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 3Type: 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 4Type: 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 5Type: 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 6Type: 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 7Type: 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 8Type: 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!
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.
Click to access The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_t.pdf
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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 https://www.academia.edu/25983449/_The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_the_Ancient_Storytelling_Tradition_Cuadernos_de_Filolog%C3%ADa_Cl%C3%A1sica_Estudios_griegos_e_indoeuropeos_26_2016_207_234.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.