Last updated: 04-02-2021
From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen here, here, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
I was recently contacted by someone writing a Journey to the West fanfiction and asked when the Monkey King was born from stone. I have therefore decided to write an entry for those interested in the subject. I will start at the end of the novel and work my way backwards. The years presented are guesstimates and should not be taken as wholly accurate considering that the novel does not follow a strict historical timeline.
I should point out that this has nothing to do with his religious birthday, which is variously celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the twenty-third (Fuzhou) or twenty-fifth day (Putian) of the second lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), and the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month (Taiwan) (see here).
I. Chapter 100
Upon the pilgrims’ return to China from India, Tang Emperor Taizong tells Tripitaka: “We have caused you the trouble of taking a long journey. This is now the twenty-seventh year of the Zhenguan period!” (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, p. 374). It should be noted that this era historically lasted from 627 to 650 CE (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). So the novel dates their return to 654 CE, adding four fictional years to the reign period.
The historical Xuanzang returned in 645 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).
II. Chapter 13/14
In chapter fourteen, Tripitaka releases Sun Wukong from under the Mountain of Two Frontiers (a.k.a. Five Elements Mountain) a short time after leaving the confines of the Chinese empire. But prior to taking Monkey as a disciple, he is briefly guarded by the hunter Liu Boqin on his trek westward. Liu tells Tripitaka the history of the area during their journey across the mountain: “A few years ago, I heard from my elders that during the time when Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Han emperor, this mountain fell from Heaven with a divine monkey clamped beneath it” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 306).  The former Han official Wang Mang historically ruled from 9 BCE–23 CE (Bielenstein, 1986). I will return to this point below.
Chapter thirteen states Tripitaka leaves from Chang’an “on the third day before the fifteenth of the ninth month in the thirteenth year of the period Zhenguan” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 293). This dates his departure to the year 640 CE.
The historical Xuanzang left China in 627 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).
III. Chapter 7/8
In the beginning of chapter eight, the Buddha says: “We do not know how much time has passed here since I subdued the wily monkey and pacified Heaven, but I suppose at least half a millennium has gone by in the worldly realm…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 203). But as noted above, Wukong is imprisoned during the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9 BCE–23 CE). Therefore, if he is discovered in 640 CE, this means Monkey’s imprisonment lasts anywhere from 617 to 649 years and not 500 as is commonly thought.
Prior to his wager with the Buddha in chapter seven, Wukong is placed into Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. The novel reads: “Truly time passed swiftly, and the forty-ninth day arrived imperceptibly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative previously revealed that “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years, starting between 40–26 BCE.
IV. Chapter 5
Following Monkey’s initial rebellion and being granted the empty title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, he is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves. He later flees back to earth after eating the life-prolonging fruits and wreaking havoc on the Queen Mother’s peach banquet. Upon his return, his commanders ask him: “The Great Sage has been living for over a century in Heaven. May we ask what appointment he actually received?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 166) (emphasis mine).  This dates his ascension to heaven somewhere below the range of 140–126 BCE (150–136 BCE?). I Obviously can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.
V. Chapter 3/4
After Wukong bullies the Eastern Dragon King and the Judges of Hell, Heaven appoints him the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his unruly adventures in check. But upon learning that his position is the lowest in heaven, he returns home in rebellion. His children ask, “Having gone to the region above for more than ten years, you must be returning in success and glory” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150) (emphasis mine).  This dates his first ascension somewhere below the range 150–136 BCE (160–146 BCE?). Again, I can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.
During his time in Hell, Monkey calls for the ledger containing his information. Under a heading marked “Soul 1350”, Wukong reads, “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).  If we use 160–146 BCE as a conservative estimate for his first ascension, then this dates his birth to somewhere between 502–488 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). I think 500 BCE is a nice round number.
This means that Sun Wukong is roughly 1,100-years-old when he attains Buddhahood at the end of the novel.
The novel suggests a two hour window for the time of Wukong’s birth. This takes place in chapter 61 when Monkey is preparing to battle the Bull Demon King over the palm-leaf fan. Our hero recites an emboldening poem, to which Zhu Bajie replies:
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Go! Go! Go!
Who cares if the Bull King says yes or no!
Wood’s born at Boar,
the hog’s its proper mate,
Who’ll lead back the Bull to return to earth.
Monkey is the metal born under shen [申]:
Peaceful and docile, how harmonious!
Use the palm-leaf
As water’s sign.
When flames are extinct, Completion’s attained.
In hard work we persist both night and day
And rush, merit done, to Ullambana Feast (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 154). (emphasis mine)
The monkey is one of twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, each corresponding to an earthly branch, an elemental phase, and a time period. The monkey is born under the shen (申) branch, which is associated with metal and the hours 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM.
As I explain in this article, Wukong learns the 72 transformations in order to escape a trio of heaven-sent punishments scheduled to kill him for defying his fate and achieving immortality. The calamities of thunder, fire, and wind respectively come every 500 years (after the initial attainment of eternal life) to kill Daoist cultivators. Monkey becomes an immortal around his 342nd year when his soul is taken to Hell. He is immortal for over 160 years  at the time he’s imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. This means his 500th year of immortality, the year that the calamity of thunder would be scheduled to strike him, takes place during his imprisonment under the celestial mountain. But this is never described in the story. I assume this is just one of many inconsistencies born from oral storytelling. Although, one could argue that, within the fictional universe, the thunder calamity was voided since Wukong was undergoing punishment at the behest of the Buddha.
1) I am indebted to Irwen Wong for bringing this passage to my attention.
2) Wukong, however, questions this estimate, saying: “I recall that it’s been but half a year…How can you talk of a century?’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 167). But, earlier in the novel, a wise member of Monkey’s tribe points out that one’s view of time is skewed while inhabiting the celestial realm: “You are not aware of time and seasons when you are in Heaven” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). Add to this the established fact that one heavenly day equals one solar year. Therefore, the Great Sage’s recollection of the passage of time is unreliable.
3) Monkey also questions this estimate: “I have been away for only half a month…How can it be more than ten years” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). But, again, his recollections are not reliable. See note #2.
4) These include three years as Subodhi’s student (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 121), seven as a junior monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117), and “more than ten years” searching the world for a master (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).
5) As previously mentioned, Wukong serves in heaven twice: first “for more than ten years” and second “for over a century” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 166). Then he is punished to 49 heavenly days/49 solar years in Laozi’s furnace (see above).
Bielenstein, H. (1986). Wang Mang, the Restoration of the Han Dynasty, and Later Han. In D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Ed.). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220 (pp. 223-290). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.
Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.
Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.
Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Zhang, Q. (2015). An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Belgium: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
One thought on “When was the Monkey King Born?”
I came across this blog post accidentally and it was a nice read! I once did my own guesswork as to what historical year the Monkey King was born and came up with a similar period. According to my notes (which I haven’t verified since writing them years ago), I worked backwards from when Xuanzang began his journey. Historically, that was the year 629 CE while Chapter 13 of the Anthony C. Yu translation suggests it’s Sept. 12, 639 CE. Monkey was trapped for 500 years, so that places his imprisonment at around ~129/139 CE. Before that, he was trapped for 49 days in the Eight Trigrams Furnace (Ch. 7) and since a year in heaven is as long as a year on Earth, that would put it back to ~80/90 CE. Chapter 5 says he spent 6 months in heaven, so I roughly translated that to 180 years, taking us back to ~90/100 BCE. Chapter 4 says he spent a fortnight (14 days) in heaven, taking us to ~104/114 BCE. I have a gap in my notes here but I suspect I factored in his age, which was mentioned when he was in the underworld. My final guess was that he was born ~456/466 BCE. Nice to know someone else came up with something similar!