From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Last Updated: 05-24-2022
Sun Wukong is kicked out of Patriarch Subodhi‘s (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) school in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) for showing off his transformation skills to his less-accomplished religious brothers. Upon their request, he changes into a perfect pine tree that’s completely indistinguishable from a real one. The subsequent applause greatly disturbs the Master, who reprimands and expels the Monkey King under the pretense of saving his life from those who would harm him to learn his heavenly secrets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-125). 
The novel briefly mentions that Sun Wukong lives for ten years in the mountain home of the Buddho-Daoist sage Master Subodhi. The first seven are spent as a junior Daoist monk doing menial tasks and learning basic religious or life skills. However, the last three years are spent as a close disciple of Subodhi, learning elixir arts, magic, and combat skills. The novel glosses over his early cultivation in order to jump directly into the action. But imagine a Xianxia story focusing on those three years.
Drama with fellow disciples could arise from Monkey’s supernatural aptitude for quickly learning and mastering a skill. After all, it only takes him three years to go from a mere stone monkey to a powerful immortal capable of going toe-to-toe with gods and demons with millennia of cultivation and combat experience. Think of the resulting battles between our hero and his jealous senior religious brothers and sisters frustrated with his great progress.
In addition, given Sun’s demonstrated knowledge in boxing, weapons, and troop movement, I came up with the story idea that Subodhi’s school is the training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the famous Shaolin temple. Shaolin was mobilized by the Chinese government during the 16th-century to battle pirates attacking the coast. Records indicate that one historical Shaolin monk was made the leader, and he was later forced to singlehandedly defend himself against eight individuals vying for his position. Likewise, I imagine heaven calls up Subodhi’s army to battle some demonic evil, and Monkey might quickly rise through the ranks. This would naturally lead to more tension with his fellow disciples, causing him to defend his position. All of these challenges, plus any action seen by the monastic army in heavenly battles, would explain how Sun Wukong became such a seasoned fighter in such a short time.
Plus, there is the added bonus of Subodhi’s army being called upon to fight Sun during his rebellion against heaven. He might have far surpassed his religious brothers and sisters in skill at this point.
In chapter one, Subodhi is shown to have 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the students of his religious lineage, three of which were historically used by Daoism. 
Jue (覺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).
Monkey is part of the tenth generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name. Perhaps Sun trains with his fellow Wu cohort but quickly moves on to older generations as his skill rapidly progresses.
This leads me to my next point. Above, I mentioned that Subodhi’s army might be called to bear against Monkey during his rebellion. But wouldn’t they recognize him? This feeds into a common question asked around the internet:
Why doesn’t Wukong run into any fellow disciples on the journey?
Well, the simple answer is that this isn’t important to the plot. But I’ve considered two ideas to work around this: One, his younger religious brothers are likely still studying under the Master. And two, the older generations—the ones serving in the monastic army—probably don’t know what Monkey looks like because advanced disciples, within the present story, are made to wear a host of fierce, multi-colored masks (fig. 1) as a way to forsake their identity and subsume the self into deep spiritual and martial cultivation. They would represent the negative thoughts and emotions that keep humans trapped in the illusionary world of Saṃsāra and chained to the wheel of rebirth. Perhaps the face becomes more human and peaceful-looking as the students progress through their training.
Also, in my version of the story universe, all immortals and deities attain a halo upon achieving divine status. Here, for example, is a photomanipulation of a haloed Sun Wukong by Elijah McTaggart and myself. Take note of the fiery aureola engulfing the halo. This will come into play shortly (fig. 2). I imagine that these halos/aureolas respectively spin and shine brighter when a divinity’s spiritual power is used.
The reason I’ve devised is connected to one of the aforementioned fights between Monkey and his older religious brothers or sisters. Perhaps Sun is attacked by multiple powerful assailants at once (just like the historical Shaolin monk), and when they start to overwhelm him, his anger ignites his halo, which begins to furiously spin and produce a radiant splendor. Instantly, he takes on a titanic cosmic form, growing 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall and stomping on his assailants. At the same time, his docile-looking mask cracks and reverts to it’s original, fierce form. This, combined with a fiery aureola, gives him the appearance of a giant Dharmapala (Ch: Fahu, 法護), a wrathful “Protector of the Dharma” (Buddhist Law) (fig. 3) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 249-250). This display of raw, untamed spiritual power frightens his older religious brethren. Subodhi himself is also taken aback as Monkey exhibits a great, fiery anger, while also manifesting advanced cultivation techniques that haven’t even been taught to him yet—a testament to his great spiritual intelligence. The Master fears that this rage, combined with Monkey’s demonstrated talent for exponential spiritual growth and perhaps a problem with controlling this power (given Sun’s short years of study), will lead him down the path to villainy.
This brings us back to the pine tree incident. Perhaps the fight causes Subodhi to uncharacteristically allow Monkey a chance to visit his generational cohort. And when Sun acquiesces to their requests to see his transformation powers, the Master uses this as an opportunity to expel his student.
As before, each would indicate the level of a disciple’s spiritual attainment. Perhaps Master Subodhi’s army would have different units of each category, each one being more powerful than the last.
Some readers might question why I’ve included so many Buddhist elements if Master Subodhi is a Daoist immortal. While this is true, I choose instead to refer to him as a “Buddho-Daoist Sage” as he preaches aspects of both religions in his lectures:
With words so florid and eloquent That gold lotus sprang from the ground. The doctrine of three vehicles he subtly rehearsed, Including even the laws’ minutest tittle. The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance: His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven. For a while he lectured on Dao; For a while he spoke on Chan– To harmonize the Three Parties is a natural thing. One word’s elucidation filled with truth Points to the birthless showing nature’s mystery (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 122) (emphasis mine).
He even advocates for his students to become Buddhas. For example, the poem that Subodhi uses to reveal the secret of immortality to Monkey ends with: “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).
It’s also important to remember that Master Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha.
1) I quote the scene of his expulsion below:
“You, Wukong, come over here! I ask you what sort of exhibition were you putting on, changing into a pine tree? This ability you now possess, is it just for showing off to people? Suppose you saw someone with this ability. Wouldn’t you ask him at once how he acquired it? So when others see that you are in possession of it, they’ll come begging. If you’re afraid to refuse them, you will give away the secret; if you don’t, they may hurt you. You are actually placing your life in grave jeopardy.” “I beseech the master to forgive me,” Wukong said, kowtowing. “I won’t condemn you,” said the Patriarch, “but you must leave this place.” When Wukong heard this, tears fell from his eyes. “Where am I to go, Teacher?” he asked. “From wherever you came,” the Patriarch said, “you should go back there.” “I came from the East Purvavideha Continent,” Wukong said, his memory jolted by the Patriarch, “from the Water-Curtain Cave of the Flower-Fruit Mountain in the Aolai Country.” “Go back there quickly and save your life,” the Patriarch said. “You cannot possibly remain here!” “Allow me to inform my esteemed teacher,” said Wukong, properly penitent, “I have been away from home for twenty years, and I certainly long to see my subjects and followers of bygone days again. But I keep thinking that my master’s profound kindness to me has not yet been repaid. I, therefore, dare not leave.” “There’s nothing to be repaid,” said the Patriarch. “See that you don’t get into trouble and involve me: that’s all I ask.” Seeing that there was no other alternative, Wukong had to bow to the Patriarch and take leave of the congregation. “Once you leave,” the Patriarch said, “you’re bound to end up evildoing. I don’t care what kind of villainy and violence you engage in, but I forbid you ever to mention that you are my disciple. For if you but utter half the word, I’ll know about it; you can be assured, wretched monkey, that you’ll be skinned alive. I will break all your bones and banish your soul to the Place of Ninefold Darkness [Jiuyou zhi chu, 九幽之處], from which you will not be released even after ten thousand afflictions!” “I will never dare mention my master,” said Wukong. “I’ll say that I’ve learned this all by myself.” Having thanked the Patriarch, Wukong turned away, made the magic sign, pulled himself up, and performed the cloud-somersault (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 124-125).
2. Ter Haar (2021) provides a list of such generational names:
Table 1. The use affiliation characters by People of the Way
I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.
Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.
1. The Literary Weapon
1.1. Staff Background
The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.
The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).
Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).
The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.
Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12),  with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短，碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).
Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
Controlling the oceans – The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.
The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.
The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.
Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).
2.2. Influence from Religion
The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.
Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.
The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.
Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.
Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).
The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).
The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao, 旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.
Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).
As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.
1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.
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.
I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins.
During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數).  It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:
The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).
They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)
Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).
In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.
1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).
(Note: I originally wrote this in late 2020 but just now got around to cleaning it up and posting it.)
Following his birth, the Stone Monkey (Shi hou, 石猴) 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 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] [fig. 1] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).
In this article, I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as a primate monarch is based on “The Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka; Ch: Houwang bensheng, 猴王本生, “Birth Story of the Monkey King”; “The Great Monkey” hereafter), an ancient story about the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, which appears in various collections of moralistic birth tales (Sk: jakata; Ch: bensheng jing, 本生經) in Buddhist literature. After summarizing the tale, I will briefly discuss 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art depicting the story at important religious sites, thereby showing its intense popularity. Next, I will demonstrate that the tale traveled the Silk Road to China, where it was represented in Buddhist art and literature. Finally, I will highlight similarities between “The Great Monkey” and a 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as similarities with the standard 1592 edition of the novel.
Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).
1. Story of the Great Monkey
Buddhist literature contains different versions of the tale. I will describe two of them here. The first is story no. 27 in the Garland of Birth Stories (Sk: Jatakamala, 4th-century) by the monk Arya Sura.  The tale opens with the following epigraph: “Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies” (Khoroche, 1989, p. 186). According to the story, the bodhisattva was born a virtuous monkey king in the verdant paradise of the Himalayas, which abounded in fruits and flowers, crystal clear streams, and choirs of singing birds. He and his tribe lived near an unnamed river and ate from a mountainous banyan tree that produced figs larger than palmyra nuts. The monkey king feared that the fruit would cause trouble for his people, so he gave instructions to regularly clear them from a branch overlooking the river. However, one season a fig escaped the monkeys’ attention and it grew to maturation, dropping into the water, drifting downstream, and lodging in the fence of a pool where an unnamed human king played with his consorts. The smell and color of the fruit entranced the women, and after the king tasted it, he became obsessed with its flavor and led an army in search of the tree. The ruler and his entourage cut a path upstream and followed a sweet scent directly to the massive banyan, which rose high above all the surrounding trees like the lord of the forest. When he saw the monkeys eating figs, the enraged ruler ordered his men to shoot them down with arrows, spears, and rocks. Seeing the dire situation of his tribe, the monkey king made a tremendous leap to the summit of a nearby mountain, a feat that would have required any other monkey a series of jumps. On the mountain, he found a strong-rooted cane of the appropriate length needed to span the gap and tied it to his feet. But his return jump to the tree was hampered by the binding, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch and use his body as a bridge so that his tribe could escape. But the monkey king was mortally wounded as throngs of the panicked primates clawed their way across his body to safety. The human king took note of this selfless deed and ordered his men to relieve the suspended monkey by placing a canopy beneath him and simultaneously shooting the branch and cane. After his wounds were tended and he regained consciousness, the monkey king spent the last few moments of his life teaching the human king the virtue of putting his people’s needs before his own (Khoroche, 1989, pp. 186-192).
The second is story no. 407  in Commentary on the Birth Stories (Pali: Jatakatthakatha, a.k.a. Jatakatthavannana, 5th-century), which is attributed to the monk Buddhagosa. The narrative opens with the Enlightened One talking to a large assembly of monks in Jetavana. He tells them of a previous life when he helped his relatives. Here, the story is quite similar to the first, with slight differences in certain details, such as the monkey king leading a specified number of 80,000 primates, the river is the Ganges, the fruit is water pot-sized mangoes, the specimen that floats downstream is caught in a fisherman’s net, and the human ruler is named King Brahmadatta of Benares.  Instead of leaping to a nearby mountain, the monkey king jumps one hundred bow lengths across the Ganges. The cane is tied to his waste instead of his feet, and the cause of falling short on the return jump is not hindrance but miscalculating the length of cane needed to span the gap. And instead of being seriously injured by his people during their escape, a rival of the king—a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta—mortally wounds his heart by jumping onto his back from a high branch. Brahmadatta instructs his men to build a tower so that he can retrieve the primate and tend to his wounds in his last few moments of life. And just like before, the monkey king teaches the human monarch the value of his people’s needs prior to dying. But this time the discussion is much shorter, being presented as a poem of seven stanzas. Brahmadatta then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king and worships the skull as a religious relic. In the end, the Buddha reveals that the ruler was the past incarnation of his disciple Ananda, the 80,000 monkeys were incarnations of the assembled monks, and the monkey king was himself (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, pp. 225-227).
2. The tale in Indian and Chinese Buddhist art
This birth story is over 2,000 years old as it appears among the stone carvings of the Bharhut Stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (fig. 2 and 3) and the western torana (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 3 and 4) (Marshall, Foucher, Majumdar, 1902, vol. 1, pp. 224-225, vol. 2, plate 64). I should note that the story is one of 547 such tales appearing in the Pali canon (Robert & David, 2013, p. 381). So the fact that it was one of only a few past life narratives chosen to appear at these religious sites speaks volumes to its popularity. This explains why the story spread beyond India.
Fig. 2 – “The Great Monkey” medallion from Bharhut stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – Key: A) The monkey king leaps and grasps a banyan tree, making a bridge with his body; B) attendants hold a canopy to catch the injured monkey; and C) The human king sits with the monkey discussing the actions of a good ruler prior to the latter’s death (larger version). Fig. 4 – “The Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 5 – Key: A) Brahmadatta travels with a retinue to the tree; B) he orders his archer(s) to shoot the monkeys; C) He watches as the monkey king leaps across the Ganges and grasps a banyan tree to make a bridge with his body; and D) Brahmadatta’s discussion with the monkey king (larger version).
The tale is known to have traveled east to China along the northern silk road. This is demonstrated by murals appearing in the Kizil cave complex (5th to 7th-century), one of the earliest and most popular Buddhist centers in Kucha, in what is now Xinjiang, China. Zhu (2012) describes the murals, noting that they lack the detail of their Indian counterparts and are therefore more mnemonic than narrative:
[I]n Kizil Cave 38 [fig. 5], a very large monkey is depicted in the center, stretching his body and holding a tree on the other side of a river. Two other smaller monkeys are stepping on his body to cross the river. In the foreground, a kneeling archer is shooting at them. In Kizil Cave 17 [fig. 6] this story is represented even more simply, with the archer omitted. However the stretching monkey, the river, and the trees are enough for anyone who knows the story to recognize it […] Compared to the Indian representations that are more explicitly narrative, the Kizil paintings are more like a reminder of the story. They communicate with the viewers as if they already know the story well” (pp. 59-60).
The Kizil murals are predated by a brief story appearing in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century, The Collection hereafter), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280).  The 56th story in this collection is an adaptation of the original Indian version with several noticeable differences: The Bodhisattva was formerly a monkey king (mihou wang, 獼猴王) who frolicked with 500 primates. At that time a drought made the various kinds of fruit scarce. Only a river separated their mountain from a nearby kingdom, so the monkey king led his tribe to eat fruit in the royal garden. The human king ordered that they be secretly captured, but the monkey called for his tribe to gather cane to make a rope. One end was tied to a tree and the other to the king, who leaped from a branch across the river. Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch on the other side and create a bridge with his body. After the 500 monkeys crossed to the other side, the king’s body split in two under the strain. When the human king came upon the scene, the dying primate begged that his tribe not be hurt and offered up his own flesh as payment for his bad judgment. However, the king admired the monkey’s superior, sage-like virtue and questioned his own willingness to sacrifice his body for his people. He then issued a proclamation that all monkeys were to be fed throughout the kingdom, and those who refused would be punished as thieves. Upon his return to the palace, the king recounted the events to his queen, touting the monkey’s kindness and comparing it to the height of Mt. Kunlun. She then suggested that the monkeys be fed and the king confirmed that he had already given the order. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the monkey king was himself, the human king was Ananda, and the 500 monkeys were the monks at the assembly (CBETA, 2016a). 
Instead of the original 80,000 monkeys, this version reduces the number to only 500. Instead of the king traveling to the banyan/mango tree in the monkey’s mountain territory, the monkeys travel from their mountain to the royal fruit garden in the king’s territory. Instead of being trampled by his people/a rival, the monkey king’s body breaks in two from the strain. And instead of giving the monkey royal funeral rights and worshiping his skull as a relic, the king enacts a law that all monkeys should be fed.
This version is different enough from the originals to suggest a separate Chinese tradition, one that had circulated for some time. This fits with Chavannes’ (1910) suggestion that The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas is not an original Indian text but one compiled in China by Kang Senghui, who likely selected and edited the stories himself (vol. 1, p. 1 n. 1).
Story no. 56 finds parallels with another tale from Chinese Buddhist literature.  It appears in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century), which was translated into Chinese by the monk Tan Yao (曇曜). According to the 12th story in this collection: The Buddha was in Rajagrha when the monks commented on the woes faced by those who rely on Devadatta, while celebrating the happiness, positive rebirth, and eventual deliverance of those who rely on the Enlightened One. The Buddha confirmed this by telling a brief tale about two monkeys, each with 500 members in their tribe. A prince of Kashi (a.k.a. Benares) was on a hunting excursion when he surrounded the monkeys. The good monkey (shan mihou, 善獼猴) suggested that they cross the river to escape, but the evil monkey (e’mihou, 惡獼猴) wavered. The good monkey instructed his tribe to cross by using the long branches of a nearby tree. But the evil monkey and his tribe were captured due to inaction. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the good monkey was himself and Devadatta was the evil monkey. He used this story to advocate following the virtuous over the evil, for the former would lead others to safety and happiness, while the latter would lead others to suffering over numerous incarnations (CBETA, 2016b). 
This version does away with the fruit element altogether. The monkeys are in danger not because a king is protecting his fruit but because a prince is out hunting. The most noticeable difference here is the addition of a second monkey, one who is labeled as “evil” (e, 惡) (no connection to the Six-Eared Macaque). But like story no. 56, the monkey king is said to lead 500 primates.
It is clear that both Chinese tales were influenced by the later Indian version, story no. 407 from Commentary on the Birth Stories, as they specify a number for the troupe size (500 vs. 80,000), state the monkey king leaps over a river (as opposed to jumping to a nearby mountain top), and characters are revealed in the end to have been the past lives of Buddhist personages (the Buddha, Ananda, Devadatta, monks, etc.). Story no. 12 even opens in a city associated with the Enlightened One’s historical lectures (Rajagrha vs. Jetavana), where he discusses philosophical matters with monks; and an unnamed prince who poses a threat to the monkey king and his people is said to hail from Kashi, another name for Benares, the seat of King Brahmadatta.
4. The Chinese Monkey King
The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is 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), a 17 chapter storytelling prompt that predates the Ming Journey to the West by 300 years. In chapter two, our hero’s literary antecedent, a white-clad scholar called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), meets the Tang monk Tripitaka on the road to the west and warns the monk that his two previous incarnations have died trying to procure the Buddhist scriptures. When asked how he knows events of the past, the scholar replies: “I am none other than the bronze-headed, iron-browed  king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. I have come to help the reverend monk procure the scriptures” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).
The Story‘s depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim was influenced by Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana) (fig. 7), 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. For example, both are depicted with occult powers enabling them to fly between heaven and earth (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098); both visit a realm ruled by a deity named Brahma, the Mahabrahma devaraja Vaisravana in the case of Monkey and Brahma in the case of Mulian (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, p. 1098); both are bestowed magic weapons by heaven, a golden-ringed monk staff and alms bowl for Monkey and a matching staff for Mulian (he enchants his own alms bowl) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); the power of said weapons are tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name, Vaisravana and the Buddha, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); and both use said weapons with the expressed purpose of saving someone important, Tripitaka and Mulian’s mother, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example; Mair, 1994).
If The Story borrows from Mulian’s tale, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it also appropriated material from other Buddhist tales, including “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the massive, fruit-bearing banyan/mango tree. Additionally, both The Story and the “The Great Monkey” describe the respective monkey kings leading a similar number of primates, 84,000 in the former and 80,000 in the latter.  While the Chinese variants drastically reduce the number to 500, it’s interesting that both tales would display such similar counts. This is because said numbers are significant to Buddhism. For example, 84,000 generally denotes a very large number, hence the belief that the body contains this many atoms. Other examples include the 84,000 stupas of Asoka, the 84,000 bodily relics of the Buddha, the Amitabha‘s 84,000 rays of illumination, the 84,000 bodily signs of a Buddha, the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, etc. In addition, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) can be shorthand for 84,000. It can also refer to separate Buddhist concepts, such as the “bodhisattva’s 80,000 duties” (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2006, p. 39). It’s certainly possible that both stories independently chose similar numbers due to their demonstrated connection to Buddhism. But maybe the storytellers who developed The Story had access to some non-Chinese version of the tale, perhaps by way of Buddhist monks, for Buddhism has a long history of proselytizing through oral literature. 
Furthermore, in chapter 11 of The Story, the pilgrims enter the earthly paradise of the Daoist goddess Queen Mother of the West, home to the famed peaches of immortality. Tripitaka asks Monkey to steal the group a few fruits, but the latter refuses, stating:
Because I stole ten peaches to eat when I was eight hundred years old, I was captured by the Queen Mother and given eight hundred blows on my left side and three thousand blows on the right with an iron cudgel. Then I was exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. Even today my sides hurt and now I definitely don’t dare to steal any more peaches!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195).
This event was surely influenced by the fabled meeting of Emperor Wu and the Queen mother, during which she reveals his jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔), formerly the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), was exiled from heaven for stealing her peaches (Campany, 2009, p. 126). However, a monkey king running afoul of an earthbound monarch for raiding their imperial fruit garden mirrors story no. 56 in The Collection. As mentioned above, the tale recalls the Buddhist monkey king leading his tribe out of the mountains to eat fruit in a human sovereign’s garden during a time of drought. The ruler orders the primates captured, leading to the monkey king’s sacrifice. Therefore, this portion of The Story could be a combination of Buddhist and Daoist sources.
“The Great Monkey” could have also influenced the 1592 edition. In chapter one, the monkeys following the stream to find its source in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is reminiscent of the human king’s trek up the Ganges to find the source of the fruit in the Himalayas. Also, recall that the Indian and Chinese versions place great emphasis on the monkey king leaping over a river. For example, story no. 407 reads: “[H]e ascended a branch that rose up straight, went along another branch that stretched towards the Ganges, and springing from the end of it, he passed a hundred bow-lengths and lighted on a bush on the [other] bank” (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, p. 226). This could have influenced the competition to leap through the waterfall. It’s interesting that Wukong alone is successful in the jump, leading to his kinghood:
The monkeys said to each other, “We don’t know where this water comes from. Since we have nothing to do today, let us follow the stream up to its source to have some fun.” With a shriek of joy, they dragged along males and females, calling out to brothers and sisters, and scrambled up the mountain alongside the stream. Reaching its source, they found a great waterfall.
All the monkeys clapped their hands in acclaim: “Marvelous water! Marvelous water! So this waterfall is distantly connected with the stream at the base of the mountain, and flows directly out, even to the great ocean.” They said also, “If any of us had the ability to penetrate the curtain and find out where the water comes from without hurting himself, we would honor him as king.” They gave the call three times, when suddenly the stone monkey leaped out from the crowd. He answered the challenge with a loud voice, “I’ll go in! I’ll go in!”
Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 103-104).
This takes us back to where we started from in the introduction.
I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as the Monkey King is based on the “The Great Monkey”, a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a primate monarch, which appears in various Indian Buddhist sources, such as the 4th-century Garland of Birth Stories (no. 27) and the 5th-century Commentary on the Birth Stories (no. 407). The tale describes the monkey king’s efforts to save his tribe from a human monarch who seeks to claim a massive banyan/mango tree in the Himalayas by killing all of the monkeys inhabiting it. After leaping to a mountain top or over the Ganges River to retrieve a length of cane needed to span the gap, his return jump is hindered, forcing him to make a bridge with his body. He is mortally wounded in the process, though, when throngs of clambering monkeys run across his back or a rival primate assaults him from a high branch. In the end, the human monarch takes note of this selfless act and learns from him the value of putting the needs of his people first moments prior to the monkey king’s death.
The popularity of the tale, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas, explains why it spread beyond Bharata and traveled the Silk Road to the Middle Kingdom, where it was represented in Chinese Buddhist literature and art. Simplistic mnemonic depictions of the tale in Xinjiang’s Kizil Cave complex (no. 17 and 38) (5th to 7th-century) are predated by stories in the 3rd-century Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (no. 56) and the mid-5th-century Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (no. 12). The first tells how the monkey king leads his people down from the mountain to raid an imperial fruit garden and ultimately sacrifices his life so the tribe can escape punishment. The second involves the decisions of two monkey kings, one good and one evil, whether or not to cross a river to escape capture at the hands of a prince on a hunting trip. It serves as a parable warning of the consequences of putting one’s faith in those of evil character.
The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is the late-13th-century tale The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This story borrows from the Mulian story cycle, so it’s possible that it selected from other Buddhist tales, including Indian and Chinese versions of the “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the banyan/mango tree. The 84,000 primates led by the Chinese Monkey King could be based on the 80,000 from an Indian version. Likewise, Monkey stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West in chapter 11 could be based on the Chinese version in which the monkey king and his people raid an imperial fruit garden. In addition, the emphasis on leaping over a river in the various versions of “The Great Monkey” could have influenced the waterfall jumping contest in the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West.
1) Little is known about Arya Sura’s life. Based on various Indian and Chinese sources, the monk has been estimated to have lived somewhere between the 2nd to the 5th-century, with the 4th-century being the best guess (Khoroche, 1989, pp. xi-xiii).
2) This should not be confused with the similarly named Mahakapi jataka (no. 516). See Cowell, 1895, vol. 5, pp. 37-42.
3) This page (see #3) explains Brahmadatta is the name of several kings from jataka tales.
4) See Nattier, 2008, pp. 149-155 for more information about Kang Shenghui and his work, including the Liudu jijing.
5) See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 1, pp. 216-218 for a French translation of the story. Click here for an English translation by Edward P. Butler (@EPButler).
6) Thank you to Eric Greene of Yale university for bringing this story to my attention.
7) See Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, 1994, pp. 40-41 for a full English translation. As of 03/02/21 the book can be downloaded here for free. See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 3, p. 13 for a partial French translation.
8) According to Mair (1989), “‘Bronze-headed, iron-browed’ is a conventional Chinese epithet for boldness and bravery” (p. 701).
9) Interestingly, the number of primates led by Wukong in the final Ming edition of the novel is 47,000 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). I don’t know if this number holds any significance.
10) Mair (1988) explains Indian Buddhist prosimetric oral literature was very popular in China during the Tang but rapidly became secularized and Sinicized during Song (when The Story was published) due to past anti-Buddhist pogroms, Muslim incursions in Central Asia cutting off fresh Buddhist material, and the reemergence of Confucianism as a state power. But I suggest material that influenced The Story may predate this shift. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim appears with Xuanzang in an 11th-century (Western Xia) mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province (see this article). Xuanzang is shown worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while our hero stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The fact that Monkey appears in religious art at an important stop along the Silk Road shows his association with Xuanzang’s journey was well-known even during this early period. And since story cycles take time to form and become cemented in the public psyche, it’s not a stretch to suggest Monkey’s tale goes back to the previous century or even before the Song. Therefore, it’s possible that these earlier storytellers may have had access to some non-Chinese version of “The Great Monkey”.
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Chavannes, E. (1910). Cinq Cents Contes et Apologues, Extraits du Tripitaka Chinois et Traduits en Français: Tome 1 [Five Hundred Tales and Apologues: Extracts from the Chinese Tripitaka Translated into French: Vol. 1]. Paris: E. Leroux.
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Nattier, J. (2008). A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han 東漢 and Three Kingdoms 三國 Periods. Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.
Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1937)
Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, X. (1994). The Storehouse of Sundry Valuables (C. Willemen, Trans.). Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.
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, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.
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Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press