How Many Humans Does Sun Wukong Kill in Journey to the West?

Last updated: 01-17-2023

Someone on Tumblr recently asked me if I knew how many monsters, spirits, and humans that Sun Wukong kills throughout Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). But since he’s a “hyper murder monkey” (fig. 1), this is impossible to quantify without an overly extensive survey of the book. However, the task becomes far more manageable if narrowed down to just humans. I know of at least seven instances in chapters 14, 27, 28, 44, 46, and 56. Although I can’t give an exact count, the number slain is over 1,030!

This study is by no means exhaustive. I’ve surely missed a few examples in the latter half of the book. But I’ll update this piece in the future if anything else pops up.

Fig. 1 – The story of the hyper murder monkey by @FlorkOfCows (larger version).

I. Chapter 14

  • Six robbers

The first instance happens when Sun and his master are accosted by six robbers shortly after the immortal is released from under Five Elements Mountain:

Master and disciple had traveled for some time when suddenly six men jumped out from the side of the road with much clamor, all holding long spears and short swords, sharp blades and strong bows. “Stop, monk!” they cried. “Leave your horse and drop your bag at once, and we’ll let you pass on alive!” Tripitaka was so terrified that his soul left him and his spirit fled; he fell from his horse, unable to utter a word. But Pilgrim lifted him up, saying, “Don’t be alarmed, Master. It’s nothing really, just some people coming to give us clothes and a travel allowance!” “Wukong,” said Tripitaka, “you must be a little hard of hearing! They told us to leave our bag and our horse, and you want to ask them for clothes and a travel allowance?” “You just stay here and watch our belongings,” said Pilgrim, “and let old Monkey confront them. We’ll see what happens.” Tripitaka said, “Even a good punch is no match for a pair of fists, and two fists can’t cope with four hands! There are six big fellows over there, and you are such a tiny person. How can you have the nerve to confront them?”

As he always had been audacious, Pilgrim did not wait for further discussion. He walked forward with arms folded and saluted the six men, saying, “Sirs, for what reason are you blocking the path of this poor monk?” “We are kings of the highway,” said the men, “philanthropic mountain lords. Our fame has long been known, though you seem to be ignorant of it. Leave your belongings at once, and you will be allowed to pass. If you but utter half a no, you’ll be chopped to pieces!” “I have been also a great hereditary king and a mountain lord for centuries,” said Pilgrim, “but I have yet to learn of your illustrious names.” “So you really don’t know!” one of them said. “Let’s tell you then: one of us is named Eye That Sees and Delights; another, Ear That Hears and Rages; another Nose That Smells and Loves; another, Tongue That Tastes and Desires; another, Mind That Perceives and Covets; and another, Body That Bears and Suffers.” “You are nothing but six hairy brigands,” said Wukong laughing, “who have failed to recognize in me a person who has left the family, your proper master. How dare you bar my way? Bring out the treasures you have stolen so that you and I can divide them into seven portions. I’ll spare you then!” Hearing this, the robbers all reacted with rage and amusement, covetousness and fear, desire and anxiety. They rushed forward crying, “You reckless monk! You haven’t a thing to offer us, and yet you want us to share our loot with you!” Wielding spears and swords, they surrounded Pilgrim and hacked away at his head seventy or eighty times. Pilgrim stood in their midst and behaved as if nothing were happening.

What a monk!” said one of the robbers. “He really does have a hard head!” “Passably so!” said Pilgrim, laughing. “But your hands must be getting tired from all that exercise; it’s about time for old Monkey to take out his needle for a little entertainment.” “This monk must be an acupuncture man in disguise,” said the robber. “We’re not sick! What’s all this about using a needle?” Pilgrim reached into his ear and took out a tiny embroidery needle; one wave of it in the wind and it became an iron rod with the thickness of a rice bowl. He held it in his hands, saying, “Don’t run! Let old Monkey try his hand on you with this rod!” The six robbers fled in all directions, but with great strides he caught up with them and rounded all of them up. He beat every one of them to death, stripped them of their clothes, and seized their valuables. Then Pilgrim came back smiling broadly and said, “You may proceed now, Master. Those robbers have been exterminated by old Monkey” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, pp 314-315).

This ends with Tripitaka becoming angry and exiling Monkey. The cleric later welcomes him back, only to rein in his disciple’s unruly behavior with the heaven-sent golden headband (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 315-317 and 318-320). This becomes a reoccurring theme (see below).

The six murders (fig. 2) are allegories for defeating the desires of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, mind, and body that hinder one’s spiritual progression. [1] This is explained by Monkey in chapter 43 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).

Fig. 2 – A woodblock print depicting Sun killing the six bandits (larger version). It comes from The Illustrated Journey to the West (Ehon Saiyuki, 繪本西遊記), a 19th-century Japanese translation.

II. Chapter 27

  • Unknown

The second is alluded to during the White Bone Spirit episode. In her attempts to eat the monk, the wily skeleton demon takes on the guises of a beautiful girl, her elderly mother, and her elderly father in turn. But each time Sun attacks her with his staff, she leaves a fake corpse in her wake, [2] making it seem like the immortal has murdered yet another person. This naturally upsets Tripitaka, but Monkey explains that evil spirits commonly disguise themselves as something welcoming in order to catch and eat humans. He uses himself as an example, claiming to have done the same as a young monster:

“Master,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “how could you know about this? 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 feebleminded 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. Master, if I had returned a little later, you would have fallen into her trap and been harmed by her.” That Tang Monk, however, simply refused to believe these words; he kept saying instead that the woman was a good person (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 20).

In the end, the cleric isn’t convinced that Sun didn’t kill an entire family, and so he punishes him with the band-tightening spell before once again banishing him from the group (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 26-28).

I know some online commentators believe that Monkey lies here about eating people. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision. But even if his claims are true, there is no way of quantifying the number eaten.

III. Chapter 28

  • 1,000-plus hunters

The third happens shortly after Sun’s exile. Upon returning to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he learns that more than half of his 47,000 monkey subjects had been killed centuries ago in a great fire set by Erlang, and then half of the survivors later fled elsewhere due to a lack of food. In addition, half of those who remained were killed and eaten or captured for entertainment by a band of over 1,000 human hunters who recently came to inhabit the mountain. Hearing this greatly enrages the Monkey King. He thereafter instructs his subjects to gather piles of small rocks for a magical wind attack (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp. 31-32):

Making the magic sign with his fingers and reciting a spell, he drew in a breath facing the southwest and blew it out. At once a violent wind arose. Marvelous wind!

It threw up dust and scattered dirt;
It toppled trees and cut down forests.
The ocean waves rose like mountains;
They crashed fold upon fold on the shore.
The cosmos grew dim and darkened;
The sun and the moon lost their light.
The pine trees, once shaken, roared like tigers;
The bamboos, hit abruptly, sang like dragons.
All Heaven’s pores let loose their angry breaths
As rocks and sand flew, hurting one and all.

The Great Sage called up this mighty wind that blew up and scattered those rock pieces in every direction. Pity those thousand-odd (qianyu, 千餘) hunters and horses! This was what happened to every one of them:

The rocks broke their dark heads to pieces;
Flying sand hurt all the winged horses.
Lords and nobles confounded before the peak,
Blood stained like cinnabar the earth.
Fathers and sons could not go home.
Could fine men to their houses return?
Corpses fell to the dust and lay on the mountain,
While rouged ladies at home waited.

The poem says:

Men killed, horses dead—how could they go home?
Lost, lonely souls floundered like tangled hemp.
Pity those strong and virile fighting men,
Whose blood, both good and bad, did stain the sand!

Lowering the direction of his cloud, the Great Sage clapped his hands and roared with laughter, saying, “Lucky! Lucky! Since I made submission to the Tang Monk and became a priest, he has been giving me this advice:

‘Do good a thousand days,
But the good is still insufficient;
Do evil for one day,
And that evil is already excessive.’

Some truth indeed! When I followed him and killed a few monsters, he would blame me for perpetrating violence. Today I came home and it was the merest trifle to finish off all these hunters.”

He then shouted, “Little ones, come out!” When those monkeys saw that the violent wind had passed and heard the Great Sage calling, they all jumped out. “Go down to the south side of the mountain,” said the Great Sage, “and strip the dead hunters of their clothes. Bring them back home, wash away the bloodstains, and you all can wear them to ward off the cold. The corpses you can push into the deep mountain lake over there. Pull back here also the horses that are killed; their hides can be used to make boots, and their meat can be cured for us to enjoy slowly. Gather up the bows and arrows, the swords and spears, and you can use them for military drills again. And finally, bring me those banners of miscellaneous colors; I have use for them” (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp 33-34).

This is by far the largest number of humans killed in one go by the hyper murder monkey.

IV. Chapter 44

  • Two Daoists

The fourth happens shortly after the pilgrims arrive in the Cart-Slow Kingdom. Sun is appalled to learn that three self-proclaimed immortals have convinced the region’s monarch to not only destroy all Buddhist institutions but also to enslave the clerics to the Daoists. His initial response is to play a joke on two cocky Daoist overseers by convincing them (under the guise of an aged coreligionist) that he has a relative among the 500 monks who should be set free. But when they ask which one, our hero claims all of them to be his kin (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 269-275):

The Daoists said, “You must be a little crazy, for all at once you are babbling! These monks happen to be gifts from the king. If we want to release even one or two of them, we will have to go first before our masters to report that they are ill. Then, we have to submit a death certificate before we can consider the matter closed. How could you ask us to release them all? Nonsense! Nonsense! Why, not to speak of the fact that we would be left without servants in our household, but even the court might be offended. The king might send some officials to look into the work here or he himself might come to investigate. How could we dare let them go?” “You won’t release them?” said Pilgrim. “No, we won’t!” said the Daoists. Pilgrim asked them three times and his anger flared up. Whipping out his iron rod from his ear, he squeezed it once in the wind and it had the thickness of a rice bowl. He tested it with his hand before slamming it down on the Daoists’ heads. How pitiful! This one blow made

Their heads crack, their blood squirts, their bodies sink low;
Their skin split, their necks snap, their brains outflow! (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 275).

V. Chapter 46

  • One civil official

The fifth happens during a magical contest of torture against one of the three supposed immortals. Monkey easily survives a bath in boiling oil but fakes his death in order to play a trick on Zhu Bajie. The officer in charge of the execution reports the development to the monarch, leading Tripitaka to eulogize and present offerings to his disciple’s spirit. But once Zhu hijacks the proceedings by calling Sun a Bimawen, [3] our hero erupts from the caldron to chastise his religious brother. Fearing possible punishment for seemingly lying to the king, the aforementioned official claims the primate is instead a ghost (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 310-312):

Maddened by what he heard, Pilgrim leaped out of the cauldron, dried himself from the oil, and threw on his clothes. Dragging that officer over, he whipped out his iron rod and one blow on the head reduced him to a meat patty. “What ghost is this who’s manifesting itself?” he huffed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 312-313).

VI. Chapter 56 – Part 1

  • Two bandit chiefs

The last two instances that I know of take place shortly after the scorpion spirit episode. The sixth follows a similar pattern to chapter 14: Tripitaka is confronted by bandits → He gets scared and falls off the horse → The bandits demand money and the horse → Sun intervenes → His banter enrages them and they hit and stab at his adamantine pate to no avail → They comment on his hard head → Monkey pulls out his iron staff, referring to it as a needle → The bandits infer that he works in a certain profession and claim to have no use for the needle → He enlarges the weapon and eventually beats them to death. [4] The only difference here is that Sun first challenges the men to lift his staff:

… Sticking the rod into the ground, Pilgrim said to them, “If any of you can pick it up, it’s yours.” The two bandit chiefs at once went forward to try to grab it, but alas, it was as if dragonflies were attempting to shake a stone pillar. They could not even budge it half a whit! This rod, you see, happened to be the compliant golden-hooped rod, which tipped the scale in Heaven at thirteen thousand, five hundred [catties]. How could those bandits have knowledge of this? The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body, he pointed at the bandits and said, “Your luck’s running out, for you have met old Monkey!” One of the bandit chiefs approached him and gave him another fifty or sixty blows. “Your hands must be getting tired!” chuckled Pilgrim. “Let old Monkey give you one stroke of the rod. I won’t do it for real either!” Look at him! One wave of the rod and it grew to about seventy feet, its circumference almost as big as a well. He banged it on the bandit, and he at once fell to the ground: his lips hugging the earth, he could not make another sound.

The other bandit chiefs shouted, “This baldy is so audacious! He has no travel money, but he has killed one of us instead!” “Don’t fret! Don’t fret!” said Pilgrim, laughing. “I’ll hit every one of you, just to make sure that all of you will be wiped out!” With another bang he beat to death the other bandit chief Those small thieves were so terrified that they abandoned their weapons and fled for their lives in all directions (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, pp. 80-81).

VII. Chapter 56 – Part 2

  • One unfilial son
  • twenty-ish bandits

The seventh happens sometime after one of the surviving bandits, the son of an elderly couple surnamed Yang (楊), discovers that his parents are feeding and sheltering the pilgrims for the night. He and his brothers-in-arms make plans to attack the monks after eating dinner and sharpening their weapons, but old Mr. Yang alerts them, giving Tripitaka and his disciples ample time to escape:

Every bandit was darting forward like an arrow, and by sunrise, they caught sight of the Tang Monk. When the elder heard shouts behind him, he turned to look and discovered a band of some thirty men rushing toward him, all armed with knives and spears. “Oh, disciples,” he cried, “the brigand troops are catching up with us. What shall we do?” “Relax, relax!” said Pilgrim. “Old Monkey will go finish them off!” “Wukong,” said Tripitaka as he stopped his horse, “you must not hurt these people. Just frighten them away.” Unwilling, of course, to listen to his master, Pilgrim turned quickly to face his pursuers, saying, “Where are you going, sirs?” “You nasty baldie!” cried the thieves. “Give us back the lives of our great kings!”

As they encircled Pilgrim, the bandits lifted their spears and knives to stab and hack away madly. The Great Sage gave one wave of his rod and it had the thickness of a bowl; with it, he fought until those bandits dropped like stars and dispersed like clouds. Those he bumped into died at once, those he caught hold of perished immediately, those he tapped had their bones broken, and those he brushed against had their skins torn. The few smart ones managed to escape, but the rest of the dumb ones all went to see King Yama!

When Tripitaka saw that many men had fallen, he was so aghast that he turned and galloped toward the West, with Zhu Eight Rules and Sha Monk hard on the horse’s heels. Pilgrim pulled over one of the wounded bandits and asked, “Which is the son of old Yang?” “Father,” groaned the thief, “the one in yellow.” Pilgrim went forward to pick up a knife and beheaded the one in yellow. Holding the bloody head in his hand, he retrieved his iron rod and, in great strides, caught up with the Tang Monk. As he arrived before the horse, he raised the head and said, “Master, this is the rebellious son of old Yang, and he’s been beheaded by old Monkey.” [fig. 3] Paling with fright, Tripitaka fell down from the horse, crying, “Wretched ape! You’ve scared me to death! Take it away! Take it away!” Eight Rules went forward and kicked the head to the side of the road, where he used the muckrake to bury it (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 88-89).

The quote is clear that not all 30 bandits are killed. Apart from Yang the bandit, I think 20(-ish) is a conservative estimate based on the wording.

And just like chapters 14 and 27, this episode ends with Tripitaka punishing his disciple with the band-tightening spell before exiling him from the group (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 89-90).

Fig. 3 – Monkey presenting the head of Yang the bandit to his master. This screenshot comes from episode 10 of OSP’s retelling of Journey to the West (larger version).

VIII. Conclusion

To my knowledge, the Monkey King kills over 1,030 humans in Journey to the West. This includes six allegorical robbers in chapter 14, an unknown amount alluded to in chapter 27, over 1,000 hunters in chapter 28, two Daoists in chapter 44, one civil official in chapter 46, and two bandits chiefs, one unfilial son, and maybe 20-ish bandits in chapter 56. I may have missed a few instances in the latter half of the novel, so please don’t look at the above total as complete.

Update: 01-17-2023

I previously mentioned an instance in chapter 27 where Monkey admits to eating humans in his youth, something that some online commentators believe to be a fib. Well, a Tumblr user, who goes by both @abitfiendish and @localcactushugger, reminded me that dialogue in chapter 39 further calls this into question.

After a pill of immortal elixir fails to revive a long-dead king, Tripitaka suggests mouth-to-mouth necessitation is needed to complete the resurrection process. Sun is ultimately chosen for this job since he had apparently never eaten meat:

Eight Rules walked forward and was about to do this when he was stopped by Tripitaka. “You can’t do it,” he said. “Wukong still should take over.” That elder indeed had presence of mind, for Zhu Eight Rules, you see, had been a cannibal since his youth, and his breath was unclean. Pilgrim, on the other hand, had practiced self-cultivation since his birth, the food sustaining him being various fruits and nuts, and thus his breath was pure. The Great Sage, therefore, went forward and clamped his thundergod beak to the lips of the king: a mighty breath was blown through his throat … (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 195-196).

But it should be remembered that Journey to the West is crammed full of inconsistencies (likely born from the novel coalescing from different oral tales). For example, this chapter shows that all it takes to revive a dead person is an elixir pill and mouth-to-mouth. However, in chapter 97, Monkey has to physically retrieve the soul of a recently deceased householder from the underworld in order to resurrect him (see the material below figure 3 here).

Again, I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision.


1) Things that arouse the eyes (sights), ears (sounds), nose (smells), tongue (tastes), and mind and body (wants and desires).

2) This is related to an ancient Daoist concept called “Release by means of a corpse” (Shijie, 尸解). Stories as far back as the Han describe immortals leaving behind a fake corpse (sometimes a magically disguised object) while they ascended in secret to heaven (Kirkland, 2008).

3) This plays on the homophonous relationship between Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), an ancient belief that female monkeys placed in horse stables could ward off equine sickness, and Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), Sun’s former station as keeper of the heavenly horses (see here).

See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 78-81.


Kirkland, R. (2008). Shijie In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2) (pp. 896-897). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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

Journey to the West Artist Spotlight #2: NinjaHaku21

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.

Our next artist is NinjaHaku21, who goes by @NinjaHaku21_Art on both Twitter and Instagram and @NinjaHaku21Art on Tumblr.  They also have a Patreon and an Etsy storeThey were kind enough to answer some interview questions, as well as allow permission to display a few of their pieces.

I. Q & A

1) Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Hi there! I go by Ninja, and I am a freelance artist! I recently just started my freelancing career this year, and work on a few indie comics along with thumbnails for youtube!

2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?

I am self taught! I always wanted to go to art school, but life had other plans in mind!

3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?

While growing up, comics for sure! Was a huge fan of sonic comics, and now, it’s a mix of that and other media!

4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?

I learned about the Journey To The West after watching the show LEGO Monkie Kid! My friends and I have seen clips of it on twitter, and so we binged the entire series up to date. I was so interested in the characters and the world, I had to look up more. I then discovered the novel and was hooked. I am still looking into more movies to see their take on the novel!

5) Who is your favorite character?

Sun Wukong! He grows so much throughout the story and faces so many challenges. It’s hard not to love this murderous Monkey King who seeks redemption.

6) Do you have a favorite episode from the novel?

That’s a tough one! I think my favorites have to be the Six- Eared Macaque, the battle with Red Boy, and the Immortals of Tiger, Elk, and Antelope Power!

7) Does the novel have a special meaning to you?

To me, seeing what the characters have acted before in the past and seeing them grow and learn makes me happy. It helps me remember that even though you may have done some awful stuff in the past, you can still make a difference and grow from it.

8) Can you tell me about any ongoing JTTW-related projects?

Currently I am working on my own designs of the characters for fun! Making illustrations about my versions of them, and making some merch of the designs for my shop!

II. Art and Thought Process

Note: Click each image to enlarge it.

1. Ever since I started reading Journey To The West and watching movies with the Monkey King or anything JTTW-related, I wanted to create my own take of the characters. With this piece, I was seeing how my designs would look with all of them together! I had rough sketched out some draft looks that got inspired by different pieces of them from either shows, movies, or ancient drawings of them, then fit in what I liked most and created this piece! I wanted to have them express their own personality through the look, and I am quite proud of the final results! I imagined some unlucky villager getting a visit from these “ugly demons” and their Master asking for a place to visit.

2. With this piece, I wanted to capture a fun moment on their journey to the west. These guys have to deal with so much while trying to protect their master, so I figured giving them a nice snow day would be a fun thing to draw!

3. The Six-Eared Macaque. Definitely one of my favorite characters from the stories. I wanted to show him off along with the opera mask, kind of symbolizing him transforming into Wukong to trick his companions.

4. I wanted to put these three pieces together, showing how Sun Wukong acts around his companions and Master.

I know for sure Wukong and Zhu Bajie argued a lot, and I haven’t seen any issues between Sha Wujing and Wukong (still reading and learning) and figured they’d have some nice conversations. And of course, Wukong protects his master from a group of hungry demons or bandits!

5. Now this one I did decide on having some fun on creating my own version of a “spider queen” (I know there wasn’t a queen in the story, but it was still fun)! I based this loosely around the chapter with the spider sisters, making the eldest one the queen. I had a fun time drawing this out, making the eldest have a thing for Wukong, haha!

(Jim here. This reminds me of the Scorpion Spirit having a thing for Tripitaka.)

6. In this piece here, I wanted to have my design of Nezha interacting with Wukong. I based Nezha’s design on a few different inspirations (some being from the Monkie Kid series and ancient art of the deity), and descriptions from the story. I also wanted to add in a dragon tattoo, sort of as a remembrance of what Nezha had done in the past. But this picture was to show the type of relationship these two have. Nezha would definitely feel a bit salty of losing to Wukong all those years ago!



A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 01-04-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru (see section 1, #1 here). The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another. This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] in his hands. [4] The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [5] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

Since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [6]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.

Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [7]


As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.

Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

This would certainly make Monkey a powerful foe during his rebellion.


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) The translation also included “and a flag” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28), but the Chinese version I have access to does not mention a flag. I have therefore left it out.

5) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

6) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

7) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Archive #37 – The 13th-Century Version of Journey to the West

I’ve previously written an article describing 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, c. late-13th-century), a seventeen chapter novelette that likely served as a prompt for oral storytellers. It is the oldest printed version of the Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) story cycle. Here, I would like to present an English translation of this tale by Charles S. Wivell (1994).

Archive link:

The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought back the Sutras

Detail of Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim from a late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). See here for more ancient depictions of Sun Wukong and his master.


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


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.

Does the Buddha Lie in Journey to the West?

I was recently directed to an online Chinese article by Ye Zhiqiu (叶之秋) (n.d.) in which they claim that the Buddha makes “four grand, overarching lies” (sige mitian dahuang, 四個彌天大謊) throughout the course of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter). They believe this is because the literary version of the Enlightened One is a master strategist who uses lies in a calculated attempt to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. This is admittedly a fascinating idea but one that falls apart under careful analysis. Ye (n.d.) displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. In this article, I will show that there are far more plausible reasons for the Buddha’s statements than lying.

I. First Lie

The Buddha states the following about the novel’s Hindo-Buddhist cosmos (ch. 8), which features four island-like continents floating in a great sea around a cosmic mountain (fig. 1) (see the 06-25-22 update in section 1.2 here for a slightly more detailed explanation):

I have watched the Four Great Continents, and the morality of their inhabitants varies from place to place. Those living on the East Pūrvavideha revere Heaven and Earth, and they are straightforward and peaceful. Those on the North Uttarakuru, though they love to destroy life, do so out of the necessity of making a livelihood. Moreover, they are rather dull of mind and lethargic in spirit, and they are not likely to do much harm. Those of our West Aparagodānīya are neither covetous nor prone to kill; they control their humor and temper their spirit. There is, to be sure, no illuminate of the first order, but everyone is certain to attain longevity. Those who reside in the South Jambūdvīpa, however, are prone to practice lechery and delight in evildoing, indulging in much slaughter and strife. Indeed, they are all caught in the treacherous field of tongue and mouth, in the wicked sea of slander and malice. However, I have three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 204-205).


Ye (n.d.) claims that the Enlightened One is lying because most of the monsters show up not in the supposedly evil continent of South Jambūdvīpa (the Land of the East, i.e. China) but in the Buddha’s home of West Aparagodānīya (India). They even provide a long list of monsters encountered there. Also, the writer theorizes that the planned scripture pilgrimage is just a ploy to spread the Buddha’s influence to the Land of the East, making him the ruler of two of four continents. The implication here is that he is slowly chipping away at the Jade Emperor’s domain.

However, the Buddha was likely referring to the people in those particular continents and not the monsters. And most importantly, his words appear to mirror the views of foreign Buddhist monks. When the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘; 602-664), on whom Tripitaka is based, planned to return home from India, his friends tried dissuading him by describing China in similarly negative terms. Brose (2021) comments:

For many of the monks he had befriended, the decision was hard to fathom. “India is the birthplace of the Buddha,” they reminded him. “Although the Great Sage is gone, his traces remain. To travel around and venerate them is enough to make one’s life content. Why would you want to give this up after having come here? China is a barbarian land where people are neglected, and the Dharma is despised. That is why no buddhas have ever been born there. The people have narrow aspirations and deep impurities, so sages do not go there. The air is cold and the land is dangerous. How can you think of returning there?” Xuanzang reportedly responded by quoting an exchange from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, where the noble layman Vimalakīrti asks Śāriputra, “Why does the sun come to Jambudvīpa?” The answer: “To illuminate it and eliminate the darkness.” If Xuanzang remained in India, the true Dharma might never be known in China (pp. 61-62).

Additionally, Xuanzang is known to have left China illegally when he first began his journey. Brose (2021) explains:

Xuanzang almost didn’t make it to India. Before setting out on his pilgrimage, his initial request for a travel permit was denied by the [Tang] court and, after traveling over five hundred miles from the capital to the westernmost Chinese city of Liangzhou, the local governor ordered him to turn back. Hiding during the day and traveling at night, Xuanzang quietly continued on to the desert outpost of Guazhou. There, he learned that the court had issued a warrant for his arrest. The local prefect, it turned out, was a pious Buddhist and urged Xuanzang to leave quickly… (p. 16).

Conversely, the monk in JTTW is portrayed as a loyal Confucian-type person. Therefore, in order to frame Tripitaka as a faithful, law-abiding citizen of China, the novel had to provide a reason for his pilgrimage, one that the Tang emperor would give his blessing to. [1]

Fig. 1 – A diagram of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk.

II. Second Lie

During Sun Wukong’s battle with the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 58) (fig. 2), the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathāgata [the Buddha], “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [2] who

Knows transformations,
Recognizes the seasons,
Discerns the advantages of earth,
And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang,
Understands human affairs,
Is adept in its daily life
And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon,
Shorten a thousand mountains,
Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious,
And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear,
Discernment of fundamental principles,
Knowledge of past and future,
And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).


Ye (n.d.) claims the Buddha concocted the list of supernatural primates in order to hide the fact that Six Ears was an aspect of the Monkey King’s mind. They reason that the falsehood was used to avoid offending the Daoist hierarchy who couldn’t figure out the doppelganger’s true identity.

I think the author’s issue here is that the Daoist gods considered Six Ears a real figure, while the Buddha knew him to be an aspect of Sun’s mind. Something being real and illusory at the same time may seem like a big contradiction, but it’s not in the JTTW cosmos. Campany (1985) explains that, as physical threats, the monsters enable Monkey and his religious brothers to build Buddhist merit (zhenguo, 正果; lit: “right fruit”) by fighting them. At the same time, being illusory aspects of the mind, the monsters help the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, to understand that reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “Aware of Emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the journey.

Ye (n.d.) also points out that the listed powers of the Horse Monkey and Tongbi Gibbon don’t appear to be true, for they (under the guise of the commanders Ma and Liu and Beng and Ba – see section 2 here) are supposedly killed by Erlang’s forces in chapter six. They claim this proves that the two supernatural primates don’t actually exist. However, two things need to be said. One, the aforementioned underlings appear alive and well in chapter 28 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 32), meaning that they were not killed. And two, an irregularity in the story does not equate to a lie. The author hasn’t even come close to offering conclusive evidence of intent. Instead, I suggest that this is just an inconsistency born from the novel’s origin as individual oral tales that were eventually compiled, expanded, and published in book form. See, for instance, the 13th-century version of the story cycle. Therefore, irregularities are bound to pop up throughout the narrative.

But even if this lie was somehow true, how exactly does it further the Buddha’s supposed plan to take power from the Jade Emperor?

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and Six Ears battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

III. Third Lie

After the Buddha learns that the holy beasts of two bodhisattvas have escaped their respective mountain paradises and become man-eating demons on earth (ch. 77) (fig. 3), he has the following conversation with his disciples:

[…] Tathāgata left the lotus throne and went out of the monastery gate with the rest of the buddhas. There they saw Ānanda and Kāśyapa leading Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra [3] on their way to the monastery also.

As the two bodhisattvas bowed to him, Tathagata asked, “How long have your beasts of burden been gone from your mountains?” “Seven days,” replied Mañjuśrī. “Seven days in the mountain,” said Tathāgata, “are equivalent to several thousand years on earth. I wonder how many lives they have taken down there. You must follow me quickly if we are to retrieve them.” With one bodhisattva standing on each side of him, the Buddha and his followers rose into the air (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 29-30).


Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is lying about the corresponding time on earth in order to mask his guilt over not intervening sooner. As evidence, they cite the fact that the novel states “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). However, this could just be one of the aforementioned inconsistencies. One oral tradition may have said one day equals one year, while another said it equals one thousand years, and then both of these made it into the novel. But there is a more likely answer (see below).

They also claim that the respective Bodhisattvas’ mountain paradises are on earth, meaning they would be subject to the same time as the mortal world. This carries the implication that the beasts were eating people for at least a few hundred years and none of the Buddhist deities did anything to stop them. But the author clearly doesn’t understand earthly paradises like Mañjuśrī’s Mount Wutai (Wutai shan, 五臺山; lit: “Five Terrace/Platform Mountain”), which they mention by name in the article. Chou (2018) notes that a “central paradox of Mount Wutai” is that it is “both an earthly place and a Buddhist paradise (pure land)” (p. 142). Kōtatsu (Kōtatsu & Otowa, 1996) explains that Pure Lands (Jingtu, 净土) are “world[s] of another dimension” that are “temporally different from this one” (p. 45). Therefore, it seems more likely that the Enlightened One was referring to the time difference between Buddhist mountain paradises and the mortal realm. This is distinct from the Daoist heaven, which is expressly associated with the “one heavenly day = one earthly year” time dilation.

Additionally, Ye (n.d.) claims that Mañjuśrī is lying about the length of time his beast was absent because of a similar bout of guilt. It’s strange, though, that the writer’s answer for everything is “such and such Buddhist figure is being dishonest”. I’d be interested to read some of their other work to see if there’s a pattern of deconstructing Buddhism. JTTW clearly treats the religion with reverence, placing the Buddha and his disciples at the top of the novel’s cosmic hierarchy. Therefore, selectively interpreting details to support some agenda against Buddhism wouldn’t reflect positively on the author or their writing.

And again, I have to ask: How would this lie further the Buddha’s supposed plans?

Fig. 3 – Sun Wukong and his religious brothers battling the bird, elephant, and lion demons from Lion-Camel Cave (larger version). Artist unknown. Image found here. The elephant and lion are the missing holy beasts who became monsters on earth.

IV. Fourth Lie

After the Buddha captures the Great Peng (ch. 77) (fig. 4), the bird demon submits to Buddhism but stubbornly refuses to stop eating meat. The Enlightened One thinks for a moment and then offers him the following solution:

“In the four great continents of my domain,” said Tathāgata, “there are countless worshippers. I shall ask those who wish to do good to sacrifice first to your mouth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 31).


Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is deceptively bragging here in order to placate the uber powerful monster. At the same time, his statement about having dominance over the four continents is thought to be a lie since the Jade Emperor is the stated ruler of the cosmos. They reason that it’s evidence of the Enlightened One wanting to govern all four continents. But it’s important to remember that, as mentioned above, the novel takes place in a world modeled after Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which Ye (n.d.) is fully aware of. The Daoist bureaucracy of JTTW is therefore a syncretic veil that has been draped over a pre-existing Buddhist structure. In the original system, the world is overseen by the Devarāja Śakra (Sk: Śakro devānāṃ indraḥ; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋) from the heaven of the thirty-three gods atop Mount Sumeru (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 739-740 and 921-922). (Interestingly, the novel hints that the Daoist bureaucracy is located in this very same heaven – see the material above figure two here). But despite the gods’ divine lifespans, as inhabitants of the Realm of Desire, they are still subject to death and therefore susceptible to the Wheel of Reincarnation (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233). Only the Buddha can help such beings escape from the endless rounds of rebirth by leading them to enlightenment. He does this within the confines of his own domain or “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹). Buswell and Lopez (2014) explain:

[W]hen a buddha achieves enlightenment, a “container” or “inanimate” world is produced in the form of a field where the buddha leads beings to enlightenment. The inhabitant of that world is the buddha endowed with all the [qualities of an Enlightened One]. Buddha-fields occur in various levels of purification, broadly divided between pure and impure. Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cakravāḍa), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe; here, ordinary sentient beings (including animals, ghosts, and hell beings) dwell, subject to the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Each Cakravāḍa is the domain of a specific buddha, who achieves enlightenment in that world system and works there toward the liberation of all sentient beings… (p. 153).

Therefore, the JTTW cosmos is the Enlightened One’s Buddha-Field. But Ye (n.d.) appears to be aware of this fact (at least on some level), for they write: “The truth of the matter is that the Buddha is the lord of all sentient beings in the Buddhist schools of the four continents” (Zhenshi qingkuang shi, Rulai shi si dabu zhou fopai zhongsheng zhi zhu, 真實情況是,如來是四大部洲佛派眾生之主). So why would the writer still claim that the Buddha’s statement is a lie when they know it isn’t? This is a prime example of the author selectively interpreting facts.

Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of the Great Peng trapped above the Buddha’s head (larger version). Artist unknown.

V. Conclusion

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Buddha is a master strategist who makes “four grand, overarching lies” in a bid to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. But the writer demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. I show that the supposed falsehoods are instead likely based on the viewpoints of historical foreign monks, are inconsistencies within the JTTW narrative, reference Buddhist views of time, and reflect the Buddhist world system.


1) The ruler’s decision to allow said pilgrimage is associated with a subplot in chapters 11 and 12 where he learns of countless orphaned souls in the underworld and searches for a monk to release them from their torments via a grand Buddhist ceremony. Tripitaka is chosen to lead the ceremony but is later convinced by the Bodhisattva Guanyin to halt the ritual until he has retrieved more appropriate scriptures from India.

2) Source altered slightly.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) originally translates Puxian (普賢) as “Viśvabhadra” (vol. 4, pp. 29). I’ve changed it to “Samantabhadra” as this appears to be a more well-known version of the Bodhisattva’s name.


Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

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.

Chou, W. (2018). Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Kōtatsu, F., & Otowa, R. (1996). The Origin of the Pure Land. The Eastern Buddhist, 29(1), 33–51.

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

Ye, Z. (n.d.). Rulai fo sa de sige mitian dahuang [The Four Grand, Overarching Lies Cast by the Buddha]. Sohu.