The Monkey King’s Worship in Thailand

Last updated: 04-24-2022

I first learned of Great Sage worship in Thailand when Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project showed me a Monkey King statue on a Thai Facebook group. Since then, I’ve noticed an explosion in social media posts (mainly on Facebook and Instagram) highlighting his veneration in the “Land of Smiles”. Here, I’d like to record what I’ve learned so far.

Please revisit the page for future updates.

I. Names for the Monkey King

  1. เห้งเจีย (Hêng jiia, or just “Heng Jia/Chia” = Xingzhe, 行者, “Pilgrim”). [1] This appears to be the most popular of his Thai names. This should come as no surprise, though, as Xingzhe (行者) is used FAR more to refer to Monkey in Journey to the West (4,335 times) than Wukong (悟空) (512 times). [2]
  2. ซุนหงอคง (Sun ngŏr kong, or just “Sun Ngokong” = Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) (see here).
  3. ฉีเทียนต้าเชิ่ง (Chĕe tiian dtâa chêrng = Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖, “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”)
  4. ฉีเทียนต้าเซิน (Chĕe tiian dtâa sern = same as above)
  5. โต้วจั้นเชิ่งโฝ (Dtôh wá jân chêrng fŏh = Douzhan shengfo, 鬥戰勝佛, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”)
  6. ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่ (Dtâa chêrng fŏh jòo = Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖, “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch”
  7. ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow” = same as above)

II. Statuary

Various Thai Facebook groups post pictures of the same kinds of monkey god statues found in East and Southeast Asia. These range from armored warriors wielding the magic staff to serene buddhas on lotus thrones (consult the third paragraph after video one here for a description of Monkey’s traditional iconography). But I’ve noticed that one flavor of Thai Great Sage statue is almost entirely gilded (or draped with gold cloth) except for a pink/red mask around the eyes, the latter being similar to his Chinese opera depictions. Said statues tend to feature a golden headband with very tall curlicues (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – An example of a golden Thai monkey statue with a pink mask and a high curlicue headband (larger version). Originally posted here.

I’ve also noticed an abundance of Dizang-like Monkey Buddha statues, similar to those found in Singapore (I haven’t seen many such depictions in Taiwan). This may be of Fujian influence (see here). He is sometimes portrayed wearing an ornate crown (with or without the golden headband) and monk’s robes and seated on a lotus throne. One hand is held in a mudra, while the other clasps a ruyi scepter (or more rarely a fly whisk). I recently purchased such a statue with an amulet pressed in the bottom (fig. 2 and video #1).

Fig. 2 – My 20cm colored resin Thai Monkey Buddha statue (larger version). Take note that the lotus throne sits on a pile of gold coins and ingots. Picture by the original seller.

Video #1 – Video by the original seller.

III. Amulets

Buddhist amulets (Th: prá krêuuang, พระเครื่อง) are immensely important to Thai devotees. Marcus (2018) explains that they are believed to “endow wearers with supernatural faculties”. He continues: “Some amulets are thought to bring success and happiness. Others are believed to protect the wearer against disease, witchcraft, and misfortune” (Marcus, 2018). It’s no different for worshipers of the Monkey King. I’ve seen countless examples on Facebook ranging from Monkey Buddhas to Monkey warriors. See four examples below (fig. 3-6).

Fig. 3 – An amulet listing him as the “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 4 – A multi-armed Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 5 – An armored, flying Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 6 – Another armored example (larger version). Originally posted here.

IV. Spirit-Mediumship

Like East and Southeast Asia, Thailand also has Great Sage spirit-mediums (Ch: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; lit: “Divining Child”) (consult the paragraph after figure six here for more information about these ritual specialists). One temple medium seen on the ไปดีมาดี Channel1928 YouTube channel employs white, black, and gold headbands with the aforementioned high curlicue design. The color used appears to depend on which monkey god takes over the medium. I can’t comment on any rituals particular to the Thai religious sphere. But I have seen the medium perform self-mortification in order to create paper talismans (video #2). This is a normal function of spirit-mediums even in East and Southeast Asia. See my twitter post for pictures of a similar Taiwanese ritual.

I’m hoping to gather more information on Thai Great Sage spirit-mediumship in the future.

Video #2 –  HEADPHONE WARNING!!! The Thai Great Sage medium cuts his tongue to create paper talismans.

Update: 04-20-22

I just learned from this webpage that there is a Thai language book about the history of the Monkey King. Here’s the citation:

จรัสศรี จิรภาส. เห้งเจีย (ฉีเทียนต้าเสิ้ง) ลิงในวรรณกรรมที่กลายเป็นเทพเจ้า. กรุงเทพฯ : มติชน, 2547.

Jaratsri Jirapas. Heng Jia (Chi Tian Da Sheng), a Literary Monkey who has become a God. Bangkok: Matichon, 2004.

This online book seller has pictures of the cover (fig. 7) and some of the internal pages.

Fig. 7 – The cover of the Heng Jia book (larger version).

Also, I’ve learned the name and location of a small monkey god temple in Bangkok, Thailand (fig. 8-10 and video #3). It is claimed to be at least 200 years old(!), suggesting that Heng Jia has been worshiped by Chinese-Thai for several centuries:

ศาลเจ้าพ่อเห้งเจีย (Săan-jâo-pôr Hêng-jiia) – “Shrine of Heng Jia”

66 Rama IV Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10500, Thailand

+66 2 221 9018

Fig. 8 – The main altar statue, behind which are two gold Monkey Buddha statues with pink masks (larger version). Fig. 9 – The left Monkey Buddha (larger version). Fig. 10 – The right Monkey Buddha (larger version). Pictures by KittyBinny’s Journey on Blockdit.

Video #3 – An episode about the temple on the MY CHANNEL – OFFICIAL YouTube Channel.

Update: 04-21-21

A fellow member of the Taoism Singapore and the Local Gods and their Legends Facebook groups was kind enough to let me post pictures of a Thai Monkey God amulet that he received in San Francisco around the year 2000. The top notes that it’s from the Tanglai Temple (Tanglai gong, 唐來宮), the first two characters being a term used in Journey to the West to indicate that the pilgrims have “come from China” in the east. The characters on the left and right sides combine to read “I submit to the Buddha Amitabha” (Namo Amituofo, 南無阿彌陀佛). The Thai at the bottom reads “Reverend Monk Heng Jia” (lŭuang bpòo hêng-jiia, หลวงปู่เห้งเจีย) (fig. 11). The reverse depicts the eight trigrams encircling a Taiju symbol (fig. 12), indicating that the amulet is Buddho-Daoist.

Fig. 11 – The front of the Monkey God amulet (larger version). Fig. 12 – The backside (larger version). 

Update: 04-22-22

Ellis (2017) mentions a “monument” to Heng Jia in Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (ศาลเจ้าพ่อเขาใหญ่) (p. 86). Mr. Ellis told me in a personal communication that the cave “is on Ko Si Chang island off the coast of Pattaya“. The address is:

5R94+7MM, Tha Thewawong, Ko Sichang District, Chon Buri 20120, Thailand

The small Monkey shrine is located in the interior, and it is surrounded by a forest of red prayer sheets (fig. 13). See here for a video touring the cave. The section featuring Heng Jia starts around minute 3:16.

Munier (1998) notes that this cave is the “only one” dedicated to Monkey in Thailand (p. 170). A big thank you to Mr. Ellis for providing this information. Please check out his blog.

Fig. 13 – The Heng Jia shrine at Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (larger version). Original photo posted here. See here for a wider shot of the shrine.

Update: 04-23-22

A fellow member of a Monkey King group that I belong to posted this article of seven Thai Heng Jia shrines, including the ones I’ve mentioned above.

Also, here’s a Thai prayer to Hengjia (video #4). It’s called “Prayer to the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Bòt sùuat mon dtâi sìia húk-jôh, บทสวดมนต์ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว), and the video labels it in Chinese as “Scripture of the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu jing, 大聖佛祖經).

Video #4 – The prayer to Hengjia.

Here’s a transcription of the prayer. It’s apparently based on this Chinese version:

ไต่ เสี่ย จู เสี่ยง กิ๋ง
บ่อ เสียง กิก เซี้ยง จูง
ก่วย ขื่อ อี ซิว เจ่ง
หลี่ ไอ่ เถี่ยว สี่ กัง
ซุ้ย ชื้อ สี่ เกียง เอ๋า
เหลี่ยง เมี่ยง จู คุ่ง อู๋
ห่วย ซิง เทียง ตง จู้
ปัก เก๊ก ฉิก อ้วง จูง
หู่ เพียก กั่ง ข่วง อ๋วย
จู๋ ไจ้ อี บ่วง ลุ้ย
เสียง ไจ่ เส็ก เกีย ซือ
อุ่ย เจ่ง กู่ ซวง ส่วย
อั้ว เต้ง กิม อี บุ๋ง
ง่วง ก้วง อี ม้วก สี่
หยู่ สี เก็ง กง เต็ก
คิ่ว ฮุก จิ่ง ซวง เอี้ยง
ไต่ เสี่ย ฮุก โจ้ว เก็ง
ยื่อ ซี้ ฮุก เก่า ไต๋ เจ่ง
เยียก อู๋ เสียง น้ำ สิ่ง นึ่ง ยิ้ง
ม้วย ยิก จี่ ซิม เหนี่ยม เจ็ก กึ้ง
หยู่ จ้วง กิม กัง เก็ง ซา จับ บ่วง กิ้ง
อิ่ว ติก สิ่ง เม้ง เกีย หู
เจ่ง ซิ้ง ที หี
ตี่ หุย ไจ เทียง ตี๋
อู่ นั่ง อ่วย เสี้ย เจ็ก ปึ้ง
อื้อ นั้ง หลิ่ว ท้วง
กง เต็ก เกา หยู่ ซู หนี่ ซัว
ชิม หยู่ ไต่ ไห้
บ่อ เหลียง กง เต็ก
ย่ง สี่ ปุก ตะ ตี่ เง็ก มิ้ง
ฉู่ ฉู่ หลั่ง สั่ว
เทีย ตัก มอ อิ้ง ซา ผ่อ ฮอ

Update: 04-24-22

This page mentions the benefits of worshiping Heng Jia (based on Google Translate):

If anyone worships Lord Tai Sia Huk Zhou, it will make everything smooth, turning bad into good, making it possible to do anything without obstacles. This includes family and friends, doing business, selling progress, keeping anything bad from coming into our lives. The believer must behave well, think positively, and never think ill of others. All blessings will bear fruit. Life will be truly happy and business will progress more and more.


If worshipers are free from evil and have health, intelligence, tact, and courage, they will be able to always find a solution to their problems. Therefore, [Heng Jia’s faith] is very popular among business operators that need to find a solution to every obstacle and problem.


1) See section III of this article for more info on the name “Pilgrim”.

2) Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.


Ellis, M. (2017). The Caves of Eastern Thailand. (n.p.):

Marcus, D. (2018, May 5). Featured Object: Thai Buddhist Amulet. Spurlock Museum of World Cultures Blog. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from

Munier, C. (1998). Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand. Thailand: White Lotus.

Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations

Last updated: 04-10-2022

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) happens in chapter six when heaven sends Erlang to confront Sun Wukong during his rebellion. After a prolonged, indecisive battle between the two immortals in their respective humanoid and cosmic giant forms, Monkey loses heart when his children are captured, causing him to flee. He tries to hide in the guise of a sparrow but is soon spotted by Erlang. This leads to an epic battle of magical transformations (video 1):

[…] Erlang at once discovered that the Great Sage had changed into a small sparrow perched on a tree. He changed out of his magic form and took off his pellet bow. With a shake of his body, he changed into a sparrow hawk with outstretched wings, ready to attack its prey. When the Great Sage saw this, he darted up with a flutter of his wings; changing himself into a cormorant, he headed straight for the open sky. When Erlang saw this, he quickly shook his feathers and changed into a huge ocean crane, which could penetrate the clouds to strike with its bill. The Great Sage therefore lowered his direction, changed into a small fish, and dove into a stream with a splash. Erlang rushed to the edge of the water but could see no trace of him. He thought to himself, “This simian must have gone into the water and changed himself into a fish, a shrimp, or the like. I’ll change again to catch him.” He duly changed into a fish hawk and skimmed downstream over the waves. After a while, the fish into which the Great Sage had changed was swimming along with the current. Suddenly he saw a bird that looked like a green kite though its feathers were not entirely green, like an egret though it had small feathers, and like an old crane though its feet were not red. “That must be the transformed Erlang waiting for me,” he thought to himself. He swiftly turned around and swam away after releasing a few bubbles. When Erlang saw this, he said, “The fish that released the bubbles looks like a carp though its tail is not red, like a perch though there are no patterns on its scales, like a snake fish though there are no stars on its head, like a bream though its gills have no bristles. Why does it move away the moment it sees me? It must be the transformed monkey himself!” He swooped toward the fish and snapped at it with his beak. The Great Sage shot out of the water and changed at once into a water snake; he swam toward shore and wriggled into the grass along the bank. When Erlang saw that he had snapped in vain and that a snake had darted away in the water with a splash, he knew that the Great Sage had changed again. Turning around quickly, he changed into a scarlet-topped gray crane, which extended its heel like sharp iron pincers to devour the snake. With a bounce, the snake changed again into a spotted bustard standing by itself rather stupidly amid the water pepper along the bank. When Erlang saw that the monkey had changed into such a vulgar creature-for the spotted bustard is the basest and most promiscuous of birds, mating indiscriminately with phoenixes, hawks, or crows-he refused to approach him. Changing back into his true form, he went and stretched his bow to the fullest. With one pellet he sent the bird hurtling […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-183).

Video 1 – A light-hearted, animated version of the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

My friend Irwen Wong over at the Journey to the West Library blog has analyzed this fight, showing that Erlang’s changes are always a stronger response to the Monkey King’s transformations.

[…] 1.3. Round 3

Type: Transformation
Monkey turns himself into a sparrow and flees by flying away. Erlang notices this transformation and turns himself into a sparrow hawk to attack.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.4. Round 4

Type: Transformation
When Monkey now changes into a cormorant to be able to fly higher, out of Erlang’s hawk’s reach. Erlang was aware of this and transforms into an ocean crane to give chase.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.5. Round 5

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey was afraid of Erlang’s powerful transformations and turns himself into a small fish to hide in a stream. Erlang changes into a fish hawk and scans the stream for Monkey’s trace. He cleverly identifies the fish that was Monkey and attempts to catch it.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.6. Round 6

Type: Transformation
Monkey immediately darts out of the water when he sees Erlang and changes into a water snake. Erlang transforms into a grey crane to catch the water snake.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.7. Round 7

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey sees that Erlang had turned into a crane to chase him, so he wittily transformed into a spotted bustard to oppose Erlang’s crane.
Result: Monkey wins – Erlang as a crane did not dare approach the bustard.

1.8. Round 8

Type: Transformation & combat
When Monkey changed into a bustard, Erlang was afraid to approach it. Instead, Erlang reverted to his original form and took out his pellet bow. With the bow, he aimed at Monkey’s bustard and succeeded with a strong direct hit.
Result: Erlang wins.

This magical battle is actually related to an ancient mythic motif involving two warring supernatural beings.

I. Antecedents of the motif

Ioannis M. Konstantakos’ (2016) paper “The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition” explains that the motif can be traced to the Near East of the late-3rd millennium BCE. However, the oldest variants instead depict the combatants transforming objects and not their physical bodies in battle. But the outcome is still the same: one competitor produces stronger responses to the other’s initial attack. For example, the Sumerian tale Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana (c. early-2nd millennium BCE) depicts the two titular characters engaged in a magical battle over the fate of their respective homelands. Konstantakos (2016) writes:

The competition of Sağburu and Urğirnuna consists precisely in the magical fabrication of various animals. Each one of the adversaries throws a certain object of witchcraft into the river and draws out a magically produced creature (or group of creatures). Every time, however, Sağburu’s creations are bigger, stronger, and wilder than those of Urğirnuna, which they seize and lacerate as a result. Specifically, the foreign sorcerer produces in sequence: 1) a big carp; 2) a ewe with its lamb; 3) a cow with its calf; 4) an ibex and a wild sheep; and 5) a young gazelle. The wise witch, on the other hand, counters these creations correspondingly with 1) an eagle; 2) a wolf; 3) a lion; 4) a mountain leopard; and 5) a tiger and another kind of lion. In this way, all of Urğirnuna’s creatures are eliminated, and Sağburu wins the contest (p. 210).

This finds parallels with ancient Egyptian stories and even an event from the book of Exodus (7.8-12) (Konstantakos, 2016, pp. 210-213).

The more familiar version of the motif, which sees competitors transforming their bodies, is found in ancient Greek drama. Konstantakos (2016) describes one such tale involving the lustful adventures of Zeus:

The Cypria offers the most expanded and detailed form of the saga. Zeus was amorously chasing [his daughter] Nemesis, but she was averse to his sexual intentions and ran away. In the course of her flight, Nemesis took the form of various beasts; she became a fish in the sea and swam through the Ocean’s stream; then she changed herself into many kinds of animals on the land, in order to escape. In the end, the goddess was transformed into a bird, the species of which is variously given in the ancient sources. … Zeus assimilated himself to the same species of bird, becoming respectively a gander in the former version and a male swan in the latter one. In this form, the great god finally managed to mate with the metamorphosed and bird-like Nemesis (pp. 213-214).

The body transforming motif came to influence later European stories, many involving a battle between a magician and his arrogant pupil (folklore index no. 325) (Konstantakos, 2016, p. 208).

The Greek version is very similar to the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong, for both feature a character fleeing under different magical disguises while being chased by an assailant who undergoes stronger transformations in response. Given the link between Greek and Indian philosophy, I’d wager that there’s some ancient South Asian version of this motif that came to influence Journey to the West. I’m just happy that Monkey wasn’t handled like Nemesis in the final product. That would have been awkward for everyone!

II. Archive

Below, I archive Konstantakos (2016). The first half of the paper is fascinating, while the second is quite repetitive. It takes up a great deal of space analyzing a Near Eastern-influenced version of the motif in the Greek Alexander Romance. Please keep this in mind.

Archive link:

Click to access The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_t.pdf


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.

Update: 04-10-22

I’ve mentioned in this article (section 3) that the Bull Demon King‘s story arc shares many similarities with Sun Wukong’s. He too has a battle of transformations, but instead of Erlang, his opponent is the Monkey King. Chapter 61 reads:

[…] Unable to enter the cave, the old Bull turned swiftly and saw Eight Rules and Pilgrim rushing toward him. He became so flustered that he abandoned his armor and his iron rod; with one shake of his body, he changed into a swan and flew into the air.


Putting away his golden-hooped rod, the Great Sage shook his body and changed into a Manchurian vulture, which spread its wings and darted up to a hole in the clouds. It then hurtled down and dropped onto the swan, seeking to seize its neck and peck at the eyes. Knowing also that this was a transformation of Pilgrim Sun, the Bull King hurriedly flapped his wings and changed himself into a yellow eagle to attack the vulture. At once Pilgrim changed himself into a black phoenix, the special foe of the yellow eagle. Recognizing him, the Bull King changed next into a white crane which, after a long cry, flew toward the south. Pilgrim stood still, and shaking his feathers, changed into a scarlet phoenix that uttered a resounding call. Since the phoenix was the ruler of all the birds and fowl, the white crane dared not touch him. Spreading wide his wings, he dived instead down the cliff and changed with one shake of the body into a musk deer, grazing rather timorously before the slope. Recognizing him, Pilgrim flew down also and changed into a hungry tiger which, with wagging tail and flying paws, went after the deer for food. Greatly flustered, the demon king then changed into a huge spotted leopard to attack the tiger. When Pilgrim saw him, he faced the wind and, with one shake of his head, changed into a golden-eyed Asian lion, with a voice like thunder and a head of bronze, which pounced on the huge leopard. Growing even more anxious, the Bull King changed into a large bear, which extended his paws to try to seize the lion. Rolling on the ground, Pilgrim at once turned himself into a scabby elephant, with a trunk like a python and tusks like bamboo shoots. Whipping up his trunk, he tried to catch hold of the bear (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157).

This fight shows that Sun Wukong learned a lot from his encounter with Erlang, for his transformations are far more fierce in comparison.


Konstantakos, I. (2016). The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition. Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, 26, 207-234. Retrieved from

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

Archive #35 – The Tang Monk Tripitaka as a Confucian in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2022

I’ve already posted three entries on the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang). The first discusses his former incarnation as Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple; the second discusses how chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version published in 1592; and the third discusses the connection between his exile from heaven to ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophy.  Here, I’d like present information that describes the monk’s characterization throughout the story. I’m quoting several pages from Yu’s (2008) paper “The Formation of Fiction in the ‘Journey to the West’“. He shows that, instead of a being a model Buddhist, the literary monk is cast as a Confucian.

I. Relevant pages

However that kind of textual contradiction is to be resolved, what no reader of the full-length novel can fail to notice is how deeply in Xuanzang’s consciousness is imprinted the magnitude of the imperial favor and charge bestowed on him. The historical pilgrim’s dedication to visit the Western region was motivated by the quest for doctrinal clarification (Fashizhuan 法師傳 I: “The Master of the Law … thus vowed to tour the region of the West so as to inquire about the perplexities (of his faith) 法師 … 乃誓遊西方以問所惑”), and this commitment would make him risk even death for defying “the laws of the state 國法” (Xingzhuang 行狀). In sharp contrast, the fictive priest, when promoted to be the emperor’s bond-brother for the willingness to serve as the scripture-seeker, said to his ruler: “Your Majesty, what ability and what virtue does your poor monk possess that he should merit such affection from your Heavenly Grace? I shall not spare myself in this journey, but I shall proceed with all diligence until I reach the Western Heaven. If I did not attain my goal, or the true scriptures, I would not dare return to our land even if I were to die. May I fall into eternal perdition in Hell. 陛下, 貧僧有何德何能, 敢蒙天恩眷顧如此? 我這一去, 定要捐軀努力, 直至西天; 如不到西天, 不得真經, 即死也不敢回國, 永墮沉淪地獄.” 

Whereas the historical pilgrim, upon his successful return to China with scriptures, felt compelled to seek imperial pardon for “braving to transgress the authoritative statutes and departing for India on one’s own authority 冒越憲章私往天竺” through both written memorial and direct oral petition (Fashizhuan 6), the fictive priest would be welcomed by a faithful and expectant ruler who had even built a Scripture-Anticipation Tower 望經樓 to wait anxiously for his envoy for eleven more years (chapter 100). This portrait of the pilgrimage’s imperial sponsorship, intervention (most notably in the travel rescript bearing the imperial seal administered by the emperor himself), and reception helps explain why the fictive priest would consider his religious mission to be, in fact, his obligated service to his lord and state, and that the mission’s success must enact not merely the fulfilment of a vow to Buddha but equally one to a human emperor. As the lead-in poem that inaugurates the priest’s formal journey at the beginning of chapter 13 puts it: “The rich Tang ruler issued a decree/Deputing Xuanzang to seek the source of Zen 大有唐王降敕封/欽差玄奘問禪宗.”

The fact that the fictive pilgrim was sent on his way by the highest human authority with tokens of imperial favor thus also changes fundamentally Xuanzang’s identity and its mode of disclosure. In sharp contrast to the historical figure who, deciding to defy the court’s proscription to travel in the western regions, “dared not show himself in public but rested during the day and journeyed only at night 不敢公出, 乃畫伏夜行” (Fashizhuan 1), the novelistic Xuanzang had no difficulty or hesitation in telling the first stranger he met that he was an imperial envoy sent by the Tang emperor to seek scriptures from Buddha in the Western Heaven. The words, uttered by both master and disciples, would become a formulaic announcement throughout the priest’s journey to every conceivable audience – whether divine, demonic or human – much as the imperial travel rescript authorizing his undertaking would be signed and stamped with royal seals of all the states and kingdoms the pilgrims visited, and from where they had gained permitted passage (chapter 100). The “Shengjiao xu 聖教序 (Preface to the Holy Religion”) bestowed by the historical Taizong on the repatriated Xuanzang, transcribed nearly verbatim in chapter 100 of the novel, had declared unambiguously that the journey was the monk’s solitary expedition 承危達邁, 策杖孤征. In this ex post facto encomium bequeathed to a cleric newly pardoned for a seventeen-year-old crime against the state, not even the emperor could claim credit for authorizing or assisting the project in any manner. On the other hand, the invented rescript, in poignant irony, would not allow the readers to forget for one minute that imperial charge and enablement were as needed as the assistance of the gods.

Throughout the novel’s lengthy course, therefore, there are quite a few examples in which Xuanzang frets about his inability to fulfill the decreed wish of his human lord 旨意 as much as the dreaded failure to reach and see Buddha. Fearing contracted illness might prove fatal during the episode of the Sea-Pacifying Monastery in chapter 81, a tearful Tripitaka would write a poem that he wants Monkey to take back to the Tang court, to inform his Sage Lord 聖君 of his precarious health and request another pilgrim be sent instead. Captured by a leopard monster in chapter 85, Tripitaka explains to a fellow prisoner that “If I lose my life here, would that not have dashed the expectation of the emperor and the high hopes of his ministers? 今若喪命, 可不盼殺那君王, 辜負那臣子?” When told by his interlocutor, a stereotypical wood-cutter who is the sole supporter of an old widowed mother (compare with the one who spoke to Monkey in chapter 1), the priest breaks into loud wailing, crying:

How pitiful! How pitiful! 可憐 可憐
If even a rustic has longings for his kin, Has not this poor priest chanted sūtras in vain?
To serve the ruler or to serve one’s parents follows the same
principle. You live by the kindness of your parents, and I live by the kindness of my ruler. 山人尚有思親意, 空教貧僧會念經, 事君事親, 皆同一理, 你為親恩, 我爲君恩.

Tripitaka’s emotional outburst not only places his sentiments squarely within the most familiar discourse of historical Confucian teachings, but also echoes his parting address to his monastic community at the Temple of Great Blessings 洪福寺 on the eve of his journey: “I have already made a great vow and a profound promise, that if I do not acquire the true scriptures, I shall fall into eternal perdition in Hell. Since I have received such grace and favor from the king, I have no alternative but to requite my country to the limit of loyalty. 我已發了弘誓大願, 不取真經, 永墮沉淪地獄, 大底是受王恩寵, 不得不盡忠以報國耳.” That remark, in turn, even more pointedly repeats a similar confession spoken by the Xuanzang of the twenty-four-act zaju: “Honored viewers, attend to the single statement by this lowly monk: a subject must reach the limit of loyalty, much as son must reach the limit of filial piety. There is no other means of requital than the perfection of both loyalty and filial piety. 眾官, 聽小僧一句言語: 為臣盡忠, 為子盡孝, 忠孝兩全, 餘無所報.” Words such as these may seem hackneyed and platitudinous to modern ears, to say the least, but this portrait of the novelistic Xuanzang cannot be ignored. Built consistently on the tradition of antecedent legend, but with important innovative additions apparently supplied by the Shidetang author, his characterization seems to fit precisely the mold of a stereotype – the traditional Confucian scholar-official.

If the full-length novel seems to indicate a presumption of the Three-Religions-in-One ideology 三教歸一 (or, 三教合一) for both its content and context, who among the five fictive pilgrims is more appropriate than the human monk to live to the limits of political loyalism and filial piety, especially when all four of the other disciples have only such tenuous relations to human culture and lineage? The historical Xuanzang was unquestionably a hero of religion, aptly turning his back on family and court in his youth to face appalling dangers with nary a regret, and without doubt a master of literary Sinitic and of scriptural styles shaped by difficult encounters with Indic languages. His biography, compiled by two disciples and touched with hagiography, duly recorded serial visitations to various states of Central Asia and India beset by encounters with gods and demons, physical perils and privations, triumphal religious proselytism, and royal hospitality in many locales. Nonetheless, could a faithful replica of this character who began his famed journey as a treasonous subject be expected to amuse and entertain in the popular imagination? The novelistic figure, by contrast, is timid, ethically fastidious, occasionally dogmatic and heedful of slander, and prone to partiality – mundane traits not uncommon to other male leads typed in Ming drama or vernacular fiction. Most interestingly, although this pilgrim, consistent with his vocational vow of celibacy, may display intractable resistance to sexual temptations in all circumstances (chapters 24, 54-55, 82-83), he is also so fond of poetry that he would discuss poetics with tree monsters (chapter 64) and compose quatrains in a region near India (chapter 94). Perhaps in parody of filial piety blended with the religious notion of reverting to the source and origin 反本還原 extolled in both Daoism and Buddhism, the narrative shows him to be so attached to his mother (when he is not thinking about the emperor) that an ordeal is almost conveniently structured right in his path nearing its goal that would reenact the fated marriage of his parents – the chance selection of the father by the mother’s thrown embroidered ball (chapters 93-95). In this episode on the Kingdom of India, where to the Tang Monk’s chauvinistic eyes the clothing, utensils, manner of speech, and behavior of the people completely resemble those of the Great Tang, the pilgrim’s persistent invocation of maternal experience also justly invites Monkey’s teasing about his master’s “longing for the past 慕古之意.” Is not such a person, dwelling in the religiously syncretic world of the full-length novel, a fit representative of Confucianism, at least as known and imagined by the vast populace? (Yu, 2008, pp. 22-26).


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II. My thoughts

So having read the above, we know that the change from the heroic historical monk to the cowardly literary figure was likely done for entertainment purposes, as well as to interject a bit of Confucianism in honor of syncretic Ming philosophy. But I can’t help but think that this was also meant to fuel the constant bickering between Tripitaka and Sun Wukong. After all, Confucianism and Buddhism were bitter enemies throughout the centuries. While Confucianism also critiqued Daoism, Buddhism was an easier target due to (among other objections) its foreign origins. [1] Ming-era scholar Wang Shouren (王守仁, 1472-1529), for instance, faulted the religion for “ignoring canonical human relations, abandoning affairs and things [of the world] …, and fostering selfishness and self-benefit” (Wang, 1992, as cited in Yu, 2012, p. 72). In addition, the Monkey King is often cast as the voice of reason, while the monk remains blind to reality (a prime example being the white bone spirit episode). This dynamic may have been intended to lampoon Confucianism. If true, this would mean the author-compiler, be it Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩, c. 1500-1582) or some other scholar-official, was likely poking fun at himself and those in his social circle.

Update: 04-29-22

Here’s a great example of Monkey being the voice of reason by chastising the monk for being too worldly:

 Pilgrim said, “Old Master, you have forgotten the one about ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind: Those of us who have left the family should see no form with our eyes, should hear no sound with our ears, should smell no smell with our noses, should taste no taste with our tongues; our bodies should have no knowledge of heat or cold, and our minds should gather no vain thoughts. This is called the extermination of the Six Robbers. But look at you now! Though you may be on your way to seek scriptures, your mind is full of vain thoughts: fearing the demons you are unwilling to risk your life; desiring vegetarian food you arouse your tongue; loving fragrance and sweetness you provoke your nose; listening to sounds you disturb your ears; looking at things and events you fix your eyes. You have, in sum, assembled all the Six Robbers together. How could you possibly get to the Western Heaven to see Buddha?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).


1) For a detailed discussion of all the various points raised by Confucians against Buddhism, please see Langlais (1972).


Langlais, J. M. (1972). Early Neo-Confucian Criticism of Chinese Buddhism [Unpublished master’s dissertation, McMaster University]. Retrieved from

Yu, A. C. (2008). The Formation of Fiction in the “Journey to the West.” Asia Major21(1), 15-44.

Yu, A. C. (2012). Introduction. In C. Wu and A. C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (pp. 1-100). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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