Last updated: 04-26-21
Sun Wukong appears in a body of Buddhist folklore passed on by the Miao ethnic group of Sichuan, also known as the “River Miao” (Chuan Miao, 川苗) or “Old Miao” (Miao: Hmong Bo) (fig. 1). The particular tale is quite different from the popular narrative appearing in Journey to the West (1592). For example, the unnamed monkey tends to a dragon king’s injury and later escorts a Tang dynasty emperor to India.
A Monkey Went Fishing, or Securing Buddhist Sacred Books (97)
The monkey changed into a fisherman and daily went fishing (with a line and hook). He hooked the dragon’s upper lip. When he pulled, the fishhook broke off in the dragon’s upper lip. The dragon’s lip therefore pained him every day. Then every day the dragon king called on his soldiers to go and get a doctor and heal it, but they could not find a doctor.
The monkey daily went to the sand bank to look for his fishhook. One day when he was looking for it two of the dragon king’s soldiers came and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for medicine.” The two soldiers then said, “Old scholar, our old man’s upper lip pains him and he sent us to help him find a doctor. Can you heal him?” The monkey thought, “Probably he has been caught by my fishhook.” He then said, “I can heal it, but I must first look at the injury, then I will give the medicine.” Then the two soldiers invited him to come.
He said, “How can I go since there is so much water?” He had to go down into the water of the stream. The two men then said, “You may get under our fins and close your eyes, and do not open your eyes until we call you.” The monkey wanted to see the dragon, so he closed his two eyes. The two soldiers held him under their fins, and in a short time one of them called him, and he opened his eyes and looked.
When he opened his eyes he had already entered a fine palace. In a little while he heard the soldiers of the dragon king from both sides calling to the dragon king to come and have his wound looked at.
The monkey heard the inside gate resound, “Gu, ga.” He then saw the hands of a big man carrying the dragon king so that he could sit in the chair. Then they requested him to look at the wound. The monkey kowtowed just once to the dragon king and then looked. Then he took a pair of chop sticks and pushed aside the dragon king’s lips, and saw that the fishhook was hooked in the dragon king’s upper lip. Then he took the chopsticks and loosened the fishhook a little. He then asked the dragon king, “Is it any better?” The dragon king answered, “It is a little better.” Then the monkey sat down and rested a little. The dragon king said, “I am afraid that I will die from this illness.”
The monkey said, “You will not die from this sickness. You will certainly recover.” The dragon said, “If you are willing to heal me, I will give you whatever you want.” The monkey then used the chopsticks to push open the lips. Then he seized the fishhook with his chopsticks and with one jerk pulled out the fish book. The lip of the dragon king hurt no longer.
Then the dragon king called to his daughters to entertain the monkey fisherman. The monkey remained there several days. The dragon king was afraid that he [the monkey] was in a hurry and told his soldiers to give him some gold and silver. The monkey said, “I do not want gold and silver. I only want you to permit me to stay here a few days longer.” When the soldiers had reported this to the dragon king, he was glad to have him remain longer. He stayed several months.
One day he was visiting with the women in the palace. The monkey saw a yellow golden club. He then picked it up to play with. He struck with the golden club outside, and the club flew with him to the sea. Then he knew that this club was an ancient golden club. The dragon king did not pursue him.
The monkey lived until the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty king wanted to go and get sacred books. But the king could not go himself because the demons and spooks were very numerous along the road. The Tang emperor then sent a messenger to call the monkey to him. The monkey said, “I cannot go. If anybody wants me to go, he must change likenesses with me, and then I will go.”
The Tang emperor himself returned, and for three years sought for a method. One day he came and said to the monkey, “Now I am able to change.” The monkey then requested the Tang emperor to change. The Tang emperor then changed into a big mountain, and the monkey went into the mountain. Then he was unable to come out again. The Tang emperor then said, “Now will you go with me?” The monkey then promised to go with him. Then the Tang emperor lifted aside the written character that had imprisoned him, and then the monkey came out. The monkey then went with the Tang emperor to the western horizon and brought back the sacred books. 
79) The Ch’uan Miao said that this is a story about a monkey of some repute, but they did not know his name. It is evidently the monkey god Sen Hou Tzu [Sun houzi, “the monkey Sun”] 孫猴子 or Sen Wu K’ung [Sun Wukong] 孫悟空 (Graham, 1954, p. 211).
I. Story influences
I suggest the first three-quarters of the Miao tale draws on the Asian variant of a widely known story cycle in which a fisherman is rewarded for releasing a magic fish (B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful, n.d.). This version sees the fisherman release a carp to later discover it was actually the transformed son of a dragon king. He is then rewarded with a magic treasure for his kindness.  This cycle is partially played out in another Miao legend in which a fisherman catches a fish, who turns out to be the daughter of the dragon king Ryuang Lan, and later marries her in human form (Graham, 1954, pp. 226-227). In our story, the monkey-turned-fisherman catches the dragon king and then frees him of the hook. He is subsequently rewarded with a prolonged stay in the dragon kingdom and thereafter retrieves the golden club, which is itself a magic treasure.
Fig. 1 – A Miao couple (larger version). She is wearing traditional dress, while he wears that of the Chinese. From Graham, 1954, p. 125. Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong meets the dragon king Ao Guang (larger version). A screenshot from the classic Chinese animation Uproar in Heaven (1965).
Elements of the first three-quarters and all of the last quarter clearly borrow from Journey to the West. The monkey is presented as a shape-shifting immortal, for he changes into a fisherman and lives until the Tang dynasty. His aversion to water in the tale is a common trope throughout the novel, such as when Sun Wukong uses water-propelling magic or relies on others to fight water-based monsters.  The golden club is the Monkey King’s “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel retrieved from the undersea dragon kingdom. This in turn identifies the dragon king as Ao Guang, the ruler of the Eastern Sea (fig. 2). The unnamed “Tang dynasty emperor”, Tang Taizong in Journey to the West, replaces the monk Tripitaka originally sent to retrieve holy scriptures. The monkey’s imprisonment inside the emperor-turned-mountain is based on Sun’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain in the novel, complete with a written amulet weighing the landmass down.
The monarch’s transformation into a mountain is particularly interesting to me, for I don’t recall ever reading any Asian folklore featuring such an event. I know of at least one instance of a hero in ancient European folklore being changed into a mountain as punishment (see fig. 5 in my article here). However, our tale presents the ruler’s transformation as a willing metamorphosis. The Miao consider mountains to be living beings,  having “heads, feet, hands, eyes, ears, hearts, breasts, veins, and arteries” (Graham, 1954, p. 9). Therefore, the mountain is a macrocosm of the human body, making the transformation one of degree and not kind. But this portion of the narrative remains a mystery to me as the original intended outcome was “switch[ing] likenesses.” I take this to mean that the monkey would look like the emperor and visa versa. Does this imply the primate was keen on usurping the throne and the monarch then used his transformation as a deterrent?
II. Monkey progenitors
The Monkey King’s inclusion in Miao folklore should come as no surprise since monkeys play an important role in their mythology. They believe humans are descended from a pair of monkeys who broke off their tails by accident and eventually evolved human features (Graham, 1954, p. 204). As explained in this article, having a monkey ancestor is a common belief among the various ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China. Sun Wukong also appears in the legends of the neighboring (and related) Qiang people of Sichuan.
Author David Leffman was kind enough to ask his Miao friend of southeast Guizhou about this story. This is their response:
I feel personally that this story is maybe created recently by someone who want to find a reason to give better explanation of her embroidery. In our folk story we have monkey which is smart, used to play prank joke with human being Jiangyang. And Miao don’t have chronology, not even annals, never knew anything about Tang Dynasty which should be aliens for them. And in the history Miao lived away from Han Chinese, almost no contact except those who were called Shu Miao, the cooked ones in west Hunnan and some in east Guizhou, like Sheng Chongwen, the famous writer who grew up in Fenghuang ancient town. Then those Shu Miao may get some influence and confuse those Han Chinese culture as their own.
So it’s possible that the above story is a modern legend influenced by Chinese culture.
1) One version appears in the Complete Tale of Guanyin of the Southern Seas (Nanhai Guanyin quanzhuan, 南海觀音全傳), a 16th-century pious novelette detailing Guanyin’s former life as the Princess Miaoshan. After achieving enlightenment, Miaoshan/Guanyin looks to take on disciples. One is a dragon princess (longnu, 龍女) who bestows the Bodhisattva with a magic jewel for saving her brother, a dragon prince who had been caught by a fisherman while transformed into a carp (Idema, 2008, p. 31).
2) The water-propelling magic is first displayed in chapter three when Sun seeks a magic weapon from the underwater dragon kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). An example of Monkey relying on others to fight a water-based monster happens in chapter 22 when he asks Zhu Bajie to battle Sha Wujing (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 423).
3) According to Graham (1954), “The Ch’uan Miao regard all things as alive and sentient. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, thunder, the echo, the rainbow, homes, fields, plains, recompense or karma, beds, marriage, swords, the harvest, the year…the ceremonial drum, and even the sound of the ceremonial drum are considered to be living things” (p. 9).
B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful (n.d.). S. Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature. Retrieved from http://www.ruthenia.ru/folklore/thompson/index.htm.
Graham, D. C. (1954). Songs and stories of the Chʻuan Miao. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.39000005872432;view=1up;seq=7
Idema, W. L. (2008). Personal salvation and filial piety: Two precious scroll narratives of Guanyin and her acolytes. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Vol. 1. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.
3 thoughts on “Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore”
I just finished watching all 38 episodes of Mazu on Amazon Prime. I was delighted to see so many references to Sun Wukong being a HUGE fan. I watched the 1986 version plus the 2011 version and of course the movie with Donnie Yen and then the ones with William Feng (my favorite actor). Your post is just fascinating. Thank you SOOO much for this blog. I love the Tang Dynasty. Visited Xian in 1987. Can’t imagine what China is like now. Was a DramaFever addict but now that they have vanished I have to find Chinese dramas on Hulu or Amazon or Netflix. Will be reading all of your work from now on. Posted links to Facebook as well. Thank you!
Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m also a big fan of the 1986 TV series.
very interesting！thank u for ur article！