Classic Asian Literature

World Lit-The Bhagavad Gita01-8As we’ve seen in many of our exhibitions, art is often influenced by classic stories. In the recent exhibition Masterpieces of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, many of the works illustrated well-known stories and legends of the day, including that of Kiyohime and Kintaro (also depicted in our recent Gajin Fujita show).

Many of these stories are still well-known today, even outside the culture in which they originated. Becoming familiar with these stories can help us better understand another culture and its history, and even lead us to find commonalities in stories we grew up with. In many cases, these classics are also spectacular works of literature in their own right. On Sunday, February 17, we’ll explore three such works as we screen episodes of the Invitation to World Literature series, featuring Journey to the West, The Bhagavad Gita and The Tale of Genji. These three works, originating from China, India and Japan respectively, are well-known classics that also have a fascinating place in history.

Journey To The West Journey to the West was written in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty, and is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature. Attributed to Wu Chengen, this tells the story of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s (also called Tang Sanzang) pilgrimage from China to India. He meets many obstacles along the way, including several demons. He also meets four characters that join him in his journey along the way: Sun Wukong, a monkey; Zhu Bajie, a pig; Sha Wujing, a river ogre; and the son of the Dragon King of the West Sea, who most often appears as a horse. Buddha himself is implied as the architect of the various obstacles Xuanzang faces, for he must overcome 81 challenges before he can attain enlightenment and Buddhahood. Upon finally reaching Vulture Peak in India (Griddhraj Parvat in northeast India), Xuanzang is presented with scriptures from the Buddha. The group returns to China and is rewarded by the heavens. While the scenes in the novel are quite fantastical, the basic plot is actually based in truth. Xuanzang did exist, and made a pilgrimage from 629-646 C.E. to study Buddhist scripture. His story was very popular well before it was published as Journey to the West, even including the more surreal elements.

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita was written between the fifth and second century B.C.E., and is a 700-verse work as part of the larger Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The text mostly focuses on a conversation between the prince Arjuna and the god Krishna, who serves as his charioteer and guide in the story. Set in the midst of a war, Arjuna is sad and confused about the reason for fighting and turns to Krishna for wisdom. Many scholars see this setting as an allegory for life’s moral challenges. Krishna explains to Arjuna that he should not run away from his duties, but should face them fully– action is better than inaction. However, action should be conducted under the principles of detachment for the possibility of spiritual freedom.


Finally, the Tale of Genji is said to be the world’s first novel, written in the early 11th century by Murisaki Shikibu, a Japanese noblewoman. Though women were usually illiterate at the time, she proved particularly adept at reading and writing the era’s court language. Genji is the son of a Japanese emperor whose romantic exploits lend insight into the customs of the period. The novel includes some 400 characters over a lengthy span, and many of the vignettes have inspired artwork for centuries– including beautifully detailed illustrations for editions of the book itself.

To learn more about these three classics, don’t miss our screenings of Invitation to World Literature this Sunday. We’re showing each 30-minute episode twice– check our website for a full schedule. ~CM


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