Last updated: 06-16-2023
The following story sketch was originally posted on my external Historum blog on 01-20-2014. The site recently switched to a new server, but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Story Idea #1
As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [A] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.
Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.
This tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes below contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.
The Daodejing (道德經) reads:
The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath);
The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽);
The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones);
The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things.
The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang;
Kneading gently, they create harmony. [B]
In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.
Fig. 2 – A pair of mated gibbons. A larger version can be found here.
Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [C] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [D]
As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [E] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the devi Nuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [F] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.
The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [G] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. [H]
The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [I] The August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.
It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subodhi, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 600 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).
Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.
After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [J] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).
Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.
The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [K] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.
After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [L]
2. Background information
A) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).
B) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.
C) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.
D) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.
E) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).
F) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.
G) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.
H) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subodhi because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.
I) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).
J) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subodhi. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).
K) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.
L) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.
Story idea #2
Last year I wrote an article that explored other stone-born figures from world mythology. In the conclusion I cautiously suggested that Wukong’s birth and later rebellion was influenced by the Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE), which appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. For example, one scholar noted similarities between Ullikummi and a later figure from Greek mythology: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (see the linked article). Anyone who has read Journey to the West will no doubt notice the striking similarities with Monkey’s tale. Therefore, I think Ullikummi’s story would be a solid basis for a more authentic origin story for the Monkey King.
While the ancient tale is named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya”, foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home.
Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When the goddess Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with his vizier and brother Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. One scholar suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (again, see the linked article).
Fig. 6 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.
Now, I’ve previously written a story sketch in which Master Subodhi’s school is actually a training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the Shaolin Temple. I speculated that Wukong’s skill in martial arts and troop movement would come from his time serving as a soldier and eventual officer in this army. Additionally, I suggested that the baddie whom the army faces is the headless monster Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 6), who originally battled the supreme god Shangdi for control of the universe and was beheaded after his defeat. Perhaps he or a figure like him follows in Kumarbi’s footsteps and beds a stone, in this case the rock on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits, in an effort to create a powerful son to finish what he started. Then, he works in the shadows, influencing the direction of Monkey’s life, leading to his famous rebellion against heaven. Wukong’s defeat of the seventy-two major gods in the heavenly army  would mirror Ullikummi routing the seventy gods led by Astabi. Likewise, the Jade Emperor’s call to the Buddha, leading to Monkey’s defeat, mirrors Tesub’s plea to Ea and the eventual downfall of the stone monster. Thoughts?
I’ve posted a piece about a folk Taoist white ape god. His story overlaps with Sun Wukong just like the spiritual parents I presented above.
Story Idea #3
Another idea could predate Monkey’s stone birth and instead focus on a past life as a heavenly being. It would draw from three source: First, the backstory of the Tang Monk, Tripitaka. Those who have read JTTW will know that his past life, the bodhisattva Master Golden Cicada (Jin chan zi, 金蟬子), is exiled from paradise for ten pious lifetimes for falling asleep during the Buddha’s lecture.
Just like his master, Sun Wukong is formerly a bodhisattva in paradise, albeit one from an earlier generation than Master Golden Cicada since Monkey is born centuries prior to Tripitaka. A great name for this figure would be the “Bodhisattva Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu pusa, 鋼筋鐵骨菩薩). This plays on a similar title given to Sun’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), by Tang Emperor Taizong in the 13th-century oral version of JTTW. 
Second, the embellished life story of Song-era General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142). The Complete Vernacular Biography of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quanzhuan, 說岳全傳, c. 17th-century; hereafter The Biography of Yue Fei) actually draws inspiration from the 1592 JTTW by portraying the general as a reincarnation of a bird monster-turned-Dharma protector from chapters 74 to 77. Originally called the “Peng Bird of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鵬) in JTTW, the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王) is exiled from paradise in chapter one of The Biography of Yue Fei for killing a stellar bat-spirit who farted during the Tathagata’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. 
Just like the Great Peng bird, the Bodhisattva Steel Muscles and Iron Bones kills a spirit for seemingly offending the Buddha.  I imagine the Enlightened One would admonish him by saying something like, “You are so sure of your strength, so proud of your physical gifts. And yet you don’t know how to defend the Dharma with it!” He then exiles the bodhisattva to live out ten lifetimes (à la Master Golden Cicada) where he’s a figure of great strength who is continually bested and humiliated and forced by circumstances to protect something weaker than him.
And third, the Buddha’s Jataka tales. The Tathagata has many birth stories where he is both humans and animals who embody an important lesson (Cowell, 1895). In fact, one tale depicts him as a Monkey King!
The bodhisattva is reborn in the lower three paths of reincarnation, and just like the Buddha, he has several past lives as animals. He works his way up the cosmic hierarchy by performing good deeds, such as a past life where he’s a man-eating tiger who comes to protect a small child. He attains the human-like form of a monkey in his final incarnation, leading to the events of JTTW.
I like this option a lot because this would make both Monkey and Tripitaka former bodhisattvas who undergo prolonged trials that refine their spirits over many lifetimes. This would ultimately explain why both of them attain Buddhahood at the end of their respective character arcs, our hero becoming the “Buddha Victorious in Strife” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) and the Tang Monk “Buddha of Candana Merit” (Zhantan gongde fo, 旃檀功德佛) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381). I also like it because Sun Wukong’s past life references the Tibetan monkey bodhisattva Hilumandju, who is an avatar of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and a possible Buddhist syncretic version of the Hindu monkey god Hanumanji. What’s interesting about this legendary figure is that he mates with a rock ogress (see the 08-02-19 update here), which reminds one of Sun’s stone birth.
1) Koss (1981) writes: “Adding up the number of gods listed here [see Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 169] from the Twenty-Eight Constellations through the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the number arrived at is seventy-three, if 東西星斗 [dongxi xingdou, the “Stars of East and West”] is counted as two, which Yu does in his translation, or seventy two, if the latter is taken as one, which is another possible interpretation” (p. 84).
2) This is how old the ledger of life and death lists Monkey as in chapter 3: “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).
3) In chapter 17, Tang Taizong names him the “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).
4) Chapter one of The Complete Vernacular Biography of Yue Fei reads:
Let’s talk about the Buddha Tathagata at the Great Thunderclap Monastery in the Western Paradise. One day, he sat on a nine-level lotus throne, and the Four Great Bodhisattvas, the Eight Great Vajra Warriors, the five hundred Arhats, the three thousand Heavenly Kings, nuns and monks, male and female attendants, all of the heavenly sages who protect the Dharma, gathered to listen to his lecture on the Lotus Sutra. His words were like flowers and precious jewels raining from the heavens. But, at that time, a star-spirit, the Maiden Earth Bat, who had been listening to the lecture from beneath the lotus throne, couldn’t bear it any longer and unexpectedly let out a stinky fart.
The Buddha was a great, merciful lord, so he didn’t mind even the slightest bit. But don’t sympathize with the Dharma protector above his head, the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination,” whose eyes shone with golden light and whose back was a scene of auspiciousness. He became angry when he saw the nasty, filthy Maiden Earth Bat, and so he unfurled both his wings and dropped down to kill the spirit by pecking her on the head. The light-point of her soul shot out of the Great Thunderclap Monastery and went to the Lands of the East (China) in the world below to find a mother and reincarnate. She was reborn as a daughter of the Wang clan. She would later marry the Song Prime minister Qin Hui (1091-1155) and come to cruelly kill the righteous (i.e. Yue Fei) as a means to get revenge against today’s enemy. We will talk about this later.
Let’s return to the Buddha, who saw what happened with his all-seeing eyes and exclaimed, “Good! Good! It turns out that this is an episode of karma (cause and effect).” Then he called the Great Peng bird to come closer and shouted, “You evil creature! You already took refuge in my teachings. How can you not follow the five precepts by daring to commit such a horrible crime? I don’t need you here; you will descend to the mortal world to pay off your (karmic) debt and wait until you have fulfilled your work. Once that is completed, only then will I allow you to return to the mountain to achieve the right fruit (Buddhist merit).” The Great Peng complied with the decree, flying out of the Great Thunderclap Monastery directly to the Lands of the East to be reincarnated. We will stop here.
5) A murderous bodhisattva may seem weird, but Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩; lit: “Bodhisattva Holding the Vajra Weapon”), a yaksha-turned-wrathful Dharma protector is considered a bodhisattva (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955).
Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (Vols. 1-5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/search?query=The+Ja%CC%84taka%2C+or%2C+Stories+of+the+Buddha%27s+former+births.
Geissmann, T. (2008). Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context. Gibbon Journal, 4, 1-38. Received from http://www.gibbonconservation.org/07_publications/journal/gibbon_journal_4.pdf
Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (Vols. 1-2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)
Laozi, & Wilson, W. S. (2012). Tao Te Ching: An All-New Translation. Boston & London: Shambhala
Lougheed, K. (2012, August 23). Helium reveals gibbon’s soprano skill. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from https://www.nature.com/news/helium-reveals-gibbon-s-soprano-skill-1.11257
Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.
Wile, D. (1992). Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women’s Solo Meditation Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Yang, L., An, D., & Turner, J. A. (2011). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.