Archive #17 – Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi (1985)

Campany (1985) discusses methods by which demons of Journey to the West move up and down the Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy. He begins by laying out the formulaic pattern of the episodes in which they appear: 1) a description of the demon’s mountain or aquatic home in poetic verse; 2) the initial encounter during which Tripitaka is tricked by the demon’s magic disguise; 3) the initial battle(s) between the disciples and the demon involving contests of magic and weapons, often described in poetic verse; 4) the battles end in a stalemate or defeat, and in the case of the latter the disciples are held captive in the demon’s stronghold; 5) Sun Wukong searches heaven and earth for the master of the demon, for the evil is usually a renegade celestial animal or protégé; 6) the demon is subdued by their master; and 7) the demon is either reintegrated or added to the cosmic order. An example of the former is the moon goddess’ jade hare (ch. 95) being taken back to heaven (fig. 1). An example of the latter is Red Boy (ch. 40-43) becoming a disciple of Guanyin.

There are two types of powerful demons who are subjugated by their master or an appropriate agent (e.g. a rooster god defeating a centipede demon). The first acquires magic powers via Daoist cultivation and, lacking celestial rank, causes havoc (think of Monkey as a young immortal). It is only through their subjugation and addition to the cosmic order that they achieve higher spiritual status. Apart from Red Boy, another example is the Black Bear spirit (ch. 16-17), who is subdued by Guanyin and installed as the guardian of her magic island. The second, being the most common, is one who previously held heavenly rank and was banished to earth. This exile is the result of breaking a rule, the need to burn off negative Buddhist karma, or because of a deficiency in their Daoist cultivation, requiring that they work their way back up the spiritual hierarchy. All five of the pilgrims fit into this category in one way or another.

Two types of demons are not subjugated by a heavenly master. The first is a lessor animal spirit who acts as a servant or soldier for a demon king. They attach themselves to this “upwardly mobile” demon because their master may aid in their own ascension via secrets of cultivation or the gift of longevity-bestowing food. Prime examples are all the (simian and non-simian) animal spirits who attach themselves to Sun Wukong after he establishes himself as a monster king. Such animal spirits are usually slaughtered after their master is defeated. The second are demons who peacefully cultivate themselves without endangering others. A prime example is the White Turtle of the Heaven-Reaching River (ch. 49 and 99) who cultivates human speech but still requires the intervention of the Buddha to evolve to human form.

Campany (1985) moves onto the hierarchy itself, noting how the level of a being’s attainment in spiritual cultivation does not affect their actual rank. This is because Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are viewed differently in the novel. Demons who cause no harm during their cultivation are left alone, while violent offenders are subjugated and added to the hierarchy. And even if an animal spirit has Daoist powers, they are still considered inferior to humans, for they are born into a lower level of the six Buddhist paths of reincarnation. These spirits, however, can move up the hierarchy based on the amount of Buddhist merit, or “right fruit” (zhengguo, 正果), that they acquire through good deeds. Additionally, the Buddha and Guanyin are generally portrayed as higher in rank than Daoist gods, even the Jade Emperor, due to their “Dharma Power” (fali, 法力). Despite this, Sun Wukong is always quick to point out when a high-ranking god, Buddhist or Daoist, has violated Confucian norms. Therefore, the hierarchy presented in the novel follows the Ming-era syncretic emphasis on mental cultivation (xiu xin, 修心).

Fig. 1 – Yoshitoshi, Jade Rabbit: Sun Wukong, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon, 1889 (larger version). From the Ronin Gallery.

The novel categorizes all beings as part of heaven, earth, or hell, each representing a realm within the hierarchy. Yet, it presents four ways to move between them: one, temporarily taking the form of a higher-ranking figure (human, immortal, deity, etc.) via magical transformation (hua, 化); two, reincarnating into a higher path (e.g. animal to human); three, attaining immortality via Daoist cultivation (or becoming human and then attaining immortality in the case of animal spirits); and four, being subjugated and added to the cosmic order.

The demons of Journey to the West are paradoxical on two counts: one, such beings are realistic, with detailed descriptions of their appearance, speech, and feelings, and yet they are often reduced to mere illusions brought forth by the unfocused or disquieted mind (Campany (1985) waits to explain this until the end); and two, they are evil from a Western perspective, but not wholly evil from an Eastern perspective. Their ambiguous nature is revealed by the Chinese hanzi used to describe them (e.g. yaojing 妖精; yaoguai, 妖怪), suggesting these beings are “undeveloped” or “bogus” and have yet to complete their cultivation. Additionally, the novel connects the demons and pilgrims with five elemental and yin-yang theory, each with its own creative/destructive or magnetic/repelling forces, suggesting a mutual relationship. This relationship is explained below.

Campany (1985) emphasizes that, while Tripitaka’s disciples are themselves former demons, what separates them from the others is “returning to the right path” (gui zheng, 歸正), or converting to Buddhism. As Daoists, they formerly cultivated the self, but as Buddhists they subsume the self to a larger whole by becoming Tripitaka’s disciples, thereby submitting to Buddhist law and cultivating Buddhist merit through their actions. This differs from demons who attempt to subsume the universe into themselves. They follow heretical practices (waidao, 外道) in pursuit of their continued self-cultivation, many seeking a “short cut” by attempting to eat Tripitaka. They don’t realize that accepting the Buddhist concept of “no self” would free them of their attachment to Daoist cultivation and that the accumulation of Buddhist merit would aid in their ascension through the cosmic hierarchy.

Powerful demons like Monkey who consider themselves greater than the universe would continue down the wrong path without the intervention of their master (or an appropriate agent) intervening to reintegrate or add them to the cosmic order. As Campany (1985) explains: “Submission of self is true cultivation of self” (emphasis in original) (p. 114). Therefore, demons rely on the pilgrims to redirect their cultivation to the right path of subsuming the self to a larger whole. An example is Lady Raksasi at the end of her story cycle.

Likewise, the pilgrims rely on the demons for several reasons: one, they help the pilgrims build Buddhist merit; two, via the concept of “non-duality“, the pilgrims learn there is no difference between themselves and the demons; and three, as mental obstacles, the demons help refine the pilgrim’s spiritual cultivation over the journey. This last point is particularly important as the illusionary nature of demons helps the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, understand that all reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “aware of emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the quest.

Campany (1985) ends the paper by explaining the first paradox:

We now see that the juxtaposition of realistic descriptions of demons and reductions of them to miasma of the mind serves as a fascinating and entertaining contrapuntal expression of the central theme of the novel, the complementary relation and ultimate identity between illusion and enlightenment. Why do demons almost always appear according to the paradigm sketched in the first part of this paper? Why this repetition, this sameness, if not to underscore the miasmic quality of the demons even as narrative details convince us of their palpable sensory reality? Why do demons put up so stubborn a resistance, if not to impress upon us the arduousness of right cultivation? The consummate artistry with which the author bodies forth in his tale the relation between illusion and reality is itself a vehicle for the perception of this relation (Campany, 1985, p. 115).

Paper link


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Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

Sun Wukong’s Curlicue Style Headband

My previous article on the origin of Sun Wukong’s golden fillet describes how various forms of media portray him wearing three different styles: 1) a band with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows; 2) a band adorned with an upturned crescent moon shape in the center; and 3) a simple band devoid of decoration (fig. 1). Here, I want to speculate on the origin of the first style, what I call the “curlicue headband”.

Fig. 1 – (Left) Style 1 – From the comedy A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (1995). (Center) Style 2 – From the famous 1986 TV show. (Right) Style 3 – From the 2011 TV show (larger version).

I. The Kaiyuan Temple carving

The oldest example of Sun Wukong wearing the curlicue style headband that I am aware of is a nearly life size stone carving from the Western pagoda of Kaiyuan Temple erected in 1237 CE. He is depicted as a muscular, monkey-headed warrior wearing a circlet, earrings, bracelets, a rosary, arm bangles, and anklets (all prescribed ritual items), as well as a monk’s robe and sandals. He wields a broadsword in one hand, while the other thumbs the rosary at his chest. At his waist hangs a calabash gourd and a sutra scroll (fig. 2). Behind his left shoulder can be seen Xuanzang (a.k.a. Tripitaka) ascending to heaven on a cloud, having won a place in paradise thanks to the protection of our hero. In short, Wukong is portrayed as a guardian deity. The significance of this will become clear below.

The carving’s headband has a gentle double curlicue topped with a wedge shape (fig. 3). This design appears in Daoist art from the same period.

Fig. 2 – The Kaiyuan Temple pagoda carving (1237) (larger version). Fig. 3 – Detail of the headband (larger version).

II. Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi

The Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi, (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶) is a collection of 50 ink drawings of the Daoist pantheon attributed to the noted 8th-century artist Wu Daozi but likely produced during the 13th-century. It features many protector/wrathful deities wearing body adornments with this curlicue pattern (with or without the added wedge). There are too many examples to post, so I will choose just three (Fig. 4⁠–⁠9). Please note that, with the exception of the headband and rosary, these figures are wearing the same esoteric ritual items as Monkey (i.e. earrings, bracelets, arm bangles, and anklets).

This shows a clear connection between body adornments with the curlicue pattern and guardian deities.

Fig. 4 – The esoteric protector deity Marshal of Heavenly Reeds, a.k.a. Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation (larger version). Fig. 5 – Detail of the anklets on his feet (larger version). Note that Heavenly Reed’s necklace also features the curlicue pattern. Fig. 6 – A demonic guardian detaining a soul undergoing judgement in hell (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the bangles on his arms (larger version). Fig. 8 – One of Lord Erlang‘s demonic soldiers helping to clear animal spirits (in this case a turtle) from a mountain river (larger version). Fig. 9 – Detail of his ornate headband with spherical elements, giving it a floral quality (larger version). The images have been enhanced slightly for clarity.

III. Possible origin of the pattern

The Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi shows several generals, officials, and guardians wearing headgear with lingzhi mushrooms (靈芝) (fig. 10⁠–⁠13), a real world fungi shaped like a rounded heart with a lacquered reddish-brown appearance (fig. 14). Also known as ruyi (如意, “as-you-wish”),—yes, the same as Wukong’s staff—the mushroom is associated with immortality and magic wish fulfillment in Buddho-Daoist culture. The ruyi pattern (ruyi wen, 如意紋) is a common motif in Chinese art, lining vases, topping S-shaped scepters, appearing as flourishes on traditional style rooftops, repeating endlessly on extravagant silken textiles, etc. (fig. 15⁠–⁠17). It has a familiar double curlicue swirl that reminds one of Monkey’s headband (fig. 18).

Given the fungi’s high standing in religious culture, I could see the lingzhi/ruyi‘s curlicue pattern being associated with the ritual garb of guardian deities since they are the front line of defense against evil influences.

Fig. 10 – A sword bearer (larger version). Fig. 11 – Lord Erlang overseeing his demonic soldiers clearing the mountain and river of animal spirits (larger version). Fig. 12 – Detail of his helmet (larger version). Fig. 13 – One of Erlang’s soldiers driving out animal spirits with fire (larger version). Fig. 14 – A lingzhi mushroom (larger version). Fig. 15 – The Bodhisattva Guanyin holding a ruyi scepter (larger version). Fig. 16 – A marvelous Qianlong-era celadon glaze vase with a ruyi shape (larger version). Note the pattern repeating on the lid and base. Image found here. Fig. 17 – The Ruyi Gate in the Forbidden City. Note the Ruyi elements on the roof (larger version here). Fig. 18 – A comparison of a ruyi pattern and Sun Wukong’s golden headband (larger version).

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Updated: 08/11/20

Elliott (1955/1990) describes a curious glass bottle used in the worship of Sun Wukong in Singapore. Filled with “twelve o’clock water” and topped with a consecrated bulbous glass stem, it is said to make a pinging noise to signal the arrival of the monkey god in a home or temple:

There are, also, sometimes other pieces of apparatus, apart from images, which devotees like to keep in their own homes. An outstanding example is an article of equipment almost exclusively associated with the ‘Great Saint’ [大聖] which goes by the onomatopoeic name of ‘ping-pong’. It consists of an ordinary bottle filled with ‘twelve o’clock water’, water drawn from a tap or well at midday. Into the neck is fitted a funnel-like piece of glass-ware open at the lower end of the funnel, which dips into the water but completely closes the top [fig. 1 and 2]. Everyday at noon, and sometimes at other hours as well, this apparatus gives off a sudden ‘pinging’ sound, as if bubbles were rising and forcing up the funnel in the bottle’s neck. When this occurs, the shen [神, god] is supposed to be revealing his presence in the temple or the home, and an immediate act of worship must be carried out by the persons there. These ‘ping-pong’ are invariably found in temples associated with the ‘Great Saint’. Devotees will purchase their own funnels and bring them to the temple for the dang-ki [童乩, spirit-medium] to consecrate them with a lick of his blood (p. 58).

Fig. 1 – The ping-pong bottle, a.k.a. “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶), fitted with the bulbous stem, which is closed at the top and open at the bottom (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of the stem (larger version). Images found on google.

The device was also used in Hong Kong according to one personal account shared with me:

I believe the apparatus was used not just in Singapore. My mom told me that as a kid in HK in the 1940s/50s, her aunt also had something similar on the altar where she worshipped the [Great] Saint. And when the apparatus made a noise which signified his arrival, they would light up a joss stick.

I don’t know when the bottle was first associated with Sun Wukong, but the above information points to its active use in Asia as far back as the 1950s. It’s my understanding that the bottle is a rarity in modern practice, suggesting it flourished prior to mid-century.

Why the bottle was associated with the Great Sage is also a mystery to me. But the significance of twelve o’clock water may provide some clues. Astrological theory associates noon with wu (午), the seventh of twelve earthly branches, which is in turn identified with horses, the heart, fire yang, the summer solstice, and the direction south (Wu & Taylor, 2014, pp. 133-134). Readers may remember that Sun Wukong is appointed the keeper of the heavenly horses (bimawen, 弼馬溫) in chapter four of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149). Additionally, Chinese philosophy considers the heart to be the seat of the mind (xin, 心; alternatively translated “heart-mind”). This is important as Sun is called the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿; alternatively translated “Mind Ape”), which is a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted, transient thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). 

(Before I continue, I must warn that using the 16th-century novel as a source for modern folk religion surely overlooks beliefs that I am not aware of. The above info should therefore be considered purely speculative.)

A naturalistic explanation for the pinging noise is air escaping from the bottle due to changes in atmospheric pressure. However, I’d like to speculate on a possible esoteric reason. As mentioned above, noon is identified with fire yang, which is considered the height of yang power. In fact, the hours before wu and after zi (子, midnight) are considered the best time to practice Daoist exlixir cultivation. [1] And since heaven is the embodiment of yang, [2] it’s possible worshipers believe water collected at noon is infused with strong yang energy, thereby giving it the ability to detect the presence of celestial deities like the Great Sage.

Update: 08/11/20

J.D. Martinsen contacted me and noted that “drawing noon water” (da wushi shui, 打午時水) is a common practice in coastal China during the Dragon Boat Festival. The water is apparently known for its demonifugic and medicinal properties. In fact, this custom is even practiced in Taiwan where there is a common saying: “A sip of noon water is better than three years of herbal medicine” (wushi shui yin yi zui, jiao hao buyao chi san nian, 午時水飲一嘴,較好補藥吃三年) (Chen, 2011, p. 210). Therefore, this association with warding malevolent influences/sickness may explain why Sun Wukong is connected with noon water. He is after all the exorcist par excellence, as well as a healer.


1) This is noted as early as the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄) (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).

2) See, for example, Clearly (2003), p. 391.


Chen, X. (2011). Taiwan li shi shang de yi min yu she hui yan jiu [The History of Taiwanese Immigration and Social Studies]. Beijing: Jiu zhou chu ban she.

Cleary, T. F. (2003). The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Volume Two. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West, vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Wu, Z., & Taylor, W. K. (2014). Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches – TianGan DiZhi: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom Traditions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.