From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Last Updated: 09-18-2021
As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).
Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).
I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey
Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).
Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.
The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.
By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:
The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).
It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).
In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:
In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).
The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.
Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.
Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):
Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).
Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).
Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.
The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.
So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.
This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.
I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.
A week or so ago I made a post on reddit alluding to this article. I noted it would serve as the basis for a great Xianxia (immortal hero) story. One thing I stressed was the drama caused by Sun’s ability to quickly surpass his far older religious siblings in skill. I think this tension is the key to great magical martial arts action:
Need an idea for a Xianxia story? The first and second chapters of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) have so much untapped potential. The novel briefly mentions that Sun Wukong lives for ten years in the mountain home of the Buddho-Daoist sage Master Subhuti. The first seven are spent as a junior Daoist monk doing menial tasks and learning basic religious or life skills. However, the last three years are spent as a close disciple of Subhuti, learning elixir arts, magic, and combat skills. The novel glosses over his early cultivation in order to jump directly into the action. But imagine a Xianxia story focusing on those three years.
Drama with fellow disciples could arise from Monkey’s supernatural aptitude for quickly learning and mastering a skill. After all, it only takes him three years to go from a mere stone monkey to a powerful immortal capable of going toe-to-toe with gods and demons with millennia of cultivation and combat experience. Think of the resulting battles between our hero and his jealous senior religious brothers and sisters frustrated with his great progress.
In addition, given Sun’s demonstrated knowledge in boxing, weapons, and troop movement, I came up with the story idea that Subhuti’s school is the training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the famous Shaolin temple. Shaolin was mobilized by the Chinese government during the 16th-century to battle pirates attacking the coast. Records indicate that one historical Shaolin monk was made the leader, and he was later forced to singlehandedly defend himself against eight individuals vying for his position. Likewise, I imagine heaven calls up Subhuti’s army to battle some demonic evil, and Monkey might quickly rise through the ranks. This would naturally lead to more tension with his fellow disciples, causing him to defend his position. All of these challenges, plus any action seen by the monastic army in heavenly battles, would explain how Sun Wukong became such a seasoned fighter in such a short time.
Plus, there is the added bonus of Subhuti’s army being called upon to fight Sun during his rebellion against heaven. He might have far surpassed his religious brothers and sisters in skill at this point.
Having written the above, I’m now rethinking my idea of Monkey standing alongside the monastic army in some heavenly battle among the clouds. This is because someone would surely recognize him as one of Subhuti’s students during his rebellion. So either the monk soldiers wear masks (which is an interesting idea), or maybe Sun is involved in a smaller scale yet still significant battle on earth during his days as a young cultivator.
Sun Wukong’s master Subhuti has 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the students in his religious lineage: Guang (廣), Da (大), Zhi (智), Hui (慧), Zhen (真), Ru (如), Xing (性), Hai (海), Ying (穎), Wu (悟), Yuan (圓), and Jue (覺). Monkey is part of the 10th generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115). This means that all of Subhuti’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name.
Maybe Sun would train with his fellow Wu generation but move on to older generations as his skill rapidly progresses.
Sun is originally expelled from Subhuti’s school for flaunting his newfound powers of transformation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-124). But given Monkey’s ability to acquire amazing powers in just three short years, perhaps Subhuti fears his student’s potential for exponential spiritual growth. Whether this is because he sees a spark of malice in his disciple or he’s just plain jealous (the former seems more likely), Subhuti could just use the transformation as an excuse to halt his progression. But imagine Sun after another three years! I imagine high-level cosmic beings like the Buddha would be interested in keeping an eye on his progress.
Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (vol. 1-4). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.