Tang Sanzang

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Tang Sanzang
Depiction of Tang Sanzang
First appearanceJourney to the West
Created byWu Cheng'en
Based onXuanzang
In-universe information
Tang Seng
TitleBuddha of Sandalwood Merit
OccupationBuddhist monk
ReligionMahayana Buddhism
OriginTang dynasty, Jiujiang (birthplace)
Tang Sanzang
The four heroes of Journey to the West, Tang Sanzang on the second from the left, riding on Yulong. Painted decoration in the Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China
Chinese name
Literal meaningthree collections
Traditional Chinese三藏經
Simplified Chinese三藏经
Tang Seng
Literal meaningTang Monk
Buddha of Sandalwood Merit
Literal meaningBuddha of Sandalwood Merit
River Float
Literal meaningRiver Float
Japanese name
Sanskrit name

Tang Sanzang is a Buddhist monk and pilgrim who is a central character in the 16th century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en. Tang Sanzang is based on the historical Tang Dynasty monk, Xuanzang.

Character description[edit]

The monk's title Sanzang refers to his mission to seek the Tripitaka, which is the Sanskrit name for collections of ancient Buddhist scriptures. In most English translations of Journey to the West, including the authoritative translation by Anthony Yu, his name is rendered as Tripitaka. In the novel, he takes the name Tang after becoming an oath brother of Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty.[1][2]

Tang Sanzang is a Buddhist monk who is a reincarnation of Golden Cicada (Chinese: 金蟬子), a disciple of the Buddha.[2] Tang Sanzang's original family name was Chen, the posthumous son of Palace Graduate Chen Guangrui and Yin Wenjiao, the daughter of chief minister Yin Kaishen. After being awarded the first place in a national examination, Chen Guangrui was appointed Prefect of Jiangzhou (modern Jiujiang). While on his way to take office, he was murdered by a ferryman named Liu Hong, who also abducts his wife and takes his place as Prefect. When Chen's son is born, Yin Wenjiao puts the baby on a wooden board and sets him floating adrift down the Yangzi River, out of fear of him being killed by Liu Hong. The baby reaches Gold Mountain Monastery and is found by the Abbot, who gives him the nickname River Float (江流).[2] The abbot sees that River Float is taken care of, and when he grows up and becomes a Buddhist novice, he gives him the Dharma name Xuanzang. When Xuanzang turns 18, he is reunited with his father, whose body was saved from death by the Dragon King of River Hong; together they look for Lady Yin and bring Liu Hong to justice.

He is sent by the Emperor Taizong on a mission to Tianzhu (an ancient Chinese name for India) to fetch a set of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures back to China for the purpose of spreading Buddhism in his native land. He becomes sworn brothers with the Emperor of the Tang dynasty, and the emperor sees him off from the capital Chang'an with two escorts to accompany him. This contrasts with the historical Xuanzang, who disobeyed the Emperor's orders against foreign travel and did not have his permission.

Tang Sanzang is helpless at defending himself and his two escorts are killed during his first encounter with demons after his departure from Chang'an. The bodhisattva Guanyin helps Tang Sanzang find three powerful supernatural beings – Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing (a monkey, pig and fish spirit respectively) – to aid and protect him on his journey. The three become Tang Sanzang's disciples and receive enlightenment and redemption for their past sins once the pilgrimage is complete.

Along the journey, Tang Sanzang is constantly terrorised by monsters and demons due to a legend which says that one can attain immortality by consuming his flesh because he is a reincarnation of a holy being. One of his disciples is caught by a monster,[3] and the other falls into the Tongtian River,[4] also known as the River of Communion with Heaven.[5]

At the end of the novel, Tang Sanzang is appointed as the Buddha of Sandalwood Merit.[1][2] This is a nod to the fact that, in Buddhism, sandalwood (and, by extension, sandalwood incense) is seen as having the power to distil purity by burning-away negative spiritual impurities; Tang Sanzang, as Golden Cicada, had dismissed the Buddha's teachings and-so was sentenced to re-incarnate as a Buddhist ten consecutive times to distil himself, spiritually, expelling spiritual impurities until only purity was left, ultimately achieving Buddhahood, making him the "Buddha of Sandalwood Merit".[citation needed]

Historical background[edit]

Tang Sanzang is modeled after the historical Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang, whose life was the book's inspiration; the real Xuanzang made a perilous journey on foot from China to India (and back) to obtain Buddhist sutras.[2]

In contrast to the historical Xuanzang, a wise and learned scholar (he was in his late 20s when he left for India), the fictional Tang Sanzang is presented as a young monk who is extremely naive, showing idealistic compassion without wisdom. Tang Sanzang is usually quick to fall for the facades of demons who have disguised themselves as innocent humans, as he cannot recognize them, whereas Sun Wukong can. This frequently leads to tension when Sun Wukong tries to protect him from such threats. One such popular instance was when the White Bone Demon disguised three times as family members — first, a young woman. After Wukong "killed" the woman, the demon escaped, but Wukong was punished by Tang Sanzang for it. The second was the young woman's elderly mother, looking for her daughter. The third was the young woman's elderly father, searching for his wife and child. Upon the "death" of the father by Wukong's hands, Wukong finally killed the demon before she got away. Tang Sanzang, convinced that Wukong had actually killed three innocent people, sent him away, despite protests. Tang Sanzang usually punishes him by chanting the words of the Tight-Fillet Spell (Chinese: 緊箍咒) given to Tang Sanzang by the bodhisattva Guanyin to control Wukong, which causes the latter's headband to contract and give him acute headaches.

Like Sun Wukong, Tang Sanzang is often described as a god of protection. Ksitigarbha, a highly revered bodhisattva in East Asian Buddhism, is occasionally mistaken for Tang Sanzang because the former is often portrayed like Tang Sanzang - dressed in a similarly patterned kasaya robe, wearing a Buddhist crown (an Ushnisha or a Black Crown), and wielding a khakkhara staff.[1][2] In some depictions or media sometimes Sanzang is depicted as a female monk or nun but this is mostly in Japan.



  1. ^ a b c Wu Cheng'en (1993) [1500–1582]. Journey to the West. Translated by Jenner, W. J. F. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Wu Cheng'en & Yu, Anthony C. (2012). The Journey to the West. Translated by Yu, Anthony C. (Revised ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
  3. ^ Wenxin Studio (11 September 2008). 100 Chinese Classics: Journey to the West. Business Weekly Publications. pp. 128–. ISBN 978-986-6571-26-8.
  4. ^ Qian Zhongli (1988). Qinghai Style. Qinghai People's Press.
  5. ^ Barbara Stoler Miller (16 September 2016). Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching: A Guide for Teaching. Taylor & Francis. pp. 284–. ISBN 978-1-315-48459-4.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bhat, Rama B. (2014). Xuan Zhang's mission to the West with Monkey King. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
  • Original text

See also[edit]