A Quick Study of the Four Celestial Primates from Journey to the West

Last updated: 02-26-2022

Sun Wukong faces his evil double, the Six-Eared Macaque, in chapters 56 to 58 of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter). After the twin Mind Monkeys battle their way to the Western Paradise, the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathagata, “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [1] who

Knows transformations, Recognizes the seasons, Discerns the advantages of earth, And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang, Understands human affairs, Is adept in its daily life And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon, Shorten a thousand mountains, Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious, And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear, Discernment of fundamental principles, Knowledge of past and future, And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

如來道:「第一是靈明石猴,通變化,識天時,知地利,移星換斗;第二是赤尻馬猴,曉陰陽,會人事,善出入,避死延生;第三是通臂猿猴,拿日月,縮千山,辨休咎,乾坤摩弄;第四是六耳獼猴,善聆音,能察理,知前後,萬物皆明。此四猴者,不入十類之種,不達兩間之名。我觀假悟空乃六耳獼猴也。此猴若立一處,能知千里外之事;凡人說話,亦能知之。

In this article, I would like to explore all mentions of these magical creatures in the novel. I will focus more on the second and third primates as I’ve already written extensively about the first and fourth kind.

1. Stone Monkey

There isn’t much to write about the “Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom” (Lingming shihou, 靈明石猴) (fig. 1) as it’s clearly Sun Wukong. The term lingming (靈明) can also be translated as “Numinous Luminosity”. Both refer to spiritual wisdom. This explains why Sun Wukong attains so much power after only three years of spiritual cultivation.

Fig. 1 – A poster of the Stone Monkey of Luminous Wisdom from the film “Four Monkeys”. The name has since been changed. See update 02-20-22 below.

2. Horse Monkey and Gibbon

I’m grouping these two together because they share a close association in JTTW. The Chinese term for “Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey” (Chikao mahou, 赤尻馬猴) (fig. 2) appears three times in the novel, while “Horse Monkey” (馬猴, mahou) only appears once (see here). [2] The term “Tongbei Gibbon” (Tongbei yuanhou, 通背猿猴) appears three times, while the interchangeable term “Tongbi Gibbon” (Tongbi yuanhou, 通臂猿猴) appears once (see here and here) (fig. 3). [3] The term “ape” or “gibbon” (yuanhou, 猿猴) appears 16 times (see here), and it’s even used to refer to Monkey. For example, a poem in chapter seven calls him “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, a monstrous ape” (Qitian dasheng yuanhou guai, 齊天大聖猿猴怪) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 191). The horse monkey and gibbon are surprisingly listed among the Monkey King’s retinue:

The Handsome Monkey King thus led a flock of gibbons [猿猴], macaques, and horse monkeys [馬猴], some of whom were appointed by him as his officers and ministers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 106).

美猴王領一群猿猴、獼猴、馬猴等,分派了君臣佐使

It’s actually the gibbon who reveals the truth of spiritual beings escaping the hand of death, setting Monkey on his quest for immortality:

From among the ranks a tongbei gibbon [通背猿猴] suddenly leaped forth and cried aloud, “If the Great King is so farsighted, it may well indicate the sprouting of his religious inclination. There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains.” When the Monkey King heard this, he was filled with delight, saying, “Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the comers of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama.” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 131).

只見那班部中,忽跳出一個通背猿猴,厲聲高叫道:「大王若是這般遠慮,真所謂道心開發也。如今五蟲之內,惟有三等名色不伏閻王老子所管。」猴王道:「你知那三等人?」猿猴道:「乃是佛與仙與神聖三者,躲過輪迴,不生不滅,與天地山川齊壽。」猴王道:「此三者居於何所?」猿猴道:「他只在閻浮世界之中,古洞仙山之內。」猴王聞之,滿心歡喜道:「我明日就辭汝等下山,雲遊海角,遠涉天涯,務必訪此三者,學一個不老長生,常躲過閻君之難。」

Apart from this, chapter two casts both the gibbon and horse monkey as knowledgeable elders:

As they were speaking, four older monkeys came forward, two horse monkeys with red buttocks [赤尻馬猴] and tongbei gibbons [通背猿猴]. Coming to the front, they said, “Great King, to be furnished with sharp-edged weapons is a very simple matter:’ “How is it simple?” asked Wukong. The four monkeys replied, “East of our mountain, across two hundred miles of water, is the boundary of the Aolai Country. In that country there is a king who has numberless men and soldiers in his city, and there are bound to be all kinds of gold, silver, copper, and iron works there. If the great king goes there, he can either buy weapons or have them made (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 131).

正說間,轉上四個老猴,兩個是赤尻馬猴,兩個是通背猿猴,走在面前道:「大王,若要治鋒利器械,甚是容易。」悟空道:「怎見容易?」四猴道:「我們這山向東去,有二百里水面,那廂乃傲來國界。那國界中有一王位,滿城中軍民無數,必有金銀銅鐵等匠作。大王若去那裡,或買或造些兵器

Later in the chapter, they are appointed officers:

The Monkey King made the four old monkeys mighty commanders of his troops by appointing the two horse monkeys with red buttocks [赤尻馬猴] as marshals Ma [馬] and Liu [流], and the two tongbei gibbons as generals Beng [崩] and Ba [芭] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138).

猴王將那四個老猴封為健將,將兩個赤尻馬猴喚做馬、流二元帥,兩個通背猿猴喚做崩、芭二將軍

These primates are mentioned in a few other chapters (see here and here).

Fig. 2 & 3 – “Four Monkeys” posters of the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey and the Tongbi Gibbon.

2.1. True Identity?

Anthony C. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) calls the horse monkey a “baboon” (vol. 3, p. 115, for example), likely based on the common image of the primate having a red bottom. And while searching “馬猴” does pull up images and articles about the Mandrill, a large, colorful cousin of the baboon (example), I can’t find any reliable historical sources linking the animal with the term. Having said that, this book associates it with the ancient Chinese practice of putting monkeys in horse stables (majiu husun, 馬廄猢猻) to ward off equine sicknesses, making it a “horse’s monkey”. This naturally has connections to Sun Wukong’s time as the Bimawen, or keeper of the heavenly horses. This is the most convincing explanation for the horse monkey that I’ve seen, but I’ll make sure to update the article if any other plausible reasons arise. As for the red bottom, this is likely the sexual swelling of females. I’ll spare you a picture; just imagine a bright pink pumpkin that’s about to explode.

The gibbon and macaque (see below) are real world animals. For more information on Chinese views of the gibbon, please see this archived book.

3. Six-Eared Macaque

I’ve already written an article exploring the literary and religious origins of the “Six-Eared Macaque” (Liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴). One scholar suggests that his true identity is Monkey’s sworn brother, the Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) (Lam, 2005, p. 168). It’s important to note that this character cavorts with Sun on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 156-157, for example).

Fig. 4 – A “Four Monkeys” poster of the Six-Eared Macaque. This version wields swords unlike his staff-brandishing literary counterpart.

4. Home of the Four Primates?

The above information shows that, at one time or another, all four of the celestial primates are present on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom (a.k.a. Sun Wukong) is born and lives as a king on the mountain. The Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey and the Tongbei/bi Gibbon serve as his advisors and officers. And the Six-Eared Macaque becomes his sworn brother and often visits him there. This might suggest that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is the home or even birthplace of all four primates. If one magic primate can be born there, then all of them can.


Update: 02-20-22

Here’s a four minute preview for the upcoming film King of Havoc: Rise of the Great Sage (Hunshi zhi wang: Dasheng jueqi,  混世之王:大圣崛起, 2022). The Six-Eared Macaque appears in figure four wielding swords. This same character takes part in the trailer but is called the Macaque King, thereby referencing the aforementioned theory that he is Six Ears.


Update: 02-22-22

One thing I forgot to mention is that one passage suggest ALL four celestial primates are present on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in Sun’s youth:

The Handsome Monkey King thus led a flock of gibbons [yuanhou, 猿猴], macaques [mihou, 獼猴], and horse monkeys [mahou, 馬猴], some of whom were appointed by him as his officers and ministers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 106).

美猴王領一群猿猴、獼猴、馬猴等,分派了君臣佐使

There’s the Monkey King (Stone), gibbons (Tongbi/bei), macaques (Six Ears), and horse monkeys (Red-Buttocked).

Also, user Phantom86d left an astute comment suggesting that the four magical primates are not part of the 10 categories of life—as stated by the Buddha in the introduction—”[b]ecause Wukong erased their names from the book of Life and Death”. This refers to chapter three when Sun inks out his name and those of all other primates when his immortal soul is mistakenly summoned to hell. It’s important to remember that he had his own, separate book (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140), so the other magical primates likely had theirs.


Update: 02-25-22

Thanks to this dictionary, I learned that one late-Qing source, New Dialect (Xinfangyan, 新方言, early-20th-c.), associates “horse monkey” (mahou, 馬猴) with various iterations of Chinese terms for macaque monkeys:

“Bathing monkey” (muhou): “mother monkey” (muhou); mother monkey (muhou): “full monkey” (mihou) – these are called “horse monkey” (mahou), the sound of each one changing [in turn].

沐猴:母猴;母猴:彌猴,令人謂之馬猴,皆一音之轉。(the original doesn’t have punctuation)

This article explains that the second term refers not to a female primate but a macaque. The Annotation of the Shuowen jiezi (Shuowen jiezi zhu, 說文解字注, 1815) reads:

“Mother monkey” (muhou) is the name of the beast, not the female. “Bathing monkey” (muhou) and “full monkey” (mihou) are changes in dialect. The characters are wrong.

母猴乃此兽名,非谓牝者。沐猴、[彌]猴皆语之转,字之讹也

Update: 02-26-22

The Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 本草綱目, 1596) traces the etymology of “bathing monkey” (muhou, 沐猴):

The monkey likes to wipe its face as if bathing (mu), so it is called a “bathing (monkey)”. Later generations mistook this mu for “mother”, and then mother for “full” (mi). The meaning is lost as errors compound.

猴好拭面如沐,故谓之沐,而后人讹沐为母,又讹母为猕,愈讹愈失矣

It then directly connects muhou (母猴) to stable monkeys:

The Shuowen says: The characters (for macaque) look like “mother monkey” (muhou), but it’s a “bathing monkey” (muhou, i.e. macaque), not a female. Since a macaque resembles a hu-barbarian, he is also called hu-sun “grandson of a barbarian”. The Zhuangzi calls him ju. People who raise horses keep a macaque in the stables, which will ward off horse-diseases. The Hu barbarians call a macaque maliu, in Sanskrit books he is called Mosizha (makaṭa). [2]

《说文》云︰为字象母猴之形。即沐猴也,非牝也。猴形似胡人,故曰胡孙。《庄子》谓之狙。养马者厩中畜之,能辟马病,胡俗称马留云。《梵书》谓之摩斯[咤]

The section later explains how macaques (muhou, 母猴) help the horses:

The Classic of Horses states: Domesticated macaques (muhou) used in horse stables help avoid horse diseases [lit: bimawen]. Their monthly menstruation runs onto the grass, and once the horses eat it, they will never be sick.

《马经》言︰马厩畜母猴,辟马瘟疫。逐月有天癸流草上,马食之,永无疾病矣

Notes:

1) I will be altering Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation from this point forward to make it more accurate.

2) Ctext shows the term “Great Horse Monkey” (Da mahou, 大馬猴) pops up in chapter 28 of Dream of the Red Chamber (18th-century). It’s used to symbolize something worse than an immoral husband that would ravage a young maiden:

Next came Xue Pan. “Is it for me to speak now?” Xue Pan asked.

“A maiden is sad…”

But a long time elapsed after these words were uttered and yet nothing further was heard.

“Sad for what?” Feng Ziying laughingly asked.

“Go on and tell us at once!”

Xue Pan was much perplexed. His eyes rolled about like a bell.

“A girl is sad…” he hastily repeated. But here again he coughed twice before he proceeded.

“A girl is sad,” he said:

“When she marries a spouse who is a libertine.”

This sentence so tickled the fancy of the company that they burst out into a loud fit of laughter.

“What amuses you so?” shouted Xue Pan, “is it likely that what I say is not correct? If a girl marries a man, who chooses to forget all virtue, how can she not feel sore at heart?”

But so heartily did they all laugh that their bodies were bent in two.

“What you say is quite right,” they eagerly replied. “So proceed at once with the rest.”

Xue Pan thereupon stared with vacant gaze.

“A girl is grieved…” he added.

But after these few words he once more could find nothing to say.

“What is she grieved about?” they asked.

“When a huge horse monkey [大馬猴] finds its way into the inner room,” Xue Pan retorted (Cao & Joly, 1892, p. 62).

下該薛蟠。薛蟠道:「我可要說了:女兒悲--」說了半日,不見說底下的。馮紫英笑道:「悲什麼?快說!」薛蟠登時急的眼睛鈴鐺一般,便說道:「女兒悲--」又咳嗽了兩聲,方說道:「女兒悲,嫁了個男人是烏龜。」眾人聽了,都大笑起來。薛蟠道:「笑什麼?難道我說的不是?一個女兒嫁了漢子,要做忘八,怎麼不傷心呢?」眾人笑的彎著腰,說道:「你說的是,快說底下的罷。」薛蟠瞪了瞪眼,又說道:「女兒愁--」說了這句,又不言語了。眾人道:「怎麼愁?」薛蟠道:「繡房鑽出個大馬猴。」

3) These are hard to translate terms referring to the belief that the long, agile arms of the gibbon were somehow connected (i.e. tongbi, 通臂), possibly passing through the back (i.e. tongbei, 通背) (Gulik, 1967, p. 92-93). It’s interesting to note that each are associated with a style of ape-based Chinese boxing.

Sources:

Cao, X., & Joly, H. B. (1892). Hung Lou Meng: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber; a Chinese Novel – Book 2. Hongkong: Kelly & Walsh.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Lam, H. L. (2005). Cannibalizing the Heart: The Politics of Allegory and The Journey to the West. In E. Ziolkowski (Ed.). Literature, Religion, and East/West Comparison (pp. 162-178). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

6 thoughts on “A Quick Study of the Four Celestial Primates from Journey to the West

  1. I was trying to figure out how the monkeys managed to live for over three hundred years Before drinking purloined wine and taking pills. It makes more sense if they are the same spirit monkeys.

    The other options were Avalon logic, which still might apply, and the fact monkeys probably perceive time differently than humans. Or something in the water added to it.

    But if the Six-Earred Macaque was the same that Wukong was sworn brothers with, wouldn’t he have stayed his hand a little? He tried to reason with the Bull-Demon King and his family before showing them the light… Along with knocking out their lights.

    Wait. N’er mind. Answered my own question. Wukong is vindictively forgiving if it doesn’t have to do with him and his. That kind of betrayal would be the worst. Explains why I got more a sense of sadness reading that part.

    1. Monkey at the keyboard, I know. Kept staring at the top passage and it hit me.

      -These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth.-

      Because Wukong erased their names from the book of Life and Death.

  2. This might also be extra proof the Macaque King is Sixth-ear. When the demons named themselves the Great Sages in Chapter 4, the Macaque King chose the name ‘Great Sage that Travels with the Wind’.

    Taking into account the other article on the Sixth-Ear Macaque being a personification of Hearsay (aka Gossip aka Rumor) an old saying came to mind that fit.

    Rumor travels with the wind.

    Or Gossip rides the wind.

    So the Great Sage that Travels with the Wind would be Rumor. If Rumor is the Sixth-Ear, then the Sixth-Ear Macaque is the Great Sage that Travels with the Wind fka the Macaque King.

    And after consulting the mighty Word Hippo, (I know very little Chinese period.) Fēngshēng means both rumor and the sound of wind. So the two are connected in Chinese as well.

    And the layer of subtext thickens.

  3. Do you think the Monkey King naming his two Macaque lieutenants Ma and Liu is a pun on the Hu word for macaques? (according to the dictionary entry you included- I have very little knowledge on any of this)

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