No, I am not leaving on a journey to the west. In fact, my next journey will be to the east as I head back home.
Instead, I am referring to the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West. I read this long work that was written in the 16th century last winter. The novel was in four volumes and had 100 chapters. The novel follows a legendary pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xonzang to India in search of sacred writings. The story is full of action, mysticism and conquest over evil. I won’t go into the details here, but will say that it is the epic adventure novel for China.
Journey to the West was an anonymous work, but tradition attributes it to Wu Cheng’en who wrote more traditional classic works. It was most likely published anonymously as it was not written in the accepted traditional style.
So, you may wonder, why am I thinking of Journey to the West tonight when I am in South Korea. When I was at the National Palace Museum of Korea on Sunday afternoon, I found out that the earthenware rooftop figures on the traditional Korean buildings were based on the characters from Journey to the West.
The figures are called Japsang and are both decorative and also meant to ward off evil spirits. The more important the building is, the more figures you will see. However, there will always be an odd number of figures. You may look at the figure above and say that six is not an odd number. The Dragon Head at the end of the line is not counted in the number. This is a less important building since it only has five figures.
The buildings here are from the Joseon Dynasty and the figures that they use are all characters in Journey to the West. Starting on the end we have Buddhist Monk Xonzang. The next character is the Monkey King who is then followed by the Pig Monster. Then we have the Half-Water Demon and Horse.
After the five figures we have a nice scary Dragon Head.
Now that I know what these figures represent, I have a much greater appreciation for them. I know why these figures are used to ward off evil. As I look at these pictures again I have scenes from the story coming back to me. This gives me a much greater appreciation for the culture and history of the Joseon Dynasty and I can also see the influence China had on Korea culture. Of course, my post yesterday also shows some of that Chinese influence, but in a different way.
I hope that you enjoyed my my wandering thoughts about Japsang. They have so much more meaning for me now than they did the last time I visited here.
If you want to deepen your understanding of the Japsang pick up a copy of Journey to the West and start reading. After a month of reading, you will know more :-).