Origins of the Chinese Underworld Appearing in Journey to the West

Did you know that the underworld presented in Journey to the West is actually an amalgam of native Chinese and foreign Hindu-Buddhist beliefs? As far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), hell was considered an otherworldly bureaucracy where souls were kept en masse. With the coming of Buddhism from India, a different view of the underworld evolved wherein souls would be reborn in one of six paths (deva, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell) and burn off any bad karma via suffering in life until they were pure enough to be reborn in a Buddha realm. But starting around the 7th-century, the idea of purgatory appeared and brought with it the concept of the Ten Judges or Kings (shi wang, 十王). This is where the two previous views were combined. Souls would be brought before a magistrate and suffer punishment for a given sin before being sent onto the next court and so forth. After suffering for a three year period, the soul would finally be sent onto their next life (Teiser, 2003, pp. 4-7).

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Detail from a 20th-century hell scroll (larger version)

Two of the Ten Judges stand as perfect examples of the intermixing of the two belief systems. The seventh judge, King of Mount Tai (Taishan Wang泰山王), is an allusion to a famous Chinese holy mountain. The fifth judge, King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), is a Buddhist holdover from Hinduism who originally ruled as the god of the underworld (Teiser, 2003, pp. 2-3).

Not everyone living in medieval China could read Buddhist scriptures, so the purgatories were eventually illustrated as a powerful teaching tool. Nothing says behave like seeing a demon eviscerating someone in full bloody color. Such “Hell Scrolls” (Diyu tu地獄圖) remain quite popular even to this day. Charles D. Orzech (1994) suggests that one of the reasons why they remained popular through the end of dynastic China was because they served as not so subtle reminders to be a law abiding citizen. Otherworldly judges doling out painful punishments mirrored the actions of their earthbound counterparts. Real-world magistrates were known for using torture to gain confessions. One such device was used to slowly fracture the ankles and shins.

Those interested can see full color versions of hell scrolls here:

http://people.reed.edu/~brashiek/scrolls/index.html

Sources:

Orzech, C. D. (1994). Mechanisms of Violent Retribution in Chinese Hell Narratives. Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 1. Retrieved from
https://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/c…n01_orzech.pdf

Teiser, S. F. (2003). The scripture on the ten kings and the making of purgatory in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Monkey’s Surname and its Connection to Daoist Doctrine

Did you know Monkey’s surname is a pun for immortality? I’ve previously mentioned that his surname Sun (孫, “macaque” or “grandson”) was chosen because he resembles a macaque monkey (猢猻, husun), and his given name Wukong (悟空, “awakened to emptiness”) is most likely based on the religious moniker of an 8th-century Chinese Buddhist monk who lived in India. However, the surname references Daoist internal practices. Talking about the individual components of the surname, the patriarch Subhuti states: “Zi [子] means boy and xi [系] means baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy [正合嬰兒之本論]. So your surname will be Sun” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). Comparative religious scholar and JTTW translator Anthony C. Yu explains, “The Baby Boy is none other than the ‘holy embryo or shengtai 聖胎,’ the avatar of the realized state of immortality in the adept’s body” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 86). Daoist doctrine dictates that the three vital essences of jing (semen), qi (breath), and shen (spirit) combine to create this holy embryo. Daoist and Buddhist texts sometimes illustrate realized immortality or enlightenment as the image of a baby on a practitioner’s stomach.

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Source:

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Sun Wukong and the Rhesus Macaque

Last updated: 05-18-17

Did you know that Sun Wukong is based on a real species of monkey? In chapter one, the patriarch Subhuti tells Sun: “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating macaque [husun, 猢猻].” [1] The master dismisses the Hu (猢) character for linguistic reasons, and he drops the animal radical (犭) for religious reasons, leaving Sun (孫, “grandson”) as Monkey’s surname. Possibly quoting an earlier source, the noted Ming physician Li Shizhen (1518-1593) explains the meaning of husun and associates it with a particular genus: “Since a macaque resembles a Hu-barbarian [胡], he is also called hu-sun, ‘grandson of a barbarian’” (Gulik, 1967, p. 35). There are several species of macaque native to China, but anthropologist Frances D. Burton (2005) believes the Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) is the best fit:

Monkey goes bare-headed and wears a red dress, with a yellow sash, and black shoes. This is a fitting description of M. mulatta, whose reddish fur on shoulders and back yields to lighter, more yellowish fur on the abdomen, and whose feet and hands are black. The ‘pouch’ to which the Monkey King himself refers [to in the novel] would likely be the cheek-pouches common in macaques, but not gibbons or leaf-eating monkeys.

[…]

One of Monkey King’s epithets is ‘Fiery Eyes”. His red eyes–a characteristic he shares with the actual red-rimmed eyes of M. mulatta [Fig.1][…]–resulted from his punishment in a crucible. […] He is also a ‘red-bottomed horse ape’, which suggests M. thibetana or, again M. mulatta, both of which are large animals, with pronounced redness on the bottom, especially during reproductive phases (p. 148).

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Fig. 1- A comparison of Rhesus macaques with red-rimmed eyes during mating season (top left) and other times (bottom left) (larger version). Fig. 2 – An 1865 piece by Yoshitoshi (larger version).

In chapter two, a monster describes Monkey as being “not [even] four feet tall” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 128). Rhesus males measure on average 1.74 feet (Lang, 2005). But I imagine these measurements were taken while they were in a quadrupedal posture (on all fours), which would make them taller if they stood.

I think all of this information is important as modern day depictions of Sun portray him as a man (or the size of a man) or a hulking brute with huge muscles. Such depictions are extremely inaccurate. He is a short monkey, plain and simple. His great strength, martial arts skill, and magical abilities make him a formidable warrior, not his size. I think the Japanese produced the most accurate renderings of monkey. The work of Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) is a good example (Fig. 2).
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Update: 05-18-17

Readers will no doubt recall the golden fillet that Sun Wukong unwillingly wears on his crown. Humanoid depictions of the character show the band sitting on the frontal and parietal areas of the skull. But since Rhesus macaques have a much smaller brain pan, the ringlet would have to wrap around the top of the eye orbits and the back of the occipital bone in order to be effective (fig. 1). It would set just above the eyelids (fig. 2).

Fig. 1 – (Left) A Rhesus Macaque skull adorned with the golden fillet (larger version).
Fig. 2 – (Right) A modern depiction of Sun Wukong wearing the ringlet (larger version). Photomanipulations by the author.

Notes:

1) Source altered slightly. The original quote states, “…you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

Sources:

Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: basis for a conservation policy?. In Fuentes, A., & Wolfe, L. D. (Eds.), Primates face to face: Conservation implications of human-nonhuman primate interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Lang, K. C. (2005). Rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta. Retrieved May 17, 2017, from http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factshee…rhesus_macaque

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Journey to the West and Islamic Lore

Last updated: 04-04-2020

Did you know that certain portions of Journey to the West were influenced by Indo-Persian and Arab Islamic lore? For instance, in chapter six Sun Wukong and Lord Erlang engage in a magical battle of skill in which they freely transform into myriad animals, each trying to one-up the other. This battle is unusual as Chinese stories going back to pre-Tang dynasty sources show characters could not transform at will. Conversely, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1704), which is based on stories as far back as the 9th-century, contains a tale featuring a magical battle of transformations between a princess and a genie. Literary critic C.T. Hsia (1996) notes that the similarities in magical combat “does not mean…the makers of the Monkey legend were specifically indebted to [the Arabian Nights], but it certainly indicates their general awareness of the popular literature of the Middle and Near East” (pp. 132-133).

(I no longer feel Hsia’s (1996) suggestion is accurate. See the 11-21-2019 update below.)

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Fig. 1 – (Left) Modern pears grown in molds to imitate ginseng baby fruit. Fig. 2 – (Right) A 14th to 15th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the women fruit of the Waqwaq tree (larger version).

 

Chapters 24 to 26 of Journey to the West feature a magical Ginseng Tree (人參樹, Renshen shu) that produces crying, baby-shaped ginseng fruits (人參果, renshen guo) capable of extending the lives of those who eat them to 47,000 years (fig. 1). The literary antecedent of this fruit first appears in 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), a 17-chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Chapter 11 features an immortal peach tree with fruits that transform into edible children once they drop into water. Each is capable of answering when asked a question:

Monkey Pilgrim continued: ‘There are more than ten peaches on the tree now, but there are gods of the earth who are posted here especially to protect them. There is no way to steal the peaches.’ The Master teased: ‘Your supernatural powers are stupendous. If you were to go, what could prevent you?’ Before his words were finished three peaches of immortality fell down into the pool. The Master was startled by the splash and he asked: ‘What fell down?’ Monkey Pilgrim replied: ‘Don’t be alarmed, Master. It was just a few ripe peaches of immortality which fell into the pool.’ The Master said: ‘Can we find them and eat them?’

Monkey Pilgrim took the golden-ringed staff and shook it three times in the direction of the huge, flat stone. A small child with a greenish face appeared. His fingernails were as sharp as a hawk’s claws and from his gaping mouth the teeth showed as he emerged from the pool. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child answered: ‘Three thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I have no use for you.’ Again he rapped five times and a child appeared whose face was as round as the full moon. He wore embroidered clothes and a headdress with tassels. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child replied: ‘Five thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I will not use you.’ And once more he rapped several times with the staff. Another child appeared all of a sudden. Monkey Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seven thousand years,” the child replied. Monkey put down the golden-ringed staff and made the child get on his hand. Then he asked: ‘Monk! Will you eat this?’ The monks were terrified and fled. Pilgrim whirled his hand with the child in it a number of times and the child became a milky jujube which he popped into his mouth (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

The concept of speaking, human-shaped fruit can be traced to the “Waqwaq tree” from Islamic lore. For example, The Book of the Wonders of India (Kitaab Ajaaib al-Hind), a set of Indo-Persian sailor stories collected between 900 and 953, contains a brief anecdote which reads:

Muhammad b. Babishad told me that, according to what he had learnt from men who had been to the Waqwaq country, there is a large tree there, with round leaves, or sometimes oblong, which bears fruit like a marrow, only larger, and looking something like a human being. When the wind blows, a voice comes out of it. The inside is full of air, like the fruit of the usher. If one picks it, the air escapes at once, and it is nothing but skin (Buzurg & Freeman-Grenville, 1981, p. 39).

The 15th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi took the concept further by describing the fruit as being shaped like voluptuous women (fig. 2) with the power of speech:

On this island are trees that bear as fruit women: shapely, with bodies, eyes, hands, feet, hair, breasts, and vulvas like the vulvas of women. Their faces are exceptionally beautiful and they hang by their hair. They come out of cases like big swords, and when they feel the wind and sun, they shout “Waq Waq” until their hair tears (Toorawa, 2000, p. 393).

Various sources respectively locate the Waqwaq tree and its home of Waqwaq, a faraway, exotic land or island, somewhere within the Indian Ocean, beyond Iraq, or, further still, beyond China. The Waqwaq term was most likely used to describe the limits of the known world at given times (Toorawa, 2000). The tree itself can possibly be traced to a passage in the Quran (Sura 37, verses 60-64) that describes how the “Tree of Zakkum” produces fruit shaped like the heads of demons. The earliest mention of the Waqwaq tree in Chinese sources appears in the late 8th-century Comprehensive Encyclopedia (通典, Tongdian) by the travel writer Du Huan (杜環). This is apparently based on an earlier Arabic source (A floral fantasy, n.d.).


Update: 02-28-2018

I was looking through the Ming-era Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Three Realms (三才圖會, Sancai tuhui, 1609, “Three Realms” hereafter) and happened upon a woodblock print of a Waqwaq tree (fig. 3). The image is labeled Dashi Guo (大食國), A term used since the Tang Dynasty to refer to an ancient country in the Arab World (Zhang & Unschuld, 2015, p. 81). This shows the Chinese were still aware of the tree’s foreign origin around the time that Journey to the West was published.

Ginseng tree - From Sancai tuhui (1609), based on image of Iskander (Alexander the Great) talking to the Talking Tree from the Shamanah

Fig. 3 – Woodblock print from the Three Realms showing the Waqwaq tree (larger version).


Update: 11-21-2019

As noted above, Hsia (1996) suggests the battle of transformations between Monkey and Erlang was influenced in some way by Islamic literature. However, Robinet (1979) describes a tit-for-tat battle from Daoist literature that casts doubt on this view:

The Xianyuan bianzhu [仙苑編珠, “Paired Pearls from the Garden of Immortals”, after c. 921] tells how Wang Tan [王探] received “the art of hiding his light and transforming his body.” Dared by someone to metamorphose himself, he took the form of a tree, but the other fellow seized an axe. Wang immediately transformed himself into a stone, but the other lit a fire (in the theory of the five elements, fire prevails over minerals). After turning himself into bubbling water and so on, Wang Tan finally achieved the upper hand by adopting the appearance of a corpse-the man fled immediately (p. 46). [1]

The way the Daoist and his opponent try to one up the other is very similar to the battle between the Great and Small Sages. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to suggest this story (or related media) was embellished by a storyteller or the author-compiler of the Ming Journey to the West to include two masters of transformation instead of one.


Update: 04-04-2020

Thanks to a recent Twitter post by Guy Reisman, I was delighted to learn that the Islamic Waqwaq tree made its way to Japan, where it is known as the Jinmenju (人面樹, “human-face tree“). In fact, an illustration of the tree appearing in the Edo-period bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi (今昔百鬼拾遺, “Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past”, c. 1781) appears to be based on that from the Three Realms cited above (refer back to fig. 3).

Even more exciting, however, is the revelation of the identity of the man standing beneath the tree in the Three Realms illustration. Foster (2015) traces the Japanese image to the Three Realms and then further back to a Persian source, thereby associating the man with a famous historical king:

If we continue back in time and along the Silk Road, we find different versions of the great Persian epic poem Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020), with illustrations of a man conversing with a tree bearing human heads. The man, it turns out, is Alexander the Great (Sikandar or Iskandar), and the illustrations portray his legendary encounter with a talking tree, sometimes called the Wakwak Tree, that prophesied his death (p. 185).

That’s right, the man in the Three Realms is based on Alexander the Great! See image four for a comparison of the Chinese illustration and one example of Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree”-genre drawings. Both men stand in a similar position, looking upwards. The Persian Alexander is passively listening, while the Three Realms Alexander is actively talking.

Iskander and the Talking Tree - Three Realms Ginseng Tree

Fig. 4 – A comparison of a 15th-century Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree” image and the Three Realms image (larger version). The former is held by the Bodleian Library.

This then raises the question: Did material related to the Shahmana influence the Ginseng Tree in Journey to the the West? [2] I’ve already demonstrated that an antecedent of the Ginseng tree appears in The Story. But this doesn’t necessarily negate some sort of influence. After all, both the Shahmana and Journey to the West feature mythic kings (Alexander and Sun Wukong) coming into contact with magic trees with humanoid fruit. I should note, however, that the trees represent two drastically different fates. Alexander’s tree foresees his death, while Monkey’s tree holds the promise of eternal life. Further research might shed light on stronger connections between both stories.

Notes:

1) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

2) Hall (2019) explains Iskander’s meeting with the talking tree takes place in both the Shahmana and the older Greek Alexander Romance (p. 149).

Sources:

A floral fantasy of animals and birds (Waq-waq). (n.d.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from http://library.clevelandart.org/site…0Waq%20waq.pdf

Buzurg, S., & Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. (1981). The book of the wonders of India: Mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West.

Foster, M. D. (2015). The book of yōkai: Mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hall, M. (2019). The imagination of plants: A book of botanical mythology. Albany : State University of New York Press

Hsia, C. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia program, Cornell University.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Toorawa, S. M. (2000). WaÃq al-waÃq: Fabulous, fabular, Indian Ocean (?) island(s). Emergences, 10(2), 387-402.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Zhang, Z., & Unschuld, P. U. (2015). Dictionary of the Ben cao gan mu: Volume 2 – Geographical and administrative designations. Oakland, California: University of California Press