Parallels Between the Monkey King and the Buddha

I’ve previously written about the similarities between Sun Wukong and the Water Margin bandit Wu Song. In this article, I would like to explore the similarities shared by the Monkey King and the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Ch: Xidaduo Qiaodamo, 悉達多 喬達摩). I know readers are now collectively scratching their heads in confusion and asking, “How in the world are a 5th- to 6th-century BCE Nepalese philosopher and an immortal monkey from Ming-era Chinese fiction similar?” It’s true that the particulars of their stories are different, but I will show that Wukong and the Buddha follow a similar trajectory in their early lives. Both experience a supernatural birth, spend early years as royalty, feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life, set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death, and, finally, achieve this goal through spiritual practices. For details about the Buddha’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fosuoxing za, 佛所行讚, 2nd-century), a full-length biographical poem that survives thanks to its translation into Chinese from the original Sanskrit (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 150). Information about Monkey will of course come from the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記).

I. Supernatural birth

On the day of his birth, the bodhisattva’s mother, Queen Maya, feels the urge to go to the garden of Lumbini. There, following the tradition of sage-kings, the young prince Siddhartha is born from her right side (fig. 1):

Whilst she (thus) religiously observed the rules of a pure discipline, Bodhisattva was born from her right side, (come) to deliver the world, constrained by great pity, without causing his mother pain or anguish. / As king Yu-liu [Aurva] was born from the thigh, as king Pi-t’au [Pruthu] was born from the hand, as king Man-to [Mandhatri] was born from the top of the head, as king Kia-k’ha [Kakshivat] was born from the arm-pit, / So also was Bodhisattva on the day of his birth produced from the right side; gradually emerging from the womb, he shed in every direction the rays of his glory (Beal, 1883, pp. 2-3).

Chapter one of Journey to the West describes how an immortal stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) splits open and gives birth to a stone egg, which is transformed into a stone monkey (shi hou, 石猴) by the elements (fig. 2):

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open [benglie, 迸裂], giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101) (emphasis mine).

As I’ve previously written, Wukong’s birth is likely based on the sage-king Yu the Great (大禹) and his son Qi (啟, “open”) of Xia, who are stated in various sources to have been born from stone. For example, one 4th-century tale states Yu’s pregnant wife transformed into stone out of shame for having seen her husband’s shamanic metamorphosis into a bear. Yu ordered the stone to release his son, and it split open to give birth to Qi (Birrell, 1999, p. 123). The emphasis on the stone splitting open is related to ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, [1] much like the Buddha is born from Queen Maya’s side. For instance, the Genealogical Annals of the Emperors and Kings (Diwang shiji, 帝王世紀, 3rd -century) writes:

“While traveling up in the mountains she [Yu’s mother] saw a falling star piercing the Mao region (of the sky). Then in a dream, she received and felt it, so upon swallowing a divine pearl and Job’s Tears, her chest split open and she gave birth to Yu at Stone Knob” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101).

While Yu’s mother is not a stone in this case, his birth is effected by a pearl (a type of stone) and happens in a place named after stone. Such tales establish a link between split births and stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth cycle.

Also, just like the Buddha “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” upon his birth, Wukong too produces a great light: “Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar” (fig. 3) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Fig. 1 – A stone carving depicting the birth of Siddhartha from Queen Maya’s side (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century) (larger version on Wikipedia). Fig. 2 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article. Fig. 3 – The bright light shines from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

II. Royal years

Prince Siddhartha (fig. 4) is born into the royal Shakya clan ruled by his father, King Suddhodana (Beal, 1883, p. 1). Shortly after his son’s birth, the king is told by two sages that the new heir is fated to be either a universal monarch or a cosmic sage (Beal, 1883, pp. 8-18). Suddhodana attempts to defy the latter fate by surrounding his son with royal luxury and even finding him a wife with which to have his own son:

‘My son, the prince, having a son born to him, / ‘The affairs of the empire will be handed down in succession, and there will be no end to its righteous government; the prince having begotten a son, will love his son as I love him, / ‘And no longer think about leaving his home as an ascetic, but devote himself to the practice of virtue […] Would that this might lead my son (he prayed) to love his child and not forsake his home; the kings of all countries, whose sons have not yet grown up, / Have prevented them exercising authority in the empire, in order to give their minds relaxation, and for this purpose have provided them with worldly indulgences, so that they may perpetuate the royal seed; / So now the king, having begotten a royal son, indulged him in every sort of pleasure; desiring that he might enjoy these worldly delights, and not wish to wander from his home in search of wisdom (Beal, 1883, pp. 28 and 29).

Following his birth, the stone monkey comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The stone monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers the “Cave Heaven of Water-Curtain Cave” (Shuiliandong dongtian, 水簾洞洞天), a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious,

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

The prince is born into a royal clan and yet never rules, while Wukong achieves kinghood through a test of bravery and leads his tribe for over three hundred years (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105). Siddhartha’s lack of authority is of course due to his father’s wish that he indulge in worldly pleasures and forget about leaving to become a sage. But birth tales (Sk: jataka) of the Buddha’s past lives do include several incarnations as rulers, even as a monkey king! [2]

Fig. 4 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

III. Shock at impermanence

One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his life. Not wanting his son to see anything unpleasant, King Suddhodana has the path cleared of the old, sick, and poor and decorated with beautiful canopies, banners, and curtains (Beal, 1883, pp. 30-32). But a deva raja intervenes to initiate the first of the “four signs” (Sk: caturnimitta; Ch: sixiang, 四相; i.e. old age, sickness, death, and monasticism) to cause the future Buddha to pursue a spiritual path that will ultimately lead to his enlightenment (fig. 6) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 171-172). The deva raja transforms into an extremely elderly man, and upon seeing the sight, Siddhartha is shaken when his chariot driver reveals that he too will suffer this fate:

The prince greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, ‘Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?’ / The charioteer again replied and said, ‘Your highness also inherits this lot, as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance: / ‘The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot’. Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, / Broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood up right. / Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle; so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed (Beal, 1883, p. 33).

After seeing the sign of sickness (Beal, 1883, pp. 34-35), the prince witnesses the sign of death:

(Once more) he asked, ‘What is this they carry? With streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.’ / And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, ‘This is a “dead man,” all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; / ‘His spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, / ‘Now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch (tomb).’ The prince hearing the name of death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, / He asked, ‘Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?’ Replying thus he said, ‘All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; / ‘The strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay (and die).’ The prince now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, / With bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, ‘Oh worldly men! How fatally deluded! Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; / ‘The heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not “all is vanishing!” (Beal, 1883, pp. 36-37).

After the Monkey King rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for more than three centuries, he tells his children:

Though we are not subject to the laws of man today, nor need we be threatened by the rule of any bird or beast, old age and physical decay in the future will disclose the secret sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld. If we die, shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the Heavenly beings? (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 106).

The “shock” felt by Prince Siddhartha and the Monkey King upon realizing the impermanence of life is known in Buddhism as Samvega (Ch: yanli, 厭離) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, n.d.). It’s interesting to me that Siddhartha is led to the reality of impermanence, while Monkey comes to the conclusion by himself. This is no doubt due to the differences in their lives. King Suddhodana ensures that his son lives a protected life, one free from the woes of the outside world, by surrounding him with luxury and young, beautiful palace attendants. However, Monkey rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for over three hundred years, no doubt witnessing the decline and death of many of his companions, as well as the waning of his own youth. After all, the thought of impermanence would weigh heavy on anyone nearing the end of their life. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, when his soul is taken to hell in chapter three, Monkey learns from the ledgers of life and death that he was fated to die at 342 years old (fig. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150).

Fig. 6 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 7 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

IV. Quest to overcome impermanence

Siddhartha is wracked by constant, obsessive thoughts on the dangers of old age, sickness, and death. After venturing out once more and witnessing poor farmers toiling away in the fields, he proclaims on the spot that he will find some way to oppose life’s suffering. At that exact moment, a deva affects the fourth sign by transforming into a monk (sk: bhikshu), who tells the prince:

Depressed and sad at [the] thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue, but everywhere I find old age, disease, and death, all (things) hasten to decay and there is no permanency; / ‘Therefore I search for the happiness of some thing that decays not, that never perishes, that never knows beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty, / ‘The happiness of one who finds repose alone in solitude, in some unfrequented dell, free from molestation, all thoughts about the world destroyed, dwelling in some lonely hermitage…’ (Beal, 1883, pp. 49-50).

This influences Siddhartha to forsake his royal life to become an ascetic and search for a means of escape from the evils of old age, sickness, and death. Cutting off his topknot, thus severing his royal ties, the future Buddha sets out into the world (Beal, 1883, p. 68). Siddhartha travels the land studying meditation (Sk: dhyana; Ch: chan, 禪) under various sages, pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood for years, and even practicing severe austerities that result in the emaciation of his body (fig. 8). But he eventually forsakes these extreme practices, recovering his bodily strength and vowing to achieve perfect enlightenment via meditation beneath a banyan tree (Beal, 1883, pp. 131-147).

When the Monkey King opines the injustice of impermanence, one of his advisors tells him that only three beings live beyond the reach of Yama:

There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages [shensheng, 神聖]; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).  

Monkey then pledges to find these great men and women and learn their secret means of escape from Yama’s grasp:

“Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the corners of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).

He sets sail in a makeshift raft and wonders the world for more than ten years, searching the towns and cities of the Jambudvipa continent before sailing to the Western Aparagodaniya continent. There, he is directed to the Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山, 斜月三星洞), an immortal hermitage lorded over by the great Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 9). The sage accepts him as a student and gives him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or “Monkey Awakened to the Void” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 108-115).

Both tales show that Siddhartha and Monkey set out on their respective quests thanks to outside influences. The devas intervene numerous times to guide the future Buddha’s path to enlightenment, [3] proving that the heavenly realm has a vested interest in his fate. Wukong’s journey is instead influenced by the words of his mortal advisor. In this case, the gods have no interest in the fate of such “creatures from the world below” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). This of course changes once Monkey starts causing havoc throughout the cosmos.

Fig. 8 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

V. Achieving a means of escape

The heavenly demon Mara (Mo, 魔) fears that Siddhartha will achieve enlightenment and help mankind break free from his domain, the illusionary world of Samsara, and so he leads a monstrous army against the great rishi. But the army is rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality (Beal, 1883, pp. 147-156). [4] Continuing his meditation further, the rishi perceives his myriad past lives, as well as the karmic punishment of those who covet or perform bad deeds, being tortured in hell or reborn into lower levels of existence. He then comprehends that suffering arises from clinging, clinging from desire, desire from sensation, sensation from contact, contact from the six senses, and the senses from consciousness. Finally, Siddhartha comes to the realization that breaking each link (e.g. cessation of clinging will end suffering) will stop old age, sickness, and death and ultimately destroy the endless chain of rebirths (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Having achieved perfect enlightenment (fig. 10),

the Buddha then devised for the world’s benefit the eightfold path, right sight, and so on, the only true path for the world to tread. / Thus did he complete the end (destruction) of ‘self,’ as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge; / He finished thus the first great lesson (paramartha); entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared; light coming on, perfectly silent, all at rest, / He reached at last the exhaustless source of truth (dharma); lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth (Beal, 1883, p. 163).

Journey to the West chapter two tells how Wukong serves as a junior monk for seven years before Subhuti takes him as a close disciple. One night, the sage recites him a poem full of flowery esoteric imagery revealing the secret to Daoist immortality and Buddhahood is the cultivation of chaste semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spiritual energy (shen, 神). The poem has a profound effect on Monkey, for the novel states: “At that moment, the very origin was disclosed to Wukong, whose mind became spiritualized as blessedness came to him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120). Following Subhuti’s instructions, Monkey performs breathing exercises after midnight (zi, 子) and before noon (wu, 午), resulting in immortality after three years of dedicated practice (fig. 11). [5] I should note that the book borrows from real Daoist practices but leaves much of the process up to the reader’s imagination. As I explain here, historical methods combined the aforementioned breathing exercises with the circulation of chaste semen and spiritual energy to create a spirit embryo (shengtai, 聖胎), or an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell. But in the case of the novel, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.

Interestingly, the title of chapter two also refers to Monkey overcoming Mara. It reads: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li / Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title freely associates Buddhist and Daoist concepts, such as Mara and the primal spirit. This synthesis is explained by Darga (2008):

Comparing the development of the embryo to the revelation of Buddhahood is typical of neidan texts of the Ming period. For instance, the Xingming guizhi (Principles of Balanced Cultivation of Inner Nature and Vital Force) uses Body of the Law (fashen 法身, dharmakāya) as a synonym for shengtai. The birth of the embryo represents the appearance of the original spirit (yuanshen 元神) or Buddhahood and is understood as enlightenment (p. 884).

The Buddha’s biography goes on for pages about deep philosophical concepts on the self, suffering, and reality, showing that the means of his liberation was of the utmost importance. By contrast, as noted above, Journey to the West leaves little space for Wukong’s method of immortality. In fact, the hard won moment that he breaks free of Yama’s grasp is not even mentioned in the novel! [6] So the author-compiler no doubt felt Monkey’s subsequent adventures were far more important. This is understandable considering that, in material as far back as the Song dynasty, Monkey is already an ancient immortal at the beginning of the story.

Fig. 10 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 11 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). By the author.

VI. Conclusion

Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share five similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mater in the same fashion as ancient Chinese sage-kings. Siddhartha emerges from the side of Queen Maya and Wukong forms from a stone egg birthed by a split rock. Second, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Third, they feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life. Siddhartha is exposed to the evils of old age, sickness, and death via the “four signs” initiated by heaven. Wukong instead comprehends the fearsome hand of Yama through his observation of time. Fourth, they set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death. The prince travels the land studying meditation and pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood. Monkey searches the world for over a decade before he is taken in by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti. Fifth, they achieve their goal through spiritual practices. Siddhartha defeats Mara and achieves perfect enlightenment via intense meditation. Wukong breaks free from Yama/Mara and achieves immortality via Daoist elixir arts.

Having discussed the similarities, the question now arises: Did the story of the Buddha influence the Monkey King? It’s certainly possible that the author compiler of Journey to the West drew upon events from Siddhartha’s life to make Wukong’s journey more familiar or compelling. But I can’t say for certain without further research linking specific Buddhist literature with the novel. Some of the similarities could just as easily be tropes borrowed from Daoist hagiography.


1) See Cook and Luo (2017) chapter five for more examples of split-births.

2) The “Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka, no. 407), or sometimes just the “Monkey King”, tells how the bodhisattva is reborn as a monkey who rules over eighty-thousand primates high in the Himalayas. He and his tribe live near the Ganges and eat from a large mango tree that produces succulent, water pot-sized fruits. A human monarch attempts to take the tree by force, calling on his archers to shoot the monkeys. However, the king leaps across the Ganges to the tree with a makeshift rope around his waist and makes a bridge with his body so that all eighty-thousand monkeys can escape. However, he is mortally wounded when a rival stabs him in the back with a branch. The monarch takes note of the monkey’s good deed and personally tends to him in his last few moments of life. Before dying, the monkey teaches him a valuable lesson about putting his people’s needs before his own. The monarch then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king (Cowell, 1895, pp. 225-227).

3) Other than the “Four Signs”, another example of the devas intervening in Siddhartha’s life takes place shortly after he forsakes the extreme austerities that emaciate his body. He bathes in a holy river but can’t leave the water due to weakness from malnourishment. That’s when a deva pushes down a tree branch, allowing Siddhartha to pull himself to safety (Beal, 1883, p. 144).

4) For example, one passage reads: “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, p. 153).

5) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi [子, midnight] and after the hour of Wu [午, noon]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). However, this is likely a transcription error as Daoist sources cite the opposite, after midnight and before noon (Kohn, 2008, p. 84, for example). Therefore, I have corrected the information.

6) The moment that Monkey achieves immortality is only alluded to in passing:

Suddenly he [Subhuti] asked, “Where’s Wukong?” Wukong drew near and knelt down. “Your pupil’s here,” he said. “What sort of art have you been practicing lately?” the Patriarch asked. “Recently,” Wukong said, “your pupil has begun to apprehend the nature of all things and my foundational knowledge has become firmly established.” “If you have penetrated to the dharma nature to apprehend the origin,” said the Patriarch, “you have, in fact, entered into the divine substance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121).


Beal, S. (Trans.). (1883). The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king: A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Cook, C. A., & Luo, X. (2017). Birth in Ancient China: A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or stories of the Buddhas former births: Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Darga, M. (2008) Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 883-884). Longdon: Routledge.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (n.d.). Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada. Retrieved from

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

Archive #17 – Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi (1985)

Campany (1985) discusses methods by which demons of Journey to the West move up and down the Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy. He begins by laying out the formulaic pattern of the episodes in which they appear: 1) a description of the demon’s mountain or aquatic home in poetic verse; 2) the initial encounter during which Tripitaka is tricked by the demon’s magic disguise; 3) the initial battle(s) between the disciples and the demon involving contests of magic and weapons, often described in poetic verse; 4) the battles end in a stalemate or defeat, and in the case of the latter the disciples are held captive in the demon’s stronghold; 5) Sun Wukong searches heaven and earth for the master of the demon, for the evil is usually a renegade celestial animal or protégé; 6) the demon is subdued by their master; and 7) the demon is either reintegrated or added to the cosmic order. An example of the former is the moon goddess’ jade hare (ch. 95) being taken back to heaven (fig. 1). An example of the latter is Red Boy (ch. 40-43) becoming a disciple of Guanyin.

There are two types of powerful demons who are subjugated by their master or an appropriate agent (e.g. a rooster god defeating a centipede demon). The first acquires magic powers via Daoist cultivation and, lacking celestial rank, causes havoc (think of Monkey as a young immortal). It is only through their subjugation and addition to the cosmic order that they achieve higher spiritual status. Apart from Red Boy, another example is the Black Bear spirit (ch. 16-17), who is subdued by Guanyin and installed as the guardian of her magic island. The second, being the most common, is one who previously held heavenly rank and was banished to earth. This exile is the result of breaking a rule, the need to burn off negative Buddhist karma, or because of a deficiency in their Daoist cultivation, requiring that they work their way back up the spiritual hierarchy. All five of the pilgrims fit into this category in one way or another.

Two types of demons are not subjugated by a heavenly master. The first is a lessor animal spirit who acts as a servant or soldier for a demon king. They attach themselves to this “upwardly mobile” demon because their master may aid in their own ascension via secrets of cultivation or the gift of longevity-bestowing food. Prime examples are all the (simian and non-simian) animal spirits who attach themselves to Sun Wukong after he establishes himself as a monster king. Such animal spirits are usually slaughtered after their master is defeated. The second are demons who peacefully cultivate themselves without endangering others. A prime example is the White Turtle of the Heaven-Reaching River (ch. 49 and 99) who cultivates human speech but still requires the intervention of the Buddha to evolve to human form.

Campany (1985) moves onto the hierarchy itself, noting how the level of a being’s attainment in spiritual cultivation does not affect their actual rank. This is because Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are viewed differently in the novel. Demons who cause no harm during their cultivation are left alone, while violent offenders are subjugated and added to the hierarchy. And even if an animal spirit has Daoist powers, they are still considered inferior to humans, for they are born into a lower level of the six Buddhist paths of reincarnation. These spirits, however, can move up the hierarchy based on the amount of Buddhist merit, or “right fruit” (zhengguo, 正果), that they acquire through good deeds. Additionally, the Buddha and Guanyin are generally portrayed as higher in rank than Daoist gods, even the Jade Emperor, due to their “Dharma Power” (fali, 法力). Despite this, Sun Wukong is always quick to point out when a high-ranking god, Buddhist or Daoist, has violated Confucian norms. Therefore, the hierarchy presented in the novel follows the Ming-era syncretic emphasis on mental cultivation (xiu xin, 修心).

Fig. 1 – Yoshitoshi, Jade Rabbit: Sun Wukong, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon, 1889 (larger version). From the Ronin Gallery.

The novel categorizes all beings as part of heaven, earth, or hell, each representing a realm within the hierarchy. Yet, it presents four ways to move between them: one, temporarily taking the form of a higher-ranking figure (human, immortal, deity, etc.) via magical transformation (hua, 化); two, reincarnating into a higher path (e.g. animal to human); three, attaining immortality via Daoist cultivation (or becoming human and then attaining immortality in the case of animal spirits); and four, being subjugated and added to the cosmic order.

The demons of Journey to the West are paradoxical on two counts: one, such beings are realistic, with detailed descriptions of their appearance, speech, and feelings, and yet they are often reduced to mere illusions brought forth by the unfocused or disquieted mind (Campany (1985) waits to explain this until the end); and two, they are evil from a Western perspective, but not wholly evil from an Eastern perspective. Their ambiguous nature is revealed by the Chinese hanzi used to describe them (e.g. yaojing 妖精; yaoguai, 妖怪), suggesting these beings are “undeveloped” or “bogus” and have yet to complete their cultivation. Additionally, the novel connects the demons and pilgrims with five elemental and yin-yang theory, each with its own creative/destructive or magnetic/repelling forces, suggesting a mutual relationship. This relationship is explained below.

Campany (1985) emphasizes that, while Tripitaka’s disciples are themselves former demons, what separates them from the others is “returning to the right path” (gui zheng, 歸正), or converting to Buddhism. As Daoists, they formerly cultivated the self, but as Buddhists they subsume the self to a larger whole by becoming Tripitaka’s disciples, thereby submitting to Buddhist law and cultivating Buddhist merit through their actions. This differs from demons who attempt to subsume the universe into themselves. They follow heretical practices (waidao, 外道) in pursuit of their continued self-cultivation, many seeking a “short cut” by attempting to eat Tripitaka. They don’t realize that accepting the Buddhist concept of “no self” would free them of their attachment to Daoist cultivation and that the accumulation of Buddhist merit would aid in their ascension through the cosmic hierarchy.

Powerful demons like Monkey who consider themselves greater than the universe would continue down the wrong path without the intervention of their master (or an appropriate agent) intervening to reintegrate or add them to the cosmic order. As Campany (1985) explains: “Submission of self is true cultivation of self” (emphasis in original) (p. 114). Therefore, demons rely on the pilgrims to redirect their cultivation to the right path of subsuming the self to a larger whole. An example is Lady Raksasi at the end of her story cycle.

Likewise, the pilgrims rely on the demons for several reasons: one, they help the pilgrims build Buddhist merit; two, via the concept of “non-duality“, the pilgrims learn there is no difference between themselves and the demons; and three, as mental obstacles, the demons help refine the pilgrim’s spiritual cultivation over the journey. This last point is particularly important as the illusionary nature of demons helps the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, understand that all reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “aware of emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the quest.

Campany (1985) ends the paper by explaining the first paradox:

We now see that the juxtaposition of realistic descriptions of demons and reductions of them to miasma of the mind serves as a fascinating and entertaining contrapuntal expression of the central theme of the novel, the complementary relation and ultimate identity between illusion and enlightenment. Why do demons almost always appear according to the paradigm sketched in the first part of this paper? Why this repetition, this sameness, if not to underscore the miasmic quality of the demons even as narrative details convince us of their palpable sensory reality? Why do demons put up so stubborn a resistance, if not to impress upon us the arduousness of right cultivation? The consummate artistry with which the author bodies forth in his tale the relation between illusion and reality is itself a vehicle for the perception of this relation (Campany, 1985, p. 115).

Paper link


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


Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

Generals Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear

Last updated: 04/26/20

After Monkey’s birth from stone in chapter one, two beams of light shoot forth from his eyes, [1] alarming the Jade Emperor in heaven (fig. 1). The cosmic ruler then orders the personification of his eyes and ears, generals Thousand-Mile Eye (Qianliyan, 千里眼) and Fair-Wind Ear (Shunfenger, 順風耳), respectively, to trace the source:

At this command the two captains went out to the gate, and, having looked intently and listened clearly, they returned presently to report, “Your subjects, obeying your command to locate the beams, discovered that they came from the Flower-Fruit Mountain at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Pūrvavideha Continent. On this mountain is an immortal stone that has given birth to an egg. Exposed to the wind, it has been transformed into a monkey, who, when bowing to the four quarters, has flashed from his eyes those golden beams that reached the Palace of the Polestar. Now that he is taking some food and drink, the light is about to grow dim.” With compassionate mercy the Jade Emperor declared, “These creatures from the world below are born of the essences of Heaven and Earth, and they need not surprise us” (vol. 1, p. 102).

Monkey Lazer Eyes - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s laser eyes. From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939) (larger version). 

I. History

Today, these generals are celebrated as the guardians of Mazu (fig. 2), a popular sea goddess worshiped in Southern China, Macao, and Taiwan. Thousand-Mile Eye is commonly portrayed as a fierce, red warrior scanning the horizon with one hand shielding his eyes (fig. 3), while Fair-Wind Ear is green with one hand to his ear (fig. 4). According to Ruitenbeek (1999), the story of their subjugation is told in a series of circa 1880 mural paintings from the Temple of Divine Mercy (Lingcimiao, 靈慈廟) in Fengting village (楓停), Xianyou district (仙遊), Fujian.

Thousand-Miles Eye (in the murals called Jinxing yan [金星眼], “Venus-eye”), in the disguise of a lovely girl, lures men into a cave, and then dismembers and devours them. [2] When With-the-Wind Ear sees this, he starts a fight with Thousand-Miles Eye, but in the end the two monsters pledge to become sworn brothers. Guanyin, seated on Mount Potala, orders the Dragon’s Daughter to tell Mazu to subdue the monsters. In the first round of the battle, Mazu is forced to retreat. She then implores heavenly warriors to help her, and with their assistance is able to defeat the two monsters. Thereafter, Thousand-Miles Eye and With-the-Wind Ear become her loyal servants. First they help Mazu to fight a man-eating lion, thereafter they subdue the Evil Dragon Monster (p. 316).

Mazu with generals - small

Fig. 2 – Mazu with her generals (larger version). Fig. 3 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Original artist unknown.

I am unsure when the generals where first associated with Mazu. They are only alluded to in passing as subjugated planetary spirits in the goddess’ early 17th-century pious novel Record of the Miracles Performed by the Heavenly Princess (Tianfei xiansheng lu, 天妃顯聖錄) (Ruitenbeek, 1999, p. 319). However, it is clear from their appearance in Journey to the West that they were associated with the Jade Emperor during the late 16th-century. [3] This association stretches back to at least the Shaoxing (紹興, 1131–1162) period of Song Emperor Gaozong, for they appear with the cosmic monarch among the rock carvings of the Shimen Mountain Grotto (Shimen shan shiku, 石門山石窟), one of many sites making up the world famous Dazu rock carvings in Sichuan (fig. 5-7). [4]  

Qianliyan and Shunfeng'er with Jade Emperor - Shimen Mountain Grotto - Danzu Rock Carvings - Song Dynasty - For article (small)

Fig. 5 – Song-era statues of generals Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) guarding the Jade Emperor’s alcove (larger version). From the Shimen Mountain Grotto. Photo originally from this article. Fig. 6 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Photos originally from this article

Readers will notice that, apart from being dressed differently, neither statue is striking their characteristic pose. These poses came later and may have been influenced by earlier deities. For example, Nikaido (2011) writes that a Song-era sea god named Zhaobao Qilang (招寶七郎) is sometimes depicted shielding his eyes just like Thousand-Mile Eye, and so he cautiously suggests that, once the deity’s cult waned in popularity and yielded to Mazu, this trait may have been passed on to her general (pp. 89-90). Conversely, the poses could simply be based on postures used by the very sailors who worshiped such gods. After all, keen eyesight and hearing are skills needed to successfully navigate the open ocean.

II. Golden headbands

The generals are normally depicted wearing flowing clothing or open armor to show off their muscular physiques. Apart from their divine sashes, they are commonly shown wearing golden armbands, bracelets, and / or anklets, as well as a tiger skin at the waist. These traits appear to be consistent from all the examples that I’ve seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, the statues in Taiwan stand out the most to me because they are often depicted wearing golden fillets on their heads just like Sun Wukong (fig. 8). This is because these headbands share a common origin.

Qianliyan and Shunfenger religious statues

Fig. 8 – Religious statues of Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) (larger version). Take note of the headbands. Also refer back to figures 4 and 5. Photo originally found here

I explain in this article that the golden fillet can be traced to a list of prescribed ritual items worn by ancient Buddhist yogins in their worship of Hevajra / Heruka, a wrathful protector deity. These items appear in the 8th-century Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經):

The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62; Cf. Linrothe, 1999, p. 250).

You will notice that all of the items associated with the generals, including the headband, the rings on the arms, wrists, and ankles, and the tiger skin are listed here. This is because wrathful protector deities were often depicted in the same attire as their followers, leading to the fillet becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits. For instance, the Hevajra Tanta describes Hevajra / Heruka as a wrathful youth wearing such clothing:

Dark blue and like the sun in colour with reddened and extended eyes, his yellow hair twisted upwards, and adorned with the five symbolic adornments,/ the circlet, the ear-rings and necklace, the bracelets and belt. These five symbols are well known for the purificatory power of the Five Buddhas./ He has the form of a sixteen-year-old youth and is clad in a tiger-skin. His gaze is wrathful. In his left hand he holds a vajra-skull, and a khatvahga [staff] likewise in his left, while in his right is a vajra of [a] dark hue… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 256; Cf. Farrow & Menon, 2001, p. 44).

The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455), allowing this iconography to spread eastward. A prime example is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple Pagoda carving of Sun Wukong in Fujian. He is depicted with the headband, armbands, bracelets, anklets, and possibly even a tigerskin apron (fig. 9). 

Given the close cultural connection between Fujian and Taiwan, the generals’ depiction with fillets is likely based on previous examples from the southern Chinese province.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 9 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

It’s interesting to note that Fair-Wind Ear’s statue from Shimen Mountain Grotto in Sichuan has the aforementioned body rings (refer back to fig. 6). His head is unfortunately damaged, though. I would be interested in analyzing similarly dressed guardian figures in the area to see if they wear a fillet.

Update: 04/22/20

Here is a lovely Dutch engraving of a Mazu temple from a 17th-century book by Olfert Dapper (fig. 10). The generals can be seen standing in their characteristic poses to the left (fig. 11) and right (fig. 12) of the main altar stage. Their attire includes the aforementioned body rings (and possibly tiger skin pants) but no headband.

Mazu temple with detials of generals, from Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische Maetschappye (1670) - small

Fig. 10 – Engraving from Memorable Mission of the Dutch East India Company up the Coast to China and into the Empire of Taising of China (Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Ooste-Indische Maetschappye, op de kuste en in het keizerrijk van Taising of Sina, 1670) (larger version). Image from the Clark Collection. Fig. 11 – A detail of General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 12 – A detail of General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version).

Update: 04/26/20

The Puji Temple (普濟寺) in Datong district (大同區), Taipei (near my home) includes door god paintings of the two generals (fig. 13-16). They are depicted with bejeweled headbands. These demonstrate the variability of fillet designs. 

Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear (Puji Temple, Taipei) - For Article - small

Fig. 13 – General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of his head (larger version). Fig. 15. General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 16 – Detail of his head (larger version).


1) This feat may be based on Daoist mind-training exercises where adepts try to expand their vision to the ends of the earth/cosmos. According to Robinet (1979), one source reads: “Consider that your two eyes radiate a single light which is like liquid fire and as brilliant as the stars; glowing red, it extends for ten thousand miles. The mountains, marshes, rivers, thickets and forests of the four directions are all resplendent with its light” (p. 55). 

2) Wukong states in chapter 27 that he used the same trick to eat humans:

When I was a monster back at the Water-Curtain Cave, I would act like this if I wanted to eat human flesh. I would change myself into gold or silver, a lonely building, a harmless drunk, or a beautiful woman. Anyone feeble-minded enough to be attracted by me I would lure back to the cave. There I would enjoy him as I pleased, by steaming or boiling. If I couldn’t finish him off in one meal, I would dry the leftovers in the sun to keep for rainy days (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).

3) The generals are associated with Huaguang Dadi (華光大帝) in Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). They are referred to as Li Lou (離婁) and Shi Kuang (師曠) (Nikaido, 2011, p. 90). They also make an appearance in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620). Ruitenbeek (1999) writes:

[T]hey occur, without the context of Mazu, in the guise of the brothers Gao Ming and Gao Jue. In reality, these were a Peach-tree Spirit and a Willow-tree Ogre, who had availed themselves of the divine power of two clay statues of Qianli yan and Shunfeng er in the temple of Xuan Yuan in Qipanshan. Only after these statues were smashed to pieces did they lose their power. They were subsequently transformed into Shenshu and Yulei, better known as the Door Gods (p. 319).

4) See Zhao (n.d.). These carvings are described by Hu (1994). I unfortunately don’t have access to it at the time of this writing.


Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The circle of bliss: Buddhist meditational art. Chicago, Ill: Serindia Publications.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Hu, W. (1994). Sichuan jiaodao fojiao shiku yishu [Taoist and Buddhist Sichuan rock cave art]. Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Nikaido, Y. (2011). The transformation of gods in Chinese popular religion: The examples of Huaguang dadi and Zhaobao Qilang. A Selection of Essays on Oriental Studies of the Institute for Cultural Interaction Studies. Osaka: Kansai University, 85-92.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Ruitenbeek, K. (1999). Mazu, the patroness of sailors, in Chinese pictorial art. Artibus Asia 58(3/4). 281-329. Retrieved from

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

Zhao, W. (n.d.). Yuhuang dadi jianglin Shimenshan [The Jade Emperor Descends to Shimen Mountain].  Retrieved April 21, 2020, from

Archive #15 – Sun Wukong and Chinese Medicine

In my previous article, I noted medicine was among the skills acquired by Monkey while training under the Buddho-Daoist sage, Master Subhuti. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of the Scarlet-Purple Kingdom emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, Sun is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. He deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a secret recipe and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowels, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

Monkey analyzes the Emperor's Pulse (from Mr. Li Zhouwu's Lit. Criticism) - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey uses golden threads to analyze the emperor’s pulse (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

I. Analyzing the pulse

We were telling you about the Great Sage Sun, who went with the palace attendant to the interior division of the royal palace. He stood still only after he had reached the door of the royal bedchamber. Then he told the attendant to take the three golden threads inside along with the instruction: “Ask one of the palace ladies or eunuchs to tie these three threads to the inch, the pass, and the foot sections of His Majesty’s left hand where the radial pulse are felt. Then pass the other ends of the threads out to me through the window shutters” [fig. 1].

The attendant followed his instruction. The king was asked to sit up on the dragon bed, while the three sections of his pulse were tied by the golden threads, and their other ends were then passed out to Pilgrim. Using the thumb and the index finger of his right hand to pick up one of the threads, Pilgrim first examined the pulse of the inch section; next, he used his middle finger and his thumb to pick up the second thread and examine the pulse of the pass section; finally, he used the thumb and his fourth finger to pick up the third thread and examine the pulse of the foot section.

Thereafter Pilgrim made his own breathing regular and proceeded to determine which of the Four Heteropathic Pneumatics, the Five Stases, the Seven External Images of the Pulse, the Eight Internal Images of the Pulse, and the Nine Pulse Indications were present. [1] His pressure on the threads went from light to medium to heavy, and from heavy to medium to light, until he could clearly perceive whether the condition of the patient was repletion or depletion of energy and its cause. Then he made the request that the threads be untied from the king’s left wrist and be attached as before to the positions on his right wrist. Using now the fingers on his left hand, he then examined the pulse on the right wrist section by section. When he had completed his examination, he shook his body once and retrieved his hairs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 270).

Baring the strings, Monkey’s method of reading the pulse aligns with real Chinese medicinal practice. The area of the forearm analyzed by traditional Chinese doctors is known as Cunkou (寸口, the “inch opening”), and this is broken up into the three spots Cun (寸, “inch”), Guan (關, “pass”), and Chi (尺, “foot”) (fig. 2). The mirrored spots on each arm are believed to correspond to specific internal organs. For example, the Cun spot (nearest the wrist) on the right hand corresponds to the lung, while that of the left hand corresponds to the heart (Liao, 2011, pp. 55-56). Therefore, analyzing the pulse at these spots is believed to reveal the health of the corresponding organs.

TCM hand chart

Fig. 2 – The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis. Picture originally found here.

II. The Elixir of Black Gold and its historical origins

Wukong selects his ingredients from among 808 requested substances in order to keep the recipe a secret from the foreign kingdom’s doctors. It is made from an ounce of powderizedahuang (大黃), which is said to “loosen phlegm and facilitate respiration [and] sweep out the chill and heat congealed in one’s stomach” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 273-274); an ounce of shelled, powerderized badou (巴豆), which is said to “break up congestion and drain the intestines [and] take care of swellings at the heart and dropsy in the abdomen (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); half a flask of “‘Hundred-Grass Frost” (baicao shuang, 百草霜), or frying pan soot, which is said to “soothe a hundred ailments” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); and half a flask of dragon (horse) urine, which is said to “cure any kind of disease a human may have when it is ingested” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274). The resulting paste is rolled into three pills and presented to the emperor as the “Elixir of Black Gold” (Wujin dan, 烏金丹) (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 276).

Video 1 – Episode 20 of the 1986 Journey to the West series portrays this story. See minute 19:19 for the preparation of the Elixir of Black Gold.

Andrew Schonebaum’s (2016) fascinating book Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China explains the historical significance of the real world ingredients used in this elixir. He introduces the first two ingredients to us by way of their anthropomorphization as Badou Dahuang, the ruler of the fictional Hujiao (胡椒, black pepper) kingdom from the vernacular novel Annals of Herbs and Trees (Caomu chunqiu yanyi, 草木春秋演義, c. 17th/18th-century), a work that gives human form to Chinese medicines, pitting armies of mortal, immortal, and demonic characters/remedies against one another. Badou is depicted as having the mandate of heaven (the right to rule) in his own country but wanting to invade the Han empire. This dual nature can be explained by the properties of the ingredients making up his name. Schonebaum (2016) writes:

[B]adou (croton) and dahuang (rhubarb), are two of the most common drugs in Chinese medicine. Badou is toxic and a strong purgative, and it was used to treat stagnation in the viscera and bowels, as well as to facilitate urination, eliminate malignant flesh, and purge vicious agents such as invading ghosts or worms. Dahuang is nontoxic and is sometimes referred to by the name “military general” because “the drug pushes away the old and brings in the new, like a military general putting down a riot and bringing peace” (pp. 99-100).

Regarding the “Elixir of Black Gold,” Schonebaum (2016) explains “black gold” was the name of a common prescription and that badou and dahuang were part of its core, while other ingredients could be replaced with those of similar properties:

One commentator had never heard of this medicine, saying that it had a strange name, but this only reveals his own highbrow background (or general ignorance), since “black gold” was the name of various prescriptions common among hereditary doctors. In fact, it was mentioned in the Systematic Materia Medica repeatedly, and Xu Dachun recommends it in Medical Cases of Huixi, so it was not exclusively the purview of nonelite healers.

“Black gold pills” (wujin wan) was a name and a concoction similar to “elixir surpassing [the value of] gold” (shengjin dan) and “black spirit pills” (heishen wan). All of them were core formulas that could be modified in their effects by ingesting them with different liquids. These “black gold” medicines, along with the likes of “the prescription offering Guanyin’s all-encompassing help” (Guanyin puji fang) and “pills prepared with old ink” (gumo wan), treated a wide variety of ailments (in one medical manuscript, twenty-nine, forty, and seventy-one ailments, respectively), and were extremely common formula in the Qing. The “black gold” formulas had at their core the drugs dahuang and badou. One medical manuscript from the Republican period states in its introduction, “Black gold powder [wujin san] cures all ailments, just as the wind bends the grasses. Other names [of this prescription] are ‘pine smoke elixir’ [songyan dan] and ‘black spirit pills’ [heishen wan]. It cures thousands of illnesses, just as the sun melts the frost.”

Black gold pills (wan), powder (san), paste (gao), and elixir (dan) were commonly employed to cure gynecological issues. A prescription named “black gold powder” was first recorded in the Song work A Spring of Recipes in the Magic Park (Lingyuan fangquan) and was followed by references in the Southern Song prescription collection “Complete Collection of Effective Prescriptions for Women” (Furen daquan liangfang, 1237), Formulas for Universal Benefit (Puji fang, 1390), and other works. Over the centuries, numerous formulas, each with different ingredients, became known under the names “black gold powder,” “black gold pills,” and “black gold elixir.” The three designations of this formula result from the use of pitch (mo), a vernacular name for which is the “black gold” of these prescriptions.

Monkey’s prescription reflects a historical reality, namely that the advent of the imperial pharmacy (huimin yaoju) in the Song required doctors who had previously relied on simple medicines with one or two ingredients to employ formulas with numerous substances whose composition followed theories of systematic correspondences. From this conflict between empirical and theory-based recipes arose a new type of prescription eventually consisting of a nuclear formula that could be adapted to the requirements of a given patient’s disease by omitting or adding individual constituents in accordance with his pathological condition. Monkey is preparing simple, trusted medicine at the core, namely badou and dahuang, and adding to it many exotic, unobtainable ingredients (pp. 103-104).

As noted above, black gold medicines were sometimes used to treat gynecological issues. This makes Monkey’s prescription all the more comical as he had partly attributed the foreign emperor’s ails to a “cessation of the menses” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 271), obviously a woman’s problem. Schonebaum (2016) comments: “To understand this aspect of the carnivalesque comedy, or to realize that it was a mistake in the incorporation of medical materials into the novel, readers would have had to be quite familiar with medicine, at least enough to know that the medicine Monkey is preparing is consistent with his diagnosis” (p. 104). 

III. Archive link

Chapter three of Novel Medicine (2016) is archived here.

Click to access novel-medicine-healing-literature-and-popular-knowledge-in-early-modern-china-chapter-3-contains-jttw-ch.-68-69-material.pdf


This book chapter has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


1) Anthony C. Yu provides explanations for these terms in the end notes of his wonderful translation. See Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 448-449, notes 3-7.


Liao, Y. (2011). Traditional Chinese medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schonebaum, A. (2016). Novel medicine: Healing, literature, and popular knowledge in early modern China. Seattle : University of Washington Press

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Volume 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #14 – Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in the “Hsi-Yu Chi”

Readers may be surprised to learn that chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version anonymously published by the Shidetang (世德堂) publishing house in 1592. Chapter nine of course tells the story of how Tripitaka‘s parents, his scholar-official father Chen Guangrui (陳光蕊) and mother Yin Wenjiao (殷溫嬌), meet (fig. 1); Guangrui’s murder and the pregnant Lady Yin’s kidnapping by a bandit; Tripitaka’s birth and Moses-like trip down a river (hence his nickname “River Float” (Jiang liu, 江流)); his rescue, rearing, and initiation into the Buddhist order by the abbot of Gold Mountain; Lady Yin’s rescue and the bandit-turned-official’s arrest; and Tripitaka’s later reunion with his mother and father (the latter’s body having been preserved and brought back to life by heaven).

Some scholars, such as Glen Dudbridge, suggest the current ninth chapter is a forgery, having been written by one Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Canton because it appears in his slightly later edited version of the novel titled The Chronicle of Deliverances in Tripitaka Tang’s Journey to the West (Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni zhuan, 唐三藏西游释尼傳, circa 1595). Other scholars posit there is internal textual evidence for a possible lost chapter and that the current ninth chapter was salvaged from these internal clues. 

Tripitaka's Parents

Fig. 1 – Tripitaka’s parents from the 1986 television show. 

Anthony Yu‘s (1975) paper “Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in the ‘Hsi-Yu Chi'” supplements previous analyses of said internal textual evidence. He demonstrates that references to the Chen Guangrui episode litter the book. For example, a poem in chapter twelve (ch. 11 of the original Shidetang version) reads:

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.
He met misfortune as he came to Earth,
And evildoers even before his birth.
His father: Chen, a zhuangyuan [1] from Haizhou.
His mother’s sire: chief of this dynasty’s court.
Fated by his natal star to fall in the stream,
He followed tide and current, chased by mighty waves.
At Gold Mountain, the island, he had great luck,
For the abbot, Qian’an, raised him up.
He met his true mother at age eighteen,
And called on her father at the capital.
A great army was sent by Chief Kaishan
To stamp out at Hongzhou the vicious crew.
The zhuangyuan Guangrui escaped his doom:
Son rejoined sire—how worthy of praise!
They saw the emperor to receive his grace;
Their names resounded in Lingyan Tower.
Declining office, he chose a monk’s life
At Hongfu Temple to seek the true Way,
This old Buddha-child, nicknamed River Float,
With a religious name of Chen Xuanzang. [2]

Yu (1975) notes “this passage…which introduces Tripitaka to the reader, has, with the exception of one major discrepancy (i.e. the name of the monk who took in the river-borne orphan), all the crucial elements constitutive of the Chen Guangrui story” (p. 296).

After providing several more examples, he concedes external textural evidence for a lost chapter has yet to be discovered, but suggests the author-compiler of the Journey to the West was surely familiar with established Yuan-Ming dramas involving Tripitaka’s birth and life:

I think that the foregoing analysis, admittedly brief, is sufficient to show the significance, if not the indispensability, of the Chen Guangrui episode in the narrative, though as I have remarked earlier, these later allusions certainly cannot be construed as incontrovertible proofs for a “lost chapter.” The existence of such a chapter has to be established by further discovery of textual materials hitherto unknown, if such discovery is indeed still possible. It may be safely asserted, however, that the author of the hundred-chapter novel, Wu Cheng’en or whoever he might be, is thoroughly familiar with the tradition of the birth and adventures of the infant Xuanzang popularized in the dramas of Yuan and Ming China, and that he has consciously and skillfully exploited this tradition in his narrative (Yu, 1975, p. 306).

Yu (1975) goes on to counter Dudbridge’s criticism that the Chen Guangrui episode doesn’t progress the overall plot by saying it should, instead, be accepted as an “organizing principle”, one that explains the reason for the monk’s ordeals:

[T]he theme of the river and its attendant perils utilized by the author of the hundred-chapter novel reinforces the theme of Tripitaka’s this-worldly identity as the incarnation of the banished Gold Cicada. Both themes in turn support the threefold aetiology developed in the narrative for explicating the meaning of Tripitaka’s ordeals: as a form of chastisement for his preexistent transgression, as a test of endurance for the earthly pilgrim, and as an exemplum of the high cost of obtaining sacred writings from the West (p. 307).

Furthermore, he counters Dudbridge’s claim that the concept of a lost chapter would be stronger if the novel provided more than just passing references to background info of the central characters. In fact, the novel does provide lengthy info on our heroes. For example, Yu (1974) presents a very long poem from chapter nineteen detailing Zhu Bajie’s life, from his early Daoist training, achievement of immortality, and rise to heavenly rank to his drunken flirting with the moon goddess (fig. 2), banishment from heaven, and mistaken reincarnation on earth as a pig-man.

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – a Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess Chang’e.

In the end, Yu (1975) states Qing-era editors of the novel were justified in their suspicion of a lost chapter given the lack of detailed info about Tripitaka’s life, unlike the other pilgrims:

In the absence of chapter 9, Tripitaka is the only member of the pilgrimage, in fact, whose origins are presented in the manner which Dudbridge ascribes to the disciples: in allusion or indirectly, in moments of retrospect. The early editors of the Xiyouji, therefore, were not wholly unjustified in their protest that a theme of such significance as the Chen Guangrui story had not been more fully accounted for by antecedent narrative (p. 310).

Paper link

Click to access chapter-nine.pdf


This paper has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


1) A scholar rank. All quotes from Yu (1975) originally use Wade-Giles. I have updated them with Pinyin.

2) Yu, 1975, p. 296. See Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 275 in Yu’s updated translation of the novel.


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

Yu, A. (1975). Narrative Structure and the Problem of Chapter Nine in The “Hsi-Yu Chi”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 34(2), 295-311. doi:10.2307/2052750

Archive #13 – Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode

Chapters 44 to 46 of Journey to the West sees the pilgrims enter the Cart-Slow Kingdom (Chechi guo, 車遲國) where they find Buddhist monks have been enslaved by local Daoists to haul a cart full of materials up an impossibly narrow, steep, spine-like ridge in order to construct buildings behind an abbey. After some investigation, Sun Wukong discovers their enslavement is a royal punishment for losing a rain-making competition some years prior to three mysterious Daoist priests, Tiger Strength Great Immortal (Huli daxian, 虎力大仙), Deer Strength Great Immortal (Luli daxian, 鹿力大仙), and Goat Strength Great Immortal (Yangli daxian, 羊力大仙) (fig. 1). (For their victory in saving the country during a time of drought, the three priests are bestowed the royal titles “Precepts of State” (Guoshi, 國師).) Monkey and his brothers break into the abbey and trick the three priests, under the guise of the Three Pure Ones, into thinking their urine is heavenly elixir. The enraged priests then gain permission from the country’s ruler to engage our heroes in a series of magical competitions in order to defend their dignity. After aiding Tripitaka in contests of meditation and clairvoyance, the Great Sage personally faces each of the three priests in contests of surviving corporal punishment, namely beheading (vs Tiger Strength), evisceration (vs Deer Strength), and being boiled in oil (vs Goat Strength). Each priest dies as a result of having lesser magical skills born from heretical practices, and in the end they are revealed to have been animal spirits (a tiger, a deer, and a goat) in disguise. The country’s ruler releases the monks from their bondage and our pilgrims continue their journey to India.

Three Animal Priests (Tiger Strength, Deer Strength, Goat Strength) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the three animal priests (larger version). Artist unknown.

Oldstone-Moore’s (1998) paper “Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode” explores the history and hidden meaning of the three chapters. She reveals certain aspects of the episode serve as allegories for internal alchemical processes. For background she explains Daoism sometimes presents the body as a microcosmic mountain landscape. In the case of the story, the ridge represents the spine and the building material being hauled by the monks represents unrefined qi, seminal essence, and spiritual energies that, when purified via circulation up the spine and down the front of the body numerous times, bolster the body and aids in the attainment of immortality. The cart itself represents a meditation technique used in the Quanzhen school of Daoism to transport the aforementioned energies up the spine. Interestingly, one Zhong-Lü scripture [1] notes this “River Cart” (heche, 河車) is pulled by a number of animals, including an oxen, a deer, and a goat. Therefore, Deer Strength and Goat Strength likely represent these animals. Oldstone-Moore (1998) suggests Tiger Strength is based on Uncle Eyes Great Immortal (Boyan daxian, 伯眼大仙), a tiger spirit appearing in an earlier version of the Slow-Cart Kingdom episode recorded in a 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese. Additionally, she highlights the conflict between orthodox and heretical practices in the episode. Sun Wukong is shown to have stronger magic because his early Daoist cultivation was guided by a teacher. This differs from the three priests, whose lesser abilities are the result of self study. So taken together, the episode is a warning that esoteric alchemical cultivation should only be pursued under the guidance of an initiated teacher.   


Fig. 2 – A 14th-century painting of the Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (larger version). Image from Wikipedia. 

Oldstone-Moore (1998) also mentions the rain-making competition between Buddhist and Daoists at the beginning of the episode is based on historical events. This is laid out by Yu (1987), who suggests it is based on Tang-era magic competitions between the Indo-Sogdian Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (Bukong, 不空) (fig. 2) and the Daoist Luo Gongyuan (羅公遠). What’s interesting is that, just like the three priests, Luo was also a Precept of State.

Archive link

Click to access alchemy-and-journey-to-the-west-the-cart-slow-kingdom-episode.pdf


This paper has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


1) This refers to teachings associated with the immortals Zhongli Quan and his student Lü Dongbin.


Oldstone-Moore, J. (1998). Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode. Journal of Chinese Religions, 26(1), 51-66, DOI: 10.1179/073776998805306930

Yu, A. C. (1987). Religion and literature in China: The ‘Obscure Way’ in The Journey to the West In C. Tu (Ed.), Tradition and creativity: Essays on East Asian civilization (pp. 122-24). Publisher City, State: Publisher.

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 12-28-19

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Update: 12-28-19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.


Mair, V. H. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei:

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

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

The Connection Between Primates and Martial Arts in Ancient China

Look up the terms “monkey” or “ape” in the dictionary and you’ll find that they serve as verbs meaning to mimic the movements or actions of another. This is because monkeys and apes have a propensity for observation and mimicry. Being primates ourselves, humans are no different. But interestingly this mimicry sometimes mirrors our primate cousins. Chinese martial arts, for example, has developed several primate-based fighting arts, including White Ape Connected Arms boxing (Baiyuan tongbei quan, 白猿通背拳) and several flavors of Monkey boxing (Houquan, 猴拳), and other styles have even adopted primate techniques, such as the monkey footwork of Praying Mantis boxing (Tanglang quan, 螳螂拳). Humans have long marveled at the physical prowess and acrobatic mastery of apes and monkeys. So it’s only natural that boxers would want to incorporate the powerful arm movements and awe-inspiring leaps and flips of primates into various fighting arts. But how long have our cousins been associated with martial arts in Chinese culture, and when and how did primate-based martial arts develop?

Two approaches can be used in an attempt to answer both questions. The first method involves charting similarities in techniques shared between modern regional primate-based Chinese martial arts styles and relying on folk lineages, ethnographic data, and (when possible) historical manuals to discover the earliest vestiges of primate boxing in China. A second method is to search for references to primate-based martial arts in the historical record. A benefit of the first approach would be pinpointing the areas in China where these styles likely first emerged in recent history. The downside is that martial arts are passed from teacher to student via embodied practices (e.g. fist and weapons forms and sparring), often without the material being recorded in a manual. This means such styles can’t be reliably traced beyond a certain time period. A benefit of the second approach is that it provides a deeper view of history, giving the researcher license to record not only the odd mention of historical boxing styles but also associations between primates and weapons and other forms of physical exercise in ancient folklore, literature, medicine, and religion. Obviously, the best approach would be a combination of the two. However, I lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese martial arts techniques. Such a grand project will have to wait for a more qualified researcher. I have instead decided to adopt the second approach.

This article is divided into five sections. The first presents a folk history for Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern form of Monkey boxing, to serve as an example of how such styles can be created. The second provides three references to premodern Monkey boxing appearing in military and travel writings of the 16th-century during late Ming (1368-1644), pointing to the commonplace nature of the style. Here I suggest the lack of evidence for pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing points to the style emerging during this time. This section also gives examples of armed techniques associated with apes in military literature of the 16th and 17th-century. The third discusses the story of the noted literary monkey hero Sun Wukong (孫悟空), his portrayal as a master of armed and unarmed fighting, and how he bridges the gap between the aforementioned lack of pre-Ming boxing references and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. The fourth presents ancient stories pitting a magic white ape against the martial skills of legendary Chinese heroes, including the archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) and the swordswoman the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 5th-c. BCE). And the fifth discusses ancient animal mimicry and suggests primate-based boxing is tied to war-like shamanic totemic dances and yoga-like daoyin calisthenics (8th-c. to 2nd-c. BCE). [1]

I. Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey boxing

Matsuda (2013) explains there are three main styles of monkey boxing:

  • Shaolin Monkey – This combative style is said to have developed among various animal styles at the famed Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) in Henan province, China. He claims this particular style to be thousands of years old (p. 50); however, this has no basis in history, as will be explained below.
  • Wushu Monkey – This modern, non-combative style focuses on gymnastic leaps and flips for entertainment purposes. It is used in both Chinese opera and the floor routines of form competitions (video 1) (pp. 54-56).
  • Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey – This is the Cantonese variant of the Mandarin Dasheng Pigua men (大聖劈掛門), or the “Great Sage Ax School” of boxing. This combative style is said to be quite young, being a little over 100 years old (p. 56).

To this I add one more:

Video 1 – The first half of this video shows a youth performing Wushu Monkey for a form competition.

Tai Shing Pek Kwar is a combination of two different styles. The first, which I will only describe briefly, is Pek Kwar kyun (Pigua quan, 劈掛拳), a style that mimics the swinging of an ax, relying on the lively arm movements to generate power much like the Choy Li Fut style of southern China. It is said to have been created over two hundred years ago in Shandong (northern China) by a woodcutter named Ma Chi Ho (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 64-68). The weapons practiced by this style include the double-edged sword (jian, 劍), the single-edged saber (dao, 刀), and the staff (gun, 棍) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 70-75).

The Tai Shing kyun (Dasheng quan, 大聖拳) style is said to have been founded in northern China around the year 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) by a prisoner named Kou Si (寇四). [2] After being sent to jail for murder, Kou discovered his cell faced a forest where he could observe the day-to-day lives of a troupe of monkeys. He noted five distinct behaviors among them that, when combined with his knowledge of Great Earth boxing (Di tang quan, 地趟拳), a type of ground combat, could be adapted for fighting.

  1. Lost Monkey (Mi Hou, 迷猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a frightened monkey, comprising periods of attack and retreat, with lots of rolling, low kicks, and quick, frantic running low to the ground (video 2).
  2. Stone Monkey (Shi Hou, 石猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an enraged alpha male, comprising slower but drastically more powerful fist, elbow, and knee strikes, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  3. Tall Monkey (Qi Hou, 企猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a tall monkey, comprising longer, quicker swinging arm strikes and higher-level kicks.
  4. Drunken Monkey (Zui Hou, 醉猴) – This form mimics the behavior of intoxicated monkeys, comprising falls, swaying motions with broken footwork, and circular punches, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  5. Wooden Monkey (Mu Hou, 木猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an intelligent, deceptive monkey, comprising quick, low attacks and rolls similar to the Lost Monkey, but feigning retreat only to turn and unleash strikes upon the pursuing opponent.

After perfecting the style, Kou Si is said to have named it “Great Sage boxing” in honor of the monkey hero Sun Wukong (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-116). This is a reference to the title taken by the character during his rebellion against heaven (see section III below). The weapons practiced by this style include the staff and the metal ring (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 118-131).

Video 2 – The Lost Monkey form.

II. Primates and martial arts during the Ming

Textural evidence for Monkey boxing actually predates Kou Si’s lineage, appearing in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) records. The first reference appears in the eighteen volume edition of famed general Qi Jiguang‘s (戚繼光, 1528-1588) (fig. 1) New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shiba juan ben, 紀效新書十八卷本), a military training manual completed in 1561 or 1562. The fourteenth chapter, titled “Chapter on the Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness” (Quanjing Jieyao Pian, 拳經捷要篇), reads:

Among the past and present fist specialists, the Song Great Founder had the Long Fist system with thirty-two positions. Moreover there are six pace and fist techniques, the Monkey Fist, and the Feinting Fist. The famous positions each have their own names, but in reality they are quite similar and scarcely differ from one another (Gyves, 1993, p. 34).

While Qi believed boxing had no place in armed conflict, he thought such training was useful as it strengthened soldiers’ bodies, coordinated their limbs, improved their weapons skills, and bolstered their courage (Gyves, 1993, pp. 33-37). Qi gathered what he considered the most efficient techniques to achieve this goal, meaning he consulted with many martial artists in the process. The fact that he mentions Monkey boxing suggests it was a common style among fighters of this time.

Qi Jiguang statue (Fuzhou) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern statue of General Qi Jiguang (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The second reference appears in Zheng Ruozeng’s (郑若曾, 1505-1580) Strategic Situation in Jiangnan (Jiangnan jinglue, 江南經略, 1564), which was written in response to the ever-present threat of the Woukou (倭寇), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits, invading China’s coastline. In the eighth volume, Zheng provides a long list of armed and unarmed martial arts, including the “thirty-six roads (forms) of Monkey boxing” (Houquan sanshiliu lu, 猴拳三十六路) (Zheng, 1564). Again, this suggests Monkey boxing was quite common.

The third appears in scholar Wang Shixing’s (王士性, 1547-1598) A Journey to Mt. Song (Song you ji, 嵩遊記), a travel log of the mountain on which the famed Shaolin monastery is located:

Martial monks again each came to present skills. With fists and staves contending, they struck as if flying. Their teacher with folded hands looked on. Among them was a monkey striker, spinning and leaping, just like a monkey… (Wells & Chang, 2004, p. 23).

This shows a single Shaolin warrior monk practiced Monkey boxing. But does this mean the style was part of the monastery’s official curriculum at this time? The answer is no. According to Shahar (2008), textual evidence suggests Shaolin officially took up boxing in the proceeding 17th-century, and the first styles practiced were Drunken Eight Immortals boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳) and Lost Track boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), possibly followed by Plum Flower boxing (Meihua quan, 梅花拳) in the 18th-century. The monks adopted pugilism as a form of calisthenic exercise, later combining it with Daoyin (導引) calisthenics and spirituality to create a new form of self-cultivation. [3] Prior to this, the Shaolin monks were only known for their proficiency with the staff. Therefore, given the seeming commonplace nature of Monkey boxing during the late Ming, the monk could have learned the style from an outside source.

Modern folklore associated with one primate-based style, White Ape Connected Arms Boxing (Baiyuan tongbei / bi quan, 白猿通背 / 臂拳), traces its origins to religious and military figures of the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries prior to the Ming (Lu, 2006, pp. 103-105, for example). However, it should be said that having a Song-era foundation is a reoccurring theme in many martial arts legends. For instance, the famed Song general Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142) is commonly attributed Eagle Claw boxing (Yingzhao quan, 鷹爪拳) and Form-Intent boxing (Xingyi quan, 形意拳) (Liang & Yang, 2002, pp. 15-16, for example). But textual evidence for these styles don’t appear until the Ming and Qing, respectively. [4] Most importantly, the oldest source associated with White Ape Connected Arms Boxing, titled the Connected Arms Boxing Manual (Tongbi quan pu, 通臂拳谱), was written during the late Ming and finally published in 1665 during the early Qing (List of surviving Ming period martial arts, 2017). Likewise, concrete references to primate-based boxing do not predate the Ming. This might suggest such styles arose during this time when there was an explosion in the popularity of pugilism. But this tells us nothing about how primate-based boxing may have developed. The history of animal mimicry in Chinese martial arts can be traced to much older concepts based in medicine and religion. This is discussed in section V below.

Japanese and ape sword-fighting combination - small

Fig. 2 – A compilation of images of the sword-fighting apes from the Collection of Military Works (c. 1621) (larger version). By the author. Fig. 3 – A compilation of the original stick figures and Japanese calligraphy from the fourteen volume edition of the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (1584) (larger version). From Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. Note the similarities in stance and the position of the blades. 

As for the association between primates and armed combat during the Ming, the animals are occasionally referenced in the named fighting techniques of military literature. For example, the tenth volume of Qi Jiguang’s aforementioned manual includes a feinting lance technique titled “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance” (Baiyuan tuo dao shi, 白猿拖刀勢) (Yang & Xie, 1995, p. 336). The 35th volume of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques compiled by Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594-1640), includes “White ape exits cave” (Baiyuan chudong shi, 白猿出洞勢), a stance appearing in the sequence for an overhead sword guard. [5] (Incidentally, this is also the name of a fist set practiced in some lineages of Praying Mantis boxing). Additionally, the same volume includes a two-section sword manual, the first section of which portrays fanciful images of apes practicing with the “Sprout saber” (miaodao, 苗刀) (Mao, 1621), a long, two-handed blade similar to the Japanese Katana (fig. 2). These strange images differ from the human-based figures in the rest of the source. It’s important to note that the original sword manual, called Saber Techniques of the Xinyou-era (i.e. 1561) (Xinyou daofa, 辛酉刀法), is taken directly from the fourth volume of the revised fourteen volume edition of Qi’s New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shisi juan ben, 紀效新書十四卷本, 1584). The first of the aforementioned two sections reproduces a series of sword-wielding stick figures taken from a Shadow School (Kage-ryu, 影流 / 陰流) manual of Japanese sword fighting. The section is prefaced by lively Japanese calligraphy, and the few words recognizable to readers of Chinese include “ape flying” (yuanfei, 猿飛) and “ape returning” (yuanhui, 猿回) (fig. 3), both of which are Kenjutsu techniques still practiced today (video 3). [6] This then might explain why the stick figures were changed to apes when the material was reproduced in the Collection of Military Works decades later. But I would also like to suggest that the change (as well as the allusion to the sword-wielding white ape from the lance technique mentioned earlier) was influenced by a famous first-century Chinese story about a talented swordswoman who has her skills tested by a magic white ape. This is discussed in section IV below.

Video 3 – A modern demonstration of the “ape-flying” technique.

III. Sun Wukong the Monkey King

By far, the most famous weapon-bearing primate of the late Ming-period is Sun Wukong (a.k.a. “Monkey”), the simian protagonist of the highly popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). According to the tale, the stone-born monkey rules a mountain utopia before learning magic, martial arts, and the secret of immortality under a Buddho-Daoist sage. He soon thereafter acquires a magic, size-changing iron staff, which he uses to wage war against the celestial realm (fig. 4), proclaiming himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖, hence the name for Kou Si’s Monkey boxing). But his rebellion is eventually quelled by the Buddha, who imprisons the indestructible monkey demon beneath a mountain for his crimes. Five hundred years later, the repentant immortal is called upon to use his great strength, martial arts, and powers of transformation to protect the monk Tripitaka on a journey to procure scriptures from India.

Mr. Li's Criticism - Detail of Monkey fighting Heaven (small)

Fig. 4 – A woodblock print of Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army with his magic staff (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhouwu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West, late 16th-century. 

The narrative portrays Sun as a well-rounded martial artist proficient in both weapons and boxing. For example, during his rebellion with heaven, he trains his monkey children as soldiers, teaching them troop movement and weapons, including swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. But he is best known for his skill with the staff (fig. 5). One episode sees Monkey give a display of his martial prowess while he and his master travel through a spooky mountain. His skill is so great that the story likens it to the strategy taught in two of the Seven Military Classics of China: 

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as he walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the [Six Secret Teachings and Three Strategies (Liu Tao San Lue, 六韜三略)]. [7] What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 5 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

Furthermore, Monkey displays a mastery of unarmed fighting (fig. 6) in two episodes. A poem in chapter 51, for example, is important because it describes a battle between Sun and a rhinoceros demon in which they use real boxing techniques, many of which are still known and practiced to this day:

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13).

While the techniques are not Monkey boxing, the narrative certainly helped solidify the connection between primates and martial arts during the late Ming when references to the style were recorded.


Fig. 6 – Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

Sun Wukong’s image as a master of armed and unarmed combat led to his veneration among northern Chinese martial artists at the end of the Qing. As noted in this article, fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) were known to channel the spirit of the Monkey King (among other deities) in order to gain his martial prowess. A German catholic missionary active in Shandong in the early 20th-century recorded how four boxer youths were chosen as possible vessels, and after a ritual enticed the deity to earth, the “possessed” individual performed a frightening saber dance, indicating the Great Sage had taken control. Additionally, Dudbridge (1970) cites one 17th-century source that describes Sun’s veneration in the southern Chinese province of Fujian for “appear[ing] in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates” (p. 158). This refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by the aforementioned Wokou pirates. Interestingly, Sun Wukong fighting pirates puts him in the same company as the Shaolin warrior monks, who used their martial arts skills to rout the same bandits during the 1550s (Shahar, 2008, pp. 68-70).

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 7 – The Monkey Pilgrim stone relief carving, 1237, from the Kaiyuan Temple Western Pagoda, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China (larger version).

Monkey is important to this study because he bridges the gap between the lack of pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. Sun first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. The narrative presents our hero wielding two staves, one a golden-ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron staff, in defense of his Buddhist master. These two staves would later be combined by storytellers to create his signature weapon.

Older still, the Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺) of Fujian is home to a nearly life-sized carving of the hero (fig. 7), who is presented as a saber-wielding guardian deity. He appears alongside other such wrathful gods, as well as bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, and eminent monks, on a stone pagoda that was erected in the year 1237. So Monkey was associated with various weapons as far back as the 13th-century.

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 8 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88.

Apart from possible Indian influences, Sun Wukong’s origins can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty tales in which a magical white ape or gibbon (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnaps human woman and spoils their innocence (fig. 8). For example, the unnamed primate antagonist of “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong baiyuan zhuang, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-c.) is described as a 1,000-year-old hermit who lives in a mountain utopia, practices longevity arts, wields the power to fly and change his shape, and has supernatural strength and an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him. Most importantly, he is depicted as a master of armed combat, one displaying a fondness for sword dancing. His blade is said to “circl[e] his body as fast as lightning and as round as a full moon”. [8] As noted above, this is not the first story involving a magic white ape who is fond of swordplay. 

IV. Magic apes and ancient Chinese heroes

The Chinese classic the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) describes the literary heroes Hou Jian (侯健), Lin Chong (林沖), and Zhang Qing (張清) (fig. 9) each having ape-like arms, denoting their great strength and agility. This same nickname was applied to powerful archers of the past. Ma (2010) writes:

[I]t is said that the Xiongnu warrior Liu Chong ‘had arms like an ape, was skilled at archery (yuanbei shanshe 猿臂善射), and could pull a bow of three hundred jin’ 斤(Book of Wei《魏書》). Similarly, History of Ming describes General Chang Yuchun 常遇春 as ‘distinguished looking, with peerless courage and strength, had arms like those of an ape and was skilled at archery’; and in the same vein, Tang poet Cui Daorong 崔道融 wrote that ‘the ape-armed general runs as if on wings, sparing no one with his bow from a hundred paces’ (General Li’s Biography [Ti Li jianjun zhuan 題李將軍傳]) (p. 24).

Zhang Qing (Water Margin hero) with Sun Wukong tattoo - small

Fig. 9 – A woodblock print of the hero Zhang Qing by Kuniyoshi produced between 1827 and 1830 (larger version). It is part of the artist’s “One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, 通俗水滸傳濠傑百八人一個). Original image found here. Look closely and you’ll notice that the tattoo on Zhang’s back portrays Sun Wukong producing magical clones of himself from his mouth.

Oddly enough, the earliest tales mentioning archers and magic white apes do not liken one to the other. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. For example, a third-century BCE tale about the famed archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) portrays the creature as an elusive target for his arrow:

Once in the palace of Jing 荊 there was a supernatural white ape. Even the skillful archers of Jing could not hit it. Then the king of Jing asked … Yang Youji to shoot it. Yang straightened his bow and went to the palace with arrows in his hands. Before shooting he aimed at a place where the [moving] ape had not yet arrived. When he let the arrow fly, the ape fell immediately. Thus Yang Youji could be called the archer who could hit a target before it was there (Wu, 1987, p. 103; see also Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

A similar version of the tale states the ape recognizes Yang’s supernatural skill, anticipating the arrow and crying out in pain moments before actually being struck (Wu, 1987, p. 103; Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

Perhaps the most famous story associating the magic white ape with martial arts is the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 1st-c. BCE), named after its protagonist, a peerless swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE. The story describes how she participates in a sparring match with the shape-changing ape:

The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king [Goujian of Yue]. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was “Old Mr. Yuan” [Yuan Gong, 袁公].

He said to the young woman, “I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I’d like to see a demonstration.”

She replied, “I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.”

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan [fig. 10]. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿, hence the surname]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king. [9]

Upon meeting the king, the Maiden reveals the secret to her fighting ability is the application of yin and yang energy, which are metaphorically described as the opening and closing of large and small swinging doors. This is “[t]he earliest extant published exposition of [the] theory applied directly to the martial arts” (Henning, 2001, p. 746), predating the artificial categorization of Chinese boxing into “internal” (neijia, 内家) and “external” (waijia, 外家) styles during the 17th-century (Henning, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, the importance of the story in the annals of Chinese martial arts history can’t be overstated. Nor can the inclusion of the white ape. His supernatural challenge and subsequent defeat respectively tests and confirms the effectiveness of the theory.

This tale likely influenced the association between white apes and swordplay in later sources, such as the sword-dancing antagonist of the Tang-era “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (section III) and the sword-wielding primates of military literature (section II). For example, “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance”, the aforementioned feinting lance technique from New Treatise on Military Efficiency (c. 1561/1562), may refer to Old Mr. Yuan’s defeat.

Maiden of Yue vs Old Man Yuan (the white ape) - small

Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the Maiden of Yue fighting Old Mr. Yuan by martial historian Stan Henning (larger version). From Henning, 2007, p. 24.

Our heroes’ respective stories make no reference to animal mimicry, the cornerstone of primate-based boxing. In fact, it’s the reverse in the second narrative: an ape mimics man. [10] The tales instead promote the idea of trained human skill conquering the raw, often magical, power of nature. In the case of the Maiden of Yue, her mastery of yin and yang energy enabled her to best the magic white ape. Yang Youji is more of a mythic figure capable of miraculous feats, such as sinking an arrow into a boulder simply because he mistook it for a rhino (i.e. mind over matter) (Selby, 2000, p. 131). But he succeeded in falling a white ape when many archers failed. These tales are therefore the antithesis of primate-based boxing, representing what might have been considered more “civilized” or “noble” forms of martial arts, namely the armed disciplines of archery and swordplay.

V. Animal mimicry in Chinese medicine and religion

I suggested above that primate-based styles may have arisen during the Ming. But how the styles developed is likely tied to the long history of animal mimicry in China. For example, around the year 60 BCE (during the Han), the courtier Tan Changqing (檀長卿) is said to have been reprimanded for violating ritual norms by performing the dance of the “dog and macaque combat” (wu wei mu hou yu gou dou, 舞為沐猴與狗鬭) while at a drunken party (Harper, 2001, p. 18). This dance may have some connection to a funerary motif appearing in Han-era stone tombs in which dogs are shown intimidating apes, the motif representing the conquering of evil influences. [11] Tan’s display can’t be assigned a martial role, however, because it was likely a comical pantomime. [12] But this shows mimicking primates served a variety of purposes in Chinese culture.

Primate-based movements figure in a number of ancient therapeutic exercises. For instance, the monkey appears in the Five Animals’ Frolic (Wuqin xi, 五禽戲), a 3rd-century system of daoyin calisthenics, which mimics the movements or behaviors of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird (in that order), each animal set strengthening a particular area of the body (Kohn, 2008, pp. 163-169). Movements mimicking the bear, monkey, and bird actually predate this system, appearing among forty-four exercises listed in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (Daoyin tu, 導引圖, 168 BCE), the oldest known diagram of daoyin exercises, discovered in Mawangdui (馬王堆) (fig. 11 and 12). Primate-based exercises include the “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (muhou guan yinling zhong, 沐猴灌引靈中) (#35) and “Gibbon Shouting” (yuanhu, 猿謼) (#40) (fig. 13 and 14) (Harper, 1998, pp. 315 and 316). [13]

The Masters of Huainan (Huananzi, 淮南子, 139 BCE), a compendium of Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist thought, references another primate-based daoyin set in a section criticizing such exercises as inferior to spiritual cultivation:

If you huff and puff,
exhale and inhale,
blow out the old and pull in the new,
practice the Bear Hang [xiongjing, 熊經], the Bird Stretch [niaoshen, 鳥伸],
the Duck Splash [fuyu, 鳧浴], the Ape leap [yuanjue, 蝯躩],
the Owl Gaze [chishi, 鴟視], and the Tiger Stare [hugu, 虎顧]:

This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind (Liu & Major, 2010, p. 236).

Daoyin tu - Original, reconstruction, monkey and gibbon - 35 and 40

Fig 11 – (Top left) The Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling, 2nd-c. BCE, paint on silk, 142 x 70 cm (55.9 x 27.5 in) (larger version). Image originally found here. Fig. 12 – (Top right) A modern reconstruction (larger version). Image originally found on Wikipedia. Harper (1998) warns such reconstructions “should be regarded as conjectural in many details” since the original is in such poor condition (p. 191). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) The reconstruction of “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (larger version). Fig. 14 – (Bottom right) The reconstruction of “Gibbon Shouting” (larger version).

These therapeutic exercises likely find their origin in ancient Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences (Harper, 1985, pp. 487-488). One such dance was the seasonal Da Nuo (大儺 / 難; Jp: Tsuina, 追儺) ritual in which a bearskin-clad exorcist (Ch: fangxiangshi; Jp: hōsōshi, 方相氏) and his army of fur, feather, and horn-clad youths, representing twelve animal deities, expelled evil spirits from human dwellings. Evidence suggests it may have been performed as early as the Shang (17th to 11th-c. BCE), but the earliest concrete references come from the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE) (Poo, 2009, p. 286). What’s interesting for our purposes is that the exorcism has a martial aspect; not only does the exorcist bear a lance and shield for ritual combat (fig. 15), but also the group travels throughout the given location dancing and shouting, with the youths beating drums and commanding twelve spirits by name to devour or eviscerate anthropomorphic representations of malevolent influences (Poo, 2009, pp. 287-288). So by wearing animal products, the exorcist and his ritual army gained the strength of animal deities to combat dark forces.

Nuo exorcist expelling demon (Hayaike Yu Okami and Oni Yarai) - small

Fig. 15 – A Japanese woodblock print portraying the Da Nuo exorcist expelling a “pestilence” spirit with his lance and shield (larger version). Originally found here. Note the four-eyed mask. This is based on the four golden-eyed bear skin worn by the exorcist in ancient Chinese records (Poo, 2009, p. 287).

It’s possible that the “twelve animals” of the Da Nuo exorcism refer to some precursor of the Chinese zodiacal animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig). If true, monkey fur could have been among the animal products worn by the ritual army. After all, monkeys have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. [14] A modern example of exorcists who don monkey fur are the shamans of the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan. The Qiang worship monkeys as the source and savior of their sacred knowledge, as well as the progenitor of their people, the latter being a myth cycle common among ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China.

Henning (2001) highlights the connection between animal totemism and animal boxing:

Another view is that at least some animal forms may hark back to a distant totemic past that still occupies a place in the Chinese psyche. This totemic influence is difficult if not impossible to trace in majority Han Chinese boxing styles; however, it can be seen in the combination of martial arts and dance practiced by some of China’s many national minorities. Cheng Dali, in his Chinese Martial Arts: History and Culture, points to Frog Boxing, practiced by the Zhuang Nationality of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as an example, the frog being considered their protector against both natural and man-made disasters (p. 16).

Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming could descend from totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices. The development could have gone something like this:

  1. Early shamanic dances drawing on the totemic power of primate deities (via their fur) to exorcise evil influences through ritual combat, including the bearing of weapons, drumming, dancing, and the shouting of spells.
  2. The animal fur and martial dancing give way to calisthenics drawing on primate mimicry to expel sickness and strengthen the body.
  3. These calisthenic movements are adapted for fighting.

It’s even possible that the war-like shamanic dancing gave way directly to boxing. Martiality (wu, 武) and dance (wu, 舞) have long been associated in Chinese history, for drums and gongs were used to direct the movements of both troops and dancers (Lorge, 2012, p. 26-27). Musical accompaniment remains a staple of folk martial arts performances. A modern example of totemic mimicry, dancing, and martial arts is the Lion Dance (wushi, 舞獅) popular in Asian communities throughout the world (video 4).

Video 4 – Five lion dancing teams performing before a crowd. 

VI. Conclusion

Apes and monkeys have been associated with armed and unarmed martial arts in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern combat style of Monkey boxing created in the early 20th-century, is predated by even older instances of Monkey boxing alluded to in military and travel writings of the 16th-century, suggesting it was a common form of pugilism. Additionally, military literature of the 16th and 17th-century associates white apes with swordplay. The lack of historical references to primate-based boxing prior to the Ming (1368-1644) suggests such styles developed during the explosion in popularity of pugilism at this time. The image of the highly popular late Ming literary monkey hero Sun Wukong as a master of armed and unarmed martial arts, as well as his association with staff and sword fighting in 13th-century oral literature and Buddhist art, respectively, helps bridge this gap between the lack of historical boxing references and older material associating primates with armed combat. He can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty stories about magic white apes who, due to their supernatural abilities, were portrayed as the ultimate test of a warrior’s martial skills. The most famous of these tells how the Maiden of Yue, a talented swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE, vets her yin-yang theory-based sword style by defeating a white ape-turned-old man in a sparring match. This story is important because it’s the first recorded association of yin-yang theory and martial arts in Chinese history. This tale and another involving the mythic archer Yang Youji are the antitheses of primate-based boxing because each touts the superiority of trained human skill over the raw, magical power of nature. Despite this, animal mimicry played a large role in early therapeutic yoga-like Daoyin calisthenics, such as the Five Animals Frolic (3rd-c. CE) and those appearing in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (168 BCE), which copied the movements of monkeys and apes (among other animals) to strengthen given areas of the body. These exercises likely find their origin in ancient war-like Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences, one example being the seasonal Da Nuo exorcism of the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE). The Da Nuo exorcist and his ritual army wore animal products (fur, horns, feathers, etc.) to invoke the power of animal deities capable of driving away malevolent forces. Monkey fur may have been worn by members of the ritual army because the animal and its products have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. Shamans among the modern Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan worship monkeys and draw on the power of their fur to perform exorcisms. Animal totemism plays a part in some animal-based martial arts, such as the Frog boxing of the Zhuang ethnic group. Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming may have been influenced by the ancient totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices, those that formed the basis of later animal-based therapeutic exercises. This is where the historical study would benefit from modern ethnographic field research. A followup study might bridge the gap between the historical data and modern practice.


1) A shorter paper with a similar focus is Ma (2010). The editor of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies was gracious enough to provide me with a PDF copy of the article when I was nearing completion of this paper.

2) Regarding the name of the creator of Monkey boxing, Kou Si (寇四), kou (寇) means “bandit, foe, or enemy.” I find this especially interesting given he was imprisoned for murder, the reasons for which range from accidentally killing a villager in a fight to purposely killing a military official to avoid service (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-87). It’s possibly this name is simply a folk title given to an unknown creator, or one known to have been active in crime.

3) See chapters three and four.

4) The earliest mention of Eagle Claw appears in Qi Jiguang’s training manual. It refers to “Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling methods” (Yingzhao Wang zhi na, 鷹爪王之拿) (Gyves, 1993, p. 35). Qing-era manuals and family histories suggest Xingyi was created by a certain Ji Jike (姬際可, fl. 1650) (Shahar, 2008, pp. 134-135).

5) For an English translation of the sword technique mentioning the stance, see Chen, 2018, pp. 73-75.

6) Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. I’m indebted to the operator of the Great Ming Military blog for explaining the connection between the ape images and the visible characters from the Japanese calligraphy, as well as providing me with a digital copy of the fourteen volume edition of Qi’s training manual.

7) The original English translation omits the two named books from the Chinese version. It reads, “…the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

8) Chen, 1998, p. 84. Some readers may have noticed the sword is a reoccurring theme in Sun Wukong’s history: 1) The Qing-era boxers are said to have performed a saber dance under his possession; 2) he is depicted with a saber on the Kaiyuan temple pagoda in Fujian; and 3) the magic white ape on whom he is likely based loves performing sword dances. In addition, two other sources mention Monkey’s association with the sword. First, a 15th-century Zaju play describes Guanyin giving Sun Wukong a Buddhist saber (jiedao, 戒刀) (apart from other magic items) to protect his master on the eve of their journey. Second, a 17th-century tale set in Fujian describes the Great Sage magically afflicting a merchant with painful leg sores using a “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

I don’t think these have any unifying significance, however. For example, the saber requires less training and is cheaper than other implements of war. So it was often the go to weapon for soldiers and bodyguards. Monkey’s association with the saber on the pagoda is likely tied to this same concept. As a guardian deity, he is portrayed with the same weapon used by mortals to protect others in times of need. The magic white ape is portrayed as a Daoist gentleman, one in possession of a pair of treasure swords (baojian, 寶劍), the kind used in Daoist ritual. His fancy for the sword may be based on Old Mr. Yuan from the Maiden of Yue (see section IV). Another literary character with Buddhist sabers is Wu Song from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). I explain in this article (footnote #2) that his sabers are based on real world Buddhist knives issued to monks. The same concept is no doubt tied to Monkey’s weapon from the play. Having said that, I will admit, though, that the saber from the pagoda may have had some influence on that mentioned in the 17th-century story. After all, the pagoda example is portrayed with a lick of heavenly flame, just like one would expect from a celestial sword. Also, both the story and the pagoda take place/are located in Fujian, home to the Great Sage’s cult.

9) Selby, 2000, pp. 155-156. The famous Tang poet Li Bai (李白) referenced Mr. Yuan’s defeat in one of his poems. A line reads “The White Ape was ashamed of his fencing” (Ma, 2010, p. 24). This is fascinating as Li Bai was also known to have been a proficient swordsmen in his youth (Liu, 1967, pp. 46-47).

10) This is based on an old concept in which primates were thought to progress through a type of magical evolution, similar to modern day Pokémon. The Baopuzi (抱朴子, 2nd-c. CE) states a monkey will transform into a gibbon after 800 years of life. It will then change into several legendary apes over some 3,500 years, before evolving into an old man (Ball, 1927, p. 117). Gulik (1967) cites a tale in which the soothsayer Zhou Qun (周羣 / 周群) learns the secrets of divination from a gibbon-turned-old man (p. 50).

11) As noted in this article, Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s hound is tied to the Han-era tomb motif of dogs intimidating apes.

12) Ma (2010) translates the historical passage, noting those at the party were “drinking wine and making merry, then Tan Changqing, the high official of Changxin Palace, starts to dance, to imitate a monkey fighting with a dog, bringing laughter to all present” (p. 25).

13) Harper (1998) suggests an alternate reading for “Gibbon shout” (yuanhu謼) is “Gibbon Jump” (yuanjue, 蝯躩) based on graphical similarities to an exercise from the Huainanzi. (淮南子, 139 BCE) (p. 316, n. 1).

14) This is tied to a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52). This is why heaven appoints Sun Wukong the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “Keeper of the (Heavenly) Horses”), which is a pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, “Avoid the horse plague”). Due to his former exalted position, earthly horses are shown to fear the Monkey King throughout the narrative (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309, for example).

In Japan, monkeys were also associated with horses and healing via the warding of evil. Apart from monkeys being kept in stables like their Chinese counterparts, their fur was applied to the harnesses and quivers of Samurai because the warriors believed it gave them more control over their mounts. Furthermore, monkey body parts have been consumed for centuries as curative medicines, and their hides have even been stuffed to make protective amulets (kukurizaru) to ward off illness. Likewise, a genre of painting depicts divine monkeys (saru gami), messengers of the mountain deity, performing Da Nuo-like dances to ensure a good rice harvest (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987, pp. 43-50)


Ball, K. M. (1927). Decorative motives of oriental art. London, John Lane; New York, Dodd, Mead and Co.

Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2018). Ancient art of Chinese long straight sword. (n.p.): Chen Jiayi.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Eberhard, W. (1969). The local cultures of south and east China. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gyves, C. M. (1993). An English Translation of General Qi Jiguang’s “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (Master’s thesis). The University of Arizona, Arizona, USA.

Harper, D. (1985). A Chinese demonography of the Third Century B.C. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 45 (2), pp. 459-498.

Harper, D. (1998). Early Chinese medical literature: The Mawangdui medical manuscripts. London: Wellcome Asian Medical Monographs.

Harper, D. (2001). Poets and Primates: Wang Yanshou’s Poem on the Macaque, Asia Major 14(2), pp. 1-25.

Henning, S. (2001). Written Texts: China In T. A. Green (Ed.), Martial arts of the world: An encyclopedia, volume two: r–z (pp. 745-748). Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Henning, S. (2007). The maiden of Yue: Fount of Chinese martial arts theory. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 16(3), pp. 24-27.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese healing exercises: The tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Liang, S. Y., and Yang, J. M. (2002). Xingyiquan: Theory, applications, fighting tactics and spirit. Boston: YMAA Publication Center.

List of surviving Ming period martial arts. (2017, December 3). Retrieved from

Liu, J. Y. (1967). The Chinese knight-errant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liu, A., and Major, J. S. (2010). The Huainanzi: A guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, S. (2006). Combat techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua: Principles and practices of internal martial arts. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books.

Ma, L. (2010). From ape worship in ancient China to monkey imitation in modern competition wu shu. Journal of Chinese Martial Studies 2, pp. 20-28.

Mao, Y. (1621). Wubei zhi: juan sanshiwu  [Collection of Military Works: Volume 35]. Retrieved from

Matsuda, M. (2013). Monkey kung fu: History & tradition. (n.p.): Michael Matsuda.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1987). The monkey as mirror: Symbolic transformations in Japanese history and ritual. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Poo, M. (2009). Ritual and ritual texts in early China In J. Lagerwey and M. Kalinowski (Ed.). Early Chinese religion, part one: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (pp. 281-313). Leiden: Brill.

Qi, J. (2001). Jixiao xinshu shisi juan ben [New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Fourteen volume edition]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1584)

Selby, S. (2000). Chinese archery. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wu, C., and Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yang, J., and Xie, G. (Ed.) (1995). Zhongguo bingshu jicheng [Collection of Chinese Military Literature]. Beijing: Liaoshen shushe.

Zheng, R. Z. (1564). Jiangnan jinglue: juan ba shang [Strategic Situation in Jiangnan: vol. 8]. Retrieved from江南經畧_(四庫全書本)/卷8上

Parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song

It recently occurred to me that Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (hereafter, JTTW) and Wu Song (武松) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (hereafter, WM) share a number of similarities. Each is a reformed supernatural spirit, a tiger-slayer, a Buddhist monk nicknamed “Pilgrim”, and a monastic martial artist, and each wears a moralistic headband and wields a weapon made from the same fanciful metal. Since the WM predates the publication of JTTW by nearly two hundred years, one might be tempted to speculate that the latter influenced the former. However, both story cycles first appeared during the Song dynasty, with various iterations from the Yuan to the Ming (see Ge, 2001). In this article I show the parallels are due to the respective narratives drawing on similar religious, folkloric, and historical source material. I feel such a comparison is important as it presents a fuller picture of the cultural landscape in which the Monkey King developed. 

I. Reformed supernatural spirits

Chapters one through seven of JTTW present Sun Wukong as a celestial stone-born monkey who studies under a Buddho-Daoist master and achieves great magic powers, which he uses to rebel against heaven. After being defeated by the Buddha, Monkey is imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain for five hundred years. In chapter fourteen, the repentant immortal is later released to protect the monk Tripitaka on his journey to retrieve scriptures from India.

Sun Wukong trapped under mountain - In Flames toy - small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).

Chapter one of the WM tells how one hundred and eight spirits were quelled by a Daoist sage during the Tang dynasty and imprisoned in a bottomless pit under a great stone slab. Four or five hundred years later during the Song dynasty, a haughty government official orders the slab dug up and removed to sate his curiosity, allowing the spirits to escape in a plume of miasmic black fumes and later be reborn on earth. Wu Song, whose main story appears in chapters 23 to 32, is one of these extraordinary men and women who come to use their martial, intellectual, or magical skills to rebel against the corrupt Song government. A heaven-sent stone slab in chapter 71 is later discovered to list the names of each bandit with the corresponding name of their previous incarnation, which make up the “Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars” (Tiangang sanshiliu xing, 天罡三十六星) and the “Seventy-Two Earthly Fiend Stars” (Disha qishier xing, 地煞七十二星). Wu Song is listed as the “Heavenly Harm Star” (Tianshang xing, 天傷星), the fourteenth of the Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars.

So we see both are formerly evil spirits who were conquered by a religious figure and imprisoned under stone for centuries. After being released, each rebellious figure becomes a force for good.

Monkey’s punishment can be traced to Tang and Song dynasty tales about the sage king Yu the Great imprisoning a simian water demon under a mountain. To my knowledge, the first recorded mention of this punishment appears in an early Ming zaju play in which Guanyin traps Sun Wukong under Flower Fruit Mountain. Wang (1992) suggests the stone slab from the WM was likely influenced by the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 2), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72 and 254). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means the evil would be completely immobilized by the great weight.

Taishan stone example - small

Fig. 2 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia

Additionally, the pit containing the spirits can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井/丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮), [1] and creating an earth prison. The Compilation of Rituals of the Way (Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元) reads:

[U]se the Sword mudrā to draw the character for “well” on the ground. Transform it into a black prison, ten-thousand zhang deep, and ten thousand li wide. [2] Black vapors burst out of it. Inside the prison, visualize how cangues and locks, as well as tools and machinery are laid out. Then recite the Spell for Fast Arrest [cu zhuo zhou, 促捉咒] (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 142).

The black vapors should remind readers of that released upon the spirits’ escape from their centuries-long imprisonment.

Mountain mudra with Chinese character

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 4 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 5 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.

Another version of the ritual sees the spirits being coaxed or forced inside of a liquid-filled jar placed in the center of the well diagram. Afterwards, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain (just like the aforementioned Taishan stone). [3] Meulenbeld (2007) writes:

The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 3 and 4]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 5], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).

This means the respective punishments of Sun Wukong and Wu Song (and his brethren) are for all intents and purposes the same: they are imprisoned under mountains. The Taishan stone and the Mountain mudra are no doubt based on the same belief that mountains can immobilize evil spirits. Most importantly, the mudra likely influenced the concept of the Buddha transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain in chapter 7 of JTTW. The fictional mountain is then a cognate of Mount Tai. 

Five Thunders talisman - small

Fig. 6 – A paper fu talisman marked with an image of the Five Thunders (Wu Lei, 五雷) (larger version).

Lastly, the idea that evil spirits can be reformed and their powers put to good use—i.e. Sun Wukong protecting Tripitaka and Wu Song standing against a corrupt government—is tied to the Song-era “Thunder Ritual” (Leifa, 雷法). Meulenbeld (2007) explains stories from the Tang to the Song present the characteristics of the thunder god, Sire Thunder (Lei Gong, 雷公), becoming increasingly demonic, changing from a muscular deity to a number of animals and finally a Garuda-like bird monster. Likewise, while he was a respected force of nature in the past, Sire Thunder becomes an impulsive agent of heaven, one capable of being challenged and even captured by a brave individual or ritual master. The subjugation of this demonic god allows his captors to appropriate his heavenly power for their own purposes. The deity and his four brothers, comprising the “Five Thunders” (Wu Lei, 五雷) (fig. 6), can be summoned on command via talismans and charms and made to bring rain, heal sicknesses, or conquer demons. [4] Such ritual accouterments are just a small part of a much larger subsequent Thunder Ritual liturgy that is, according to one Song dynasty source, capable of “control[ing] the demons and spirits of the Sixfold Heavens, [expelling] evil and avert[ing] disaster” (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 67). 

II. Tiger-Slayers

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong’s first act of protecting Tripitaka upon his release is effortlessly killing a tiger with a single stroke of his staff. This happens the day after a huntsman had come to the monk’s defense by fighting a tiger for hours before dispatching it with a trident. The difference in power between the immortal and human heroes leads the monk to exclaim, “For the strong, there’s always someone stronger!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

WM, ch. 23 – Wu Song gets drunk on a trip home to see his elder brother, and after ignoring warnings not to take a mountain shortcut, the hero is set upon by a ferocious man-eating tiger. In the process of initially defending himself, Wu snaps his walking staff on a nearby tree, forcing him to resort to brute strength. He manages to wrestle the big cat’s face into the dirt and rains down sixty or seventy fist blows before it stops moving (fig. 7). He then finishes off the beast with the remains of his staff.

Wu Song kills tiger - small

Fig. 7 – “Wu Song Beats the Tiger” (Wu Song da hu, 武松打虎) by Wang Kewei (王可偉) (larger version).

I can’t help but imagine the episode from JTTW is a sly nod to that from the WM. Tripitaka’s statement could be a way of propping up the Monkey King as the most powerful hero, one who can dispatch tigers with no effort at all.

The ability to kill a tiger was considered the sign of a powerful warrior in Chinese folklore. For example, A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu, 世說新語, 5th-century), a collection of historical and fictional anecdotes, tells the story of how the Western Jin general Zhou Chu (周處, 236–297) was originally a wayward youth considered the worst of Yixing‘s “Three Scourges”—a tiger, a dragon, and himself. Wanting to prove his strength, Zhou is said to have easily killed the tiger but disappeared for three days and nights fighting the dragon. The youth later returned to find the people celebrating his apparent death. This caused Zhou to mend his ways and eventually become a great general (Knechtges & Chang, 2010, pp. 2274-2275).

III. Buddhist monks with matching religious nicknames 

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk upon his release. [5] His master Tripitaka then gives him the religious nickname “Pilgrim Sun” (Sun xingzhe, 孫行者), and the character is often simply referred to as “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者; literally: “traveler”) throughout the narrative.

WM, ch. 31 – Wu Song kills a thug and his Song government official friend for framing the hero for theft and attempting to have him murdered en route to a prison camp. As a result, he is forced to dress as a Buddhist monk, taking a slain priest’s religious garb and ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) and calling himself “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者).

The term Pilgrim refers to a “postulant”, a lay Buddhist acolyte who has yet to be ordained but lives as an untonsured monk, one expected to follow the Five Precepts (Pali: Pañcasīla; Ch: Wujie, 五戒) against killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and drinking alcohol (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1011-1012). Ch’en (1956) writes that such trainees were historically required to complete a long period of intense religious study and pass a rigorous examination before being awarded the aforementioned ordination certificate (fig. 8), thereby becoming a full-fledged monk. This certification system was originally initiated during the Tang to weed out those wanting to evade the draft and taxes, as well as bandits like Wu Song who sought refuge from the law. However, during the Song, the government sold these documents like war bonds in order to help pay for their ongoing struggle against the barbarians of northern China. Therefore, ordination certificates were often exuberantly expensive, [6] meaning those who had the training but could not afford the document were doomed to live as a postulant. This contrasts with the thousands upon thousands of people who bought their way into the Buddha’s fold simply for the draft and tax exemption. They forwent the training altogether and were monks only on paper. This continued practice naturally resulted in a major decline in the quality of monks during the Song.

Monk with ordination certificate - small

Fig. 8 – A present day monk showing his ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) (larger version). Original image found here.

Having read the above, we can say Sun Wukong is called Pilgrim because he assists a Buddhist priest but lacks the religious education and ordination certificate. While Wu Song has the document (taken from a dead priest), he lacks the required education. It should be remembered that Wu is a bandit-turned-monk. At the same time, both characters typify the “itinerant monk”, the second meaning of Pilgrim (xingzhe, 行者), as both are on a journey: Sun is traveling to India and Wu is traveling the road—albeit secretly to meet with fellow outlaws. But I would like to suggest that the titles may have also been meant as a jab at the violent, untrained riffraff passing for monks during the Song (more on this below). After all, the earliest references to our characters with these titles come from this period.

“Pilgrim Wu” appears in scholar-painter Gong Shengyu‘s (龔聖予, 1222–1307) In Praise of the Thirty-Six [men] of Song Jiang (Song Jiang sanshiliu zan, 宋江三十六贊), a collection of poems eulogizing each of the thirty-six bandits then associated with the early WM story cycle.

Pilgrim Wu Song: You resisted women, obeyed the Five Precepts, among Wine, Women, Wealth and Force, you were inclined to kill people (Børdahl, 2013, p. 29).

Gong claims the poems were based on “stories of the streets and tales of the lanes” (jie tan xiang yu, 街談巷語), popular narratives performed by storytellers at local venues.  Given that such early tales no longer exist, its impossible to say whether or not Wu Song was always a monk or a bandit-turned-impostor monk like his counterpart from the published edition of the WM (Børdahl, 2013, pp. 28-29). Either way, this suggests Wu’s predilection for murder was a prominent aspect of his story cycle by at least the 13-century.

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Like Wu Song, Monkey is also depicted as comfortable with killing. For example, in chapter five, he turns an evil sorcerer’s wife into grass so that she will be eaten by a young monk who had been transformed by her husband into a donkey. After both parties are changed back to normal, Monkey threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e. kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man ever misuses his magic again. [7] Later in chapter six, Monkey brutally tortures and then kills a white tiger demon who tries to eat his master (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1181-1207)

Wu Song and Lu Zhishen - Small

Fig. 9 – The “Pilgrim” Wu Song (right) and the “Flower Monk” Lu Zhishen (left) from a recent WM television series (larger version).

Additionally, two early WM-related tales titled “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者) and the “Flower [Tattooed] Monk” (Hua heshang, 花和尚) are listed under the “staff” (ganbang, 桿棒) category of popular stories in The Drunken Man’s Talk (Zuiweng tanlu, 醉翁談錄), a circa 13th-century collection of short stories, anecdotes, and poetry. [8] So-called staff tales were character-driven narratives about heroes, in this case Wu Song and his fellow outlaw-turned-monk Lu Zhishen (fig. 9), righting injustices using staves. [9] I should note that The Story describes the Monkey Pilgrim wielding two such weapons in his adventures.

Sun and Wu’s association with killing and staff fighting were likely influenced by historical warrior monks and bandit monks. Shahar (2008) explains warrior monks were seasoned fighters who lived in subsidiary shrines away from the devout community and protected monasteries in times of trouble. These “monks” regularly drank wine and ate meat, associating the latter with physical strength and fighting ability, and even worshiped wrathful deities like Vajrapani, who is described in scripture as killing in the name of Buddha. Their weapon of choice was a wooden staff, which was originally chosen for being non-lethal. However, a metal staff like the one wielded by Sun Wukong in JTTW was sometimes used by warrior monks for its killing capacity in times of war. The most famous monastic staff method belongs to the Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) (video 1). After the Shaolin warrior monks helped the Ming dynasty government repel Japanese pirate incursions from the Chinese coast during the 1550s, their staff method was touted in military encyclopedias and civilian weapons manuals. [10]

Video 1 – A demonstration of Shaolin Wind Devil Staff (Fengmo gun, 風魔棍).

Bandit monks are outlaws like Wu Song who dressed as monks to avoid problems with the law. [11] Lorge (2012) comments that the characteristics of bandit monks were nearly indistinguishable from that of warrior monks.

[I]t is easy to see how bandit-monks are virtually the same as warrior-monks. These men drank wine, at meat, and had sex with women—practices alien to true Buddhist monks. A number of Buddhist authorities were deeply troubled by the presence of monks who directly violated Buddhist precepts. We do not know whether there was a sharp break between ordained and trained monks who carefully followed monastic rules in their search for enlightenment and men who simply claimed to be monks, wore monastic robes, shaved their heads, but otherwise did not follow monastic rules (p. 174).

He goes on to explain that the Shaolin monastery, for example, became heavily militarized after a nasty defeat in 1356 during the Red Turban Rebellion and so may have replenished its ranks using formerly deactivated soldiers at the turn of the Ming dynasty. Such violence-prone men would naturally turn towards a life of crime. Therefore, these bandits “would have been easy enough to recruit and send out as warrior-monks to fight against [other] bandits” (Lorge, 2012, p. 175).

So we see there existed a class of staff-bearing pseudo-monks who regularly took life and drank alcohol. Serving as mainly monastic bodyguards, these fighters lacked the devotion to the precepts and, especially, the religious education to be considered real monks. Therefore, Sun and Wu’s characterization as such warriors may further explain why they are called Pilgrim.

IV. Monastic martial artists

I want to preface this section by stating upfront that it overlaps to some degree with the previous one. But while the former explored Sun and Wu’s connection to staff-wielding warrior monks by way of their characterization in late Song oral literature, this one will discuss the connection between their images as monastic martial artists and the historical practice of boxing by warrior monks.

While the Great Sage is primarily known for his skill with the staff, he displays a mastery of unarmed combat twice in JTTW. Chapter 51, for example, describes Sun and a demonic opponent fighting with a long list of punches, kicks, grapples, and throws.

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13)

I show in this article that many of the named techniques are real and are still practiced to this day. Furthermore, the poem’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008, p. 117). He continues, “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (Shahar, 2008, p. 117). This shows the author-compiler of JTTW consulted real martial arts material to make this fight more authentic.

Having donned the monk persona, Pilgrim Wu stops by an inn while on a journey to meet with fellow outlaws in chapter 32. The monk’s great tolerance for wine (fig. 13) and request for meat surprises the inn keeper, whom Wu slaps to the ground upon seeing the man serve better wine and even chicken to a different patron. The patron and his friends attack the monk but are soundly beaten by his superior strength and fighting ability. [12]

Wu’s characterization as a meat-eating, alcohol-drinking monk with a thirst for combat is obviously tied to the warrior and bandit monks discussed earlier.

Wu Song with jug of wine and sword - small

Fig. 15 – A modern depiction of Pilgrim Wu holding a jar of wine and brandishing a saber (larger version). By Leewiart user Du_YH. Original image found here

While it precedes Wu becoming a monk, the best example of his martial prowess appears in chapter 29:

But Jiang was scornful of his foe [Wu Song], thinking that he was drunk, and he closed in rapidly. Quicker than it takes to tell, Wu Song flourished his two fists at Jiang’s face, then turned and started away. Enraged, Jiang raced after him. Wu Song lashed out backwards with his left foot and kicked him in the groin. As Jiang clasped his injured section and doubled over in pain, Wu Song whirled around and swung his right foot in a flying kick to the forehead that slammed the big man over on his back. Wu Song planted one foot on his chest and, with keg-like fists, began pommeling Jiang’s head.

This maneuver we just described—the flourish of fists and turning away, the backward left kick, the whirling around and the forward right kick—is called “the Jade-Circle Steps with Duck and Drake Feet” [Yuhuan bu, yuanyang jiao, 玉環步, 鴛鴦腳]. It was one of Wu Song’s most skillful moves. A remarkable trick! (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 332).

Wu’s style is possibly another name for “Piercing Foot” (Chuojiao, 戳腳), a northern Chinese martial art known for its dynamic kicking skills. Modern folklore traces the style to the Song dynasty due to its association with WM heroes. [13]

While JTTW never openly describes Sun Wukong training in martial arts, it does imply that he learns armed and unarmed combat as a young monk studying under the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti. Monkey learning boxing in a religious institution is actually a faithful depiction of one aspect of monastic life during the Ming. Shahar (2008) shows Shaolin warrior monks took up unarmed combat during the late Ming-period, when boxing saw an explosion in popularity in Chinese culture (as demonstrated by the named techniques recorded in JTTW and the WM). Textual evidence suggests the first styles practiced by Shaolin were Drunken Eight Immortals Boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳), popularized by Jackie Chan in The Drunken Master (1978), and Lost Track Boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), the fighting style of the national hero Huo Yuanjia popularized by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972). The monks may have adopted boxing as a form of calisthenic exercise. To this they later added Daoyin (導引), a regimen of yoga-like Daoist breathing and stretching exercises designed to absorb qi (氣) energy and circulate it throughout the body. Therefore, the monks elevated their boxing practice from mere fighting to a form of spiritual cultivation. This synthesis of martial and spiritual practices simultaneously took place in wider Ming culture, leading to the creation of so-called “internal” (Neijia, 内家) martial arts like Taiji and Xingyi boxing. [14]


Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the monk Sengchou showing off his newfound powers by jumping above the rafters of the Shaolin monastery (larger version). Original image found here.

That’s not to say Shaolin monks did not practice unarmed martial arts prior to the 17th-century. It’s just boxing was only a form of entertainment practiced by a few and not part of the official training regimen. For example, the Tang-era anthology Complete Records from Court and Commonality (Chaoye qian zai, 朝野僉載, c. 8th-century), contains the story of the famed dhyana master and Shaolin monk Sengchou (僧稠, 480–560) beseeching a religious statue of Vajrapani to bless him with martial strength so that the other monks, who enjoy sparring in their free time, will stop bullying him. After six straight days of prayer, the deity appears before him and offers the young novice a bowl of sinews to eat. Sengchou initially refuses due to the prohibition against eating meat, but he ultimately finishes the meal for fear Vajrapani will smite him with his vajra club. Like the radioactive spider bite that changes Peter Parker into Spider-Man, the sinews transform the monk, blessing him with a god-like physique and miraculous powers, such as the ability to walk on walls, leap great heights (fig. 10), and lift thousands of pounds. Most importantly, it drastically improves his fighting skills, so much so, in fact, that his former tormentors come to grovel in his presence (Shahar, 2008, pp. 35-37).

From whom might have Sengchou’s religious brothers learned their unarmed martial arts centuries prior to it becoming an official part of Shaolin’s training regimen? The simplest answer is someone like Wu Song who learned boxing as a bandit or soldier and later joined the sangha. Readers may recall such violence-prone men may have been tapped as warrior monks to protect the monastery in times of trouble. They could have easily passed their fighting skills to the next generation of warrior monks.

A good example of a soldier-turned-monk is the brutish former general Huiming (惠明) from the Platform Sutra (Liuzu tanjing, 六祖壇經, written from the 8th to 13th-c.). The text tells how the disciples of Hongren (弘忍, 601–674), the fifth Chan patriarch, were enraged when their master passed the mantle onto the illiterate postulant laborer Huineng (惠能, 638–713). Hundreds of monks are said to have pursued the fleeing Pilgrim south intent on forcefully taking the patriarchal symbols of the begging bowl and robe for themselves. Huiming persevered and managed to corner Huineng on a mountain. He attempted to wrestle the treasures away, but, by a miracle, he could not lift them. Realizing Huineng was the rightful heir, the monk became his disciple (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 11-12). Jealousy and anger are obviously qualities unbecoming of a real monk. In fact, the only thing that separates Huiming’s actions of hounding and attempted strong arm robbery from a bandit is his monkhood.

So we see Sun Wukong typifies a next generation warrior monk who learns boxing inside a religious institution. Wu Song typifies the soldier or bandit who learns boxing outside the monastery and later becomes a monastic fighter, one who passes on their skills to younger monks.

V. Moralistic headbands

JTTW, ch. 14 – The Monkey King is tricked into wearing a brocade hat under the pretense of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. However, the hat houses a golden fillet (jinguquan, 金箍圈) that soon takes root and painfully tightens around the immortal’s head when the correct spell is chanted (fig. 11). This allows the feeble monk Tripitaka to control the celestial monkey’s unruly nature.

WM, ch. 31 – When Wu Song disguises himself as a monk, he wears the garments of a priest who had previously been killed by bandits. The habit includes a metal “Precepts fillet” (jiegu, 戒箍) that he wears over his long hair (fig. 12).

Fillet examples - small

Fig. 11 – (Top left) Sun Wukong’s golden fillet from the 1986 JTTW television series (larger version). Fig. 12 – (Top right) Wu Song’s Precepts fillet from a recent WM television series (larger version). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) A late 11th to early 12th-century copper alloy statue of the wrathful deity Hevajra (larger version). He is portrayed with the same Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire as his followers, including the headband, arm cuffs, a bone (skull) rosary, bracelets, a girdle, anklets, and a tiger skin sarong. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of ArtFig. 14 – (Bottom center) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet featured in an 11th-century mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China (larger version). It has been slightly enhanced for clarity. A fuller version of the image can be seen here. Fig. 15 – (Bottom right) A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (larger version). From Bonds, 2008, p. 178.

I explain in this article that the heroes’ fillets share a common origin in an ancient Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband, one representing the Buddha Akshobhya and thereby moral self-restraint. It was one of several ritual items worn while worshiping wrathful protector deities like Heruka. Such deities were often depicted wearing the same attire as their followers, leading to the band becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits (fig. 13). The Hevajra Tantra (Ch: Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經), the original 8th-century Indian Buddhist text mentioning the ritual items, was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century. Interestingly, the earliest example of Monkey wearing the circlet (likely symbolizing the taming of the monkey of the mind) hails from this time (fig. 14). But Wu’s association with the headband was likely influenced by the Precepts fillet worn by the warrior monks of Chinese Opera (fig. 15). These heroes wear the band to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328).

VI. Bin steel weapons

JTTW, ch. 3 – Sun Wukong comes into possession of a magic staff (fig. 16) taken from the Dragon King’s underwater treasury. A poem in chapter 75 describes the weapon being hand-forged from Bin steel (bintie, 鑌鐵) by the high Daoist god Laozi.

WM, ch. 31 – Apart from wearing the fallen monk’s religious clothing, Wu Song also takes possession of his Buddhist sabers made from “snowflake pattern” Bin steel (huaxue bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) (fig. 17). [15]

Sun Wukong and Wu Song weapons - small

Fig. 16 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong holding his magic Bin steel staff (larger version). Fig. 17 – A modern painting of Wu Song wielding his Bin steel sabers (larger version). Artist unknown. 

Sun’s staff and Wu’s sabers are not the first bin steel weapons to appear in Chinese literature. A bladed pole arm example is the Bin steel great sword (bintie da podao, 鑌鐵刀) wielded by a bandit from the Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事, mid-13th-century), a storytelling prompt containing WM material predating the published novel. [16] Another pole arm is the Bin steel spear (bintie qiang鑌鐵槍) wielded by a general from The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt (San sui pingyao zhuan, 三遂平妖傳, c. late 16th-century), which also takes place in the Song-era (Luo, n.d.). 

I explain in this article that Bin steel is a real world metal akin to Damascus that was imported to China from Persia starting from the 6th-century, and the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom by the 12th-century. The metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel and was often used to make strong, durable, and sharp knives and swords, some worth more than silver. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). This is a simultaneous declaration of his unbreakable resolve and a statement praising the seemingly indestructible metal. Therefore, JTTW and the WM portray the finest of heroes wielding the finest of steel weapons.

VII. Conclusion

As shown, the parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song are the result of JTTW and the WM borrowing from the same cultural source material. Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements mountain and Wu’s time as an evil spirit trapped in a well beneath stone was influenced by the Daoist belief that mountains—be they sympathetically represented by stone or hand mudras—could immobilize malevolent forces. Likewise, our heroes’ portrayal as reformed demons can be tied to the Daoist “Thunder Ritual”, which aims to conquer evil and repurpose its power for good. Sun and Wu’s image as tiger-slayers was influenced by stories of tiger-killing strongmen from Chinese folklore. Their religious nickname “Pilgrim” and characterization as monastic martial artists can be tied to uneducated pseudo-monks and holy warriors skilled in both staff fighting and boxing from Chinese history. Their religious fillets were inspired by an Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband worn as a reminder of moral self-restraint. And the metal comprising Sun and Wu’s weapons can be traced to a real world steel prized in ancient China for its durability. 

This was a fun piece to write because it shows the Great Sage obviously didn’t develop in a vacuum. It’s interesting to me that much of Sun and Wu’s influences hail from the Song dynasty. These include the Daoist rituals for trapping and reforming spirits, the Pilgrim nickname and characterization as staff-wielding warrior monks, and the translation of the tantric text mentioning the moralistic headband and Monkey’s earliest known depiction wearing it.


1) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions (N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.

2) A zhang (丈) is ten Chinese feet, so 10,000 zhang would be 100,000 feet. A li (里) is one-third of a Western mile. More importantly, in Chinese culture, the number 10,000 represents an infinitely large concept. Therefore, by squaring the number, the well prison is described as an unfathomably large and inescapable place. I would like to thank the Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula (his website) for suggesting this note as it helps better visualize the prison. He was kind enough to read an earlier draft of this article.

3) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.

4) See chapter two.

5) This is not openly stated in chapter 14 but is implied in chapter 27. See this article for more information.

6) Ch’en (1956) gives examples. During the Song, the official selling prices for the certificates ranged from one hundred thirty to eight hundred strings of cash. To put these prices in perspective, he notes the lowest cost would pay for the equivalent of seventy-five bolts of silk or one hundred twenty-five bushels of rice (pp. 316-317). 

7) Wivell, 1994, p. 1187. The full episode appears on pages 1186-1187.

8) Ge, 2001, p. 38. The eight types of stories appearing in The Drunken Man’s Talk are: “lingguai [靈怪] (spirits and demons), yanfen [煙粉] (rouge and powder), chuanqi [傳奇] (marvels), gong’an [公案] (court cases), podao [朴刀] (broadsword), ganbang [桿棒] (staff), shenxian [神仙] (immortals), and yaoshu [妖術] (sorcery)” (Ge, 2001, p. 209, n. 6).

9) Huang, 2018, p. 61 and n. 8. It’s interesting to note that the monk Lu Zhishen is said to wield an impossibly heavy metal staff like Sun Wukong. See this article for more details.

10) See chapters three and four.

11) Lorge (2012) cites a Tang-era story about an 8th-century prince who discovers an abandoned wardrobe while hunting in the forest. It is found to contain a young woman who had been kidnapped the previous night by bandits but was subsequently whisked away by two monks among the group. The prince replaces her with a wild bear that later mauls the bandit monks to death when the wardrobe is reopened (pp. 106-107). The monks were likely impostors like Wu Song.

12) Wu Song is famed in Chinese folklore for his martial arts ability. This led to the creation of a wushu form known as “Wu Song Breaks Manacles” (Wu Song tuo kao, 武松脫拷), which mimics a person fighting with their hands clasped as if shackled, forcing them to rely on doubled fist and elbow strikes and lots of kicking. The form is based on an episode from chapter 30 of the WM when the hero is attacked by assassins while being led in shackles to a prison camp. Wu Song is forced to defend himself in such a manner before breaking his restraints.

13) See, for example, Chlumsky, 2005, p. 72. The author also repeats folklore further tying the style to the Song dynasty heroes Yue Fei and his teacher Zhou Tong.

14) See chapters five and six.

15) I think it’s interesting that each weapon is presented as having some level of sentienceCalled the “As-you-wish” Gold-Banded Cudgel (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), Sun’s staff grows or shrinks according to his whim. Wu’s peerless blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magic longing for combat. The sentience of each weapon is based on different sources, however. I note in this article that the compliance of Monkey’s weapon is based on the Ruyi (如意) scepter, a symbol of religious and secular authority that was at some point associated with the similarly named wish-fulfilling cintamani jewel (ruyi zhu, 如意珠) from Buddhist mythology. The vocal ability of Wu Song’s blades may be based on the Chinese belief that swords have a soul. Two prime examples are the famed treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) made by the legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi (歐冶子) during the Spring and Autumn period. Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-ccentury) described them as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).

16) See Luo (n.d.). The original source says “po bintie dadao” (潑鑌鐵大刀). This is likely a transcription error. I have corrected it above. 


Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Børdahl, V. (2013). Wu Song fights the tiger: The interaction of oral and written traditions in the Chinese novel, drama and storytelling. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

Ch’en, K. (1956). The sale of monk certificates during the Sung dynasty: A factor in the decline of Buddhism in China. The Harvard Theological Review 49(4), pp. 307-327.

Chen, P., & Petersen, V. (2016). The development of Chinese martial arts fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Chlumsky, N. (2015). Inside kungfu: Chinese martial arts encyclopedia. [n.p.]:

Da song xuanhe yishi [Old incidents in xuanhe period of the great Song dynasty] (n.d.). [archived document]. Retrieved from

Huang, Y. (2018). Narrative of Chinese and western popular fiction: Comparison and interpretation. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Ge, L. (2001). Out of the margins: The rise of Chinese vernacular fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Knechtges, D. R., & Chang, T. (2010). Ancient and early medieval Chinese literature: A reference guide. Leiden: Brill.

Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical dictionary of Chinese women: Tang through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Luo, G. (n.d.). San sui pingyao zhuan [The three sui quash the demons’ revolt] [archived document]. Retrieved from

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Padula, D. (2016). Dragon ball culture: Volume 5. (n.p.): Derek Padula.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Wang, J. (1992). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin, and the journey to the west. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

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

The Worship of Sun Wukong in 19th-century America

I by chance happened upon an old magazine article that mentions the worship of Sun Wukong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1892. The piece is written by one Frederic J. Masters, D.D., a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about the area’s Chinese community. Not surprisingly, the article is dripping with condescension towards Chinese religion, condemning the Great Sage’s worship as “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness.” Below is the section discussing the Monkey King.

In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses, the principal being the Grand Duke of Peace, the God of Medicine, and Pan Kung, a celebrated Prime Minister of the Sung Dynasty. The funniest discovery in this temple was that of Tsai Tin Tai Shing [Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖]. He is a beatified monkey in the image of a man. Hatched from a bowlder [sic], this animal is said to have proclaimed himself king of the monkeys. At last he learned the language of men, and finding himself possessed of supernatural powers, he obtained a place among the gods. Such is the legend. Chinese idolatry thus reaches the acme of absurdity and sinfulness in the canonization of a monkey. Thoughts of Darwin’s descent of man at once flashed across our mind as we looked at this image. It was disappointing at one’s curiosity to find that the old temple keeper who cared more for a pipe of opium than for speculations in theology and anthropology could not tell us what part natural selection played in the evolution of Chinese deities, or whether monkey worship was the newest phase of Chinese ancestral worship. Finding him lamentably ignorant upon the great question of the descent of man, we astonished with him with a complete history of his monkey god.

There was an ape in the days that were earlier;
Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more and his tail disappeared,
Then he was man and a god to be feared (Masters, 1892, pp. 736-737).

So what can we learn from this brief entry? Given the time, place, and use of Cantonese, the worshipers were most likely immigrants from Guangdong province. Refo Mason (1994) explains, “When news of the discovery of gold in California reached South China in 1849, thousands of labourers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces left their villages to seek work in the gum shan ([金山] ‘Gold Mountain’) … Emigration from South China to California…peaked in 1852, when 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco” (p. 200). Monkey‘s adherents may have counted among these men or their descendants (or possibly among those from later periods of immigration). Either way, belief in the Great Sage came with those who traveled from southern China to America.

Monkey King Bust - American Gods - Instagram 1 - small

Fig. 1 – A photomanipulation of Sun Wukong above the title logo from the ongoing American Gods television show (larger version). By the author. The program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name.

Somebody please get Neil Gaimon on the phone and tell him that he can now include Monkey in American Gods (fig. 1). What do you think the character would look like? Maybe a short old man with a cane?

Spofford Alley, home to 19th-century temple with Monkey King shrine - small

Fig 2 – A modern Google satellite image of Spofford Alley (larger version). It is only a few hundred feet long.

During the 19th-century, Spofford Alley (fig. 2), where the temple housing the Great Sage shrine was located, was home to the Chee Kong Tong (Zhigongdang, 致公堂, “Chamber of High Justice Society,” a.k.a. the “Chinese Freemasons”), the secret Chinese society-turned-criminal organization running Chinatown’s illicit opium, gambling, and prostitution trade (Risse, 2012, p. 37). The Chee Kong Tong were originally an offshoot of anti-Manchu rebels who wanted to overthrow the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219). [1] Therefore, Sun Wukong’s worshipers may have included gangsters and rebels. As mentioned in this article, the Great Sage was venerated by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). This makes sense as the divine primate is famous for his rebellion against heaven in Journey to the West.


1) Sun Yatsen, the “Father of modern China,” made contact with the Chee Kong Tong several times and even used their no. 36 Spofford Alley office as his own while raising money for his revolution in China (United States, 1993, pp. 45-46; Lum & Lum, 1999, p. 57).


Cassel, S. L. (2002). The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian illustrated magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.

Lum, Y. M., & Lum, R. M. K. (1999). Sun Yat-sen in Hawaii: Activities and supporters. Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center.

Refo Mason, S. (1994). Social Christianity, American feminism, and Chinese prostitutes: The history of the Presbyterian mission home, San Francisco, 1874-1935 In M. Jaschok and S. Miers (Ed.) Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape (pp. 198-220). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Risse, G. B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

United States. (1993). An introduction to organized crime in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Organized Crime/Drug Branch, Criminal Investigative Division.