Last updated: 09-27-2023
This article is based on a question put to me on Tumblr. While the character of the Female Monkey King is not important to the overall story of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記), I’ve decided to post my answer here. This is because it contains information from several previous articles discussing monkeys in Chinese culture and Buddhism. This is obviously important when thinking about Sun Wukong.
Heya, I was researching SWK’s various sworn brothers because I kept hearing abt this one sworn bro of his called “The Female Demon Monkey King” and obviously with a name like that I was curious abt them. But for some reason I can’t find any info abt them anywhere online, and one Tumblr post said that the Female Monkey King and the Macaque King were the same person? I was wondering if you knew anything abt that and had additional info abt the Female Monkey King?
She seems to be based on a discrepancy in Anthony C. Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation. The original Chinese name, Mihou wang (獼猴王, “Macaque King”), appears three times in the novel, but Yu translates it two different ways. I’ve added the Chinese text for comparison.
I. Examples of Mihou wang from JTTW
At this time, moreover, he entered into fraternal alliance with six other monarchs: the Bull Monster King, the Dragon Monster King, the Garuda Monster King, the Giant Lynx King, the Macaque King, and the Orangutan King, they formed a fraternal order of seven (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 138-139).
[Sun Wukong] then said to the six brothers, “If little brother is now called the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, why don’t all of you assume the title of Great Sage also?” “Our worthy brother’s words are right!” shouted the Bull Monster King from their midst, ”I’m going to be called the Great Sage, Parallel with Heaven.” “I shall be called the Great Sage, Covering the Ocean,” said the Dragon Monster King. “I shall be called the Great Sage, United with Heaven,” said the Garuda Monster King. “I shall be called the Great Sage, Mover of Mountains,” said the Giant Lynx King. “I shall be called the Telltale Great Sage,” said the Macaque King. ”And I shall be called the God-Routing Great Sage,” said the Orangutan King (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 156-157).
Now this is where the change happens.
Your [Red Boy’s] father, the Bull Monster King, called himself the Great Sage, Parallel with Heaven. He and old Monkey formed a fraternal alliance of seven, and we all made him the big brother. There were also a Dragon Monster King, who called himself the Great Sage, Covering the Ocean, and became the second brother; a Garuda Monster King, who called himself Great Sage, United with Heaven, and became the third brother; a Lion Monster King, who called himself the Great Sage, Mover of Mountains, and became the fourth brother; a Female Monkey King, who called herself the Fair Wind Great Sage and became the fifth member; and a Giant Ape Monster King, who called himself the God-Routing Great Sage and became the sixth brother. Old Monkey, the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, was rather small in size, and so he was number seven (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 223-224).
Despite what Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates above, the original Chinese does not include any gendered language referring to the character as a woman. It’s just the exact same name, Mihou wang (獼猴王), used twice before. In addition, the Chinese refers to this character as the “fifth brother” (wuge, 五哥). The W. J. F. Jenner (1993/2020) edition translates the Chinese as such: “The Macaque King, our fifth brother, was the Great Sage Who Travels with the Wind” (vol. 2, p. 925).
Some people try to explain away the discrepancy in Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation by claiming mihou (獼猴) is associated with female monkeys. But if this was true within the context of Journey to the West, ALL monkeys referred to by this name would be women. This certainly isn’t the case, though, since Liu’er mihou (六耳獼猴, “Six-Eared Macaque“) (fig. 1), Sun Wukong’s doppelganger, is male. In fact, out of 13 mentions of mihou (獼猴) in the novel, over 61% refer directly to Six Ears:
- Random monkeys (mihou, 獼猴) – 1
- All monkeys (mihou zhu chu duoshou, 獼猴之畜多壽, “long life has been given to monkey beasts”) – 1
- Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) – 3
- Six Ears – 8
Notice, too, that the term is even used once to refer to monkeys as a whole. This takes place in chapter three when King Qinguang (秦廣王) of hell submits a complaint to heaven after Sun Wukong makes all monkeys immortal by striking their names from the book of life and death (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 142-143).
In addition, the term mi (獼) is used by itself to refer to all monkeys: Miyuan wei qin (獼猿為親, “[H]e called the monkey and gibbon his relatives”).
II. The Etymology of Mihou
Dynastic sources indicate that the association of mihou (獼猴) with female monkeys is based on a misunderstanding of the word’s etymological history. For example, the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu, 本草綱目, 1596 CE) states:
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 mi. The meaning is lost as errors compound.
“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.
This confusion is based on the non-Chinese origin of the word for macaque. Van Gulik (1967) explains:
Therefore, mihou (獼猴) is just one of several ways to refer to the primate, either male or female (fig. 2).
III. Male Mihou in Buddhist literature
It’s important to note that Buddhist literature also uses the term to refer to male monkeys. For instance, story no. 46 in the Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century CE; “Collection of Sutras” hereafter) tells how a past life of the Buddha helps a macaque (mihou, 獼猴) regain his kingship after being usurped by his uncle. What’s important is that this tale, the Dasaratha Jataka, is a famous Buddhist retelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana (5th-century BCE). The hero-king Rama is replaced by the Buddha, and the warring monkey king brothers Sugriva and Vali (fig. 3) are replaced by a nephew and his uncle. 
The Buddha himself also has a past life as a king of monkeys. One Chinese variant of the Mahakapi Jataka, story no. 56 in the Collection of Sutras, expressly calls him Mihou wang (獼猴王). A second Chinese variant, story no. 12 in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century CE), calls him Shan mihou (善獼猴, “Good Macaque”).
Journey to the West uses the term Mihou wang (獼猴王) three times to refer to the same character. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this twice as “Macaque King” (ch. 3 & 4) but later changes it to “Female Monkey King” (ch. 41). Despite the original Chinese referring to the character as the “fifth brother” (wuge, 五哥), Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) appears to represent them as a woman based solely on the association of mihou (獼猴) with female monkeys. However, not even Journey to the West follows this association, for out of 13 mentions of the term, over 61% refer directly to Liu’er mihou (六耳獼猴), Sun Wukong’s six-eared doppelganger. In addition, mihou (獼猴) and mi (獼) are even used in the novel to refer to monkeys as a whole.
The term mihou (獼猴) is just one of several transcriptions for a non-Chinese word used in China for millennia to mean “macaque” or “monkey.” Dynastic sources show that the association with female monkeys is a misunderstanding based on changes in dialect, along with differences in transcription. Said changes include muhou (沐猴, “bathing monkey”), muhou (母猴, “mother monkey”), and of course mihou (獼猴). Therefore, the word can be applied to either male or female monkeys.
The last point is exemplified in Buddhist literature. A 3rd-century CE Chinese version of the Dasaratha Jataka, which retells the Hindu epic Ramayana (5th-century BCE), references the great battle between the monkey king brothers Sugriva and Vali and calls the former Mihou (獼猴). A 3rd-century Chinese version of the Mahakapi Jataka, which tells of the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, also refers to him as Mihou wang (獼猴王). And a 5th-century variant of the same story refers to the Enlightened One as the Shan mihou (善獼猴), or “Good Macaque.”
Sun Wukong calls himself the Meihou wang (美猴王, “Handsome Monkey King”) throughout JTTW. While it serves as an example of his ego-driven personality, I can’t help but think that meihou (美猴) is a play on mihou (獼猴). Recall that even the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king is referred to as Mihou wang (彌猴王) in Chinese sources.
It just dawned on me that Sun Wukong’s precursor, Hou xingzhe (猴行者, the “Monkey Pilgrim”) from the 13th-century JTTW, is also called Mihou wang. Chapter two refers to him as Huaguo shan ziyun dong bawan siqian tongtou tie’e Mihou wang (花果山紫雲洞八萬四千銅頭鐵額獼猴王, the “Bronze-Headed, Iron-Browed King of the Eighty-Four Thousand Monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits”) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). This adds to the evidence that mihou refers to monkeys as a whole and not just female macaques.
1) See Mair, 1989, pp. 676-678 for a full English translation.
Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate. In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.
Van Gulik, R. H. (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, C. & Jenner, W. J. F. (2020). Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.