I’m not living under a rock nor am I a starfish but I have to admit that I never heard of the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West before Hwayugi made its premiere. I didn’t even realize Lee Seung-gi’s variety show, New Journey to the West, has the same concept.
Because ignorance is not an excuse in this digital age, I decided to write this feature for everyone who’s curious about the origin of this latest K-drama hit!
Hwayugi (A Korean Odyssey) has modernized the plot of Chinese classic novel Journey to the West, which is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The novel is based on the real historical records about a monk named Xuanzang. It was believed Xuanzang gallivanted throughout the Indian subcontinent in pursuit of Buddhism knowledge. He recorded his journey in the book called Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.
Journey to West – The Novel
The popular Chinese classic novel has 100 chapters that can be divided into four unequal parts. The first part is an introduction to the main story followed by chapters about Xuanzang and his journey to bring back Buddhist scriptures. It tells Xuanzang’s pilgrimage with demons and animal spirits, who often regard him as their prey. The evil spirits believe they will get immortality if they eat Xuanzang’s flesh (sounds familiar, eh?).
Journey to the West in Other Media
Before this 2017-18 Korean adaptation, there were numerous of the classic literature piece.
- Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China (1942) – an abridged English translation by Arthur Waley.
- 1986 Yang Jie TV Series – it stars Liu Xiao Ling Tong and Ma Dehua.
- Dragon Ball and Saiyuki – it was said these manga series were originally loosely based on the Journey to the West.
- Netflix series – Australia’s ABC, TVNZ and Netflix announced new live action television series, The Legend of Monkey, will premiere this year.
Novel vs K-drama
Son Oh-gong – Sun Wukong
Lee Seung-gi’s role was based on the novel’s Sun Wukong, a monkey who named himself as the Great Sage Equal to Heaven because of his wide skills and knowledge about the art of the Tao, polymorphic transformations, combat, and secrets of immortality.
Sun Wukong, in the novel, was trapped by the Buddha under the mountain for 500 years after he rebelled against the Heaven. The classic describes the Monkey disciple as the wisest and violent of Xuanzang’s disciple. The travelling monk uses a magic gold ring and the Ring Tightening Mantra to control the playful Great Sage. Similar to Son Oh-gong’s Geumgonggo, the ring can’t be remove until Xuanzang’s journey ends.
Jin Sun-mi – Xuanzang
The K-drama’s main female lead, Jin Sun-mi, is the modern version of Xuanzang. As said earlier, this Buddhist monk set-off to India to bring back original Buddhist scriptures to China. He is described as ‘ill-equipped for such perilous travel’ but is surrounded by powerful disciples who protect him throughout his journey. These disciples received enlightenment and forgiveness for their sins once the journey is done.
Ma-wang – Bull Demon King
The intriguing backstory of Ma-wang in the K-drama was surprisingly close to its novel counterpart. At the start of the story, Bull Demon King was said to have a brother-like relationship with Sun Wukong and other demon kings but in a later chapter, Sun Wukong deceived the Bull Demon King’s wife, Princess Iron Fan and took away her Banana Leaf Fan. The white bull then disguised himself as Zhu Bajie (pig) to retrieve the fan which later resulted in a fight between the three. The novel’s story teases what could happen in the Korean series.
Zhu Bajie – Jeo Pal-gye or PK
Joe Pal-gye’s literary counterpart was the commander of Heaven’s naval forces but was banished to the mortal world for flirting with the moon goddess. Zhu Bajie’s greed for food and women and his constant tricks to escape his duties causes conflict with Sun Wukong.
The K-drama Effect
I must say the novel was ‘K-dramatised’, putting Korean series cliches here and there which surprisingly resulted in a refreshing fantasy series. The characters’ behavior and even backstory have similarities with their Chinese novel counterparts. The story is obviously more romanticized and less violent but it only strengthens the K-drama’s individuality from the Chinese classic. The Korean series has told the ancient tale in a way that resonates with today’s society.
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