese literature abounds in tales of ghosts, goblins, fox spirits, genii, and double personalities.”
5. Ling kuai is the genre of specifically supernatural narratives.
6. The same problem, of course, exists in European texts. While Homer, Sappho, and Hesiod are likely to have been religious “fundamentalists” in this sense, what of Euripedes, Plato, or Ovid?
7. Yü Hsiang-tou was apparently the editor and publisher, the source of several interpolations. See Seaman’s introduction, also published as “The Divine Authorship of Pei-yu chi [Journey to the North]” in the Journal of Asian Studies, XLV, 3 (May 1986), 483-497.
8. Ssu-yu chi, the four journeys. Among them is a version of the story of Monkey, the Journey to the West.
9. p. 109.
10. See Seaman’s introduction, page 2.
11. Amazing Stories was the pioneering pulp magazine first published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926.