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Buddhism's Effect on Chinese Literature and Hero

Updated on August 18, 2014

Buddhism’s Effect On the Chinese Literary Arts and Hero

People often wonder whether media today shows too much sex and violence, it is, without a doubt, a hot issue. With the emergence of new media technologies, things like social media and video games are subject to the conversation of censorship; should the depiction of these subject matters be limited? Despite how current the debate, we must not be under the illusion that such subject matter is new to the times. On the contrary, ancient literature from virtually every corner of the globe commonly consists of heroes who are focused on obtaining blood, women, and frequently both. From ancient Greece, Homer’s Odyssey, in which the protagonist kills literally hundreds of men and has an affair with a goddess, to Japan’s Tale of Genji, commonly referred to as the first novel, where Genji, the hero, seduces and even goes as far as to force himself on women, the earliest literary arts focus primarily on violent strength and the pursuit of women; the ancient Chinese literary arts, for the most part, follow suit. Chinese war poems and folk heroes alike have a commonality with the violent and sexual literary works found everywhere from Scandinavian Viking culture to the supposedly more civilized ancient Greeks. This notion raises an interesting question when one considers the introduction of Buddhism, how did literature, mainly focused on war and romance, conform to and reconcile the rules and goals of Buddhism? According to Pew Research around 18.2% of the Chinese population or just under 245,000,000 people are Buddhist as of 2012*. With such an enormous emergence and such a long history, over two thousand years, Buddhism’s effect on the Chinese literary arts and particularly the Chinese hero is not only evident but well documented in its pursuit of a new kind of literature as well as the way it changed the existing canon.

To the laymen Buddhist, the 5 basic precepts, the rules by which daily life is guided, stand in complete opposition to the glorification of blood and battle, and even take a firm stance against hunting, another common subject in ancient Chinese works. The precepts, like the ten commandments for Jews and Christians, are followed not just by the intensely religious Buddhists but to all those who acknowledge the religion (Keown). With adherence to the precepts, the abstention of killing, sexual misconduct, and taking of alcohol are required and so the depiction of such acts in a positive light would not likely be tolerated. Because Confucianism, the predominant belief of pre-Buddhist China, deals with the external world and Buddhism focuses on searches for inner truth and questions the reality of the external world (Fingarette 1) to conform to and reflect the growing population of practicing Buddhists, the Chinese narrative and particularly the Chinese idea of a hero would have to change dramatically. The literary arts have always been a reflection of the time and culture in which they are written. A close analysis of literature gives evidence to not only the very significant events, but also a glimpse into the everyday life of a specific place and time. By following the spread of Buddhism through the Chinese narrative and hero, we can trace the path that Buddhism took, not only to invent a literary canon of its own, but to affect the path of the more traditional Chinese prose and verse as a whole. In true Buddhist nature, the religiously inspired literary movement created its own path, its own story reflecting its own ideals, but eventually the two narratives begin to intermingle, creating a more modern, secular literature with a rich base of reflection, morality, and lore . From following the dissemination of Buddhism through the Chinese narrative and hero we can see Chinese fiction and fantasy, things that carry the ideals and exemplify the culture, evolve and adapt to the changing landscape of Chinese morality and spirituality.

Poetry and folklore before Buddhism’s transmission into China was filled with imagery of the female form, and depictions of the hunter and the warrior. Those things which pre-Buddhist China found most interesting, decadent feasts, Victorious armies, and beautiful young women easily became the favorite subject of early Chinese works. Despite Confucianism’s focus on morality, because of its concentration on the external world, the interests of the ancient Chinese population were accordingly more concerned with earthly pleasures and triumphs than their Buddhist successors as evidenced by the Shijing, an ancient book of odes and songs. Also popular with pre-Buddhist China was Taoism, a religion based on finding the true nature of the self and the universe much like Zen Buddhism. (Chan 445 ) While the principals of Buddhists and Confucians differed greatly because of their differing opinions on what was important, the external or internal world, Taoists who highly regard what is known in Taoism as the “Three Treasures”: compassion, frugality, and humility, found more common ground with Buddhists as they too looked inward and were much less secular. (Chan 136 ) The main source of conflict from a literary standpoint was the Confucians whose focus on the outward world brought forth a literature rich with war images and scenes. The contrast between this idea and Buddhist ideals is so immense, it would not be hard to believe that a Buddhist reading some of the passages depicted in early literature would go far beyond disinterested to shocked and appalled. Phrases like ‘The left ears [of the slain] were taken leisurely, sacrificed to the Father of War’ from the Shijing are not found anywhere in the Buddhist canon and the glorification of such subject matter would be unthinkable by anyone from a monk to a shopkeeper in a Buddhist culture. The Buddha is often made analogous to a father and so the idea of the ‘Father’ demanding tokens from the killed is a major contradiction to the Buddhist concept of a supreme being as a loving patriarch. (Styrk 50)

The Shijing or “Book of Songs” is one of, if not the earliest known Chinese work of creative writing; it is a collection of poems and stories from as late as 11th century BC China. We know from the Analects, a collection of Confucius’ proverbs, that Confucius had an admiration for the literary venture.(Wong 210) As it was commissioned, the book meant to show what life was like in all the different parts of the country through literary means.(Kern 20) This endeavor over 2000 years later births a sort of atlas of words and in doing so, the book reveals the motivations and desires of the time. Young women, as they still are today, are found frequently in the subject matter of the ancient Chinese literary arts and particularly the Shijing. Scan through a magazine today or watch a few commercials and notice just how often one sees a beautiful young lady. Ancient China had a similar disposition for the young woman. In fact, of the first 21 works of the Shijing, a third mention a “young lady”, Buddhists who seek to reject the temptation of flesh like the Buddha Gautama would be less likely to identify with the analogy of the young lady as the ancient Chinese did. Much of what the ancient Chinese found interesting and glorious and subsequently decided to write about, like pleasures of the flesh, Buddhists would come to see as only suffering.(Eifring 262) Ultimately one needs to relate, on some level, to a story or idea to enjoy and promote it. It is almost Darwinian the way the common narrative changes based on the wants and needs of a culture. So, with so much of what Buddhists would see as suffering in the pre-Buddhist narrative a movement of change and invention was inevitable.

Prevalent in the Pre-Buddhist Chinese narrative are shows of violent strength, a passionate desire for blood. Folklore and written verse that predate Buddhism’s transmission often consist of powerful warrior-king heroes as depicted in the works of the Shijing, a book in which military victory is extolled. Power as an outward projection of military strength would be used to conquer things in the outside world, the concept of conquering anything counters Buddhism’s notion of acceptance and the realization of the true nature of all things. The goals of Buddhism seek to transcend our earthly domain, not defeat or own it, to own the world we know would be to possess suffering and so the Buddhist lay person would find it hard to relate with any warlike or external power based subject matter at all. Where the Pre-Buddhist Chinese may have seen glory or at least the opportunity for such in battle because of their focus on living in an external world, Buddhists because of their concentration on inner truth and the five precepts forbidding the taking of life would, again, see only suffering. Simply put, the Buddhist hero does not kill the bad guy and get the girl like an earlier Chinese hero might, he ignores the girl’s temptations, honors the Buddha, and as in one Buddhist folk tale, he earns enlightenment when he saves a group of ants from rain. Clearly, Buddhism created a strong contrast with the then current tradition of story telling. This conflict led to less of an assault on the current canon and more of an invention of a new separate canon. Eventually, through time and proximity, the two begin to merge, leading to a modern amalgam of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist ideas.

Prominent among the new canon of Buddhist prose is the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions a slightly dramatized account of a Buddhist monk's nineteen-year journey through Central and South Asia between 626 and 645. The account focuses on a monk named Xuanzang’s obstacles in denying temptation and obtaining sacred sutras. The narrative is considered a historical resource as it depicts the region of Central and southern Asia in the later 600’s AD, is very much factual and, for the most part, bare of romantic exaggerations of drama.(Wriggings 13) Buddhists desired most of all an inward projection of peace and so it makes sense that their hero, in this case the monk Xuanzang, is non-aggressive and many of his obstacles concern self control and inward battles. There was no need to heighten the drama too much for a Buddhist, likely because the religious act and the perseverance of the monk was so deeply meaningful. Later, as the narrative develops and is adapted into other novels and much later into films, it is fictionalized to create more drama in an increasingly mixed and secular Chinese population. Buddhists most likely found the pre-existing violent and sexual hero gruesome, Confucians, we can assume from their more outwardly climactic verse and prose, most likely found this idea of an inward hero boring initially. The heroes of the earliest Chinese works, the heroes of the Shijing are kings and warriors not monks and students. An example of the earlier Chinese hero comes from the 263rd song of the Shijing: “The king aroused his warlike energy ,As if he were moved with anger . He advanced his tiger-like officers ./,And forthwith seized a crowd of captives ....” This selection depicts a leader of men with animal strength, taking over and dominating. The pre-Buddhist hero is much like the heroes of Homer, like Odysseus and Achilles, they are as vengeful as they are powerful. The verses not only portray a historical battle and a hero-king, they highlight what defines triumph for pre-Buddhist Chinese: sweeping victories and vanquished foes, completely anti-Buddhist notions, even the “warlike energy” of the conquering king suggests the ancient Chinese admired great shows of external strength, something Buddhists are completely unconcerned with. (Styrk 4) This ancient desire for external strength is further evidenced later from the same work - “The royal legions were numerous ;/[Swift] as if they flew on wings ,;Firm as a mountain ;Rolling on like a stream ;Continuous and orderly; Inscrutable , invincible ;” One would never see this kind of imagery in Buddhist story simply because the kind of violent strength that comes from an organized army is not what Buddhists strive for, they simply don’t need or want it. Firm as a mountain, to a Buddhist, would signify a deeply disciplined monk, meditating and realizing the nature of all things, and not as described, a royal legion ready for battle.(Stryk 117) This dichotomy later begins to resolve itself into a hero that is immensely strong yet peaceful and non-provocative. Despite all the contrast, it should be said that between the two factions of narrative, there have always been many depictions of nature in ancient Chinese literary arts, a concept which Buddhists related to and ran with, helping to create a base for a unique hybrid narrative to emerge.

The main and most common hero in Buddhist literature is the monk, a man whose purpose it is to search for purity and truth. As mentioned earlier there is a popular Chinese tale of a Buddhist folk hero who saves ants - as the story goes, a young monk becomes very sick and is sent home for the week he has left to live by his elder monk at the monastery, on the journey to visit his family, the monk comes upon a cave full of ants that are threatened by a nearby stream overflowing. The young monk, by working tirelessly though his last week in life to create a way to divert the stream, saves the ants and thousands of lives. (Forest ) In some versions of the story the student instantly becomes enlightened, and in all stories the elder, who is distraught about the supposed death of his student, walks through the woods and encounters the student spry and healthy, the student then goes on to live a long life.The difference in the two works, the Shijing’s war-king and the Buddhist tale of the young student, shows just how clear the discrepancy between the Buddhist and Confucian narrative. While the medium is different, written prose and oral folklore, the two stories exemplify the new path and the transition that took place in Chinese storytelling. A rapidly expanding Buddhist population would look at the show of war-strength as inappropriate and wrong, while the people holding on to the narrative and traditions of pre-Buddhist China must have seen stories like a boy saving ants as trivial and meaningless. Works like the Platform Sutra and the transmission of the five precepts helped change the Chinese mindset, by making them more focused on daily life and inward reflection.

Eventually the two narratives began to mix and eventually the common Chinese story frequently became one of Buddhist idols and mythology but with a distinctly pre-Buddhism Chinese penance for power and vanquishing foes. Perhaps the best example of this, of the later Chinese stories, is of a hero named Sun Wukong or “The Monkey King” from the 16th century novel Journey to the West considered one of the “Four Great Classic Novels”(Shep 596) The novel is very loosely based on the aforementioned Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. In the story a stone statue of a monkey acquires supernatural powers through Taoist practices. The unearthly qualities of the story do not end with a stone monkey who comes to life, the monkey gains godlike powers and after rebelling against heaven and being imprisoned under a mountain by the Buddha, he later accompanies a monk, Xuanzang, who then becomes the stories main character, on a journey to bring back Buddhist Sutras from India. Buddhists believe in certain peaceful powers possessed by the Buddha and Wukong embodies these to a degree, he is able to travel 34,000 mi in one somersault and survives a 500 year imprisonment. But beyond these more peaceful powers, this hero’s abilities have far more violent connotations; He has extreme strength, his staff weighs roughly 17,900 lbs and he is a skilled fighter, capable of battling the best generals of heaven. He knows spells that can command wind and water, conjure protective circles against demons, and freeze humans, demons, and gods alike, and these are only a few of the Monkey King’s supernatural qualities, each exemplifying a desire for power, a motivation not known in the original Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. (Wu ) Of the four disciples that accompany Xuanzang, Wukong is the most violent and is actually admonished by Xuanzang in a show of reverence to the Buddhist faith. While perhaps the most important hero, the monk, remains focused on peace, two of his four disciples often stand in direct opposition to the monk’s principles. Wukong, for being intensely violent, and Zhu or Pig an ex-commander of heavenly forces, having been kicked out for having inappropriate relations with the goddess of the moon, awho displays a near constant focus on sex and violence, and shirks his responsibilities as often as he can. Clearly, in the hundreds of years between the two accounts, the events have been highly dramatized and made far more supernatural. The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions reads as a sort of map, or log, a narrative but without much of a climax or external conflict, excluding the geography itself. It is noteworthy the way the original, more factual story of Xuanzang was kept alive. Yes, the story changed greatly but that original narrative, that framework and foundation is still visible. Even when the story is given close to a thousand years to be corrupted, the Buddhist identity of Xuanzang’s journey still shows.

One can see not only the distortion of Buddhist principals in Journey to the West but also the change in the pre-Buddhist notion of how external power is gained, the later hero gets his powers through meditation, outer strength gained by inner strength, something that pre-Buddhist Chinese would be unfamiliar with, seeing strength as something physical and physiological and so something that one is either born with or earned physically. In evidence of the hybridity of the narrative, the story pays respect to Buddhist sutra as Sun Wukong, with Xuanzang, goes on a journey to recover sacred sutras and even in later adaptations, as recently as 2013, this central goal depicted in the original Great Tang Records of the Western Regions is still the main focus of Xuanzang. In another show of respect to the Buddhist religion, the only one the Monkey King cannot outsmart or defeat, including Taoist deities and heaven’s generals is the Buddha, who after beating the Monkey King in a bet, locks him away for 500 years under a mountain. After the imprisonment is when finally Wukong and Xuanzang meet. To highlight the interesting mix, in the end Wukong wins enlightenment by being a bodyguard for a Xuanzang, a monk now only reminiscent of and named after the main character of the Great Tang Records. (Wu ) Buddhist goals won in a distinctly non-Buddhist fashion. Sun Wukong, can be seen as a hero that is a representation of the path of Chinese literature with a focus on Buddhism. The Monkey King, like early Chinese literature is focused on defeating others, the hero, at first, takes the Buddha lightly and makes a bet with him confidently. The years imprisoned make Sun Wukong more introspective and inward but still with a penance for violence, much like Buddhism’s effect on the Chinese narrative. Finally the hero displays a hybridity, while being a bodyguard is not strictly adhering to Buddhist principals, the hero’s goals of obtaining sutras and enlightenment show reverence to the now widely popular religion. This reverence to Buddhism while creating a warrior hero seems like a contradiction that perhaps would make a story convoluted, but through hundreds of years of story-telling and literary experimentation the balance creates a new multi-faceted and compelling narrative with many references to Buddhist lore.

Today, we can see this intermingling in any of the many film adaptations that Chinese filmmakers have made of Journey to the West, a story still well known to the Chinese. Since the inception of motion pictures this narrative has been featured going back as far as 1927 silent film ‘The Cave of the Silken Web’, a ten reel depiction of one of the chapters from Journey to the West by Dan Duyu recently rediscovered from archives in Norway (Smith). Since then, the novel and its precursor The Great Tang Records on the Western Region have had a a plethora of Chinese films based on the stories and countless more influenced by the narratives. Most recently, the movie ‘Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons’ has come out in China and the nearby Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, it is a 2013 action-comedy film directed by Stephen Chow and Derek Kok. Though the film can be considered absurd with a lot of slapstick and sexual humor, there are still external and internal triumphs which characterized the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist hybridity of Journey to the West The main character,Tang Sanzang, another name for Xuanzang, is no longer a simple monk but a so-called “Buddhist demon hunter” who uses a humanist approach and nursery rhymes to coax goodness out of demons. Like the original novel, Tang Sanzang is contrasted by his much more violent and sexual disciples. Tang Sanzang goes on to face temptation of sexuality such as the Buddha Gautama had, though now this temptation is generally to the delight of the viewer, unlike the suffering imparted to the original followers of Buddha, people like the original Xuanzang. True to the nature of the original Xuanzang, his contemporary film counterpart comes out pure, still true to the precept regarding sexual misconduct. Modern Chinese filmmakers like filmmakers anywhere typically adhere to the wants of their audience; it is what brings in the money and allows an artist to keep working. This idea of pleasing the audience can be applied to our interpretation of the introduction of Buddhism into the Chinese narrative. The Buddhist narrative reflected the Buddhist ideals, ideals of self-discipline and reflection that are not easily put into exciting visuals. Accordingly, one sees the popular Chinese Buddhist narrative evolve to match the interests of a modern audience, one that, now, is exposed to violent and sexual stories as much as any Western Culture. The further the Chinese culture gets from an origin, whether Buddhist or Confucian, the more it changes, accepting new notions, new realizations or remembrances of desires.

Perhaps the introduction of Buddhism impacted the Chinese narrative initially by creating a more peaceful and more inward story and making the Chinese hero conform to this, the fact remains that generally people have liked and always will like warrior heroes and explosive climaxes; they like protagonists who defeat enemies by killing them, records of literary arts from the very earliest Greek Tragedies to the most modern zombie-killing, Meth-making television program suggest this. The same blood lust of Achilles and Odysseus is found, albeit through different means, in Walter White, all highly regarded heroes by scholars or critics of their respective forms of narrative. It is unlikely that any movement, even one with as great a scale as the Buddhist movement in China, will change that. The evolution of The Great Tang Records of the Western Region into ‘Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons’ exemplifies this by showing us what some might call distortion and others might call improvement of the existing narrative. It is simply intuitive that it is much more satisfying to have a lifeless body as a corporeal symbol of victory and climax, something one can look at and say, “yes, that is defeat” and the physical representation of violent death is just too convenient, too poignant for artists and entertainers not to use, something inward and intangible is just much harder to photograph. With Buddhism’s inception, a new branch of Chinese storytelling, and a more reflective hero, more of an everyman Chinese hero that Buddhists, Confucians, and the completely secular can identify with emerges, one like Xuanzang who while somehow going from a seventh century Buddhist monk to a demon hunter is still peaceful and still reveres the Buddha. So we see that today both branches intermingle and influence one another, shaping the Chinese cultural identity of the narrative and hero to be at once one of strength and peace.

Works Cited

Wong Siu-Kit and Lee Kar-Shui (1989), Poems of Depravity: A Twelfth Century Dispute on the Moral Character of the" Book of Songs".T'oung Pao : 209-225.

Kern, Martin (2010), Early Chinese Literature, Beginnings Through Western Han, in Owen, Stephen, The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Shep, Sydney J. (2011). The Encyclopedia of the Novel, Volume 2 of Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature. John Wiley & Sons.

Stryk, Lucien, ed. (1994) World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature. Grove Press,

Pew Research (2012)

Translated and proofread by Forest, (1993) The Buddhist Children's Stories, page 5-7, published by The White Cloud Cultural Centre, Taipei Taiwan,

Keown, Damien.(2005) Buddhist ethics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd,.

Chan,Wing-Tsit. (2008) A Source Book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton University Press,.

Eifring, Halvor, ed. (2004) Love and emotions in traditional Chinese literature. Vol. 63. Brill.

Wriggins, Sally Hovey.(1998) Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Westview Press

Wu Cheng'en, Journey to the West(1500-1582), Translated by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1993.

Lyndsey Smith (7 October 2013). "Lost Chinese film found in Norway". Retrieved 1 December 2013.

Chow, Stephen and Kok, Derek. (Director). (2013).Journey to the West:Counquering the Demons. China: Edko Films.

Yampolsky, P. B. (Ed.). (1967). The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-huang Manuscript with Translation, Introduction, and Notes(No. 76). Columbia University Press.


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