C. A Brief History of Chinese Alchemical Writings
Although these are important general underlying themes of Journey, it is essential to understand some of the basic concepts and symbols of Chinese alchemy to thoroughly understand the allegorical meaning of specific episodes. Hence we must first introduce some of their basic metaphors. These are essential for the understanding of the allegorical characters of Journey to the West. The symbols of Alchemy are discussed in a distinct series of books, the first written nearly 2000 years ago. These are the literary sources that we will use to illuminate the alchemical symbols behind the characters and story.
The sources that my Author employs to explore this complex topic are few, but fundamental and interconnected. During the late Han Dynasty (Å 2nd century CE) Wei Po-yang wrote The Triplex Unity. This book was very influential in certain circles. It could be said to be the first Classic of Chinese Alchemy.
Many wrote explications of its esoteric subject matter. As is normal with your lamentable species much confusion arose, which was multiplied by confusion, yielding an incredible distortion of the original meaning of the text. In order to rectify these misunderstandings Chang Po-tuan, founder of the Complete Reality school of Taoism, wrote Understanding Reality during the Yuan Dynasty (Å 13th century CE) – over a thousand years after the original text circulated. This too became an alchemical classic. To explicate this complex text Chang wrote a small pamphlet, which came to be called Four Hundred Words on the Gold Elixir.
Several centuries later during the Ming Dynasty (Å 16th century CE) an unnamed author wrote a classic Chinese novel called Journey to the West, an allegory based upon the alchemical classics. Because of its nature as a story, it can be enjoyed as a simple adventure or a symbolic journey to Buddhist enlightenment, Taoist immortality, Confucian political involvement or self-actualization. The episodes of this book are known throughout Eastern Asia - including Korea, Japan, and China. There is even a theme park based around its characters in Chinese dominated Singapore. Although widespread its inner meanings are known by few.
Distortion was piled upon distortion as your misguided species continued to confuse metaphor for reality. The original intent of these alchemical classics was corrupted beyond recognition. To rectify some colossal misunderstandings Liu I Ming wrote a commentary on Four Hundred Words a few centuries later during the Ching dynasty (Å 19th century CE). He said that he felt an obligation to humanity to clear up their confusions as to the meanings of these alchemical texts. This book has been translated into English by Thomas Cleary and called The Inner Teachings of Taoism. Liu also wrote a small pamphlet to help readers understand Journey to the West, connected as it was to these other alchemical teachings.
These are our primary sources. Now let us examine the Alchemical symbols that are essential for a deeper understanding of the characters and plot of Journey. The following three articles include some necessary background information that will be helpful in understanding the terminology and context of the discussion of the chapters of Journey to the West, which follows.