One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power via spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a Buddhist priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is an overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s 100 chapters, but chapters eight through 100 will be briefly touched upon, along with lesser-known literary sequels to Journey to the West. I will also discuss the novel’s impact on pop culture and religion.
In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies to the east of the easternmost continent in the Buddhist disc world system. The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and bows to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.
The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall, thereby discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for over three centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisors suggests that the king finds a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life, and so Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years. His quest eventually takes him to the western continent, where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to emptiness” or “monkey who realizes sunyata.” The sage teaches him the 72 methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, or a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km) in a single leap; all manner of magical spells to call forth gods and spirits, grow or shrink to any size, part fire and water, create impassable barriers, conjure wind storms, cast illusions, freeze people in place, make endless clones of himself, unlock any lock, bestow superhuman strength, bring the dead back to life, etc.; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.
Sun eventually returns to his cave and faces a demon who had terrorized his people during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his advisor suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine-ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹) to set the depths of the fabled world flood, as well as to calm the seas. Named the “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim, thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.
Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the 72 caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun is visited by two psychopomps who drag his soul to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄). There, he learns that he was fated to die at the allotted age of 342 years old. But this enrages Monkey since his immortality freed him from the cycle of rebirth, and so he bullies the kings of hell in to bringing him the ledger containing his info. He promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal, too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).
Both the Eastern Dragon King and the Hell King Qinguang (秦廣王) submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court advisor, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial task of watching over the Heavenly Horses in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until he learns that he’s just a glorified stable boy. He immediately returns to his earthly home in rebellion to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖). The celestial realm mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Third Prince Nezha (Nezha santaizi, 哪吒三太子), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s demand for higher rank, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to watch over the immortal peach groves.
Sun takes stock of the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years, but he eventually succumbs to their heavenly aroma. He eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits, thus gaining another level of immortality. His theft is soon discovered, however, when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母) arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. Sun is alerted to there presence and, upon questioning, learns that he has not been invited. Naturally, Sun becomes enraged, freezing the maidens in place with fixing magic and then crashes the party before the hallowed guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), a high god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived elixir pills, thereby adding several more levels of immortality.
Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the Jade Emperor calls up 72 heavenly generals, comprising the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods, and 100,000 celestial soldiers. In response, Monkey mobilizes his own army comprising the demon kings of the 72 caves and all manner of animal spirits, including his own monkey soldiers. But soon after the battle commences, the demon kings fall to heavenly troops, forcing Sun to take on three heads and six arms and multiply his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical steel bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.
Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s alchemical furnace to reduce the demon to ashes. They check the furnace 49 days later expecting to see his rendered remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, having found protection in the wind element (xun, 巽) of the eight trigrams. But intense smoke inside the furnace had greatly irritated his eyes, refining his pupils the color of gold and giving them the power to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene.
The Tathagata appears and declares that he will make Sun the new ruler of heaven if the macaque can simply jump out of his palm. Monkey agrees to the wager, and with one tremendous leap, speeds towards the reaches of heaven. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, Sun demands the throne; however, the Buddha reveals that the five pillars were actually his fingers, meaning that the Great Sage had never left. But before Monkey can do anything, the Tathagata overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.
Chapters thirteen to 100 tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu, 金箍; a.k.a. jingu, 緊箍, lit: “tight fillet”) as a means to rein in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.
A summary of all 100 chapters can be read on my friend’s blog (fig. 2).
Fig. 2 – The summary header (larger version).
There are a total of four unofficial sequels to the novel.
The first is called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640), which takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own children in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.
The second is the Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century). This novel focuses on the adventures of Monkey’s spiritual descendent Sun Luzhen (孫履真, “Monkey who Walks Reality”). I have a three-part article about it (first, second, and third).
And the third and fourth are the Continuation of the Journey to the West (Xu Xiyouji, 續西遊記, 17th-century) and the New Journey to the West (Xin Xiyouji, 新西遊記, 19th-century), respectively. As of 2023, I have not written any articles on these sequels.
III. Cultural Impact
Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話; The Story hereafter), published during the late-13th-century.
Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, video games, and films (both live action and animated).
It is interesting to note that there are people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from oral and published literature to take his place on the family altar.
Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late-18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in 1835. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849).
Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 4) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls,” while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).