The novel has its historical basis in the epic pilgrimage of Xuanzang. This saintly and beloved monk traveled for seventeen years (629-45) and brought back from India 657 Buddhist texts. Upon his return, he devoted the remainder of his life to translating these scriptures.
The authorship of Journey to the West has been attributed to Wu Cheng’en 吴承恩 (字汝忠, 號射陽山人), a native of Shanyang Xian 山陽縣, Huai’an Fu 淮安府 (in present day northern Jiangsu Province 江蘇).
The major characters in the novel, in addition to Xuanzang, are his four disciples. The Monkey (also known as Sun Wukong 孫悟空, Qi-tian-da-sheng 齊天大聖, and Sun Xingzhe 孫行者), emerged as the chief disciple and guardian-attendant who was endowed with enormous courage and magical powers. The second disciple is Zhu Bajie 猪八戒, the slothful, sensual, half-human and half-pig comic, actually a Daoist god exiled from Heaven. The third disciple Sha Wujing 沙悟净 (also called the Sha Monk) is a reformed cannibal with nine skulls strung around his neck and a huge priest’s-staff in his hands. The fourth disciple is a delinquent dragon turned into a white horse and served as Xuanzang’s primary transportation.