For most of the novel he is known as ''-sānzàng'', the title Sānzàng referring to his mission to seek the ''Sānzàngjīng'', the "Three Collections of Scriptures". In some translations, the title is rendered as Tripitaka . He is also commonly referred to as Táng-sēng , which is a courtesy name that, like the former name, reflects his status as the adopted "brother" of the emperor, Taizong. As "Tripitaka" he is a leading character in the cult Japanese Television series .
In the story, he is constantly terrorized by monsters and demons because of a legend that they would obtain immortality by eating the flesh of a holy man. While he is a pacifist who has no fighting ability of his own, he is flanked by his three powerful disciples - Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing - themselves "monsters" who have vowed to protect him on his journey in order to atone for their sins in Heaven; while the heavenly origins of Wukong are up for debate, both Bajie and Wujing were once minor deities in Heaven who were cast to Earth for their wrongdoings.
Xuanzang is partly modelled after the historical Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk , whose life was the book's inspiration; the real Xuanzang made a perilous journey on foot from China to to obtain Buddhist sutras.
In recent years, a mural on the wall of a mountain pass on the way to the China/India border was discovered that is purported to show the real Xuanzang flanked by a small hairy man that some scholars have theorized might have been the inspiration for the character of the Monkey King.