Last updated: 04-29-2022
I’ve already posted three entries on the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang). The first discusses his former incarnation as Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple; the second discusses how chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version published in 1592; and the third discusses the connection between his exile from heaven to ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophy. Here, I’d like present information that describes the monk’s characterization throughout the story. I’m quoting several pages from Yu’s (2008) paper “The Formation of Fiction in the ‘Journey to the West’“. He shows that, instead of a being a model Buddhist, the literary monk is cast as a Confucian.
I. Relevant pages
However that kind of textual contradiction is to be resolved, what no reader of the full-length novel can fail to notice is how deeply in Xuanzang’s consciousness is imprinted the magnitude of the imperial favor and charge bestowed on him. The historical pilgrim’s dedication to visit the Western region was motivated by the quest for doctrinal clarification (Fashizhuan 法師傳 I: “The Master of the Law … thus vowed to tour the region of the West so as to inquire about the perplexities (of his faith) 法師 … 乃誓遊西方以問所惑”), and this commitment would make him risk even death for defying “the laws of the state 國法” (Xingzhuang 行狀). In sharp contrast, the fictive priest, when promoted to be the emperor’s bond-brother for the willingness to serve as the scripture-seeker, said to his ruler: “Your Majesty, what ability and what virtue does your poor monk possess that he should merit such affection from your Heavenly Grace? I shall not spare myself in this journey, but I shall proceed with all diligence until I reach the Western Heaven. If I did not attain my goal, or the true scriptures, I would not dare return to our land even if I were to die. May I fall into eternal perdition in Hell. 陛下, 貧僧有何德何能, 敢蒙天恩眷顧如此? 我這一去, 定要捐軀努力, 直至西天; 如不到西天, 不得真經, 即死也不敢回國, 永墮沉淪地獄.”
Whereas the historical pilgrim, upon his successful return to China with scriptures, felt compelled to seek imperial pardon for “braving to transgress the authoritative statutes and departing for India on one’s own authority 冒越憲章私往天竺” through both written memorial and direct oral petition (Fashizhuan 6), the fictive priest would be welcomed by a faithful and expectant ruler who had even built a Scripture-Anticipation Tower 望經樓 to wait anxiously for his envoy for eleven more years (chapter 100). This portrait of the pilgrimage’s imperial sponsorship, intervention (most notably in the travel rescript bearing the imperial seal administered by the emperor himself), and reception helps explain why the fictive priest would consider his religious mission to be, in fact, his obligated service to his lord and state, and that the mission’s success must enact not merely the fulfilment of a vow to Buddha but equally one to a human emperor. As the lead-in poem that inaugurates the priest’s formal journey at the beginning of chapter 13 puts it: “The rich Tang ruler issued a decree/Deputing Xuanzang to seek the source of Zen 大有唐王降敕封/欽差玄奘問禪宗.”
The fact that the fictive pilgrim was sent on his way by the highest human authority with tokens of imperial favor thus also changes fundamentally Xuanzang’s identity and its mode of disclosure. In sharp contrast to the historical figure who, deciding to defy the court’s proscription to travel in the western regions, “dared not show himself in public but rested during the day and journeyed only at night 不敢公出, 乃畫伏夜行” (Fashizhuan 1), the novelistic Xuanzang had no difficulty or hesitation in telling the first stranger he met that he was an imperial envoy sent by the Tang emperor to seek scriptures from Buddha in the Western Heaven. The words, uttered by both master and disciples, would become a formulaic announcement throughout the priest’s journey to every conceivable audience – whether divine, demonic or human – much as the imperial travel rescript authorizing his undertaking would be signed and stamped with royal seals of all the states and kingdoms the pilgrims visited, and from where they had gained permitted passage (chapter 100). The “Shengjiao xu 聖教序 (Preface to the Holy Religion”) bestowed by the historical Taizong on the repatriated Xuanzang, transcribed nearly verbatim in chapter 100 of the novel, had declared unambiguously that the journey was the monk’s solitary expedition 承危達邁, 策杖孤征. In this ex post facto encomium bequeathed to a cleric newly pardoned for a seventeen-year-old crime against the state, not even the emperor could claim credit for authorizing or assisting the project in any manner. On the other hand, the invented rescript, in poignant irony, would not allow the readers to forget for one minute that imperial charge and enablement were as needed as the assistance of the gods.
Throughout the novel’s lengthy course, therefore, there are quite a few examples in which Xuanzang frets about his inability to fulfill the decreed wish of his human lord 旨意 as much as the dreaded failure to reach and see Buddha. Fearing contracted illness might prove fatal during the episode of the Sea-Pacifying Monastery in chapter 81, a tearful Tripitaka would write a poem that he wants Monkey to take back to the Tang court, to inform his Sage Lord 聖君 of his precarious health and request another pilgrim be sent instead. Captured by a leopard monster in chapter 85, Tripitaka explains to a fellow prisoner that “If I lose my life here, would that not have dashed the expectation of the emperor and the high hopes of his ministers? 今若喪命, 可不盼殺那君王, 辜負那臣子?” When told by his interlocutor, a stereotypical wood-cutter who is the sole supporter of an old widowed mother (compare with the one who spoke to Monkey in chapter 1), the priest breaks into loud wailing, crying:
How pitiful! How pitiful! 可憐 可憐
If even a rustic has longings for his kin, Has not this poor priest chanted sūtras in vain?
To serve the ruler or to serve one’s parents follows the same principle. You live by the kindness of your parents, and I live by the kindness of my ruler. 山人尚有思親意, 空教貧僧會念經, 事君事親, 皆同一理, 你為親恩, 我爲君恩.
Tripitaka’s emotional outburst not only places his sentiments squarely within the most familiar discourse of historical Confucian teachings, but also echoes his parting address to his monastic community at the Temple of Great Blessings 洪福寺 on the eve of his journey: “I have already made a great vow and a profound promise, that if I do not acquire the true scriptures, I shall fall into eternal perdition in Hell. Since I have received such grace and favor from the king, I have no alternative but to requite my country to the limit of loyalty. 我已發了弘誓大願, 不取真經, 永墮沉淪地獄, 大底是受王恩寵, 不得不盡忠以報國耳.” That remark, in turn, even more pointedly repeats a similar confession spoken by the Xuanzang of the twenty-four-act zaju: “Honored viewers, attend to the single statement by this lowly monk: a subject must reach the limit of loyalty, much as son must reach the limit of filial piety. There is no other means of requital than the perfection of both loyalty and filial piety. 眾官, 聽小僧一句言語: 為臣盡忠, 為子盡孝, 忠孝兩全, 餘無所報.” Words such as these may seem hackneyed and platitudinous to modern ears, to say the least, but this portrait of the novelistic Xuanzang cannot be ignored. Built consistently on the tradition of antecedent legend, but with important innovative additions apparently supplied by the Shidetang author, his characterization seems to fit precisely the mold of a stereotype – the traditional Confucian scholar-official.
If the full-length novel seems to indicate a presumption of the Three-Religions-in-One ideology 三教歸一 (or, 三教合一) for both its content and context, who among the five fictive pilgrims is more appropriate than the human monk to live to the limits of political loyalism and filial piety, especially when all four of the other disciples have only such tenuous relations to human culture and lineage? The historical Xuanzang was unquestionably a hero of religion, aptly turning his back on family and court in his youth to face appalling dangers with nary a regret, and without doubt a master of literary Sinitic and of scriptural styles shaped by difficult encounters with Indic languages. His biography, compiled by two disciples and touched with hagiography, duly recorded serial visitations to various states of Central Asia and India beset by encounters with gods and demons, physical perils and privations, triumphal religious proselytism, and royal hospitality in many locales. Nonetheless, could a faithful replica of this character who began his famed journey as a treasonous subject be expected to amuse and entertain in the popular imagination? The novelistic figure, by contrast, is timid, ethically fastidious, occasionally dogmatic and heedful of slander, and prone to partiality – mundane traits not uncommon to other male leads typed in Ming drama or vernacular fiction. Most interestingly, although this pilgrim, consistent with his vocational vow of celibacy, may display intractable resistance to sexual temptations in all circumstances (chapters 24, 54-55, 82-83), he is also so fond of poetry that he would discuss poetics with tree monsters (chapter 64) and compose quatrains in a region near India (chapter 94). Perhaps in parody of filial piety blended with the religious notion of reverting to the source and origin 反本還原 extolled in both Daoism and Buddhism, the narrative shows him to be so attached to his mother (when he is not thinking about the emperor) that an ordeal is almost conveniently structured right in his path nearing its goal that would reenact the fated marriage of his parents – the chance selection of the father by the mother’s thrown embroidered ball (chapters 93-95). In this episode on the Kingdom of India, where to the Tang Monk’s chauvinistic eyes the clothing, utensils, manner of speech, and behavior of the people completely resemble those of the Great Tang, the pilgrim’s persistent invocation of maternal experience also justly invites Monkey’s teasing about his master’s “longing for the past 慕古之意.” Is not such a person, dwelling in the religiously syncretic world of the full-length novel, a fit representative of Confucianism, at least as known and imagined by the vast populace? (Yu, 2008, pp. 22-26).
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II. My thoughts
So having read the above, we know that the change from the heroic historical monk to the cowardly literary figure was likely done for entertainment purposes, as well as to interject a bit of Confucianism in honor of syncretic Ming philosophy. But I can’t help but think that this was also meant to fuel the constant bickering between Tripitaka and Sun Wukong. After all, Confucianism and Buddhism were bitter enemies throughout the centuries. While Confucianism also critiqued Daoism, Buddhism was an easier target due to (among other objections) its foreign origins.  Ming-era scholar Wang Shouren (王守仁, 1472-1529), for instance, faulted the religion for “ignoring canonical human relations, abandoning affairs and things [of the world] …, and fostering selfishness and self-benefit” (Wang, 1992, as cited in Yu, 2012, p. 72). In addition, the Monkey King is often cast as the voice of reason, while the monk remains blind to reality (a prime example being the white bone spirit episode). This dynamic may have been intended to lampoon Confucianism. If true, this would mean the author-compiler, be it Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩, c. 1500-1582) or some other scholar-official, was likely poking fun at himself and those in his social circle.
Here’s a great example of Monkey being the voice of reason by chastising the monk for being too worldly:
Pilgrim said, “Old Master, you have forgotten the one about ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind: Those of us who have left the family should see no form with our eyes, should hear no sound with our ears, should smell no smell with our noses, should taste no taste with our tongues; our bodies should have no knowledge of heat or cold, and our minds should gather no vain thoughts. This is called the extermination of the Six Robbers. But look at you now! Though you may be on your way to seek scriptures, your mind is full of vain thoughts: fearing the demons you are unwilling to risk your life; desiring vegetarian food you arouse your tongue; loving fragrance and sweetness you provoke your nose; listening to sounds you disturb your ears; looking at things and events you fix your eyes. You have, in sum, assembled all the Six Robbers together. How could you possibly get to the Western Heaven to see Buddha?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).
1) For a detailed discussion of all the various points raised by Confucians against Buddhism, please see Langlais (1972).
Langlais, J. M. (1972). Early Neo-Confucian Criticism of Chinese Buddhism [Unpublished master’s dissertation, McMaster University]. Retrieved from https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/9287/1/fulltext.pdf
Yu, A. C. (2008). The Formation of Fiction in the “Journey to the West.” Asia Major, 21(1), 15-44.
Yu, A. C. (2012). Introduction. In C. Wu and A. C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (pp. 1-100). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Wu, C. & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.