The Journey to the North is the third of the Four Journeys 四遊記 I’m going to introduce and the only one that has been translated into English. The story is not unlike that of the Journey to the South, which doesn’t come as a surprise since the publisher Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 is credited as author for both. Yet the characterization of the protagonists Zhenwu 真武 and Huaguang 華光 respectively makes them simultaneously very distinct from each other.
On a superficial level the stories seem almost identical: just like Huaguang, Zhenwu goes through repeated cycles of life, death and rebirth before finally attaining enlightenment. What makes this story distinct from the Journey to the South are the differences between Huaguang and Zhenwu that are apparent from the beginning: while Huaguang was banished from the presence of the Buddha and thus began his cycles of rebirth, Zhenwu actually chose this ordeal himself. Zhenwu 真武, “True Warrior”, is actually another name for the important Daoist deity of the north, Xuantian shangdi 玄天上帝, “The Dark Emperor”.
At the beginning of Journey to the North, the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝 contemplades turning towards Buddhism which can only be achieved through rebirth in the mortal world, when his eye is caught by a precious tree in the distance. A feeling of greed kicks of a cycle of rebirths for one of the Emperor’s hun 魂 souls (according to Daoist believes every living person possesses three hun and seven po 魄 souls). In each incarnation this soul, which slowly forms into the Dark Emperor, is challenged to overcome earthly feelings such as greed, sexual attraction, affinity to power, riches etc.
This endeavour is complicated by the fact that our protagonist never remembers his original identity nor his previous lives and is therefore dependent on the intervention of heavenly personas who time and again make sure he stays on track. There is an interesting progress within his self-cultivation that lead from Daoist studies on Penglai 蓬萊 to Buddhist studies on Gṛdhrakūṭa 靈鷲山. A breakthrough moment occurs when the Dark Emperor, in his latest incarnation actually understands himself the need for self-cultivation after witnessing greed, lust, violence and intoxication in a scene reminiscent of the initial enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. He then removes to Wudang Mountain 武當山, an actual place in China and, among other things, since Song times (960-1279) center of the cult of the Dark Emperor.
After achieving enlightenment, Zhenwu is readmitted into Heaven and given the position of leader of 36 Heavenly Generals 三十六員天將. However, in absence of a leader, the previous have all left Heaven, and so Zhenwu is now tasked with roaming the earth, fighting demons, subduing them and recruiting them to his ranks. Among his newly formed retinue are illustrous persons, such as Zhao Gongming 趙公明, whom I routinely encounter in these types of novels, Guan Yu 關羽, the famous general-turned-deity from the Three Kingdoms (184-280) (one of the heroes of the celebrated historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義), and Huaguang 華光, the protagonist of Journey to the South. The scene in the novel, which (due to both novels having the same author) mirrors the same episode in Journey to the South, where Huaguang tries to escape Heaven through its Northern Gate, is intercepted and defeated by Zhenwu, and made to submit to his command.
Even though the Journey to the North, like its “southern” counterpart, features a lot of fights against demons and repeated supernatural rebirths, I felt it was somewhat subdued compared to Huaguang’s story. This is partly due to Zhenwu being a lot more serious in his behaviour, lacking Huaguang’s wit and irreverence. Maybe owing to the fact that this journey was his own decision, Zhenwu does not go about his lives with the same impatience as Huaguang, which furthermore also correspond very well with the cardinal directions assigned to them: Huaguang’s south is associated with the element of fire, while Zhenwu’s north is the realm of water.
But putting the character of the protagonist aside, I actually feel like this is a novel that is much more qualified to show an unfamiliar reader what the Chinese pantheon is all about, than maybe even the more famous Journey to the West 西遊記 can. The reason is, that the monkey king Sun Wukong 孫悟空, much like Huaguang, is a very rebellious protagonist and in these novels we only learn about the Jade Emperor, Heavenly Troops and the like in an antagonistic role. In Journey to the North, once Zhenwu is given the task of working for Heaven, we see him regularly subdue demons and helping the ordinary people – usually on the order or the Jade Emperor himself. (It is acknowledged and then ignored, that he used to be one of his souls.) In a crisis, Zhenwu can always count on the help of his master Miaole tianzun 妙樂天尊 or the Three Pure Ones 三清. Occasionally, he also turnes to Buddhist deities, who are more than willing to help. Thus, the novel shows the workings of the Chinese syncretistic pantheon without the disruption of an unruly god like Huaguang or Sun Wukong.
It is great then that this novel has actually been translated into English, as the only one of the Four Journeys. The book by Gary Seaman also includes an introduction of Zhenwu and a discussion of authorship. The annotations are very sparse though and, as it was published in 1897, you should be able to make sense of Wade-Giles (as opposed to Pinyin). Definitely check it out, if you want to get a clearer picture of how people in the Ming dynasty (1386-1644) imagined the Chinese pantheon and the ways of their deities.
Yu Xiangdou, Journey to the North: A Ethnohistorical Analysis and Annotated Translation of the Chinese Folk-novel Pei-yu-chi, translated by Gary Seaman, 1987.