The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Last updated: 01-24-2022

Sun Wukong‘s golden headband (jingguquan, 金箍圈) (fig. 1) is an instantly recognizable part of his popular iconography. Anyone who’s read Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) will know that it painfully tightens around our hero’s skull to correct any unsavory behavior. “What kind of behavior?” someone might ask. Well, mass murder, of course! In chapter 56, for example, Monkey’s Buddhist master Tripitaka recites the spell to punish him for beating a group of bandits to death with his magic staff and beheading one of them with a blade (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 89).

Fig. 1 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden headband (larger version).

This spell is first revealed to the monk by Guanyin in chapter 14:

I have a spell which is called the True Words for Controlling the Mind [dingxin zhenyan, 定心真言], or the Tight-Fillet Spell [jingu er zhou, 緊箍兒咒]. You must memorize it secretly; commit it firmly to your memory, and don’t let anyone learn of it […] When [Sun Wukong] returns, give him…the cap [containing the headband] to wear; and if he again refuses to obey you, recite the spell silently. He will not dare do violence or leave you again” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 317).

You can see the exact words are never revealed. This is not surprising, though, as the spell is one of the few things in the entire Buddho-Daoist cosmos that can control Sun Wukong. Tripitaka’s life would be in danger and the journey would be doomed if any villains got ahold of this secret. But … what if … we could guess the spell, just for fun? I’d like to suggest a mantra based on historical religious beliefs and iconography. This thought experiment was written for the benefit of artists and fanfiction writers looking to create more accurate portrayals of the novel and its characters.

I. The Band’s Religious Background

As I note in this article, the golden fillet is based on a ritual headband worn by Buddhist ascetics in ancient India. The Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, 8th-c.) states yogins must wear the band and a list of other prescribed ritual items in their worship of the wrathful protector deity Heruka (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Most importantly, the tantra states the band symbolizes the Buddha Akshobhya (Ch: Achu, 阿閦; Budong, 不動; lit: “Immovable”) (fig. 2), who gained enlightenment through moralistic practices of right speech and action (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251; Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 27).

Fig. 2 – A depiction of Akshobhya (larger version). Artist unknown. The buddha’s iconography is as follows: “[He] is represented seated…with the legs locked and both feet apparent. There are often wheels marked on the soles of his feet, or a protuberance like a button, resembling the urna on the forehead. His left hand lies on his lap in ‘meditation’ mudra. His right touches the earth with the tips of the outstretched fingers, the palm turned inward. This is called the bhumisparsa or ‘witness’ mudra” (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36). 

Akshobhya and the other esoteric Wisdom Buddhas are sometimes depicted as small figures or colored jewels in the headdress of the Manjusri Bodhisattva (and other Buddhist personages) (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 37; Vessantara, 1993, p. 155). The buddha is symbolized by the color blue (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36). A cursory Google image search shows the blue jewel is often set in the top most position over Manjusri’s forehead (fig. 3).

This might suggest a more religiously accurate version of Sun Wukong’s golden headband would include a figure or jewel representing Akshobhya.

Fig. 3 – A modern painting of Manjusri by Ben Christian (larger version). Image found here

II. The Mantra

Given the above information, I’d like to suggest the tightening spell for Monkey’s headband—within the context of our thought experiment—is the buddha’s mantra: Oṃ a kṣo bhya hūṃ (fig. 4). This can be very roughly translated as “Praise to the Immovable One!”. Om and Hum are both holy syllables invoking spiritual power and enlightenment, respectively. They also appear in the more well-known Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ (Ch: An mo ni ba mi hong, 唵嘛呢叭咪吽). One Chinese version of the Akshobhya mantra appears to be “An a bie zha zhi ga hong hong” (唵 阿別炸枝嘎 吽吽).

Reciting this to rein in Sun Wukong not only references the band’s historical and religious connection to Akshobhya but also serves as a physical reminder of right speech and action (how the deity gained buddhahood). It’s Tripitaka’s way of screaming, “Stop murdering everyone within arm’s reach!”

Image

Fig. 4 – The Siddham version of the mantra (larger version). Image found here.

There’s a longer chant associated with the buddha called the “Mantra of Akshobhya” (Achu fo xinzhou, 阿閦佛心咒) (video 1). It’s interesting to note that the historical Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based) is known to have translated a version of the mantra. [1] I’ll leave it up to you which one you like better.

Video 1 – A chant of the mantra.


Update: 01-24-22

The DC Comics’ story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” presents the spell as the Nianfo (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie) reciting “Amituofo” to activate the golden headband on the Monkey Prince, son of the original Monkey King (larger version). From Yang, 2021, p. 80. Copyright DC Comics.

Note:

1) The Chinese source refers to Akshobhya as the “Immovable Buddha” (Budong rulai, 不動如來).

Sources:

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Getty, A. (1988). The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History, Iconography and Progressive Evolution through the Northern Buddhist Countries. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Original work published 1914)

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Vessantara. (1993). Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. United Kingdom: Windhorse Publications.

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

Yang, G. L. (2021). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

Review of DC Comics’ Monkey Prince #0

Last updated: 12-24-2021

The DC Comics character the Monkey Prince (Ch: Hou wangzi, 猴王子; a.k.a. “Marcus”, Makusi, 馬庫斯), son of Sun Wukong (孫悟空), first appeared in the story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” from the DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021) (Yang, 2021a). In anticipation of the character receiving his own 12-issue series in February 2022, DC released a free digital issue #0 (readable here) (fig. 1) (DC Publicity, 2021). I stated in my previous review of the Monkey Prince that I wasn’t going to evaluate issue #0 due to so many problems with the original, as well as unpromising errors in promotional material for upcoming issue #1. But I changed my mind because I want readers unfamiliar with Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), the Chinese classic on which the comic is based, to have an informed opinion about the quality of the character design and writing through the lens of the original.

Issue #0 is written by Gene Luen Yang, colored by Sebastian Cheng, lettered by Janice Chiang, and edited by Jessica ChenBernard Chang provides art for the opening and closing pages, while Billy Tan draws the “flashback” scenes, or the majority of the issue (Yang, 2021b, p. 3). Readers of my previous review will remember that Editor Chen thought up the Monkey Prince but also worked with Mr. Yang and Mr. Chang to craft “the origin and the essence of [the character] together” (Aguilar, 2021). 

Those who like this subject might fancy learning about Sun Wukong’s children in 17th-century Chinese literature. See also my review of Marvel’s Sun Wukong.

Fig. 1 – The front cover of Monkey Prince #0 (larger version). From Yang, 2021b. Copyright DC Comics.

1. Story overview

Titled “Apokolips in the Heavenly Realm”, the story opens on the Monkey Prince fighting a nest of insect-like parademon soldiers at night in Philadelphia. When asked how he knew about the nest, Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie, 豬八戒) reveals that he and Sun Wukong had fought their kind once before in the past. This took place centuries ago when Darkseid, a despotic New God, sent his army to conquer the heavenly realm. A flashback shows the Bull Demon King (Niu mowang, 牛魔王), his wife Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主; a.k.a. “Rākṣasi”, Luocha, 羅剎), their son Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), the immortal Erlang (二郎), and the child god Nezha (哪吒) standing against a wave of invading vanguard warriors and a sea of parademons (fig. 2). In the initial clash, Princess Iron Fan uses her famous palm-leaf fan (bajiao shanzi, 芭蕉扇子) to attack Mad Harriet, and the Bull Demon King protects his wife by punching Kalibak. But Big Barda incapacitates Red Boy with a sneak attack from behind. Luckily, the Monkey King swoops in at the last moment to save him from a second, fatal blow. Pigsy thereafter takes Red Boy’s place and strikes at the warrioress with his battle rake.

At the height of battle, Sun and Erlang sense something traveling through time and space. This is revealed to be Darkseid himself when he arrives via boom tube. The evil god then exclaims:

“Hear me denizens of the Heavenly Realm! I am … the sovereign ruler of Apokolips! I’ve come to save you from your own incompetence! You are clearly outnumbered! If you value your lives, you will surrender immediately!” (Yang, 2021b, p. 6, panel #2).

The Bull Demon Family jointly attacks the despot with their magic weapons, but this proves futile against his invulnerable body. Meanwhile, Monkey and Pigsy find and destroy the parademon nest, thereby decimating the invaders’ numerical advantage.

Sun soon after returns to confront Darkseid, comically referring to him as “our most venerable though uninvited guest” (Yang, 2021b, p. 7, panel #3). When the New God claims to have never heard of the famous Monkey King, our hero reveals that he’s destroyed the nest. He goes on to flaunt his power by creating countless hair clones of himself, stating: “It is YOU who are clearly outnumbered” (Yang, 2021b, p. 8, panel #1). Darkseid admits defeat; though, he claims to have a future use for Sun Wukong but not the others. So he unleashes his omega beams and kills the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan. Red Boy is left to mourn over the bodies of his parents.

The issue ends with the Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy discussing how the event likely drove Red Boy to a life of villainy (Yang, 2021b).

Fig. 2 – A splash page showing some of the Journey to the West characters fighting Darkseid’s army (larger version). From Yang, 2021b, p. 3. Copyright DC Comics.

2. The art

There’s a noticeable difference in quality throughout the comic. The “flashback” by Mr. Tan has a rough, sketchy style, while the “present day” sections by Mr. Chang, are crisp and dynamic. Mr. Cheng, the colorist, should be congratulated on his amazing work because he helps elevate the mediocre pencils comprising the majority of the comic.

2.1. Character design

The panels of issue #0 are often packed with kinetic figures, making it hard to see detailed, full body images of the characters. I’ve therefore chosen to base my analysis on the character sheets from Blum (2021). I won’t be including Erlang or Nezha in the analysis as their presence is not as out of place as the others.

A major flaw is that the Journey to the West characters are presented as they might have looked during the pilgrimage instead of at the end of the novel. This doesn’t make any sense as the story takes place centuries after the events of the journey. And of course Mr. Chang has taken some artistic license with the designs instead of using descriptions from the book. But, admittedly, some are quite beautiful, such as that for Princess Iron Fan.

The Bull Demon King is depicted as a brown, minotaur-like figure with blue and red armor and matching gauntlets and boots, green pants, and a black battle ax (Blum, 2021) (fig. 3). The problem is that: 1) In the novel, the monster wields his own “cast-iron rod” (huntie gun, 混鐵棍) and a pair of his wife’s treasure swords (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 137 and 147). I’m guessing Mr. Chang got the idea for a black ax from the 2014 Chinese film The Monkey King (fig. 4). Films are obviously not a good source to use when adapting a readily available novel; 2) his armor doesn’t match that described in chapter 60:

He had on a wrought-iron helmet, water polished and silver bright; / He wore a yellow gold cuirass lined with silk brocade; / His feet were shod in a pair of pointed-toe and powdered-sole buckskin boots; / His waist was tied with a lion king belt of triple-braided silk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 137).

And 3) while the novel doesn’t note the color of his anthropomorphic form, the demon’s true form is said to be a “giant white bull” (da bai niu, 大白牛) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157). This is why the faithful 2011 TV show depicts the Bull Demon King with white fur (fig. 5). 

Fig. 3 – The Bull Demon King’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 4 – The Monkey King (2014) movie poster showing Aaron Kwok’s bull demon summoning energy from his black ax (larger version). Fig. 5 – A screenshot of the white Bull Demon King from the 2011 TV show (larger version). Image found here. Take note of his iron staff.

Princess Iron Fan is portrayed with jewelry and makeup, a layered coif, and an elegant, multi-colored dress (fig. 6). A mini version of her palm-leaf fan is shown tucked inside a white belt at her waist (Blum, 2021). The problem is that: 1) Her main weapons in the novel are a pair of “blue-bladed treasure swords” (qingfeng baojian, 青鋒寶劍); [1] 2) the fan is reduced to a small leaf and kept inside her mouth, and when full size, it is 12-feet long (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 145). This obviously differs from the small, handheld weapon shown in the comic (Yang, 2021b, p. 4, panel #1); and 3) most importantly, chapter 61 expressly states that Princess Iron Fan forsakes her lavish clothing to dress as a renunciate upon the defeat of her husband:

When Rākṣasi heard the call [of the Bull Demon King], she took off her jewels and her colored clothing. Tying up her hair like a Daoist priestess [daogu, 道姑] and putting on a plain colored robe like a Buddhist nun [biqiu, 比丘] [fig. 7], she took up with both hands the twelve-foot long palm-leaf fan to walk out of the door (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 161).

She thereafter follows a reclusive life of self-cultivation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). So there is a huge contrast between her comic book design and how she looks at the end of her story arc.

Fig. 6 – Princess Iron Fan’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 7 – A drawing of a Buddhist nun (larger version). Image found here. Just imagine Raksasi with her hair tied into a knot on top and perhaps wearing grey-blue robes.

Red Boy is portrayed as a muscular teenager with a red and black undercut hairstyle, a small, purple cape, a bare chest and shoulders with a red, armored stomacher and matching gauntlets and boots, and purplish-blue, baggy pants. Flaming jewels(?) adorn the armor on his stomach, forearms, and knees (fig. 8). He wields a golden, red-tassled spear with a partitioned blade (Blum, 2021). The problem is that: 1) Red Boy’s weapon is described in chapter 41 as an “eighteen-foot fire-tipped lance” (zhangba chang de huojian qiang, 丈八長的火尖槍) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 222); and 2) he’s depicted as a small child in the novel. He’s said to be huskier than Nezha, with a powder white face, deep red lips, and beautiful, black hair (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 222). In fact, his nickname is the “Great King Holy Infant” (Shengying dawang, 聖嬰大王) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 219). [2] And after his defeat at the hands of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (Guanyin pusa, 觀音菩薩), he becomes her disciple, taking the religious name “The Child Sudhana” (Shancai tongzi, 善財童子; lit: “Child of Goodly Wealth”) (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 354). So he definitely shouldn’t look like a teenager; and 3) Guanyin subdues the fiery demon with gold circlets that squeeze his head, wrists, and ankles (fig. 9) (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 251). This story is used to explain the presence of golden bracelets and anklets on modern religious statues of the deity (fig. 10). So a child-like appearance and golden bands are associated with Red Boy in both literature and religion, and yet we see these are totally absent from Mr. Chang’s design.

Fig. 8 – Red Boy’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 9 – A modern drawing of the literary demon (larger version). Image found here. Take note of the rings on his wrists and ankles. Fig. 10 – A modern day religious statue of Sudhana (larger version). 

Lastly, Sun Wukong is depicted wearing a purple gold cap with lingzi (翎子) feathers, golden armor with a blue cape and gauntlets, a tiger skin kilt, and red pants with black boots (fig. 11) (Blum, 2021). He wields a golden staff with dragon finials spiraling down each tip like a corkscrew. The problem is that: 1) Chapter 3 describes the staff as a bar of black iron banded on each end with a golden ring (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135); 2) while the armor design is similar to early depictions of the Monkey King (minus the blue cape and gauntlets and the tiger skin kilt), the novel implies that it was stripped from his body once he was captured by heaven. I quote from my previous article (see section 2.2.):

Contrary to popular belief, Sun does not wear the armor throughout the entire story. Though not openly stated, the novel suggests it is stripped from the monkey when he is captured by heavenly soldiers in chapter six: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breast bone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). Obviously the knife wouldn’t have punctured the magic armor. And after heaven fails to harm his body during an attempted execution, one celestial reports:

Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). (emphasis mine)

Prior to his turn in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace in chapter seven, the story again references the knife in Monkey’s breastbone, suggesting he is still naked: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). One late-Ming woodblock print actually portrays him naked upon his escape from the furnace (fig. 16). Most importantly, after being released from his 600 plus-year-long imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain, Monkey is expressly described as being “stark naked” (chi tiao tiao, 赤條條) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309).

Monkey escaping from Laozi's 8 trigrams furnace - from Mr. Li Zhuowu's Literary Criticism of Xiyouji, later 16th-early 17th-c. - small


Fig. 16 – Wukong in his birthday suit escaping from Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace (larger version). From Mr. Li’s Criticism (late-16th to early-17th-c.).

This means he wouldn’t have worn the armor during the entirety of the journey (ch. 14 to 100); and 3) most importantly, the Monkey King is elevated in spiritual rank at the journey’s end, becoming the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛; a.k.a. the “Victorious Fighting Buddha”) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381). Religious depictions of this historical deity portray him wearing the traditional robes of a Buddhist monk and holding a symbolic sword and suit of armor in his hands (fig. 12). So Sun Wukong should be portrayed as a Buddha and not an armored warrior (fig. 13). 

Fig. 11 – Sun Wukong’s character design (larger version). Image from Blum (2021). Copyright DC Comics. Fig. 12 – The Buddha Victorious in Strife holding a sword and suit of armor (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 13 – A modern drawing of Monkey as a Buddha by Tianwaitang on deviantart (larger version).

Someone might ask: “Who cares what the characters look like?” Well, the creative team had two choices when they elected to adapt Journey to the West. One, they could have done so in broad strokes and laid the foundation for a fresh, new take that departs greatly from the original. An example of this is the South Korean drama Hwayugi (2017-2018), where the characters are gods disguised as humans living in modern Seoul. Or two, they could be faithful to the novel. The team sort of chose the latter as they created a main character that’s a carbon copy of the Monkey King (complete with the same strengths and weaknesses), designed secondary characters how they might have looked in the original, and Mr. Yang even references specific events from the novel in the comic story. For instance, Monkey recalls his past battle with Red Boy after saving him from Big Barda (Yang, 2021, p. 5, panel #1; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 224). So if they’re going to adhere this much to the literary source, they should have at the very least followed the descriptions provided therein. As the old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It would be like me adapting Harry Potter despite never having read the books (I’m looking at you Mr. Chang). [3] My designs would no doubt be so wildly different from the original that the characters would be nearly unrecognizable.

3. The writing

Let me begin by saying that I actually like the idea of Darkseid taking a boom tube to the heavenly realm. It’s a smart way of bridging the dimensional gap between modern comics and traditional Chinese literature. But that’s where my favorable comments end for the most part.

Mr. Yang makes some strange choices in the story. For example, making Zhu Bajie and the Bull Demon Family part of the heavenly army’s main force is odd because it overlooks the 72 commanders and 100,000 stellar soldiers from the original. [4] With the exception of Nezha, they are nowhere to be found in the comic, making it look like Sun Wukong, Erlang, Zhu, the Bull Demon King, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy are the sole defenders of heaven fighting to hold back the tide of Darkseid’s invasion (maybe this will be explained in a future issue).

Zhu Bajie would not have been involved at all because he was made the “Janitor of the Altars” (Jintan shizhe, 淨壇使者) at the end of the journey. This position allows him to constantly eat any leftover offerings on Buddhist altars (tan, 壇) from all over the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). So Zhu would have been too busy selfishly stuffing his stomach to his heart’s content.

Apart from being strange that earth-dwelling villains like the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan would defend the heavenly realm, their inclusion in the story does not mesh with the way their respective arcs end in Journey to the West. As noted above, the monster king’s true form is a giant white bull. His story ends when he is trapped in this form and taken under guard by Devraja Li Jing (李靖天王) and Nezha to see the Buddha (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 161 and 162). The details of his arc are quite similar to that of Sun Wukong: he’s an iron staff-wielding demon king nicknamed the “Great Sage”, who knows 72 changes, can adopt a titanic form, takes part in a battle of transformations with an enemy, is trapped by a joint effort from heaven and incapacitated by a circular object, and finally faces the Buddha. [5] So it’s not a stretch to suggest the Bull Demon King is also punished in a similar manner. I show in this article (see section 1) that being trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain is a reoccurring sentence for supernatural offenders in Chinese literature. And don’t forget about Monkey’s secondary punishment, a hellish diet of hot iron balls and molten copper. Therefore, the monster king would likely still be imprisoned by the time Darkseid invades heaven.

Before continuing, I should note that Mr. Yang is well aware of the Bull Demon King’s fate, for he references his literary defeat in the comic. During the flashback, the monster asks Sun Wukong: “Would a blood brother have betrayed me to a cosmic net of Buddha’s warrior guardians, Monkey?” (Yang, 2021b, p. 5, panel #3). So this makes the demon’s inclusion in the heavenly army twice as puzzling as he’s still bitter about his defeat.

Princess Iron Fan’s story ends when she “[goes] off somewhere to practice self-cultivation as a recluse” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). The novel continues: “In the end she, too, attained the right fruit [zhenguo, 正果] and a lasting reputation in the sutras” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 163). This might imply that she compounds Buddhist merit by performing good deeds or perhaps even religious miracles, becoming a sort of Buddhist saint in her own right. So I imagine she too would be unavailable to fight against the sudden invasion of Darkseid’s army.

On the contrary, Red Boy’s inclusion makes more sense because, as Guanyin’s disciple, she might send Sudhana to “test the waters” (so to speak) to see whether or not a given threat merits the intervention of a higher power. She does this, for example, in chapter six when she sends Muzha (木吒) to help fight Sun Wukong during his rebellion (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 175). But just like his senior religious brother, Sudhana surely wouldn’t be able to stand against the threat alone. He would have to work with the aforementioned heavenly commanders and stellar soldiers.

This brings me to Sun Wukong. The story does make a passing reference to his elevation in spiritual rank. When Darkseid fails to recognize Monkey’s name, our hero states: “Enlightenment sure does a number on fame” (Yang, 2021b, p. 7, panel #5). But that’s it. Sun is not presented as a Buddha, just his regular, pre-enlightened self swinging a staff and resorting to the same old tricks. The narrative could’ve been taken to a new level by featuring the Buddha Victorious in Strife.

The thing that bothers me the most about the comic is the anticlimactic confrontation between Sun and Darkseid. Neither takes any overt action against the other. In my opinion, Darkseid, who has never met the Monkey King, gives up way too easily (fig. 14). You’d think there would at least be a brief exchange of fists so they can gauge each other’s strength. And once the invader realizes he’s dealing with a powerhouse, seeing Sun then multiply himself many times over would make him think twice about sticking around. But this only dresses up the story at hand. See below for my suggested changes.

Fig. 14 – Darkseid gives up the invasion upon seeing Monkey duplicate himself (larger version). From Yang, 2021b, p. 8. Copyright DC Comics.

4. My rating

Overall, I would give issue #0 2.5 out of 5 stars. It is marred by mediocre pencils, designs that don’t match the characters’ description from Journey to the West, and a story that doesn’t agree with how the respective characters’ arcs end in the original. I gave extra points for the beautiful coloring of Mr. Cheng, though.

Now, I have to ask the question: Why would the creative team (haphazardly) cram so many recognizable Journey to the West characters into canon? The first answer is clear: DC is likely after that sweet, sweet money from the Asian market. Sure, sales stateside might get a small boost from Asian Americans, but the target demographic is likely the millions of mainland and diasporic Chinese comics readers. The second answer is that the death of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan under Darkseid’s omega beams likely sets up Red Boy’s spiral into villainy and a later battle between him and the Monkey Prince. [6] That’s right ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves some throwaway characters! It honestly would have been better (and more respectful to the original) if the husband and wife had never appeared in the comic.

5. What I would change

(My sugestions for issue #0 build off of the changes I made in the original review (section 5). Read it first to better understand my choices here.)

I would do away with the Bull Demon King, Princess Iron Fan, and Zhu Bajie. Instead, the original heavenly army would meet the brunt of Darkseid’s forces upon their arrival. Playing off of the comic story, and acknowledging my own changes, Guanyin would send her disciples Muzha and Sudhana to take part in the battle. And taking more inspiration from the comic story, I would also have Erlang arrive but instead go toe-to-toe with Darkseid. The “Small Sage” (Xiaosheng, 小聖) is after all the only god to truly defeat the Monkey King, so he would be a worthy opponent. But lets say the invader somehow gets the upper hand, and so I would pay homage to the original novel by having the Jade Emperor call on Gautama Buddha to intervene. But he instead sends the Buddha Victorious in Strife, who obviously has experience with causing havoc in heaven. The Monkey Buddha shows off his power by easily nullifying the attacks of Darkseid’s army and even negating the omega beams by turning them into a shower of flowers, reminiscent of ancient biographies of Gautama Buddha:

The host of Mara hastening, as arranged, each one exerting his utmost force, taking each other’s place in turns, threatening every moment to destroy [the Buddha, but] … Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, pp. 152 and 153).

I could borrow still more from the novel and have the Buddha Victorious in Strife make Darkseid a wager, recalling Gautama Buddha’s bet with Sun Wukong involving his cloud somersault. But instead of betting that he can’t leap from his palm, the Monkey Buddha makes a wager involving the boom tube.

This is where I run into trouble, though. I don’t know enough about the cosmic hierarchy of the DC universe to go past this point. I say this because Darkseid is considered a “conceptual being” that lives outside of time and is capable of creating avatars of himself (Darkseid (New Earth), n.d.). I’m not sure how this stacks up against DC’s concept of an enlightened being. But from a Buddhist cosmological perspective, I believe the Buddha would be more powerful because he has achieved “nirvāṇa” (Ch: niepan, 涅槃) and broken free of the wheel of rebirth (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 589-590). However, the New God, even as a deva capable of creating avatars, would still be subject to the “Desire realm” (Sk: kāmadhātu; Ch: yujie, 欲界) of Saṃsāra (Ch: lunhui, 輪迴; shengsi lunhui, 生死輪迴) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233 and 411). Therefore, I imagine the Buddha Victorious in Strife plays a trick on Darkseid and is able to trap or even destroy his avatar. As mentioned above, this would make the real villain (in his home dimension) think twice before tangling with Monkey again. 

I’m now obligated to insert my concept of the Monkey Prince into the story. Since he’s born during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), he would be alive during the attack on heaven. But as a young, inexperienced disciple, he wouldn’t take part in the battle, just hear news of it from Guanyin during the event and stories of what happened from his half-brother Sudhana after the fact. This way, the Monkey Prince would remember the invasion and yearn to do his part when Darkseid reappears in the present.

Lastly, I feel it’s necessary to give the character a name. The comic calls him the “Monkey Prince” in his hero form and “Marcus” in his human form. I think Sun Taizi (孫太子), or “Prince Sun”, is a great name as it plays off of San Taizi (三太子), the “Third Prince” (fig. 15), one of Nezha’s titles in Chinese folk religion. (Fun fact: This deity serves as a heavenly vanguard in Sun Wukong’s own religion.) Borrowing from existing religious beliefs sparks the titillating idea that Sun Taizi’s heroic deeds would earn him devotees. Beyond his own continuing spiritual cultivation, he would grow in strength as more and more believers pray to and leave him offerings! This wouldn’t be the first time a monkey god is worshiped in America.

Fig. 15 – A religious statue of San Taizi, the “Third Prince”, from the Nine Dragons Prince Temple (Jiulong taizi gong, 九龍太子宮) in Tainan, Taiwan (larger version). Photo taken by the author. 


Update: 12-24-2021

I noted in my original review that promotional material for upcoming issue #1 shows Marcus living in Gotham City prior to the events in Philadelphia. The story is said to include Batman, and a sneak peek shows the caped crusader accosting Marcus’ criminal foster parents (fig. 16). I predict that future suggested changes to issue #1 and beyond are going to become harder and harder as the comic story is fleshed out. My original changes portray the character as a young demigod who grows up in Guanyin’s earthly paradise and only later becomes acquainted with modern superheroes through happenstance. So I will have to bypass all of these flashbacks and only suggest changes to the broader story.  

Fig. 16 – The Batman panel from issue #1 (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

Notes:

1) The novel doesn’t name the swords upon their first appearance (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 124). They are named slightly later when the Bull Demon King wields them (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 147).

2) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates this as “Great King Holy Child” (vol. 2, p. 219). 

3) Mr. Chang admits that he only heard a few Journey to the West stories as a child and doesn’t know how the novel ends (Ching, 2021)

4) This is based on a passage from chapter five:

[The Jade Emperor] at once commanded the Four Great Devarājas to assist Devarāja Li and Prince [Nezha]. Together, they called up the Twenty-Eight Constellations, the Nine Luminaries, the Twelve Horary Branches, the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters, the Four Temporal Guardians, the Stars of East and West, the Gods of North and South, the Deities of the Five Mountains and the Four Rivers, the Star Spirits of the entire Heaven, and a hundred thousand celestial soldiers (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 169).

Koss (1981) counts 72 commanders from the names listed in the beginning (pp. 83-84).

5) I’ve already mentioned the iron staff above (compare this to Monkey’s weapon). The Bull Demon King takes the title “Great Sage, Parallel with Heaven” (Pingtian dasheng, 平天大聖) in chapter four (compare this to Sun’s title, the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 156-157). Most of the similarities that I mentioned happen in chapter 61. His skill with the 72 changes is referenced when he takes on Zhu’s appearance (compare this to Monkey’s ability) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 148). The battle of transformations against Sun takes place shortly after he’s overwhelmed by our hero and Zhu in combat (compare this to Monkey’s battle of changes with Erlang in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157; vol. 1, pp. 182-183). He takes on his cosmic form, a giant white bull, in a last ditch effort to defeat Sun (compare this to Monkey’s skill) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157). He is trapped on all sides by Buddho-Daoist deities (compare this to Sun’s troubles with heaven in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 159-160; vol. 1, pp. 185-186). Nezha uses his fire wheel to stop him from regrowing his severed heads (compare this to the diamond bracelet that Laozi (老子) uses to knock the Monkey King off his feet in ch. 6) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 160; vol. 1, p. 186); and he is taken to see the Buddha at the end of his story arc (compare this to Sun’s meeting with the Buddha) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 162).

6) This spiral is implied during the discussion between the Monkey Prince and Shifu Pigsy at the end of the issue (Yang, 2021b, p. 10). 

Sources:

Aguilar, M. (2021). Jessica Chen Talks Returning Favorites and the Monkey Prince’s Debut in Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. Comic Book. https://comicbook.com/comics/news/dc-festival-of-heroes-the-asian-superhero-celebration-jessica-chen/

Beal, S. (Trans.). (1883). The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king: A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/foshohingtsankin00asva/mode/2up

Blum, J. (2021). DC Festival of Heroes’ Monkey Prince Gets Solo Series. CBR. Retrieved from https://www.cbr.com/dc-monkey-prince-solo-series/

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

Ching, B. A. (2021). Meet the Monkey Prince: Yang and Chang Introduce DC’s Newest Hero. DC. https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2021/05/12/meet-the-monkey-prince-yang-and-chang-introduce-dcs-newest-hero

Darkseid (New Earth). (n.d.). DC Database. Retrieved from https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Darkseid_(New_Earth)

DC Publicity. (2021, October 15). DC’s Monkey Prince: New Series to Debut on Lunar New Year 2022. DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2021/10/16/dc’s-monkey-prince-new-series-to-debut-on-lunar-new-year-2022

Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (vol. 1 and 2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)

Yang, G. L. (2021a). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

Yang, G. L. (2021b). Monkey Prince, (0) [Digital]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://www.dccomics.com/reader/#/comics/483798

The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double

Last updated: 12-12-2021

Readers may wonder where I get my inspiration to write articles. Most of the time I seek to answer a question that pops up while reading a book or researching a subject, leading to a subsequent paper on what I learned. Other times, I simply stumble across something online. A prime example of this is the “White Ape Perfected Man” (Baiyuan zhenren, 白猿真人), a rare folk Taoist deity that I recently learned about from Facebook. He is depicted with long hair (sometimes with ear-pressing tufts) and a golden fillet, linking him to Chinese opera depictions of military monks (wuseng, 武僧) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178), thus signaling his position as a martial deity. A headdress with lingzi (翎子) feathers sometimes adorns his crown. His visage ranges from welcoming to fierce and from human to more primate-like. He wears a golden suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with the right knee resting on the seat, exposing the bottom of his foot to the viewer. This armor is sometimes draped in a colorful ritual cape. His left arm is usually bent at the elbow and the hand is clenched in a fist (or two-finger shooting mudra) or holds an immortal peach at the chest, while the other is held high and contains a fly whisk or staff. This iconography is shockingly similar to religious depictions of Sun Wukong as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖). In fact, the two deities are nearly indistinguishable apart from the ape sometimes having white hair and a white face. But this isn’t always a good indicator, though, as one Fujian tradition features a brother of the Monkey King with a white face. And other times, statues of the white ape might be plain wood or even bronze, thereby erasing any signifying color. But the best clue to his identity appears to be the combination of the fist at the chest and a raised foot while in a seated position, what I call the “fist over foot motif” (fig. 1 to 4).

I’ve previously written about magical white apes (gibbons) in relation to Tang-era Chinese literature, primate-based martial arts, and the fictional origin of Sun Wukong. I’ve even archived an entire book on the subject which surveys historical references, poems, folktales, and art spanning over 3,000 years from the Zhou to Qing dynasties. I would like to supplement this material by writing an article about the White Ape Perfected Man and his appearance in vernacular fiction and Taoist scripture. I suggest his iconography was directly influenced by Sun Wukong based on a centuries-long association between the two magic primates in popular literature.

Fig. 1 – One of the first pictures I ever saw of the White Ape Perfected Man (larger version). Photo from Facebook. Fig. 2 – A statue from an unknown temple (larger version). Photo found here. Fig. 3 – One of several statues from the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮濟宮) (larger version). Screenshot from this Facebook video. Fig. 4 – A statue belonging to Jishen Temple of Tainan, Taiwan (Tainan Jishen gong, 台南濟申宮) (larger version). Photo from Facebook.

I. Religious Story

I traveled to the Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple in Yingge District, New Taipei, Taiwan (Yingge Hongde Gong Sun Bin Miao, 鶯歌宏德宮孫臏廟) (fig. 5) to gather material for this article. Unfortunately, the temple’s statue of the White Ape Perfected Man (fig. 6) was out for repairs on the day of my visit. But I collected information about the deity from the temple’s history book (fig. 7). The ape god is associated with Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE) (fig. 8), a deified military strategist of the Warring States period, and is revered as a transmitter of divine knowledge. [1] A rough translation of his religious story follows:

“The White Ape Steals a Peach and Offers a Heavenly Book” (Baiyuan toutao xian tianshu, 白猿偷桃獻天書)

According to legend, when Sun Bin was studying military arts under Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xiansheng, 鬼谷先生), he opened a plot of uncultivated land on the side of Yunmeng Mountain (Yunmeng shan, 雲夢山) and grew a peach orchard with big, fleshy, and delicious fruits using his teacher’s method. At the foot of the mountain lived a mother and son who depended on each other. The son looked like a monkey because his body was covered with white hair, and so he was known as the “Little White Ape” (Xiao baiyuan, 小白猿). His mother was constantly sick and occasionally dreamed of a transcendent pointing and saying, “Eat the immortal peaches on Yunmeng Mountain and your illness will be cured”.

The white ape was a filial son, and so he went to steal a peach for his mother but lost his way. Sun caught the boy and asked him why he would steal from the orchard. Once he heard of the ape’s sick mother, he gave him the peach. The mother ate the fruit and recovered. In return, the white ape gave Sun a heavenly book of military strategy (bingshu, 兵書) passed down from his ancestors, saying, “Thank you for your life-saving grace”.

Another version of the story states the Yunmeng peach was so famous for its large size, fleshy fruit, and delicious taste that, upon hearing of it, the Queen Mother of the West sent the white ape to steal it for her Peach Banquet.

This last part is a reversal of Sun Wukong stealing the Queen Mother’s peaches in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). [2]

Fig. 5 – The Sun Bin Shrine of Hongde Temple (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – A detail of the temple’s White Ape Perfected Man’s statue (larger version). See fig. 8 for a full version. Fig. 7 – A page from the temple’s history book (larger version). Note the bronze statue of the White Ape, including the lingzi headdress. Photo by the author. Fig. 8 – The central statue of Sun Bin (larger version). Note the position of the white ape in front of Sun. Photo from Facebook.

Astute readers will notice that the tale does not touch on the white ape’s religious title, the “Perfected Man” (Zhenren, 真人). Perfected individuals rank among the highest transcendents of the celestial hierarchy and even rule over lower immortals residing in various earthly paradises (Miura, 2008). This contrasts with the meager, filial son presented in the story. It also contrasts with the white ape’s iconography as an armor-clad martial deity. Perfected individuals are usually portrayed as lofty immortals wearing robes decorated with Daoist symbols (Stevens & Welch, 1998, for example). 

I reached out to the Zhenji Temple of Bade District, Taoyuan, Taiwan (Taoyuan Bade Zhenji gong, 桃園八德鎮齊宮), where the White Ape Perfected Man is worshiped as the main deity (zhu shen, 主神) (fig. 9), to make sense of these disparate strands. However, they did not get back to me by the time this article was ready for publication. I’ll make an update when new information becomes available. But until then, I suggest his martial iconography was directly influenced by depictions of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, whose cult is far more prevalent in Taiwan. This proposed connection to Sun Wukong becomes even more evident when the information below is taken into account.

Fig. 9 – Zhenji Temple’s main White Ape Perfected Man statue (center background) surrounded by various smaller figures (larger version). The statue in the left foreground looks very similar to the Great Sage apart from the fist over foot motif. Image from Facebook.  

II. Vernacular Fiction

The White Ape Perfected Man’s religious story can be traced directly to The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (Sun Pang douzhi yanyi, 孫龐鬥智演義, 1636; a.k.a. The Former and Latter Annals of the Seven Kingdoms, Qianhou qiguo zhi, 前後七國志), which tells of the great struggle between Sun Bin and his former friend and classmate Pang Juan (龐涓). The two study supernatural military arts under the Immortal Master Ghost Valley (Guigu xianshi, 鬼谷仙師) in his “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) before their fates take separate paths and they become bitter enemies. Chapter four sees the teacher appoint Sun as guardian of an immortal peach tree on the backside of Yunmeng Mountain. But the young disciple is surprised to discover a talking white ape stealing peaches night after night. When asked how it can speak, the primate reveals his aristocratic family has been soaking up immortal qi energy for three generations northwest of the Master’s cave. His ancestor is the Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯), [3] his father the Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公), [4] and his mother the Princess Mountain Blossom (Shanhua gongzhu, 山花公主). [5] When asked why he’s stealing peaches (fig. 10), the white ape reveals he’s trying to cure his mother of an illness and that she will die unless the treatment is completed. Taking pity on the filial primate, Sun picks the last peach needed and gives it to the white ape, telling him never to return to the orchard. The grateful son repays the favor by stealing three scrolls of heavenly books (tianshu, 天書) from Master Ghost Valley’s secret hiding place to give to his mother’s savior.

But Sun Bin mistakenly incurs the wrath of heaven not only because he acquires the books before he’s fated to but also because he fails to ritually cleanse himself before reading them. Master Ghost Valley is forced to intervene on his student’s behalf by teaching Sun how to hide from heavenly punishment (da zainan, 大災難, lit: “great tribulation”) by meditating in a cave for 49 days (Wumen xiaoke & Yanshui sanren, 1636).

This novel shares many elements with Journey to the West. Both include:

  1. Characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a “Water Curtain Cave”. [6]
  2. Sun characters studying under an immortal master (Master Ghost Valley VS Master Subodhi). [7]
  3. Sun characters being directed to guard trees laden with immortal peaches (one tree on earth VS an entire grove in heaven). 
  4. Supernatural primates stealing the magic peaches for consumption (the white ape VS the Monkey King). [8]
  5. Sun characters defying their fate and incurring the wrath of heaven, thereby learning from their masters how to hide from punishment (Sun Bin Vs. Sun Wukong). [9]

Fig. 10 – A lovely New Years print depicting scenes from the story, including the “White Ape steals peaches” (right) and the “White Ape is filial to mother” (left) (larger version). The right print includes Master Ghost Valley and a young Sun Bin. Print found here.

It’s important to note that there is also some overlap between The Battle of Wits and Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). I quote from my previous article:

[The rogue immortal Huaguang (華光)] works to end his mother’s demonic lust for flesh by procuring an immortal peach in chapter 17. He does this by transforming into Sun Wukong and stealing the magic fruit from heaven. The real Monkey King is subsequently accused of his double’s misdeeds, much like the Six-Eared Macaque episode of the original novel. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give Sun a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit.

So we have two magical primate characters (the white ape VS Huaguang-as-Sun Wukong) that steal immortal peaches to help cure their mothers. This association with the rogue immortal might then explain why the statue of the White Ape Perfected Man from figure one has a third eye. Huaguang’s various incarnations are described as having three eyes in Journey to the South (for example) (Yu, n.d.).

Therefore, it seems that these later novels borrowed from Journey to the West, as well as each other. But I will show the theme of a primate stealing fruit actually predates the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West by hundreds of years, suggesting it too borrowed from an earlier source.

III. Taoist Literature

The story of Sun Bin and the white ape actually prefaces the first scroll of the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin (Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing, 太上六壬明鑑符陰經) (a.k.a., the Ape Book, Yuanshu, 猿書), [10] a Northern Song-era work related to the Taoist doctrine of the Three Sovereigns (Steavu, 2019, p. 195). Instead of peaches, the tale just says “fruit” (guo, 菓). But I imagine the produce is something special like immortal peaches as Sun guards them with a weapon. A rough translation follows (I have skipped over some of the more esoteric parts that escape me):

[Master Ghost Valley] saw the fruit had ripened, so he commanded Sun to watch over it. One night a person jumped the wall into the nine gardens and took some of the fruit. But Sun was hiding with a sword and caught the culprit, a white ape. The primate said: “Don’t hurt my body. I share the same age as heaven and earth and have lived as long as the sun and moon. I have mysterious texts (xuanwen, 玄文). Wait for me the next day and I will give them to you”. The white ape then transformed into white light and left. Sun waited the following day. Suddenly, he saw the white ape fly from the northwest. He was given one scroll of mysterious texts. The primate again transformed into white light and headed towards the southeast. Sun then returned to his room to inspect the text. He didn’t know the name but saw that it was divided into three volumes: initial (shang, 上), middle (zhong, 中) and final (xia, 下). He named it after the white ape (Taishang liuren, n.d.).

The story of a magic monkey stealing peaches was already present in the Journey to the West story cycle by the 13th-century, for the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), Sun Wukong’s predecessor, admits to raiding the Queen Mother’s orchard when he was still a young immortal (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). But the preceding Daoist scripture indicates the motif is even older. [11] In addition, the scripture shows the idea of a character surnamed Sun (Sun Bin) guarding special fruit predates the motif in the standard Ming edition of Journey to the West. It’s not a stretch then to suggest the Most High Luminous Mirror (or related media) influenced the 13th and later 16th-century versions of the story. Therefore, it’s possible the tales of Sun Bin, the white ape, and Sun Wukong have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years.

This centuries-long association between the magical primates in literature then strengthens my suggestion that the White Ape Perfected Man’s iconography was directly influenced by that of Sun Wukong. Drawing upon a well of preexisting cultural beliefs and imagery likely helped the cult of this relatively recent deity establish itself faster, allowing him to take his place in a rapidly evolving religious landscape where ever newer gods are constantly added to the ranks of their older brethren.

IV. Conclusion

The White Ape Perfected Man is a rare folk Taoist deity associated with revealing heavenly scriptures to the Warring States military strategist Sun Bin (4th-cent.). His statues depict him as a seated, armor-clad primate with a “fist over foot” motif and the long hair and golden fillet of military monks from Chinese opera. This martial iconography conflicts with the deity’s title, “Perfected Man”, a high-ranking immortal usually depicted wearing robes. It also conflicts with his own religious story, which presents him as a meager, filial son who steals immortal peaches to cure his sick mother. I suggested above that his religious imagery was directly influenced by depictions of Sun Wukong as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. Beyond shockingly similar iconography, both primate deities have a long association in Chinese popular literature. The white ape appears in The Battle of Wits Between Sun and Pang (1636), which shares many similarities with Journey to the West (1592). These include characters surnamed Sun (孫) (Sun Bin VS Sun Wukong) living in a Water Curtain Cave, studying under immortal masters (Ghost Valley VS Subodhi), guarding immortal peaches, and hiding from heavenly punishment. It also includes supernatural primates (the white ape VS the Monkey King) stealing the life-prolonging fruit for consumption. The number of similarities suggests The Battle of Wits borrowed from Journey to the West. The theft of immortal peaches is already present in a 13th-century version of Journey to the West, but this is preceded by a tale appearing in a work from Taoist canon, the Scripture of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin. It describes the white ape stealing fruit from a garden protected by Sun Bin. It’s possible the Monkey King’s early story cycle was influenced by this scripture (or related media), suggesting the stories of Sun Wukong, Sun Bin, and the white ape have been borrowing from each other for hundreds of years. This centuries-long connection lends support to the martial iconography of Sun Wukong influencing the religious imagery of the White Ape Perfected Man.


Update: 12-11-21

I was under the impression that the White Ape Perfected Man is a deity specific to Taiwan (albeit with a mythos connected to China). But Palmer and Siegler (2017) quote a certain Master Hu, a monk of Mt. Hua in Shaanxi province, China, who claims the immortal taught him a system of primate-based martial arts:

I learned [White Ape Through the Back Boxing] spontaneously; it was transmitted to me by the White [Ape] Immortal (Baiyuan zhenren). When I start, he comes down into me, and I do the forms spontaneously. In the future, perhaps I will arrange it into a method in stages that can be taught to others. The White [Ape] Immortal first transmitted the method to humans in the spring and autumn period (770–476 BC), but owing to the poor moral quality of the inheritors of the method, it was lost. Now, it has been transmitted directly to me by the Immortal (pp. 120-121).

The notion of a white ape revealing knowledge matches with what I have described above. Teaching boxing also aligns with the martial iconography. But northern China is so far removed from the available information that I have to question whether or not this a different figure with the same name. I’ve written the authors to see if I can learn more about this Chinese variant.

Also, Master Ghost Valley’s association with the Water Curtain Cave goes back to at least the Northern Song as his Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) lists him as the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主) (Andersen, 2019). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with the caves of the Master (and Sun Bin) in The Battle of Wits between Sun and Pang (1636) and Sun Wukong in Journey to the West (1592). But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth. This might suggest, apart from the guarding and theft of immortal peaches, other elements from Sun Bin’s story cycle were borrowed by that of the Monkey King.


Update: 12-12-21

I mentioned in the introduction white face and hair are not always the best indicators that a figure is the White Ape Perfected Man. Take, for example, some depictions of Sun Wukong in glove puppetry (fig. 11).

Fig. 11 – A Taiwanese glove puppet of the Monkey King (larger version). Photo found here.

Notes:

1) The idea of a white ape sharing heavenly knowledge goes back centuries. For example, one 4th-century source reveals Zhou Qun (周羣/群, 3rd-cent.) learned the art of divination from a book of bamboo slips given to him by a gibbon-turned-old man in the Min Mountains (Gulik, 1967, p. 50).

2) Sun is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves in chapter four. He starts eating the life-prolonging fruit early in his tenure, and his theft is eventually discovered by attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 160 and 162-163).

3) The Marquis of Baxi (Baxi hou, 巴西侯) is an ape spirit appearing in a story from the Song-era Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). A retired official from Sichuan is invited to an eerie, drunken party by the Marquis, only to wake up the next morning to find his host was a gibbon and all of the other guests were also animal spirits (Gulik, 1967, pp. 67 and 68-69).

4) The only Duke Macaque (Ju gong, 狙公) that I’m aware of is a human keeper of monkeys from a parable on freedom appearing in The Collected Works of Bowen (Chengyi Bowen ji, 诚意伯文集, 14th-cent.). I’m not sure if the novel is claiming the ape has a human father, or if it’s just a vague reference to a character from Chinese literature with a connection to primates.

5) I can’t find any information on this character. But given the ancestor and father, I’m sure the mother is associated with apes or monkeys in some way.

6) Wukong becomes king of the monkeys in chapter one by discovering a cave, the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong水簾洞), behind a waterfall. His people soon after take residence inside (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 104-106).

7) See my article on Master Subodhi’s curriculum.

8) See note #2.

9) Monkey learns the 72 transformations in order to escape heavenly punishments of lightning, fire, and wind sent to kill him for defying his fate by attaining immortality.

10) Steavu (2019) calls it the “Monkey book” (p. 195), but a gibbon is an ape, so I have adjusted the translation accordingly.

11) I suggest in this article that the supernatural ape stealing peaches motif could be a mixture of a Sinicized version of the Great Monkey jataka tale, in which the Buddha’s reincarnation as a monkey king leads his people to raid an imperial fruit garden, and the theft of immortal peaches by the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), who is subsequently exiled to reincarnate as the Han-era jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔).

Sources:

Andersen, P. (2019). Guigu zi tiansui lingwen 鬼谷子天隨靈文. In K. Schipper and F. Verellen (Eds.), The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (p. 1239). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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

Miura, K. (2008). Zhenren. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol. 1 & 2 (pp. 1265-1266). Longdon: Routledge.

Palmer, D. A., & Siegler, E. (2017). Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Steavu, D. (2019). The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Stevens, K., & Welch, J. (1998). XU, The Daoist Perfected Lord Xu Zhenjun 許真君 The Protective Deity of Jiangxi Province. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3, 137-146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23889813

Taishang liuren mingjian fuyin jing juan yi (n.d.). [Book of the Most High Luminous Mirror of the Six Ren Tallying with Yin: First Scroll]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=465883#p3

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.

Wumen xiaoke, & Yanshui sanren (1636). Qianhou qiguo zhi [Annals of the Seven Kingdoms]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=736295#p89

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=506975&remap=gb#%E5%8D%8E%E5%85%89%E4%B8%89%E4%B8%8B%E9%85%86%E9%83%BD

Archive #28 – Tripitaka’s Reincarnation and its Connection to Ancient Greek and Egyptian Philosophy

The Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang) is depicted in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子) (fig. 1), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. This deity is banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time comes for him to build merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise. His crime of not paying attention to the Buddha’s lectures and subsequent exile to the mortal realm is encapsulated in part of a poem from chapter twelve:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Fig. 1 – A modern interpretation of Master Golden Cicada as a literal insect by Taylor-Denna (larger version). See here for the full version and the artist’s statement. Used with permission.

I. Similarities to Western philosophy

McEvilley‘s (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought reveals Tripitaka’s story is preceded by beliefs from Greek Orphic and ultimately Egyptian philosophy. For example, Empedocles (5th-c. BCE) wrote of gods being exiled from heaven for ten thousand years for the crime of murder or lying under oath. The fallen deity is believed to reincarnate into every creature of land, air, and sea (fig.3), and when their long punishment is up, they are reborn in their last life as a person of high culture, such as royalty, religious leaders, and scholars. They then return to their former heavenly station upon death (McEvilley, 2002, p. 106). [1] Plato (5th to 4th-c. BCE) specifically mentions the god undergoing ten reincarnations interspersed with thousand-year-long periods of afterlife reward or punishment (McEvilley, 2002, p. 108). [2] The multiples of ten mentioned here fascinate me as they relate to the number of Tripitaka’s incarnations.

image

Fig. 3 – A symbolic painting showing the course of life, death, and reincarnation (larger version). Artist unknown.

McEvilley (2002) continues by tracing these and related Greek and Indian beliefs to the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

The deceased must somehow be regarded as a king or prince before he is eligible to “get thee back to the heights of heaven.” Thus Ani declares, “I am crowned like unto the king of the gods, and I shall not die a second time in the underworld.” Again, the prayer is made, “May Osiris, the scribe Ani, be a prince … and may the meat offerings and the drink offerings of Osiris Ani, triumphant, be apportioned unto him.” “I am crowned,” Ani claims, “I am become a shining one, I am mighty, I am become holy among the gods.” “I am the prince of eternity.” “May it be granted that I pass on among the holy princes,” Ani prays, and he is reassured: “The god Tmu hath decreed that [Ani’s] course shall be among the holy princes.” “Horus,” the Book of the Dead says, “was like unto a prince of the sacred bark, and the throne of his father was given unto him.”

Something very like the doctrine of Empedocles is suggested, and possibly related to it as forerunner. The ba, which was once a god among the other gods, descends to earth, that is, into a body, in order to right some wrong it has done in the past; either it descended as a pharaoh or it has somehow been processed through nature for long ages until it has purified itself sufficiently to be reborn as a pharaoh; after its purification it is ready to return to the company of the gods in heaven, and this is signified by the status as pharaoh. Empedocles said the final incarnation was as a prince, a poet, or a healer. Plato said the last reincarnation was as a philosopher—but he meant philosophers to be kings. They both may be echoing an Egyptian idea either that gods are incarnated only as pharaohs or that the last incarnation is as a pharaoh. A parallel is found in the Hindu caste system, in the idea that only brahmans can attain moksa—that is, “become Osiris”; the soul must reincarnate upward through the castes before it is in position to get off the wheel.

The nature of the primal crime or ancient wrong which the soul “descended on to the earth” to set right is not clearly stated, as it is not in the Greek versions of the myth, where it is either left undefined or ambiguously declared to be either perjury or bloodshed. The Egyptian texts dwell repeatedly on this subject, but with an ambiguity not unlike that of the Greek texts. Various clues in the Greek tradition indicate that the crime which the Orphic was attempting to expiate was either the ancient war of the Titans against the gods, for which they were exiled from heaven and imprisoned in Tartarus, or their rending and devouring of Dionysus Zagreus, or both. (In the Greek tradition, as West says, “The Titans are by definition the banished gods, the gods who have gone out of this world.”) The Egyptian texts may foreshadow the Greek myth of the Titans when they refer to a primal rebellion of one group of gods against another. “O ye gods of the underworld,” Osiris Ani says, “who set yourselves up against me, and who resist the mighty ones …” Again, he says:

Hail, Thoth! What is it that hath happened unto the holy children of Nut? They have done battle, they have upheld strife, they have done evil, they have created the fiends, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble; in truth, in all their doings the mighty have worked against the weak …I am not one of those who work iniquity in their secret places; let not evil happen unto me.

The children of Nut include Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. When Ani claimed “before Isis I was,” he was dissociating himself from this contentious generation of deities in which the primal murder of Osiris by Set occurred, and claiming to have been one among the earlier generation, the “gods of the first time.” But there are also suggestions that the crime might be Set’s dismemberment of Osiris, whom Ani, in his role as Horus, avenger of his father, has to reconstitute to make reparation. Ani, in other words, might be expiating either or both of the Egyptian versions of the crimes of the Titans, and part of his strategy in doing so is to claim that he belongs to the earlier generation of gods (pp.131-133). [3]

So the crime of murderous rebellion or bearing a false oath became inattentiveness to the Buddha’s teachings in Journey to the West. And the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt became a son of Buddha punished to ten reincarnations as a mortal, his last one as a holy monk. This final point mirrors the concept of the last incarnation being a grand one as a king or holy person.

How these beliefs or related proto-beliefs came to China is unknown to me. If pressed, I would venture it involved some Buddhist text containing an ancient Indian arm of this philosophy.

II. Connection to the other pilgrims

I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention how this also relates to the other pilgrims, who are portrayed as former gods exiled from heaven for some offense. In place of several rounds of reincarnation, they are (among other punishments) forced to serve as Tripitaka’s guardians, protecting him from leagues of demons wanting to jump ahead in the cosmic hierarchy by eating the the monk’s flesh and gaining immortality. Marshal Tianpeng (Zhu Bajie) is banished for drunkenly forcing himself on the Moon goddess and reborn as a grotesque pig spirit (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212) (fig. 2). The Curtain-Raising General (Sha Wujing) is banished for breaking a treasure cup at a heavenly banquet and reborn as a monstrous water spirit plagued by a magic sword that stabs at him weekly (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 209-210). [4] The dragon prince, son of the Western Sea Dragon King Aorun, is banished for burning a heavenly pearl (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 213-214), but in place of execution, he agrees to transform into a dragon horse (a kind of rebirth) and serve as Tripitaka’s mount (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328). And even Sun Wukong is banished for his rebellion (the divine crime mentioned above) and punished to imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain. It’s interesting to note that one scholar suggests this punishment represents a symbolic death, leading to his eventual reincarnation (see Shao, 1997). (I’d like to add Sun’s additional punishment of eating a hellish diet of molten copper and hot iron balls speaks to a transitional period of afterlife punishment.) And once the pilgrims complete their penance (i.e. the journey), all are welcomed back into heaven, in this case the Buddha’s paradise

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – A Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess.

III. Archive

Below I present a PDF of McEvilley (2002). I converted it from an EPUB, meaning the page count is not the same as the physical edition cited above. I originally intended to just post chapter four, but I was afraid of breaking any internal links, so I instead posted the entire book. This is a very fascinating read. Just know that it is extremely dense and can be hard to follow at times if you lack deep knowledge in Western philosophical history and belief. 

Archive link:

Click to access The-Shape-of-Ancient-Thought-Comparative-Studies-in-Greek-and-Indian-Philosophies-2001.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been uploaded for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.

Notes:

1. This appears on page 206 of the PDF.

2. See pages 209-210 in the PDF.

3. See pages 247-249 in the PDF.

4) It could be argued that Zhu and Sha do not reincarnate but simply take on monstrous forms upon being banished to earth because they still retain their memories, weapons, and magical skills. But maybe, as immortals, they are able to affect their own rebirth by directing the final destination of their primal spirit, thereby bypassing the normal mode of reincarnation that results in the loss of memory. An example of this is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-c.), who is reborn several times and still has memories of his past and access to his holy weapons.

Sources:

McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

Archive #27 – The Journey to the West Japsang Effigies of Korean Royal Palaces

Japsang or Chapsang (Kor: 잡상; Ch: zaxiang, 雜像, “miscellaneous figurines”) are effigies of dark gray fired clay adorning the roof-hips of royal palaces in Korea. The first four of (up to eleven) figures are traditionally associated with the main characters of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (fig. 1 & 2). Tripitaka is connected to the first figure, which wears a suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with hands on splayed knees (fig. 3). Sun Wukong is connected to the second, an ape-like figure with a pointed hat, long arms, and small legs. Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are respectively connected to the third and fourth figures, which are portrayed as scaled beasts with their heads turned in different directions.

Wall (2019) reveals the earliest reference to our our heroes’ association with the japsang appears in Eou yadam (어우야담, “Eou’s Unofficial Histories”), a collection of stories by the scholar-official Yu Mongin (유몽인, 1559-1623). Yu frames knowing the names of the figures as a test for a new official:

When newly appointed officials meet their predecessors for the first time, they have to be able to tell the names of the ten divine figures on top of the palace gates for ten times. . . . The names are Master of Great Tang (Taedang sabu, 大唐師傅 [Tripitaka]), Pilgrim Sun (Son haengja, 孫行者 [Sun Wukong]), Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), [and] Monk Sha (Sa Hwasang, 沙和尙 [Sha Wujing]) (Yu, 2004, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2137).

Interestingly, Sun Wukong was eventually associated with the very nails that fastened the figures to the royal rooftops (Chang, 2004, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2137). They were called “Pilgrim Sun-Nails” ((Sonhaengja taech’ ol; Ch: (孫)行者帶鐵), [1] which implies our hero “was at some point considered representative of all roof ornaments” (Wall, 2019, p. 2137). This connection no doubt references Monkey’s adamantine body and position as the demon-conquering exorcist par excellence. After all, the japsang figurines were believed to “protect the palaces from calamities” (Ro & Park, 2015, p. 78), making them cognates for Chinese roof figurines, which serve as “guardians against fire and evil spirits” (Li, 1990, as cited by Wall, 2019, p. 2138). This is fascinating from a historical perspective as late dynastic Korea was staunchly Neo-Confucian, showing Journey to the West was so wildly popular in the “Land of the Morning Calm” that the pilgrims were able to transcend their original Buddhist associations (Wall, 2019, pp. 2137-2138).

(I also find this subject interesting because, while not officially worshiped by people of non-Chinese descent, it shows Sun served a religious function in Korea. Thus, we can add this thread to the complex tapestry of his worship in East and Southeast Asia.)

I originally intended to write my own in-depth article on japsang figures but later discovered Macouin (2003). This masterful paper explains the evolution of such roof adornments and their later association with the Chinese novel. Macouin (2003) is written in French, so I am presenting both the original and a rough English translation. I did not include the Korean and Chinese characters in the translation.

Fig. 1 – A chart of nine japsang (larger version). Notice that most feature the same basic arched back design similar to the Hebrew letter mēm (מ). Fig. 2 – Photo of a roof-hip featuring seven figures (larger version). From Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A picture of the lead figure believed to be Tripitaka (larger version). From Yogin, 2001 as cited in Macouin, 2003, p. 29. But as noted, Sun Wukong came to be associated with all japsang figures. 

I. Abstract (with translation)

French

Dans l’architecture ancienne de la Corée, à l’époque de la dynastie des Yi (1392-1910), les toits de certains bâtiments étaient ornés de statuettes protectrices, disposées en file sur leurs arêtes. À la fin du XIXe siècle, seuls les édifices peu ou prou en relation avec la fonction royale en étaient pourvus. La présence de ces figurines, à l’aspect d’animaux accroupis, est attestée au XVe siècle. Elles peuvent avoir succédé à d’autres ornements et, plus lointainement, à des tuiles spéciales à embout relevé.

Une tradition associe quatre de ces grotesques à des personnages bien connus par le roman chinois du XVIe siècle, le Xiyou ji. Plus précisément, la statuette placée en rive est identifiée au célèbre moine Xuanzang, héros de ce livre. Il est suggéré finalement que la personnification de ces statuettes pourrait être en relation avec des pratiques de bizutage.

English

In the ancient architecture of Korea, during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), the roofs of some buildings were adorned with protective statuettes, arranged in a line on their ridges. At the end of the 19th century, only buildings more or less related to the royal function were provided with it. The presence of these figurines, with the appearance of crouching animals, is attested in the 15th century. They may have succeeded other ornaments and, more distantly, special raised-toe tiles.

One tradition associates four of these grotesques with figures well known from the 16th century Chinese novel, Xiyou ji. More precisely, the statuette placed on the bank is identified with the famous monk Xuanzang, hero of this book. It is finally suggested that the personification of these statuettes could be related to hazing practices.

II. Original French Paper

Click to access Chapsang-paper.pdf

III. English Translation

Click to access Chapsang-paper-English-Translation-PDF.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been uploaded for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.

Notes:

1) For a discussion of Monkey’s “pilgrim” nickname, see section three of my previous article.

Source:

Macouin, F. (2003). Des Figurines De Toiture Coréennes, Les Chapsang. Journal Asiatique, 291(1-2), 17-34.

Ro, M. & Park, S. (Eds.). (2015). The King at the Palace: Joseon Royal Court Culture at the National Palace Museum of Korea (C. Kwon, Trans.). Seoul: National Palace Museum of Korea.

Wall, B. (2019). Dynamic Texts as Hotbeds for Transmedia Storytelling: A Case Study of the Story Universe of the Journey to the WestInternational Journal of Communication 13, 2116-2142. Retrieved from https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/10006/2648