There are three major religions that have established themselves in China: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism; and of the three, only Buddhism is not indigenous to China. Buddhism found its way to China along the Silk Road, brought by missionaries from India. For centuries, the three religions have co-existed with many Chinese adopting elements of each in their daily lives. Whatever similarities, or symbiotic elements each contains, the three religions have also competed with each other for prominence and prestige within Chinese society. At different times each has been the dominant religion, fully supported by the Imperial Court, however, Buddhism, since it's incorporation into Chinese society, has viewed itself as the superior religion. While most Buddhists are completely comfortable with the idea of other religious ideals in society, and even embrace certain aspects of them, they still feel that Buddhism is superior. One piece of Chinese literature, generally accepted as one of the four great classic novels in Chinese history, is Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West. It is the fictionalized story of a real monk who traveled to India to learn about Buddhism and collect sacred Buddhist scriptures. And although the novel is intermixed with other tales of mythology, adventure, magic, and the supernatural, one theme that permeates the story is the superiority of Buddhism within Chinese society. China may be home to three great religions, but, according to Wu Cheng'en, only Buddhism is the best.
Journey to the West is based on a real journey to India taken by a Chinese Buddhist monk in the early 7th century. The monk's name was Xuanzang, and his true story acts as the basis for Wu Cheng'en's fictional account written some thousand years after the actual events. It is said that in the year 629, Xuanzang had a dream in which he was told to make a pilgrimage to India in order to learn about Buddhism and obtain sacred Buddhist texts. In a journey that lasted some 17 years, Xuanzang traveled to India, stayed for many years, and returned to China with more than a thousand sacred texts; which he spent the rest of his life translating. He is also credited with authoring the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, which is a vivid account of the social aspects of the many different lands he visited.
It is generally said that there are four great classic novels in Chinese literature; Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Journey to the West. It was during the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D.-1644 A.D.) that Journey to the West was written by the 16th century author Wu Cheng'en and contained a highly fictionalized account of Xuanzang's pilgrimage to India. This account not only contains the journey of Xuanzang, called Tripitaka in the story, but also three magical companions: Sun Wukong, also called Monkey King, Zhu Bajie, also called Monk Pig, or just Pigsy, and Sha Wujing, also called Friar Sandy. Together these four make a long and arduous journey where they are constantly interrupted, attacked, waylaid, or forced to take tangential excursions. After a great many adventures the four arrive in India, retrieve the sacred texts, and return to China to receive many heavenly rewards. While this tale may be based upon a real religious pilgrimage, Wu Cheng'en interweaves the original story with so much mythology, religious imagery, and magic that Journey to the West is transformed into a great piece of dramatic fiction.
Journey to the West contains a great deal of religious symbolism and imagery, especially in the presentation of the main characters. For example, there is Monkey King, or Sun Wukong, whose story takes up the first part of the tale. He began life as a monkey, but through courage and determination, mostly his willingness to travel through a waterfall and into the "Happy Land of the Mountain Flowers and Fruit, Cave Heaven of the Water Curtain," he became King. (Wu Cheng'en, p.9) Monkey King then became a disciple of the Taoist immortal Bodhi, where he learned a number of magical Taoist powers such as the power to transform into any object. After becoming one of the most powerful demons on Earth, he was eventually asked to join the gods in Heaven. But his lowly position as manager of the stables and later gardener, insulted Monkey King and, after eating all the Sacred Peaches of the Heavenly Garden (which granted Enlightenment), he was expelled from Heaven by the Jade Emperor. Returning to the Earth, Monkey King next met with Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, and ate all his immortality pills (each one able to extend a person's life by 1000 years). Lao Tzu tried to kill Monkey King by burning him in a stove for 49 days, but this only hardened his skin to make it invulnerable to any weapon. Finally, the Jade Emperor, unable to handle Monkey King, was forced to call upon the Buddha for help. Being more powerful than the Jade Emperor, Buddha was able to trap Monkey King under a mountain for 500 years, until the pilgrimage of Tripitaka.
The Monkey King's story is a way for Wu Cheng'en to demonstrate the power of Buddhism over that of Taoism. Even though Monkey King became extremely powerful through the teachings of Taoism, and became virtually indestructible at the hands of Lao Tzu, it was Buddha that was called in to deal with him. The traditional Taoist head of the universe, the Jade Emperor, was unable to deal with Monkey King, as he had "enough tricks to fight off a hundred thousand heavenly soldiers…" (Wu Cheng'en, p.78) This inability to handle Monkey King was a clear demonstration that Taoism, while powerful, was not as powerful as Buddhism, and that Taoism was a religion of China's past, while Buddhism was China's future. It took Buddha to finally put Monkey King in his place, trapped under a mountain. And when he was finally released, it was a more tame Monkey King that emerged; one under the control of the Buddhist Tripitaka and his ring of power. Many claim that Wu Cheng'en fashioned his story so as to present Buddhism as more favorable than other religions, especially Taoism.
Another character in the story, perhaps the main character, was Tripitaka, given the name Xuanzang by the Buddhist monks who found him as an infant and raised him in their monastery. Tripitaka began life as an abandoned infant who's father was murdered and his mother forced to become the murderer's wife. When Xuanzang came of age he sought out his mother, avenged his father, was made a monk, and asked by the Tang Emperor to go to India and retrieve Buddhist scriptures. He assumed the name Tripitaka, and embarked on a pilgrimage to India to seek out Buddhist wisdom. Along the way he freed Monkey King from his underground prison, joined with two heavenly creatures: Pigsy and Sandy, had a number of adventures, and returned to China triumphant. Tripitaka, or Xuanzang, also represents Buddhism in the story and it's superiority over other religions. It is Tripitaka who was the leader of the group and asked to undertake the pilgrimage, while the others are there to aid him in his journey. And it was Tripitaka in Chapter 25, when the pilgrims visited the Taoist immortals whom they accused of "gross disrespect," and tried to flog. (Wu Cheng'en, p.364) Taoism was presented as being cruel and unjust; and even capable of flogging a Buddhist monk, while the Buddhist monk meekly accepts his unjust punishment.
It may seem strange that the author wished to portray Buddhism as superior to other religious beliefs as traditionally there were three religions that were prominent in China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. But while Buddhism may be the way that the author wished to present the path to Enlightenment, it was not the only means to achieve it. Taoism and Confucianism both played major roles in Chinese society, along with Buddhism, and it was possible for an individual Chinese to practice elements of all three in their daily lives. A person could worship their ancestors in a Taoist manner, go to work as a Confucian bureaucrat, and then live their personal life as a Buddhist. However, Wu Cheng'en seems to present Buddhism as the main focus of the story and as the most favorable religion.
Taoism, in relation to Buddhism, is not presented as something that is wrong, or bad, but as something that is good, only not as good as Buddhism. It was Taoist alchemy that allowed Monkey King to become very powerful and escape the cycle of rebirth, achieving immortality. Taoist alchemist also believed that it was possible for a person's physical body to be raised into heaven, and thus Taoism was more of a physical-based belief system. The correct pills, elixirs, potions, and other physical substances were believed to be able to transcend death and achieve immortality. But whatever physical powers Taoism can confer upon a person, Wu Cheng'en was careful…