I’ve written at length about Monkey’s staff, armor (see section 2.2 here), golden headband, and tiger skin kilt, but the one thing that has puzzled me the most is the origin of his magic hair. The ability to create anything he wants from his hair first appears in chapter two when he’s forced to fight a demon who has kidnapped some of his children:
Seeing that his opponent was growing fiercer, Wukong now used the method called the Body beyond the Body [shen wai shenfa, 身外身法]. Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides [fig. 1]. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128).
Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).
I was pleased to find the answer while finishing work on a recent article. The following material appears in Meulenbeld’s (2007) wonderful study on Lei Gong (雷公):
This peculiar technique was not an invention of the author of Xiyouji; it existed in ritual practice as performed by Daoist priests to produce martial proxies. In an example from the late fourteenth century [the Song Lian quanji, 宋濂全集], recorded by Song Lian, we read about a certain Daoist that his “steps of Yu formed a Heavenly Paladin, pulling out hair to make soldiers” 禹步成罡, 拔髮為兵. A ritual manual from the Heavenly Reed tradition [the Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元], written at least one and a half centuries before Xiyouji (and probably much earlier even), mentions that in the practice of summoning forth divine troops “the spiritual agents, generals and scribes come out through the pores” 靈官, 將吏, 自毛竅出. Consistent with the Golden Glow of self-incineration practices I have described in chapter 3, the pores could radiate with the same Golden Glow, and make the gods manifest: “From all the holes and pores in the body of down and hair burst forth ten-thousand rays of Golden Glow; […] the ten-thousand gods all manifested themselves inside this Golden Glow” 一身毛髮孔竅都迸出萬道金光 […] 萬神俱現於金光中. In Daoist literature generally, the pores were regarded to be the “source of transformations” 造化之源 (pp. 294-295).
As previously stated, the novel refers to Monkey’s ability to make clones of himself as “the method [of] the Body beyond the Body” (shen wai shenfa, 身外身法). Interestingly, this corresponds to a similar sounding name for the immortal embryo that a Daoist adept cultivates within themselves in an effort to create an immortal spirit body. Pregadio (2018) notes that, once gestated to maturation and freed to roam, this embryo-turned-immortal spirit is called the “person outside one’s person” or the “self outside one-self” (shen zhi wai shen, 身之外身) (p. 400). Above, I cited Meulenbeld (2007) who described a ritual in which a Daoist creates heavenly paladins by plucking out hair. Monkey instead creates magic clones of himself and sends these autonomous beings out to do his bidding, much like an advanced practitioner might send out their immortal spirit body. So it appears the author-compiler of Journey to the West mixed and matched various Daoist concepts to create some of Sun Wukong’s magical abilities.
Body division (fenxing, 分形) is a common skill of the Daoist sage (Robinet, 1979, p. 49). Daoist hagiography mentions several practitioners able to divide themselves in order to simultaneously entertain multiple guests or answer the numerous summons of lofty officials. The most famous example is that of the late Han alchemist Zuo Ci (左慈), who is known for enraging the warlord Cao Cao (曹操) and using his body division power in hilarious ways to escape capture and execution time and time again. Part of his story reads:
<Inquiries determined that Zuo Ci had returned home. Duke Cao was now even more determined to have him killed, and he also wanted to test whether Zuo could avoid death, so he gave orders to have him apprehended. [As Cao’s men approached,]> Zuo ﬂed into a ﬂock of sheep, and his pursuers, losing sight of him, suspected that he might have transformed himself into one of the sheep. They had the sheep counted. Originally there had been an even thousand of them, but now there was one extra, so they knew that Zuo had indeed transformed himself. They announced: “Master Zuo, if you’re in there, just come out; we won’t hurt you.” Then one of the sheep knelt down and spoke words, saying, “Who would have thought I’d be pardoned?” When the pursuers tried to seize that one sheep, all of the other sheep knelt down and said, “Who would have thought I’d be pardoned?” So the pursuers [gave up and] left.
<Later on, someone learned Zuo Ci’s whereabouts and informed Cao, who once again sent men to apprehend him, and they captured him. It was not that Zuo could not have escaped; he deliberately allowed himself to be arrested in order to demonstrate his divine transformations. He was taken into prison. When the guards there were ready to torture and interrogate him, there was one Zuo inside the cell door and another Zuo outside it, and they did not know which one to torture. When Cao was informed, he despised Zuo even more, and ordered that he be taken out of the city and killed.> As they were taking him out of the city, Zuo suddenly vanished. So they locked the city gates and searched for him. It was announced that [they were searching for a man who] was blind in one eye and wearing a linen cloth wrapped on his head and a one-layer gown. The moment this announcement was made, the entire city full of people, numbering several tens of thousands, all turned into men blind in one eye wearing a linen cloth on their head and a one-layer gown [fig. 2]. So in the end they did not know which one to seize.
<Cao then put out an all-points order that Zuo Ci was to be killed on sight.> Someone saw and recognized Zuo, so they beheaded him and presented [the head] to Cao. Cao was overjoyed. When he inspected the head, however, it turned out to be only a bundle of straw. <When someone went back to search for Zuo’s corpse, it had vanished (Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 280-281).
Fig. 2 – An entire city of Zuo clones (larger version). From a modern Romance of the Three Kingdoms comic.
Zuo and Monkey share a cheeky talent for taunting their enemies with magic transformations. It’s important to note that, while this particular hagiography appears in Traditions of Divine Transcendents (Shenxian zhuan, 神仙傳, c. 4th-century), a later adapted version appears in chapter 68 of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi, 三國演義, 14th-century).
Additionally, Robinet (1979) describes a form of body division in which Daoists create miniature clones to do their bidding, much like the monkeys called forth from Sun’s magic hairs:
The Taoist encyclopedia, Yunji Qiqian[雲笈七籤, c. 1029], sets forth three similar methods, all of which involve the creation of a human simulacrum (yingren 影人 [lit: “shadow person”]) by means of mental concentration. Such figures, only several inches tall, can pass through walls and ascend to the heavens. They are substitutes for the Taoist himself, acting as representatives for him so as to roam the heavens and secure beneficial influences for him. They infuse these influences into the adept’s body where they proceed to the major organs (p. 49). 
This information shows that body division appeared in religious and vernacular literature prior to the publishing of the Ming Journey to the West. This means the novel’s author-compiler could have drawn from such media to influence Monkey’s powers.
The most impressive description of the magic hairs’ abilities appears in chapter 90:
“On my body,” replied Pilgrim with a chuckle, “there are eighty-four thousand hairs. One of them can change into ten of me, and the ten can also change into one hundred. In fact, the transformation can grow to millions and billions. This is the magic of the body beyond the body” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 220).
Heroes from Chinese military fiction are often cast as reincarnations of celestial beings. For instance, the famous patriot General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103–1141) is portrayed as a reincarnation of the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda (Jialouluo, 伽樓羅; Jialiuluo, 伽留羅) in his folk biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). The bird, called the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王), sits at the head of the Buddha’s throne in the Western Paradise. His fiery temper is aroused when a bat-spirit (the embodiment of the Aquarius constellation) passes gas during the Enlightened One’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. He swoops down from the throne and snatches her up in his beak, killing her instantly. The Buddha admonishes the bird for his transgression of Buddhist law and exiles him to earth. His rebirth in the human world actually serves to counterbalance the actions of a nomadic antagonist, originally a dragon sent from the Eastern Heaven to punish China (Qian, 2016). This storyline was influenced by a previous work, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), which explains how Garuda came to hold such an important position above the Buddha.
Called the “Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏),  the bird is portrayed as a spiritual uncle of the Buddha and an ancient demon king with unequaled strength, speed, and powers of transformation (fig. 1). He wields two magic weapons, a halberd and a vase capable of trapping and killing even immortals. Garuda is so powerful, in fact, that not even Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is strong enough to pacify the beast. Therefore, the Buddha himself is forced to leave the Western Paradise to confront the demon headon. He casts the illusion of a bloody piece of meat above his head, and when the man-bird pounces on the bait, the Buddha takes away his ability to fly, thus trapping Garuda above his head in the demon’s original form as a golden-winged vulture (Dapeng jinchi diao, 大鵬金翅鵰) (fig. 2). After some struggle, the bird agrees to become a protector of Buddhist law (Sk: dharma; Ch: fa, 法). Thus, Chinese fiction portrays Garuda as a powerful demon king that submits to the Buddha and perches above his throne as a hot-tempered guardian deity. 
The fact that this literary motif appears in two famous Chinese classics points to some widely known religious concept circulating during the 16th– and 17th-centuries. In this paper I will trace the origins of the motif from ancient South Asian literature and religious architecture to Esoteric Buddhist art in East Asia. The path we walk is a complicated one spanning centuries, belief systems, and artistic mediums.
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the Roc demon in his humanoid form (artist unknown) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of the roc trapped above the Buddha’s head (artist unknown) (larger version).
1. India – Where our search begins
1.1. Garuda’s appearance in ancient literature
The origin of the Chinese literary motif is over two thousand years old, first appearing in the 4th-century BCE Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The holy work states that Garuda is the son of the creator-sage Kashyapa and his second wife Vinata. After gestating in his egg for one thousand years, the bird bursts forth and his massive, fiery body grows to engulf the entire cosmos. His sun-like splendor is so bright that the devas mistake him for Agni, the god of holy fire. Garuda is forced to reduce his size and illumination when the devas ask him to do so out of fear. Falling prey to an ancient curse, his mother Vinata loses a bet and is enslaved by her sister Kadru, mother of the naga-serpents. Garuda agrees to steal the vessel containing the immortal elixir of amrita from the devas in order to secure his mother’s release. He uses his great strength and speed to defeat the celestial army and kill the serpents guarding the elixir, and he uses his powers of transformation to extinguish the fire surrounding the treasured substance and sneak past the magic discus charged with dismembering thieves. Upon his return trip, Garuda is halted by the supreme deva Vishnu who grants him the boon of immortality for partaking in such a difficult quest. In return, the bird grants him the boon of serving as the carrier of his celestial vehicle (vimana) and positions himself above Vishnu’s head atop the flagpole (dhvaja). Not long after, Indra, king of the devas, strikes the bird with a lightning bolt in an attempt to retrieve the amrita. The bird pays him respect by shedding a single feather and grants him the boon of eternal friendship. After learning the reason for the theft, the devaraja grants Garuda the boon of taking his enemies the nagas as his food. Both of them then orchestrate a plan in which the bird pays the amrita ransom to free his mother, but Indra takes the elixir away before the serpents can drink of it. Finally, Garuda slaughters all of the nagas (Ganguli, 2003, pp. 57-82).
It’s easy to discern several aspects from Chinese fiction in the ancient story: 1) a powerful golden bird with great strength, speed, and powers of transformation; 2) a vessel with magical properties; 3) conflict between the bird and heavenly forces; 4) his subjugation by a higher power; 5) his installment above a deva’s head; and 6) continued conflict between the bird and his serpent foes. This adds to existing literature showing that the Mahabharata influenced Journey to the West (Subbaraman, 2002).
1.2. Garuda’s appearance on religious architecture
Since the Mahabharata was published, Garuda has been depicted on a number of ritual flagpoles (dvaja) in India. The dvaja pillar “is placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine [of a Hindu temple], on axis with the central image…it is an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Adherents would have paid reverence to it before entering the temple. People affected by snake bites would often embrace these types of pillars because they believed Garuda’s powers over the nagas (and their serpentine kin) would neutralize the poison (Zimmer, 1946, p. 75). The oldest of the stone dvaja columns still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE) erected by a Bactrian-Greek envoy and convert of that name in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha (fig. 3) (Walker, 1968, p. 246). The Garuda is no longer extant, having been eroded by time or destroyed by iconoclasts. It is considered the “first dated monument linked with Vishnu” (Elgood, 2000, p. 56). Clues to what the original capital may have looked like can be drawn from numismatic evidence. The golden dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375 CE) of the Gupta Empire, for example, features a Garuda dvaja (fig. 4) (Mookerji, 1973, p. 52). The capital is depicted as a bird, suggesting the eroded figure on the Heliodorus pillar may have originally taken such a form. This differs from later humanoid depictions of the god (see below).
Fig. 3 – The Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE), Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda capital is missing. Photo by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Fig. 4 – The gold dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375) of the Gupta Empire (larger version). The Garuda dvaja can be seen to the left. Photo by the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA).
Garuda’s association with Buddhism seems to be quite old. His appearance on a number of standing gateways and carved cave temple entrances, collectively known as toranas, from the 1st-century BCE onward points to him being absorbed into the religion’s pantheon within a few centuries of the historical Buddha’s death. The oldest extant representation of Garuda appears on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 5) (Iyer, 1977, p. 52). Dated to the 1st-century BCE, the standing torana has three tiered architraves, the middle of which portrays a bodhi tree, an iconoclastic representation of the Buddha, flanked by real and mythical creatures paying homage to it. The far right side of this stone relief features Garuda standing next to a five-headed king of serpents (nagaraja) (fig. 6). The bird is depicted as a husky parrot with a delicate, forward curling crest, a thick beak, a pierced human ear, small flapping wings, and lacey tail plumage. The relationship between the two is amicable since it is a scene of religious reverence. This “Garuda and serpent” motif appears on the partial remains of a slightly younger stone architrave discovered in Kankali Tila at Mathura (Smith, 1969, p. 28).  The circa 1st-century BCE relief depicts him as a large bird of prey with similar iconography, including the curling crest, thick beak, and pierced human ear. But the tail plumage is far more flowery and ornate, indicating that the artist built off of the earlier example. Also, unlike the architrave from the Sanchi stupa, this piece portrays Garuda locked in a tense standoff with a three-headed nagaraja; the bird has a firm grasp of the hissing serpent with his beak, but the foe’s body is wrapped twice around the god’s neck and the tail is anchored at the base of a nearby tree (fig. 7) (Vogal, 1972, p. 172).
Fig. 5 –The reverse side of the East Torana of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (1st-cent. BCE), Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif is visible on the right side of the central architrave. Fig. 6 – Detail of the Garuda and serpent motif(larger version). Photos by the The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (HABRA), The Ohio State University. Fig. 7 – The partial architrave discovered in Kankali Tila (c. 1st-cent. BCE) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India (larger version). Drawing from Smith, 1969, p. 28 .
Later depictions of the motif anthropomorphize Garuda. For instance, he makes an appearance standing over the torana of the carved Bhuta Lena cave shrine number forty (c. 100 CE) in Junnar (fig. 8) (Qureshi, 2010, p. 315). He is coupled with a nagaraja at the apex of the arched doorway; the two are presented as peaceful humanoid companions wearing matching hats and clothing and standing in a similar pose. This could be related to a birth tale (jataka) in which the Buddha, in his previous life as a hermit, reconciles the hatred between Garuda and a naga by “rehears[ing] the blessings of loving kindness until they [are] both at one. Thenceforward they abode together happily in peace and harmony” (Vogal, 1972, p. 142).
Fig. 8 – Garuda (left) and Nataraja (right) above the torana entrance of the Bhuta Lena cave shrine no. 40 (c. 100 CE) in Junnar, Maharashtra, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA.
Dhar (2009) notes that the standing gateway toranas were replaced in popularity by “the post, lintel, and eave-cornice (kapotapālikā) type entryways” sometime after the 2nd to 3rd-century CE (p. 16). She continues, “From the fifth century, such an entrance gateway became an integral part of temple doorframes…its posts served as pilaster-doorjambs (stamhaśākhās) and the eave-cornice integrated with the lintel” (Dhar, 2009, p. 16). It was around this time that Hindus followed the example of their Buddhist neighbors and began to create carved religious structures (Dehejia, 1997, p. 124). Such temples were considered the home of a given deity when they left their heavenly abode (Dehejia, 1997, p. 141). As such, these temples were profusely decorated with images of the deva, including the entrance way, to aid in their worship. A related root word for torana “suggests its role as an architectural symbol of a rite of passage or liminality” (Dhar, 2009, p. 1). This means whoever steps into the world of the “other” does so under the watchful eye of the deity placed on the torana. In the case of temples devoted to Vishnu and lesser devas associated with him, the image is either Garuda by himself (being a symbol of the god) or bearing the deva on his back, a variation on his portrayal in the Mahabharata that came to dominate his traditional iconography (Zimmer, 1946, p. 76).
1.3. Appearance of the antagonistic Garuda and Serpents motif
Whether alone or coupled with Vishnu, the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif began to appear on Hindu toranas by at least the 7th to 8th-century. In fact, the only examples that I can find come from this time period. I have seen examples of the “Garuda and Vishnu” motif above entrance ways as late as the 11th-century, but these are missing the serpents. However, later Tibetan art featuring the serpent variation suggests there may be Indian examples that I am not aware of. The 7th-century example appears on the torana of the Gaudar Gudi Temple in Badami (Gupte, 1967, p. 54) (fig. 9). Garuda is portrayed in humanoid form wearing a hat and clothing similar to figure 8. He is squatting over the entrance while grasping the tails of naga-serpents flanking him on both sides. The first c. 700 example appears on the torana of the Durga (Fort) Temple in Aihole (fig. 10) (Tartakov, 1997, p. 192). He is depicted as a smiling human in an erect flying posture with his left leg tucked under his groin and his right trailing behind him. Just like the first piece, he is wearing similar attire and grasping the tails of nagas on his left and right sides. The second c. 700 example appears over the entranceway of the Rajivalocana Temple in Rajim (fig. 11) (Patel, 1992, p. 146). But this version has Garuda transporting a four armed Vishnu. The figure is again depicted in human form and grasping the tails of his serpentine foes.
Fig. 9 – The Gaudar Gudi Temple Garuda with serpents (7th-cent.), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by AIIS. Fig. 10 – The Durga (Fort) Temple Garuda with serpents (c. 700), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA. Fig. 11 – The Rajivalocana Temple Garuda and Vishnu with serpents (c. 700), Rajim, Chhattisgarh, India (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.
2. Cambodia – The motif achieves perfection
The torana spread to Southeast Asia by the late 6th– or early 7th-century. Next to India, Cambodia has the largest number of and most diverse toranas in all of Asia (Dhar, 2009, p. 214). In fact, I would dare say this is where the Garuda and serpents motif reached the point of perfection. Parul Pandya Dhar’s wonderful monograph The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture (2009) features two beautiful examples from Buddhist temples carved in the unmistakable Khmer style. The first is an exquisitely crafted 9th-century entranceway from the Prasat Kok Po Temple in Siem Reap (pp. 222 and 228) (fig. 12 and 13). It portrays Garuda as a large, stout man-bird with pierced ears and wearing a Cambodian headdress and garment. He is standing on a pedestal and bearing a four-armed Vishnu on his back while grasping the flower garland-like tail of a three-headed nagaraja in each hand. The god is further flanked by two large creatures with gaping mouths known as “Faces of Glory” (Kīrtimukha).  Their arms interlock not only with the undulating serpents grasped by the man-bird, but two others located on the outermost left and right portion of the torana—the combination of arms and slithering serpentine bodies form a beautiful horizontal wave pattern with four crests. These larger nagarajas bear images of tiny Garudas standing on the back of their hoods.  The author notes that the “Kīrtimukha and makaras seen on Indian and Indonesian toranas are often replaced by the garuḍa-nāgas combination in Cambodia” (Dhar, 2009, p. 228). The second is a mid-10th-century entranceway from the Prasat thom Temple in Koh Ker (fig. 14 and 15). The depiction of Garuda is identical to the first example down to the clothing. But instead of bearing Vishnu and cooperating with the Kirtimukha to conquer nagas, he alone is grasping the long, flowery tails of his enemies who are positioned on pedestals at the same level as his own. Two small Buddhas use the bodies of the tightly drawn serpents as a place to meditate. Both nagarajas bear the Wheel of Buddhist Law (Dharmachakra) on their chests. The composition is therefore symbolic of Garuda and the nagas working together to literal “support” Buddhism.
Fig. 12 – The Prasat Kok Po Temple lintel featuring the Garuda and Vishnu with serpents motif (9th-cent.), Siem Reap, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 13 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Prasat thom Temple lintel with the Garuda and serpents motif (mid-10th-cent.), Preah Vihear, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons.
3. The motif spreads to East Asia
3.1. Tibet – The motif jumps from architecture to art
The Buddhist examples from Cambodia appear to have been influenced by depictions of the Garuda and serpents motif from Hindu temples. This is because they depict Hindu deities like Vishnu and portray the bird and naga as (symbolic) enemies. The same can be said for Buddhist art and architecture in East Asia. For instance, Heather Stoddard (1996) comments that the motif “is in fact present in all the main Tibetan [Buddhist] styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art” (p. 40). She continues, “The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (Stoddard, 1996, p. 40). (It’s obvious that Stoddard was unaware of the architectural origins of the motif at the time of her study.) One of the three pieces that she cites as examples is a 13th-century Nepalese painting of Ratnasambhava (Baosheng rulai, 寶生如來, fig. 16), one of the five Esoteric Buddhas (Stoddard, 1996, p. 42). The painting shows the Buddha sitting on a throne comprised of a lotus flower base and a backrest framed by all sorts of real and mythical creatures. The Garuda and serpents motif crowns the apex of the throne. Art historians call this an “enlightenment torana” or a “gate of glory” (Beer, 1999, p. 88; Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). It’s clear that Buddhist artists came to equate the torana with the fiery halo that signifies a deity’s enlightened or divine nature. Robert Beer (1999) believes that these enlightenment toranas could have appeared as early as the 4th-century, but that it became a common fixture in Buddhist art from the 8th to the 12th-century (p. 90). Two beautiful examples of an enlightenment torana from the mid-6th-century appear in the Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety in Mumbai (Malandra, 1993, p. 110). It depicts two Buddhas standing under their own gates of glory, complete with what appears to be licks of heavenly flame (fig. 17). Though missing the motif, these examples are nearly identical to later Tibetan art, suggesting, as mentioned above, that there could be later Indian examples featuring the Garuda and serpents motif that I am unaware of.
Fig. 16 – Ratnasambhava, with Bodhisattvas (13th-cent.), Nepal (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif can be seen at the apex of the throne. Photo by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 17 – Two Buddhas with enlightenment toranas, from Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India (mid-6th-cent.) (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.
Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhist art featuring the motif doesn’t appear to predate the 11th-century, so this may have something to do with the second coming of Buddhism in Tibet. The religion became popular among the common folk during the 11th-century after lying dormant for nearly two hundred years. The Tibetan people embraced the Indian Buddhist faith and flocked to India in order to study in various monastic universities. Jan Casey Singer (1999) notes:
Within this international Buddhist community, the Tibetans stood apart by virtue of the particular zeal with which they sought to master the Indian Buddhist tradition. They had both the will and, since Tibet is relatively close to eastern India, the opportunity to observe closely and gradually absorbed the highly sophisticated traditions of Buddhism and Buddhist art that flourished in eastern India at this time” (p. 6).
Tibetans living and traveling in India no doubt came into contact with architecture featuring the Garuda and serpents motif. This is evidenced by their depiction of Garuda as a chubby man-bird (see fig. 22 below, for example). The Vishnudharmottara Purana (7th-century) contains a treatise on prescribed Hindu iconography that mentions the deity “should be made slightly pot-bellied and adorned by all ornaments” (Kramrisch, 1928, p. 80).
3.2. The fiery Garuda halo
Variations of the motif appeared as it spread eastward. For instance, an 11th-century wall mural of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩) in Kashmir features five colored Garudas flying about his flaming halo (fig. 18). Beer explains that these represent the five Buddhas or Buddhist families of Esoteric Buddhism. He adds: “a yellow garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicoloured for space” (Beer, 1999, p. 62). This variation changed as it rapidly spread into China. An 11th-century painting from the famous Mogao caves of Dunhuang depicts the Bodhisattva Hayagriva (Matou Guanyin, 馬頭觀音), the “Horse-Headed Guanyin,” with three (of five?) fiery Garudas comprising his halo (Fig. 19). This “Garuda aureola” reached its zenith in Japan. One beautiful 11th-century example shows the Esoteric Buddhist guardian deity Fudō Myōō (Budong mingwang, 不動明王) set against a Garuda halo. The five Garudas are portrayed as flaming roosters encircling the god (fig. 20) (Akiyama, 1961, pp. 53 and 57). Thus, Esoteric Buddhism was the catalyst for the spread of the Garuda aureola motif towards the east.
Fig. 18 – Five colored Garudas in the aureola of the the Lha khang Soma Vajrapani (11th-cent.), Kashmir (larger version). Photo by HABRA. Fig. 19 – Hayagriva with flaming Garudas (11th-cent.), Dunhuang, Gansu, China(larver version). The simplistic Garudas are located to the respective left and right of a Face of Glory, as well as in between his legs. Photo by the Musée national des Arts asiatiques. Fig. 20 – The God Fudo-myoo (Acala) and Two Attendants (11th-cent.), Japan (larger version). Photo by the University of California, San Diego.
3.3. China – The Mongols welcome the motif
The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were largely responsible for bringing the Garuda and serpents motif to China. They were ardent followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and so they invited Buddhist lamas to preach in the Middle Kingdom. The person who first introduced Tibetan Buddhist art to China was the Nepalese artist Anige (阿尼哥, 1245–1306). At the surprisingly young age of eighteen or nineteen years old, he arrived at the Mongol court in 1260 as the leader of twenty-four artisans. His most famous accomplishment is the White Pagoda of the Miaoying temple in Beijing (Stoddard, 2008, pp. 19-20). Anige is the father of a Tibetan Stylistic tradition that carried on long after his death.
For instance, the Mongols commissioned several stupa-arches to be constructed “on strategic roads leading to the capital [of Beijing]” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The only surviving example is the cloud platform of Juyong Pass (Juyong guan, 居庸關), a later addition to the Great Wall of China built in 1354. It originally supported three Buddhist stupas, but these disappeared within a century of their completion. Multilingual inscriptions on the arch indicate that it was built “in order to bring happiness to the people who pass under the stupa and receive thus the Buddha’s blessings” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The apex of the arch contains the Garuda and serpents motif (fig. 21 and 22). The man-bird is depicted as a stout, pot-bellied figure with the face, wings, and talons of a raptor bird and the ears, arms, and torso of a human. He wears a jeweled crown and his body is decorated with serpents on his wrists, arms, and chest. Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the humanoid naga-spirits as smaller in stature and importance. They are trying to run away from him, but their scaly heels are pierced by his talons.
Fig. 21 – The Gate of Glory from the Cloud Platform of Juyong Pass (1345), Beijing, China (larger version). Photo by Snuffy on Flicker. Fig. 22 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (photographer unknown) (larger version).
The motif continued to appear in Buddhist art into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the Chinese had overthrown the Mongols. This is because some Chinese rulers, such as the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝, r. 1402–1424), upheld the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ming examples include a painting in the Sotheby’s collection dated to the 15th-century (fig. 23 and 24); a relief carving on a 15th-century pagoda at Zhenjue Temple (真覺寺) in Beijing (fig. 25 and 26); and a stone stele in the Freer Art Gallery collection dated to circa 1500 (fig. 27 and 28). All of these pieces depict a Buddhist deity sitting before an enlightenment torana lorded over by Garuda and his serpentine foes. What’s important here is that the variety of media suggests the motif became a standardized element of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist art at least a century prior to the publishing of Journey to the West (1592). The commonplace nature of the motif might then explain why it was included in the story. There are numerous occasions in the novel when the author-compiler provides folk origins for everyday concepts, such as why rings are put through the noses of buffalos.  So a bird attacking serpents above the head of the Buddha would certainly need a fanciful genesis story.
Fig. 23 – The Amitabha Buddha with an enlightenment torana (15th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 24 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (larger version). Photos by Sotheby’s. Fig. 25 – Zhenjue Temple relief carving (15th-cent.), Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 26 – A detail of Garuda (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons. Fig. 27 – A stone stele of a Bodhisattva with an enlightenment torana (c. 1500) (larger version). Fig. 28 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by the Freer Gallery of Art.
4. Garuda’s transformation from a god to a demon
The Ming dynasty examples suggest Garuda was considered a common element of the Buddha’s enlightenment torana. The bird god is in effect a guardian of the faith who watches over the world from an exalted position high atop the Buddha’s throne. So why then did the author-compiler of Journey to the West transform him into a monster who needed conquering? This obviously follows the novel’s theme of powerful demons, such as Sun Wukong, being subjugated and put to good use. This can be traced to the Thunder Ritual (Leifa, 雷法), a Daoist liturgy designed to subjugate powerful gods and demons to be wielded as weapons against evil forces. One such god is Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公), a native Chinese weather deity responsible for making dragons produce rain when needed. And since lightning is his weapon, he is also considered a heavenly executioner who kills mortals guilty of unpunished crimes.  The god was sometimes portrayed as a human, but it was around the Tang Dynasty (618–907) when he took on a bird-like appearance with a beak, wings, and talons. This avian transformation coincided with the appearance of Garuda and Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon entering the Middle Kingdom, Garuda served many of the same functions as Sire Thunder. His power over dragons gave him control of rain and his fierce nature enabled him to be a heavenly executioner. Therefore, depictions of Sire Thunder came to absorb features of the bird god. Most importantly, Tang-era stories describe religious masters and certain brave individuals subjugating this demonic figure and using his powers for their own purposes. 
Artistic renderings of Sire Thunder after his metamorphosis are strikingly similar to Garuda. A prime example of this comes to us in the form of a 9th-century fresco from Xinjiang originally held in the Berlin Museum of Indian art. The piece depicts numerous beings paying homage to the Four Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) (fig. 29). The foreground depicts Sire Thunder caught in a hunter’s snare around his neck, while a hound bites at his leg. A larger figure, presumably a guardian deity of sorts, holds one of the god’s wrists and stands with a club held overhead ready to strike (fig. 30). This scene contrasts with the overall religious nature of the piece, giving the impression that this “demon” is being captured in the name of the heavenly kings. So here we have a bird monster being subjugated by Buddhist forces. Such art could have easily influenced Garuda’s depiction in Journey to the West.
Fig. 29 – A fresco showing the adoration of the Heavenly Kings (9th-cent.), Xinjiang, China (larger version). Fig. 30 – A detail of the subjugation of Sire Thunder (larger version).
A literary motif appearing in Journey to the West (1592) and The Story of Yue Fei (1684) depicts the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda as a demon-turned-Buddhist guardian who sits above the Buddha’s throne. This is based on the bird’s portrayal in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (4th-century BCE), where he comes to sit above the deva Vishnu after taking part in a filial quest and agreeing to carry the god’s celestial vehicle (vimana). Beginning around the 2nd-century BCE, Garuda started appearing on Hindu and Buddhist architecture that depicted him on ritual flag poles and above torana doorways. A motif of Garuda gasping the tails of naga-serpents, his eternal foes from Hindu lore, appeared by at least the 7th-century and spread as far away as Cambodia by the 9th– or 10th-century. The motif was adopted by Tibetan Buddhist artists by the 11th-century and incorporated into wall murals, thus making the jump from architecture to paint. It never lost its association with architecture, however, since the torana came to be equated with the halo of Buddhist deities. This “enlightenment torana” or “gate of glory” became a common feature of Tibetan Buddhist art and even made its way to Japan. This feature was depicted as the backrest of a throne, hence the Chinese literary motif of Garuda sitting above the Buddha can be directly tied to this style of art. The Mongols were largely responsible for bringing the motif to China as they were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued into the Ming dynasty thanks to royal patronage of Esoteric Buddhism. The motif appeared in Ming religious architecture, paintings, and stele, making it commonplace enough for the author-compiler of Journey to the West to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon. But the concept of a demonic bird being subjugated is most likely based on the Tang Dynasty Thunder Ritual and stories of Sire Thunder, a Daoist weather deity with bird-like features, being captured by mortals and compelled to use his powers in their service.
Sire Thunder’s avian form has persisted to this day, having become his standard iconography. Here I present a late 19th to early 20th-century wooden altar statue depicting the deity with his counterpart the Mother of Lightening (Dianmu, 電母) (fig. 31). His similarities to Garuda are just as noticeable today.
Fig. 31 – Sire Thunder and the Mother of Lightning (19th to 20th-cent.), Taipei, Taiwan (larger version). In the author’s personal collection.
Sire Thunder actually appears with the Mother of Lightning (and other weather gods) in Journey to the West. Chapter 45 sees Monkey participating in a competition of transformations and ritual magic with three animal spirits disguised as Daoists. One competition involves making rain, during which time said gods appear. Although the spirit calling on the rain is powerful, Sun Wukong blocks his magic to make him look bad:
Becoming rather agitated, the Daoist loosened his hair, picked up his sword, and recited another spell as he burned a charm. Once more he brought down his tablet with a bang, and immediately the Heavenly Lord Deng arrived from the South Heaven Gate, trailed by the Squire of Thunder and the Mother of Lightning. When they saw Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] in midair, they saluted him, and he gave his explanation as before. “What powerful summons,” he said “brought you all here so quickly?” The Heavenly Lord said, “The proper magic of Five Thunder [Wulei fa, 五雷法] exercised by that Daoist was not faked.
He issued the summons and burned the document, which alerted the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor sent his decree to the residence of the Primordial Celestial Worthy of All-Pervading Thunderclap in the Ninefold Heaven. We in turn received his command to come here and assist with the rainmaking by providing thunder and lightning.” “In that case,” said Pilgrim, “just wait a moment. You can help old Monkey instead.” There was, therefore, neither the sound of thunder nor the flash of lightning (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).
The techniques used by the animal spirit for calling rain refers back to the aforementioned Thunder Ritual, where the powers of Sire Thunder are used in the service of another.
I recently occurred to me that the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif is quite similar to the ancient and widespread “Master of Animals” motif, which depicts a humanoid figure in the middle asserting his will over animals to his left and right (fig. 32). Perhaps there is a connection.
1) This name is a reference to the mythical Peng (鵬) bird mentioned in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), a philosophical work of the 3rd-century BCE. The chapter details how the creature starts life as a small Kun (鯤) fish and changes into a bird of unfathomable size with wings that span the sky (Zhuangzi & Watson, 2003, pp. 23-24).
2) See Wu & Yu (2012) chapters 74 to 77.
3) The sources are actually conflicting on which relief is older. For instance, Iyer (1977) claims the first is the “earliest representation of garuda” (p. 52). On the contrary, Dhar (2009) lists the second as being from “c. second-first century BCE” (p. 10), which would make it older than the Sanchi example. I, however, believe the second is younger than the first because it is clearly an embellished version of the first.
4) Although some of its iconographical elements can be similar to the bird god, the Face of Glory shouldn’t be confused with Garuda because it represents the “monster of greed” (Beer, 1999, pp. 69-70). This is why it is constantly in the act of eating.
5) This recalls the story of Krishna defeating the serpent Kaliya by dancing on his head (Leeming, 2006, p. 232).
6) For example, in chapters 50 to 52, Laozi’s buffalo runs amuck on earth as a demon. The monster uses a diamond bracelet that he stole from his master to capture Monkey’s staff. The simian hero enlists the aid of the Daoist patriarch, who subjugates the beast and later puts the bracelet through its nose and uses a sash as a lead. The novel then explains: “Thus the custom of leading the buffalo with a ring in its nose was established, a custom in use even now” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 30).
7) People struck by lightning were thought to have been marked (scarred) with a sign of their guilt much like a convict in ancient China was tattooed (Meulenbeld, 2007).
8) See Meulenbeld (2007) chapter 4. See also section 6.4 for a discussion on Sun Wukong and his relationship to Sire Thunder and the Thunder Ritual.
Akiyama, T. (1961). Japanese painting. [Geneva]: Skira; [distributed by World Pub. Co., Cleveland.
Association for Asian Studies., Goodrich, L. C., & Fang, Z. (1976). Dictionary of Ming biography, 1368-1644. New York: Columbia University Press.
Beer, R. (1999). The encyclopedia of Tibetan symbols and motifs. Boston: Shambala.
Dallapicolla, A. L. (2002). Dictionary of Hindu lore and legend. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Dehejia, Vidya. 1997. Indian art. London: Phaidon.
Dhar, P. P. (2009). The Toraṇa in Indian and Southeast Asian architecture. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Elgood, H. (2000). Hinduism and the religious arts. London: Cassell.
Ganguli, K. M., and Rāya, P. (2003). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Gupte, R. S. (1967). The art and architecture of Aihole: A study of early Chalukyan art through temple architecture and sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.
Hsia, C. T. (2004). C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
Iyer, K. B. (1977). Animals in Indian sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.
Kramrisch, S. (1928). The Vishnudharmottara (part III): A treatise on Indian painting and image-making. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.
Leeming, D. A. (2006). The Oxford companion to world mythology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Malandra, G. H. (1993). Unfolding a maṇḍala: the Buddhist cave temples at Ellora. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.
Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).
Mookerji, R. (1973). The Gupta Empire. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Patel, S. K. (1992). Hinduism in India: A study of Viṣṇu worship. Delhi (India): Amar Prakashan.
Qian, C. (2016). Shuo yue quan chuan. Zhangsha: Yue lu shu she.
Qureshi, D. (2010). The rock-cut temples of Western India. Delhi, India: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.
Singer, J. C. (1999). The cultural roots of early Central Tibetan painting In Kossak, Steven M., and Jane Casey Singer. 1999. Sacred visions: early paintings from Central Tibet (pp. 3-24). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Smith, V. A. (1969). The Jain stûpa and other antiquities of Mathurâ. Varanasi: Indological Book House.
Stoddard, H. (1996). Early Tibetan Paintings: Sources and Styles (Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries A.D.). Archives of Asian Art 49, pp. 26-50.
Stoddard, H. (2008). Early Sino-Tibetan art. Bangkok: Orchid Press.
The Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan worships Sun Wukong in his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Most surprisingly, they recognize more than one Great Sage, each with his own function. These include a trinity, three in administrative positions, and an army of dozens of other Monkeys. The idea of multiple Great Sages goes back centuries to an early Ming dynasty (14 to 15th-century) operatic stage play (zaju, 雜劇) by Yang Jingxian (杨景賢) titled Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記), which predates the similarly named novel by two hundred years. Scene nine of this play sees Monkey introduce himself, his past misdeeds, and his family. He claims to be one of several siblings:
We are five brothers and sisters: my elder sister is Lishan Laomu [離山老母, Venerable Mother of Mount Li], my second sister Wuzhiqi Shengmu [巫支祇聖母, Holy Mother Wuzhiqi]; my older brother is Qitian Dasheng [齊天大聖, Great Sage Equaling Heaven], I myself am Tongtian Dasheng [通天大聖, Great Sage Reaching Heaven], and my younger brother Shuashua Sanlang [耍耍三郎] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 110). 
Astute readers will notice a discrepancy with the novel. Sun Wukong is referred to here as the Great Sage Reaching Heaven, while an older brother is known as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Sun (2018) suggests the older brother is the result of confusing similar titles given to Monkey during the long history of the story cycle (pp. 44-45). It’s interesting to note, however, that the female siblings have their own history. The Venerable Mother of Mount Li (more commonly written 驪山 and 黎山) was historically worshiped as a deity from at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and myths often associate her with the creation/flood-conquering goddess Nuwa (女媧) (Theobald, 2010; Yang & An, 2005, pp. 222-223). Wuzhiqi (also written 無支祁) is a monkey-like flood demon appearing in stories as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907) (Andersen, 2001). So both sisters are associated with flooding.
The Journey to the West novel provides a possible answer to the mystery of the multiple Great Sages. After returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in chapter two, Wukong tells his children about his new name:
“My surname is Sun,” replied Wukong, “and my religious name is Wukong.” When the monkeys heard this, they all clapped their hands and shouted happily, “If the great king is Elder Sun, then we are all Junior Suns, Suns the Third, small Suns, tiny Suns—the Sun Family, the Sun Nation, and the Sun Cave!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 130)
This would explain the army of monkey soldiers who do the bidding of the aforementioned trinity.
Additionally, another Great Sage appears in the pious novel Pacification of the Demons of Linshui (Linshui Pingyao zhuan, 臨水平妖傳, c. 17th-18th-cent.). The narrative recounts the miraculous deeds and deification of Chen Jinggu (陳靖姑) (fig. 1), more commonly known as the Lady of Linshui (臨水夫人), a highly popular Fujian and Taiwanese protector goddess of pregnancy and children. The novel depicts the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage (Danxia Dasheng, 丹霞大聖) as a red-furred, mulberry staff-wielding monkey who, just like Sun Wukong, stole heavenly peaches and survived a turn in Laozi’s furnace. He teams up with another demon to attack the goddess and her heavenly companion, but both are beaten back. The Great Sage is so badly burnt by a magic flaming pearl used by the companion that it takes an entire year for him to heal his wounds. One year later, he resumes his misdeeds and takes on the appearance of a young man, causing so much havoc that the real human is chased from his village. The young man calls on the goddess, who promptly captures the Great Sage and castrates him “in order, she says, to open to him the way of true asceticism stripped of desire, of true wisdom allowing him to obtain the ‘just fruits’, zhengguo [正果]” (Baptandier, 2008, p. 111). After being deprived of his manhood, the novel reveals the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage to be the “double” of Sun Wukong. He goes on to become an agent of justice charged with conquering demons. 
Fig. 1 – A modern altar statue of the Lady of Linshui (larger version).
I want to briefly mention the idea of the Cinnabar Cloud Sage being Sun Wukong’s double is most likely based on the Six-Eared Macaque (Liu‘er mihou, 六耳獼猴) from chapters 56 to 58 of Journey to the West (fig. 2 and 3).  This demon takes on Monkey’s form, much like the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage does the young man in the aforementioned novel, and causes all sorts of trouble. When the twins seek the Buddha’s wisdom to tell one from the other, the Enlightened One reveals the fraud to be one of four supernatural primates, the other three being the intelligent stone monkey, the red-buttocked baboon, and the bare-armed gibbon. The demon attempts to flee but is eventually killed by Sun Wukong (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 112-116).
Fig. 2 – An artist’s depiction of the six-eared macaque. Fig. 3 – Sun Wukong fighting his double (video).
A religious tradition in Fujian appears to borrow from both the Yuan-Ming play and the Linshui novel to derive a trinity of familiar Great Sages. These are the red-faced Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage (丹霞大聖), the black-faced Great Sage Reaching Heaven (通天大聖), and the white-faced Shuashua Sanlang (耍耍三郎/爽爽三郎) (fig. 4) (Chinese Monkey God(s)?, n.d.; Wu, n.d.). Therefore, this plethora of Great Sages could have influenced the many venerated in Wanfu temple.
Fig. 4 – An example of the Three Great Sages from a Lady of Linshui temple (larger version).
According to the current version of the legend, for which no supporting authority can be found elsewhere, there are five Monkey Brothers who may appear when the shen [神, god] is invoked. Each is likely to appear for a number of years before handing over to another brother, unless for any special reason the others have to be consulted. The first Monkey Brother is the wisest and most quiescent of them all. When possessing the dang-ki [童乩, the medium] he can be identified by the manner in which he shades his eyes with his right hand while gazing into the distance. The second Monkey Brother is of fiercer temperament, and can be identified by the manner in which he scratches at his ears as a monkey would. He has a predilection also for eating fire and fruit. The third, fourth and fifth Monkey Brothers are more and more irascible, but there is no detailed knowledge concerning their characteristics since they have never yet appeared. So far it is only the second Monkey Brother who possesses the dang-ki, although the eldest brother is sometimes deferred to in difficult cases and may make a temporary appearance (p. 82).
This shows the concept of multiple Great sages is not restricted to Fujian or Taiwan.
Another possible avenue opens to us thanks to Monkey’s resemblance to the Chinese god Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公). Sun Wukong is compared to the weather deity numerous times throughout the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 352, for example). The connection between the two is an old one, for two tales from the early Song Dynasty (960-1279) portray the thunder god as having the form of an ape with flashing, mirror-like eyes (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 72). These sound very much like Sun Wukong’s fiery eyes and diamond pupils. Most importantly, tales from the same time period refer to the thunder deity having numerous brothers. Their attributes are similar to the aforementioned five Great Sages:
We are five brothers. If you want to hear the sound of thunder, only call Thunder the old, and Thunder two; then you will have an immediate response. But Thunder five is tough and hot-tempered; if there is no urgent business, you must not call him (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 69).
The concept of five thunder brothers was solidified by the second half of the Song Dynasty and remains a common belief to this day (Meulenbeld, 2007).
1) The name of the youngest brother could be translated as “Shuashua, the third son” considering the god Erlang (二郎) is literally the “Second Son”. Shuashua is after all the third of three sons.
2) See chapter four in Baptandier (2008) for a complete description of the life and deeds of the Cinnabar Cloud Great Sage.
3) Anthony Yu suggests the concept of six ears “may have been derived from the common Buddhist saying, ‘The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear [i.e., the third pair or person] 法不傳六耳'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 387 n. 7).
Andersen, P. (2001). The Demon Chained Under Turtle Mountain: The History and Mythology of Chinese River Spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.
Baptandier, B. (2008). The Lady of Linshui: A Chinese Female Cult. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
As a historian of the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592), much of my time researching is spent flipping through piles of books or searching the internet. Rarely do I get the opportunity to conduct field research on living traditions connected with the novel. That’s why I was excited to learn of the Buddho-Daoist Wanfu temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵) (fig. 1 and 2) in Tainan, Taiwan where they worship Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖). This happened to coincide with a short break from school, allowing me time to travel. I left Taipei where I live and stayed in the West Central District of the southern municipality. My afternoon was spent independently touring both floors of the recently renovated temple and taking numerous photos, all of which can be seen on my google drive. I had originally planned to catch the train home that evening, but was so intrigued by what I saw that I delayed my return another day. After making introductions, my second afternoon was spent asking questions about pantheon structure, rituals, general beliefs, etc. I was invited back that evening to record their spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage.
Below I present my initial findings. I realize a day is obviously not enough time for observation, so the following information should be looked upon as an informal survey. However, I still feel this material is important, not only because few scholars writing in English have published on the worship of Sun Wukong, but also because it helps flesh out the ongoing history of his veneration going back to at least the 17th-century. 
Wanfu is touted as the oldest temple dedicated to the Great Sage in all of Taiwan. It was originally a mansion built during the early 1660s for Ruan Jun (阮駿), a subordinate of the famous Southern Ming Dynasty General Koxinga. His widow Lady Ruan (阮夫人) is said to have lived out the rest of her days there in religious piety, and following her death, the mansion was converted into a house of worship called the Lady Ruan Temple (Ruan Furen si, 阮夫人寺). The name was subsequently changed to “Myriad Blessings” (Wanfu, 萬福) in the 11th year of the Jiaqing reign (1806) during a time when the temple was known for taking in orphans. The change was made by nuns who believed the children benefited from the blessings of an old stone Great Sage statue thought to have been brought over from Fujian by Lady Ruan when she and thousands of other people fled the invading Qing forces to Taiwan. Sun Wukong’s influence over the temple grew to the point that, while still officially known as Wanfu, (fig. 3) it came to acquire the additional name of Taiwan’s Laying the [Religious] Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven Temple (Quantai Kaiji Qitian Dasheng miao, 全臺開基齊天大聖廟) (fig. 4). A second level was added to the building in 1971, and further renovations were completed in 2014.
Fig. 3 – The “Wanfu Temple” sign over the main templer doors (larver version). Fig. 4 – The neon sign on the facade reads “Wanfu temple Laying the Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (larger version).
2. Pantheon of Great Sages
One of the most interesting aspects of the temple is that it recognizes more than one Great Sage, each with his own function. Their pantheon consists of a trinity, followed by a small handful in administrative positions, and finally a plethora of soldier Monkeys. The highest-ranking is the aforementioned 300-plus-year-old stone statue named Laying the Foundations Elder Great Sage (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 5A and 8). His central importance is signified by his position atop a chair on the altar stage. He is alternatively known as the Great Sage Lord (Dasheng Ye, 大聖爺). The second and third ranking members of this trinity, respectively named Laying the Foundations Second Great Sage (Kaiji Er Dasheng, 開基二大聖) and Laying the Foundations Third Great Sage (Kaiji San Dasheng, 開基三大聖) (fig. 5B, 5C, and 8), sit to his right and left. The Elder Great Sage and the Second Great Sage remain in heaven unless some important matter requires their direct participation. The Third Great sage alternates with the administrative Tour Inspector Great Sage (see below) to see to external temple business on Saturdays.
Fig. 5A – The Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage, the 300-year-old stone statue; 5B – The Laying the Foundation Second Great Sage; and 5C – The Laying the Foundation Third Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 6 – The Tour Inspector Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 7 – The Internal Affairs Great Sage (larger version).
The administrative Monkeys include the large Tour Inspector Great Sage (Chuxun Dasheng, 出巡大聖) (fig. 6 and 8), who oversees activities outside the temple. He is located to the right of the trinity; the slightly larger, staff-wielding Internal Affairs Great Sage (Neiwu Zongguan Dasheng, 内務總管大聖) (fig. 7 and 8) serves as a manager to lower-ranking Monkeys. He is located to the left of the trinity; and the Sergeant Great Sage (Shiguan Dasheng, 士官大聖) (fig. 9) serves as the temple director. This comparatively small statue sits behind a magistrate’s bench below the altar stage, just behind the offerings table.
Fig. 8 – The altar stage layout, with the most important Great Sages labeled (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Sergeant Great Sage sitting at a magistrate’s bench (larger version).
In addition, the Elder Great Sage has at his disposal a group of powerful commanders known as the Five Camps Celestial Generals (Wuying Bingjiang, 五營兵將), who protect the five cardinal directions. These are the black Northern Camp Sage Lian Gong (Beiying Lian Gong Shengzhe, 北營連公聖者); the blue/green Eastern Camp Sage Zhang Gong (Dongying Zhang Gong Shengzhe, 東營張公聖者); the red Southern Camp Sage Xiao Gong (Nanying Xiao Gong Shengzhe, 南營蕭公聖); the white Western Camp Sage Liu Gong (Xiying Liu Gong Shengzhe, 西營劉公聖者); and the golden Central Camp Marshal of the Central Altar (Zhongying Zhong Tan Yuanshuai, 中營中壇元帥) (fig. 10). Each general in turn leads a vast heavenly army comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers. Such generals are very common to Daoist temples across Taiwan and find their origin in the 36 protector generals of Daoism (Sanshiliu Tianjiang, 三十六天將), who funny enough are led by Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation Marshal Tianpeng (Davis, 2001, p. 78).
The position of the Great Sage pantheon in relation to the wider Buddho-Daoist pantheon mirrors that from Journey to the West. Despite his central position in Wanfu’s religious life, the Great Sage is still considered subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), whose birthday was being celebrated on the second day of my visit with a vegetarian meal open to all. In fact, the temple’s second floor Three Jewels Hall (Sanbao Dian, 三寶殿) contains statues of the Buddha and flanking Bodhisattvas raised on an altar stage, with a statue of Guanyin placed in front of and almost at the same level as the Enlightened One (fig. 11). This shows her great importance.
Fig. 10 – Two sets of the Five Camps Celestial Generals can be seen. Their colors of black, blue/green, red, white, and gold help distinguish each one (larger version). Fig. 11 – The statue of Guanyin sitting in front of and almost at the same level of the Buddha (larger version). The goddess Mazu sits in front of Guanyin. From the second floor Three Jewels Hall.
3. Worshiping the Great Sage and requesting blessings
When the faithful come to pray, they often stand directly in line with the center of the altar, (fig. 12) with hands pressed and set against their forehead (or chest), or they light a grouping of three incense sticks, kneel on the praying couch, and hold the sticks up to their forehead (or chest) with elbows level, often rhythmically bobbing their arms or upper torso (fig. 13). The procedure for making a request has three steps. First, adherents greet the Great Sage and say their full name, lunar birthday (and time if known), and their address. This is done because many people have names spelled with the exact same Chinese characters. The step insures the Great Sage answers the right prayers for the right person. Second, they wish for health, wealth, good luck, removal of a negative influence, etc. Third, they later burn spirit money to repay Monkey’s generosity. This form of prayer is for those who don’t mind waiting for a response.
For those seeking an immediate response, the temple employs a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks known as “bamboo cups” (jiaobei, 筊杯) (fig. 8) for divination purposes. The procedure starts the same with the greeting and personal information, but the cups are grasped between the hands during the prayer and then dropped to the ground after a 10 minute waiting period. Like rolling spiritual dice, the faithful take note of the orientation in which the blocks fall. One side of the blocks is flat, while the other is curved. If one cup falls with the flat side upwards (open) and the other flat side down (closed), this means “yes” (shengjiao, 聖筊). If both fall upwards, this means the Great Sage is happy or “laughing” at the request (xiaojiao, 笑筊). If both fall facedown, the Great Sage is “angry” and unwilling to fulfill the request (nujiao, 怒筊) (fig. 14). The cups are thrown three times and the best two of three results are accepted as the answer.
Fig. 12 – The offering table and altar (larger version). Fig. 13 – A young couple praying to the Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Bamboo cups, both sitting in the “angry” response (cup down) (larger version).
Often times adherents will want more clarification, so the blocks are used in tandem with “fortune sticks” (qiuqian, 求籤). The traditional procedure is to shake the cylinder full of sticks, each marked with a number, until one falls out. (I, however, saw one young man with long, dyed hair randomly reach into the cylinder without shaking it. He also didn’t wait the required period after his prayer to drop the cups. He must have been in a hurry!) The adherent then looks up the corresponding oracle in a booklet kept on the temple’s front desk. These oracles are also available on slips of paper that can be taken and read later. The use of the bamboo cups and fortune sticks is common in other temples.
I asked one young couple associated with the temple about the exact number of members. They were unsure of the core members and especially of the number of outside worshipers. It appears the veneration of the Great Sage is so entrenched in Tainan religious society that people from other temples will come from time to time to pay their respects to Monkey.
3.1. Great Sage Spirit-Medium
The second day of my visit coincided with one of the twice weekly (Wed. and Sat.) rituals in which the temple’s spirit-medium (Hokkien: tangki, 童乩; Chinese: jitong, 乩童, lit: “divining youth”) calls down the spirit of the Great Sage to possess his body (video 1). Prior to the ritual, red ropes were used to demarcate a sacred space within the center of the altar hall. The ropes were tied to either side of the main central temple doors and stretched diagonally to the respective left and right walls of the hall, forming a V-shape, or a sort of spiritual bottleneck. Only the medium and the temple workers were allowed to inhibit this sacred space shortly before and during the ritual. The faithful seeking blessings and spectators were asked to wait on the other side of the ropes, entering through secondary doors located to the respective left and right of the main set.
Video 1 – The spirit-medium ritual.
I witnessed the medium chewing an herbal substance that was removed prior to the ritual.  He then proceeded to purify himself with a small pot of (psychoactive?) incense, first bathing his hands and arms in the smoke, before passing it around his head, waist, and calves. Taking hold of the pot’s handles, he began belching. This gave way to a moving trance in which he marched in place for several minutes. The arrival of the Great Sage was signaled by an audible growl and the medium lifting high one knee, taking on a martial pose like esoteric protector deities (fig. 15). After an attendant removed his shirt, he squatted low to the ground and struck another pose with arms flexed like said deities (fig. 16). Such postures serve to mark the medium’s transition from a human to a god.
The medium-turned-Great Sage displayed jovial feet clapping, followed by feats of strength, including elevated push ups and a handstand. Finally, he stood atop a wooden bench and used his weight to rock it side to side, slamming the feet down in rapid succession, producing a sound similar to firecrackers. The sound is used to scare away evil influences. I was told in advance that the medium would “do exercise” and use the bench “to make noise”, so these appear to be common aspects of the ritual.
Fig. 15 – The stance announcing the Great Sage’s arrival (left) is similar to esoteric guardian deities, such as the temple’s depiction of Wangling Tianjun (center left) (larger version). Fig. 16 – His next stance (center right) is also similar to said guardians, especially this statue based on a famous 14th-century carving of a Japanese Nio (right) (larger version).
The Great Sage welcomed the first of many children and blessed each the same with the following procedure. First, he touched the top of the incense pot and then transferred his hand to the child’s crown, doing this three times. Second, he dipped his finger into the incense and drew a line down the center of the child’s face from the forehead to the chin and onto the neck. Third, after dipping his fingers in the incense again, he traced a rectangular form on the child’s torso, possibly a symbolic fu (符) talisman, before pushing on the stomach several times to release, as I was told, “bad air” (negative qi). The same rectangle was traced on the child’s back. Fourth, the Great Sage dipped his finger in the incense and turned to the table to write out three fu talismans on yellow strips of paper, his finger often floating above the surface. One was packaged to be later burnt and the ashes combined with an included tea leaf and cold (yin) and hot (yang) water to be given to the child as a magical brew. The second was folded and put inside of a red pouch to be worn as a good luck charm (fig. 17-19). The third was lit and waved over the child’s head and around their body.
Fig. 17 – A baggy containing a loose fu talisman, a folded talisman inside of a red charm, and a tea leaf (larger version). This baggy was given to me when I participated in similar ritual for adults. Fig. 18 – The front of the charm reading “Tainan Wanfu Temple, safety and peace” (larger version). Fig. 19 – The back reading “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, “Guanyin/Shakyamuni”, and “Multitude of Gods and Buddhas” (larger version).
The large number of children taking part in the ritual (many of which were not shown in the video) is, as mentioned above, tied to the temple’s history. Adherents believe the Great Sage bestows blessings on children, as well as cures them of illnesses when they are sick.  Additionally, they believe those taken as the Great Sage’s godchildren will be well-behaved and become well-tempered adults.  For those who have read the novel, this may at first appear to be a paradox—Monkey, a paragon of good behavior?!—but this no doubt refers to his internalization of self-restraint after becoming a Buddha at the end of the novel. This coincides with the disappearance of his restraint-inducing golden headband.
Numerous adults also sought the Great Sage’s blessing. Having already provided their personal information on salmon-colored prayer sheets to Temple personnel, each person in turn greeted the medium and then made their request (health, wealth, good luck, etc.). The blessing procedure was the same regarding fu talismans, complete with the third being lit and waved around the head and body. I even saw the Great Sage bless a shirt in place of an adherent who could not come in person. When interacting with the faithful, the medium spoke to them in a high-pitched voice,  often making people laugh with his responses. I was later informed that the language used was Taiwanese, which explains why I couldn’t understand what was being said. I too took part in the ritual and noted that the medium’s eyes were rolled back into his head. Apart from the poses at the beginning, the voice and eyes serve to mark the possessed state.
The medium has held his position at the temple for 20 years. But it should be noted that he has a normal job during the week and volunteers his time at the temple. His path to mediumship began as a young man when he started displaying certain behavior signifying he had been chosen by the Great Sage to be his earthly representative. While many mediums go through a period of training under a “Red Hat” Daoist (Hongtou Daoshi, 紅頭道士), a master of religious ceremony (Clart, 2008), I was told the methods of mediumship were revealed to him in his dreams by the Great Sage while he slept in the temple for 49 days.
3.2. Celebrating the Great Sage’s Birthday
The Monkey King’s birthday is recognized as the 12th day of the 10th lunar month and is celebrated over the course of three days. This year the birthday will correspond to November 19th. The first day of celebrations is undertaken by core temple members, while the subsequent days are undertaken by sister temples. Below is a video showing a time-lapse of a past celebration. Many people crowd the temple to pay their respects, as well as to laden the offering table with all kinds of delicious fruits and sweets. I can picture the Great Sage rolling around on the ground and laughing in delight!
Video 2 – The celebration of the Great Sage’s birthday.
His offerings are later shared with his five celestial generals in the Rewarding Soldiers ritual (Kao jun, 犒軍). This too is common in other temples.
The Buddho-Daoist Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan worships Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, who is venerated as a powerful exorcist and healer, as well as a sort of patron saint of children. The main focus of worship is a 300-plus-year old stone statue believed to have been brought over from Fujian during the turmoil of the late Ming dynasty. The temple recognizes an entire pantheon of Great Sages, from a trinity (headed by the aforementioned statue) and administrative managers down to an army of lowly soldier monkeys. Furthermore, the Great Sage has at his disposal five cardinal celestial generals and their respective armies to insure his will is done. The position of the Great Sage within the greater Buddhist pantheon is the same as in the novel. He is subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who is considered by Wanfu to be almost equal to the Buddha in terms of importance.
The Great Sage-adherent dynamic involves two forms of interaction, impersonal and personal. The former involves the adherent praying to the deity in heaven, sometimes using bamboo cups, fortune sticks, and corresponding oracle booklets to divine the Great Sage’s response to their request. The latter involves personal interaction with the deity via a spirit-medium. The Wanfu medium twice-weekly (Wed. and Sat.) holds a ceremony where he calls down the Great Sage and, after taking possession, the deity personally interacts with those seeking blessings. He employs magic fu talismans to bless both children and adults, the paper slip being burnt and waved around their body. The ritual for children is more involved as incense is first used to draw talismans on their body and then negative qi is released by pushing on the stomach.
I plan to revisit the temple at a later date to conduct more in-depth research into the particulars of the pantheon, as well as the ritual of the spirit-medium. Visiting during the Great Sage’s birthday, the 12th day of the 10th lunar month, would be an ideal time since it’s no doubt a time of much fanfare.
Wanfu Temple’s “black command flag” (Hokkien: or leng ki; Mandarin: hei leng qi, 黑令旗) (fig. 20) is located just outside the rightmost front entrance. Elliott (1955/1990) writes command flags advertise the presence of a spirit-medium, while also serving as a warning to ghosts and demons (p. 51). Chan (2014) explains such flags are imbued with the power of the Dark Emperor of the North, considered the greatest exorcist god in Daoism, and act as a covenant between the deity and the tangki spirit-medium who leads his heavenly armies against evil (p. 34).
Each flag is covered with arcane symbols that are usually only intelligible to the initiated. With some help,  I have made a near complete translation of the Wanfu black command flag (fig. 21):
雨漸耳 (yu jian er) – “Rain soaks the ears”, likely referring to a commandment from heaven.
六? (Liu ?) – The mystery character likely refers to the Six Ding (六丁), protector spirits of Daoism. They are often grouped with the Six Jia (Mugitani, 2008). This is likely connected to no. 11 below.
六甲 (Liu Jia) – Refers to the Six Jia. This is likely connected to no. 12.
北極 (Bei ji) – The “Northern Ultimate”, referring to the Dark Emperor of the North. Here, the character for “north” is split in half and “ultimate” is inserted in the middle.
?富? – Two unknown characters sandwich that for “wealth” (fu).
Sun – A symbol for 陽 (yang) energy.
Moon – A symbol for 陰 (yin) energy.
Big Dipper – A seven-star pattern associated with Daoist ritualistic dances and purification ceremonies. See section one of my article here for more info.
風調雨順 (feng tiao yu shun) – A common Chinese idiom meaning “the wind and rain are seasonal” (i.e. the weather is good).
國泰民安 (guo tai min an) – Another common idiom. It means “the country is prosperous, and the people are secure”.
敺邪 (qu xie) – “Expel evil/disease”. This is likely connected to no. 2 above. Together it would read the “Six Ding expel evil/disease”.
押煞 (ya sha) – “Stop malicious spirits”. This is likely connected to no. 3. Together it would read the “Six Jia stop malicious spirits”.
This angular symbol is the 符胆 (fu dan), the talismanic flag’s locus of power (Chan, 2014, p. 35).
1) One report from the 17th-century describes the Great Sage appearing in the clouds over the Fujian coast and beating back invading Japanese pirates during the preceding century.
2) This appears to be a common practice. In his study of Singaporean spirit-mediums, Elliott (1955/1990) writes: “Before their performances many dang-ki have been seen to chew some sort of root or sip from a cup, but it has been impossible to ascertain whether these contain stimulating substances” (p. 64).
3) The Great Sage after all is a trained doctor. His medical skills are described in chapters 68 and 69.
4. Such youths are known as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia) in Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 83).
5) Elliott (1955/1990) references the tangki‘s “shrill, artificial voice” and notes it’s “supposed to be ‘shen [神, god] language'” (p. 64).
6) I am indebted to Kelly Black Lin for helping me decipher some of the cryptic characters.
Chan, M. (2014). Tangki War Magic: The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 58(1), 25-46. Retrieved from http://jstor.org/stable/24718290
Clart, P. (2008). Tang-ki (or jitong) In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 964-966). London [u.a.: Routledge].
Davis, E. L. (2001). Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)
Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.