Wu Cheng’en’s best known novel Journey to the West, which is also translated as Monkey: A Folk Novel of China, provides an account on the pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk, along with his disciples, to save the sutra on transcendence and good will and rescue China from moral digression.
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Aside from sophisticated account of the adventure of the four, the novel reflects a historical and religious background of late imperial China during the reign of Ming Dynasty.
In particular, Monkey is an allegorical representation of the three religious practices enhancing the concept of moral lesson that the Chinese people should learn.
Drawing the parallels between the story and the historical background, Cheng’en attempts to represent the synthesis of three religions as the moral foundation for the Mind China people to adhere. Among the moral principles, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism complement the existing practices introduced by Ming Taizu.
In this respect, to uphold the moral and religious beliefs of the Chinese society, Wu Cheng’en puts Buddhism over the other two religions and considers its philosophy as the main way to salvation.
At the same time, the author represents other religious movements – Confucianism and Daoism – that complement the ideological foundation of beliefs and attitudes in the time of the Ming Dynasty.
By highlighting the pantheon of Buddhist streams in the form of bodhisattvas, Wu Cheng-en attempts to reflect some philosophical and religious beliefs of the Chinese society.
Buddhism, as the core stream in the novel, is strictly observed by the protagonist of the story Tripitaka who became the central figure in legendary adventures. His major accent on Buddhism school of thought is strongly associated with moral concerns, specifically with the necessity to direct people through the path of salvation and reconciliation.
At this point, the protagonist proclaims, “a priest…should be ready to die rather than commit acts of violence” (Cheng-en 133). In this respect, even those people who surpassed the moral conduct of Buddhism had the right to salvation through penance.
Similar to the story revealing the utmost Buddhist beliefs, the historical evidence highlights the transformation of the Ming dynasty to “a national moral crusade” (Theodore De Bary et al. 780).
Projecting this outlook on Cheng’en’s story, it should be stressed that the emphasis on Buddhism should be made to rescue the Ming China from sins and introduce new moral codes that would control and guide people’s behavior.
One of the Tripitaka’s disciples – the Monkey called Sun Wukong – personifies the Confucian tendencies by pursuing the practices of Taoism. Adhering to these teachings, the Monkey firmly beliefs in the natural foundation of the world and, therefore, he harmonizes himself with primordial essence of the world creation.
Being part of the nature, Sun Wukong asserts that the principle of “The Five Elements” is the basic condition for achieving immortality (Cheng-en 24).
Moreover, the Monkey, upholding all three religious teachings as the primary attributes for achieving moral and religious harmony, Wukong, along with Tripitaka, begins his path to reconciliation through Taoism to cognize the main pillars of Buddhism. In other words, Confucianism shapes the principal foundation for the other two teachings.
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At the beginning of the novel, we see Monkey as the one who embodies wisdom and intelligence. As per the policies and trends in the Ming Dynasty period, Taizu also saw Confucianism at the core of all religious teachings. At this point, though emperor expands on the necessity of introducing three religious teachings in combination, he still places Confucian visions on the first place.
Synergy of the Three Teaching is brightly revealed in the novel, and pertains directly the main protagonist of the story. Their searching for the original morale, as well as for individual harmony brings all the characters to one conclusion that the moral conduct should be premised on the three pillars – Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism.
At this point, Taizu’s teaching also led to similar outcomes. Specifically, the emperor agrees with the idea that “the Three Teachings contain things that are abstruse and vital [in substance], yet solidly efficacious when put into practice” (Theodore De Bary et al. 792). The necessity to favor all three religions is grounded on different nature of people who have different beliefs, goals, and concerns in their life.
A complicated mixture of beliefs makes reliance solely on one religion meaningless because it cannot provide a universal policy for people to acknowledge their sins and enter upon the path of wisdom and humility. Taizu’s views are congruent with the ones declared in Cheng’en’s story.
At this point, Monkey argues that all three religious teachings allow him to become immortal (Cheng’en 24). Using the power of the five elements, monkey gradually refers to the study of Daoism and Buddhism to achieve wisdom and relieve himself from mortal sins.
Judging from the above-presented assumptions, each character of the novel possesses both virtues and vices that should be either enhanced or conquered on their way to enlightenment. In this respect, the monkey possesses intelligence and courage by means of which he manages to break the past boundaries and discover the “new land” of knowledge.
Tripitaka is a human who demonstrates humbleness and modesty, yet lack of faith prevents him from overcoming the obstacles. As a result, Tripitaka advocated the Buddhist concept of filial piety while being on the search for the Buddhist sutras. Finally, other characters – Pigsy, Sandy, and Dragon – represent the utmost sins and vices of society which should be exterminated.
They fall under the guidance of Tripitaka to change their moral and religious positions and seek enlightenment.
Notably, all three disciples, except for the only human, represent supernatural powers, which are typical of Buddhism and Daoism, but they are confined to nothingness and vacuity when being represented apart from Confucianism (Theodore De Bary et al. 792). In such a manner, Cheng’en reasons the presence of all “The Three Calamities” (24).
As all the pilgrims seek to uncover new knowledge and reveal themselves from boundaries and restrictions, Xu Guangqi, an acknowledged scholar and mathematician living in the Ming China, believed that learning new ways of cognition beyond the traditional visions was possible through learning more about Christianity.
According to the scientist, Christianity preached similar views on the idea of personal virtues, as well as the necessity to cultivate wisdom and intelligence, which was the only condition to serve Heaven and realize Heaven’s care for people. Moreover, Xu Guangqi proclaims, “the protection and the salvation of the soul are grand essentials; fidelity, filial piety, compassion, and love are to be universally exercised” (Xu Guangqi n. p.).
While analyzing this position in the light of Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, one can notice a strong association between the Christian visions observed by the Xu Guangqi and the beliefs pursued by Tripitaka who also chooses a path of salvation through penance and compassion.
While deliberating on the concept of Buddhism and its dependence on Confucianism and Daoism, it is purposeful to compare the presentation of the governmental hierarchy in a historical context with the one reproduced in the novel.
At this point, Taizu applies to the principles of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism to eradicate the past order and introduce new ideological foundation. Making people believe in supernatural powers, as well as divine origin of the emperors allowed Taizu to control people and place them within strict moral frames where Confucianism cannot be a sole ideological basis.
Similar views were upheld by Cheng’en who introduced Confucian principles in Heaven’s hierarchical structure with the Jade Emperor to be at the head of it. With the authorities of Buddhism and Taoism reporting to the Emperor, the author rigidly criticizes tyranny of the Chinese imperial system. Consequently, Heaven reflects the Chinese bureaucratic system since there is there is no place for equality and good is as dominating as evil.
The attitudes expressed in the narration reflect the practice and purpose of religion in the times of Ming China. To begin with, the text attains to the historical period of Zhue Yuanzhang’s legacy, which has a potent impact on decision-making, and has specific views on the role of religion.
In particular, religion was beneficial because it imposed positive social outcomes on the Chinese society and, as a result, Zhu’s decision reveales that all the three teaching should be synthesized and equally observed by people to deliver social benefits.
During the reign of Wang Yangming, the three practices played a significant role in harmonizing all spheres of social life, including educational system, family institutions, and politics. Advocating self-cultivation and sage was at the core of ideologies of that historical period because it increased competition among people, as well as their aspiration to enrich their knowledge.
Looking through this perspective, Cheng’en was also congruent with the idea that each individual is responsible for his/her future and personal development, irrespective of the mistakes he/she had made in the past.
In conclusion, it should be stated, that the story represents an allegorical journey of the Chinese society on the way to salvation and penance.
Because Monkey provides a picture of human character transformation, with all its weaknesses and strengths, it is strongly associated with the transformations occurred to the Chinese people during the reign of the Ming Dynasty.
Cheng’en firmly believes that despite the evil nature of people, they have the right to redemption by committing themselves to good actions and aspiration for enlightenment. Therefore, the characters involved into the religious pilgrimage endeavor challenges, obstacles, and dangers and, despite these difficulties, they manage to find their ways.
In this respect, the author perceives religion as a sophisticated mixture of several teachings shaping the basis of moral conduct. The story becomes philosophical because it provides an insight into the new Buddhist philosophy.
At the end, Cheng’s states, “never again follow false doctrines nor follow foolish courses, but know that Three Religions are one” (249). Overall, the narration is an important historical source representing important historical events as well as visualizing the problems and constraints in the times of the Mind Dynasty.
Cheng’en, Wu. Monkey: Folk Novel of China. Grove Press. 1984. Print.
Kuang-chi, Hsu. Memorial to Fra Matteo Ricci, 1617. Fordham University. 1998. Web. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1617hsukuang.asp
Theodore De Bary, William, Irene Bloom, Wing-tsit Chan, Joseph Adler, and Richard Lufrano. Sources of Chinese Tradition. US: Columbia University Press. 2000. Print.