Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week. However the storm itself is not the point of this post. Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female. Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology. The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.
Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation). The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China to India in order to obtain the Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form). The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief). Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever. The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.
Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot). The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.
One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court. Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven). Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor. He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth. Then he was exiled to the desert.
Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace. He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang. Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase). To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”. Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India. In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni. The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.
In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river). Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig). Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.