Archive #18 – Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018)


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.

Book link


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


Sun, H. (2018). Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Archive #10 – Journey to the West 2012 Revised Edition

Here I present four PDFs comprising the complete four volume 2012 revised edition of Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu. Each has been converted from an EPUB into a PDF. The resulting PDF files do not match the exact page count for the published editions. This means they are not suitable for citing in research. However, they are still perfect for those looking to read THE most accurate translation of the tale available. I hope those who read and enjoy the digital version will support the official release.

Anthon C. Yu (October 6, 1938 – May 12, 2015) was Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature in the Chicago Divinity School. I shared a long email correspondence with Prof. Yu, during which we became friends. He was always quick to answer my many questions. His translation remains a treasure trove of explanatory notes and sources.

Information about the translation

Anthony C. Yu’s translation of The Journey to the West,initially published in 1983, introduced English-speaking audiences to the classic Chinese novel in its entirety for the first time […] With over a hundred chapters written in both prose and poetry, The Journey to the West has always been a complicated and difficult text to render in English while preserving the lyricism of its language and the content of its plot. But Yu has successfully taken on the task, and in this new edition he has made his translations even more accurate and accessible. The explanatory notes are updated and augmented, and Yu has added new material to his introduction, based on his original research as well as on the newest literary criticism and scholarship on Chinese religious traditions. He has also modernized the transliterations included in each volume, using the now-standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization system. Perhaps most important, Yu has made changes to the translation itself in order to make it as precise as possible (source).

2012 Vol. 1 book cover - small

The cover of volume one (larger version).

PDF Files

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4


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

The Later Journey to the West: Part 3 – The Journey Comes to an End

The main body of Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century) follows a similar trajectory as the parent novel, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) is tasked with traveling from China to India to retrieve spiritual knowledge from the Buddha, and just like Tripitaka, he is protected by three demonic disciples, namely Sun Luzhen (孫履真), the descendant of Sun Wukong, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), the son of Zhu Bajie, and Sha Zhihe (沙致和), the disciple of Sha Wujing. Along the way the group travels through many lands, battles numerous evils, and they eventually become enlightened Buddhas like their predecessors two hundred years prior. As noted in part oneLater Journey to the West may appear like a carbon copy of the original, but the similarities are only skin deep since the novel is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning. Below, I present the last of a three-part summary of the novel (part 2), which focuses on the end of the journey. I rely very heavily on Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first two sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the third section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The latter half of the journey

(The novel has a total of 40 chapters. Liu (1994) only covers certain chapters since they contain the most allegorical meaning.)

The pilgrims travel towards String and Song village (Xiange cun, 弦歌村) when they learn the Confucian society there hates Buddhism and spreads lies about its demonic nature. [A] Enraged, Monkey creates an army of warrior Skanda Bodhisattvas (Ch: Weituo, 韋馱) from his magic hair, each of which visits every family in the village and threatens them with punishment if they don’t receive the “living Buddhas” (the pilgrims) with much respect and fanfare. Luzhen also creates likenesses of the Four Heavenly Kings, who lead the monks into the village. The celestial spectacle causes the entire population to convert to Buddhism on the spot. This angers the demon ruler of the region, the Heavenly King of Civilization (Wenming tianwang, 文明天王), the reincarnation of a Qilin unicorn (fig. 1) who favors Confucianism over Buddhism. In their first battle, Monkey proves impervious to the demon’s weaponized coin scales, but is crushed under the weight of his writing brush-turned-spear. [B] The monster explains:

I don’t need knives or swords to kill you. With the writing brush, I can easily describe you as a heretic monk and write the words “Foreign religion,” which will crush you down, so you will never be able to stand up (Liu, 1994, p. 89).

The demon then kidnaps Dadian and subdues him under the weight of the brush and a golden ingot. Monkey consults the god of literature in heaven and learns the monster’s brush is so powerful because it was originally used by Confucius to write the Analects. The group is finally able to defeat the demon and release Dadian with the god’s help.


Fig. 1 – A Qilin unicorn. This beast is often depicted with coin scales (larger version).

After many more adventures, the group comes to the Temple of Sudden Realization (Mengxing an, 猛省庵) on Division Ridge (Zhongfen ling, 中分嶺). There, the head monk tells them the ridge is an extension of the Western paradise installed by the Buddha to weed out corrupt Chinese monks heading to India. Only those who pass the test of the Bodhisattva of Great Eloquence (Da biancai pusa, 大辯才菩薩) in the Temple of Division (Zhongfen si, 中分寺) on top of the ridge will be allowed to continue their pilgrimage. [C] The pilgrims pass their respective tests and are allowed to enter the Pass of Obstruction (Gua’ai guan, 挂礙關), where they face a blizzard and a road covered in brambles. [D] Dadian, Luzhen, and Shihe pay the obstacles no attention, but Yijie continues to fall further and further behind. The monks are surprised when they circle back around to find the same temple. A young monk gives them a note from the bodhisattva:

The temple which you have seen twice is the same temple;
The pass which appears and disappears is not a pass;
The true cultivation is without obstacles,
And the enlightened nature will eliminate delusions;
Only for those who are greedy and deceitful;
The road will be rugged and full of brambles;
One must cleanse himself of desires,
Before he can pay homage to the Buddha at the Spirit Mountain (Liu, 1994, p. 93)

Yijie arrives late covered with scratches and bruises from his rough journey. He questions how his companions traveled so easily, but realizes the error of his ways when shown the note.

The pilgrims arrive at the Mountain of Cloud-Crossing (Yundu shan, 雲度山) located on the outskirts of India. They meet a young cowherd riding an ox (fig. 2) who tells them the mountain is a gateway to the Buddha’s paradise and that two paths to heaven exist. The easiest is located on the three small peaks of the mountain and measures a mere square inch. [E] This path is often taken by Buddhas, immortals, and other celestials. The other is a long, winding road located on the ground. He describes the latter as being a quick and pleasant route, but one fraught with danger if traveled with the wrong mindset:

If the Monkey of the Mind is still and the Horse of the Will is tame, and your speed is neither fast nor slow, the road will be smooth and steady, and you will be able to reach your destination in an instant. But if the Fire of the Liver flares up, the plank road will be burned down; if the Wind of the Spleen blows, the platform bridge will be destroyed; if the Water of the Kidneys is dried up, the boat will be stranded; and if the Air of the Lungs is weak, the chariot cannot be driven. In that case you will be traveling all your life, groping in the Skin Bag, and never be able to get out (Liu, 1994, pp. 94-95) [F].

Oxherding_pictures,_No._6 - small

Fig. 2 – The cowherd and his ox, a traditional symbol of enlightenment (larger version). Painting by Tenshō Shūbun (天章周文) (1414-1463).

Dadian chooses the long path, but his disciples goad him into taking a boat, a forbidden shortcut, which initiates the chain of events foretold by the cowherd (actually a sage in disguise). The vessel eventually runs aground on the riverbed because the water dries up. The priest then mounts his horse once more, but Yijie slaps its behind to speed up, leading to a wild, uncontrolled ride that knocks the wind out of Dadian and dampens his will to continue. Angry, the master admonishes the pig, causing the group’s path to be blocked by a monstrous fire. Seeing the road to paradise blocked, Dadian is beset with anxiety, causing a terrible wind that forces the group to take shelter in the forest. [G] The pilgrims soon realize the obstacles arise from the monk’s mental state. When Dadian centers himself, the wind subsides. The path before them then becomes an easy one.

The group arrives at Spirit Mountain and meets the Laughing Monk (Xiao heshang, 笑和尚) who informs Dadian that he will meet the Buddha the following day and asks if he wants to see his material appearance (Semian, 色面) or immaterial appearance (Kongmian, 空面). The master, however, fails to answer out of confusion. The next day the pilgrims climb to Thunderclap Monastery, home of the Buddha, and find it devoid of any people. Monkey explains this represents “emptiness” and coincides with the Buddha’s aforementioned immaterial appearance. He goes on to not only claim himself the Buddha, but also superior to him:

Listen to what I have to say: The Buddha is merciful. Am I not merciful? The Buddha is wise. Am I not wise? The Buddha is vast. Am I not vast? The Buddha is divine. Am I not divine? The Buddha is void of the five qualities and I don’t have an inch of thread hanging on my body. [1]  The cultivation of the Buddha took ten thousand kalpas of time. But it only takes me an instant. In the most profound sense, I can exist without the Buddha, but the Buddha can’t exist without me. You should think carefully. In what respect am I inferior to the Buddha (Liu, 1994, pp. 104-105).

When Yijie scoffs at his words, Luzhen enters a neighboring chamber and transforms into the Enlightened One, using his magic hairs to create a large retinue of lesser buddhas, saints, and guardian spirits (fig. 3). The pig is called before the false Buddha and sentenced to torture in hell, but Monkey is forced to revert to his true form when Dadian begs for lenience. The Laughing Monk later explains Luzhen’s stunt is not disrespectful but a demonstration of “The Mind is the Buddha” (Liu, 1994, p. 106). [H]

Pure Land of Bliss (Large)

Fig. 3 – The Buddha surrounded by a celestial retinue (larger version).

II. Returning with the interpretations and becoming Buddhas

The Laughing Monk escorts the pilgrims to see the Buddha, who is reluctant to release the true interpretation:

The divine scripture can only relieve people for a moment. Even with the transmission of the true interpretation, it is difficult to deliver many people. It would be better to get rid of all the words and interpretations and thus make people forget knowledge and perception. This is the wonderful principle of returning to the origin (Liu, 1994, p. 106). [I]

But he releases the interpretations anyway. The group, having become enlightened beings, fly on clouds back to the Chinese capital of Chang’an, returning five years after the journey started. Emperor Muzong (唐穆宗, r. 820-824) welcomes the pilgrims and builds for Dadian a prayer platform from which he can read the scriptures. [2] On the 18th day of the second (lunar) month of 824, the priest orders Luzhen to open the sutras that had been magically sealed by Tripitaka years prior. The Small Sage sends out a legion of monkeys all across the Middle Kingdom to complete this task. The resulting sermon enlightens the whole of China. The monk intends to finish reading the entire interpretation, but his lecture is stopped by the Laughing Monk who reveals himself to be the Buddha. Dadian and his disciples return to the Western Paradise with the Enlightened One and are bestowed with Buddhahood for their efforts. In the end, the Buddha shines light from his third eye onto China, transforming it into a paradise on earth.

III. Allegory explained

A) The name of the village refers to the classic method of teaching Confucian values through song (Xiange, 弦歌) in ancient China.

B) The money and brush refer to the power and wealth belonging to the Confucian social elite. Monkey is impervious to the weaponized coins because, as a monk, he has no desire for money, but falls to the brush-spear because Confucians can sway public opinion about Buddhism simply with a few strokes of the brush.

C) Division Ridge and the Temple of Division both serve as filters that separate (or divide) true believers from those still plagued with desires or negative emotions.

D) The pass and Yijie’s troubles therein are metaphors for the negative mental states (or obstacles) that block someone’s path to enlightenment.

E) The three peaks and the square inch are references to the Chinese character for heart or mind (xin, 心) (take note of the three dots on top of the character). This means the mountain is a metaphor for the mind. Those who master the mind and achieve enlightenment can take this quick path to paradise since they have already done the heard work of cleansing themselves of desires. This path is essentially located in the clouds, hence the name of the mountain.

F) The skin bag is the human body. Each of the body parts and elements refers to a particular human emotion. Therefore, if a person doesn’t tame the emotions, they will forever be a slave to their bodily desires.

G) Pilgrims on the journey to enlightenment create their own obstacles.

H) This refers back to the riddle that opens the novel (see part one):

I have a statue of Buddha, which nobody knows;
He needs no molding or carving;
Nor does he have any clay or color;
No human can draw him; no thief can steal him;
His appearance is originally natural,
And his clarity and purity are not the result of cleaning;
Though only one body,
He is capable of transforming himself into myriad forms (Liu, 1994, p. 22)

The answer to this riddle is “the Buddha is in the mind”. Liu (1994) considers Monkey’s above statement about being equal and even superior to the Buddha to be the most important passage in the entire book because it demonstrates “Buddhahood is inherent in everybody’s nature and everyone is capable of becoming the Buddha through self-cultivation” (Liu, 1994, p. 105).

[I] This refers to over reliance on the written word and spoken interpretations, a concept revisited many times throughout the novel.


1) These five qualities, or “Wuyun 五蘊 are the five mental and physical qualities or constituents (Sanskrit: skandhas), i.e. the components of an intelligent being, especially a human being” (Liu, 1994, p. 116, n. 47). This means the Buddha and Monkey are not human.

2) Emperor Muzong’s father, Xianzong, dies during the course of the journey.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

The Later Journey to the West: Part 2 – The Journey to India Begins

The main body of Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century) follows a similar trajectory as the parent novel, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). The historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (fig. 1) is tasked with traveling from China to India to retrieve spiritual knowledge from the Buddha, and just like Tripitaka, he is protected by three demonic disciples, namely Sun Luzhen (孫履真), the descendant of Sun Wukong, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), the son of Zhu Bajie, and Sha Zhihe (沙致和), the disciple of Sha Wujing. Along the way the group travels through many lands, battles numerous evils, and they eventually become enlightened Buddhas like their predecessors two hundred years prior. As noted in part one, Later Journey to the West may appear like a carbon copy of the original, but the similarities are only skin deep since the novel is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning. Below, I present the second of a three-part summary of the novel (part 3), which focuses on the journey proper. I rely very heavily on Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

Readers will notice letters of the alphabet at the end of particular sentences in the first two sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the third section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The Interpretation Pilgrim is chosen

After quelling his descendant’s rebellion, Sun Wukong travels eastward by cloud with Tripitaka to see how China has benefited from the scriptures delivered by them some two centuries in the past. However, they find that the monks of the Famen temple (Famen si, 法門寺) are not only falsely claiming to have holy relics from Tripitaka’s deceased human body, [1] but also that their leader is his sixth generation disciple and a master of the sutras. This influences Tang Emperor Xianzong (唐憲宗, r. 806-820) to donate heavily to the temple because he believes the dynasty will prosper once the pagoda containing the supposed relics is opened. The two lesser Buddhas return to the Western Paradise and report their findings to Gautama, who tells them that the Chinese will continue to misunderstand and misuse the teachings until they receive the “true interpretation”. The Enlightened One then charges Tripitaka with locating a pilgrim who will make the journey to India to retrieve this interpretation. [2]

In the meantime, the scholar-official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824) openly criticizes the emperor for his worship of the relics and his spendthrift support of the temple. For this he is exiled from Shaanxi province in the north to Guangdong province in the south, where he meets the Chan Buddhist Master Dadian. [3] Upon hearing of the decadent, misguided state of Buddhism near the capital, Dadian goes north and memorializes the emperor to give up his extravagant patronage of the religion. This show of integrity cements Tripitaka’s decision to choose the monk as his pilgrim. The lesser Buddha then magically seals away the scriptures, forcing the Emperor to send Dadian to India to retrieve the true interpretation.


Fig. 1 – A woodblock print of the monk Dadian.

II. The journey to India begins

(The novel has a total of 40 chapters. Liu (1994) only covers certain chapters from this point on since they contain the most allegorical meaning.)

Dadian acquires his demonic disciples during the early stage of his journey. First, he recites a magic spell taught to him by Tripitaka which calls Sun Luzhen to his side. Second, he recruits Zhu Yijie on the road after the pig is subdued by Monkey and made to follow the priest west. Third, Dadian accepts Sha Shihe as his last disciple after the water spirit saves him from a monster that had dragged him to the bottom of the Flowing Sands River.

Prior to Sha Shihe joining the group, Monkey, Dadian, and Yijie travel through the sister villages of Ge (葛, Creepers) and Teng (籐, Clinging Vines) which are both plagued by bottomless pits that appear and swallow untold numbers of people. [A] The elders of these respective villages tell the pilgrims that the source of this calamity is a demon known as King Defect (Quexian wang, 缺陷王) who lives on the Mountain of Imperfection (Buman, 不滿, lit: “not full”). The monster feeds on the negativity of people whom he curses with poverty, divorce, disease, etc., and those who don’t worship him are swallowed by the ground to be imprisoned forever. Luzhen retrieves a magic golden treasure from heaven that stops the demon from burrowing underground; however, when he flees into a cave, the pilgrims’ path is blocked by seemingly indestructible vines that regrow as soon as they are cut. But Monkey discovers the vines fail to grow if he cuts them while not talking. [B] The group follows suit and they are able to capture and kill the demon, who is revealed to be a badger spirit.

After passing the Flowing Sands River and bringing Sha Shihe into their fold, the group travels to the Mountain of Deliverance lorded over by King Deliverance (Jietuo wang, 解脫王). He and his demon generals maintain 72 chasms where humans fall prey to their desires (sex, money, alcohol, anger, etc.) and 36 pits where sinners are tortured. [C] During a battle with the demon army, Zhu Yijie resists promises of sex, food, and treasures offered by the generals, but lets his guard down due to flattery and is captured. [D] Tripitaka is captured by seven demons displaying a range of emotions from joy to hatred. [E] The monk clears his mind and falls into a deep meditative state undisturbed by the outside world. It is only when Monkey comes to his rescue that Tripitaka regains consciousness. [F] In the end, Luzhen manages to kill King Deliverance by crushing him under the weight of a huge boulder that he had transformed into an exact likeness of himself. This causes all of the generals and the chasms and pits to disappear. The author provides an explanatory couplet.

When the heart (mind) is active,
All kinds of demons come into existence;
When the heart (mind) is extinguished,
All kinds of demons disappear (Liu, 1994, p. 77).


Fig. 2 – The immortal Zhenyuanzi as depicted in the famous 1986 television series.

The pilgrims travel to the Temple of Five Villages (Wuzhuang guan, 五莊觀) in the Mountain of Longevity (Wanshou shan, 萬壽山), where they are met by the supreme immortal Zhenyuanzi (鎮元子) (fig. 2), the patriarch of all earthly immortals and a temporary adversary in chapters 24 to 26 of the original. Sensing that Monkey relies too heavily on his physical strength and not his spiritual strength, the immortal only allows Dadian to enter, leaving the others to sit outside for hours. To add further insult to injury, a young immortal page tells Luzhen that his master has decided to forsake the journey in order to study Daoism. This so enrages him that he bursts inside to confront Zhenyuanzi and is challenged to retrieve Dadian from the Mansion of Fiery Clouds (Huo yun lou, 火雲樓) in which the monk is drinking tea. But Monkey’s way is suddenly blocked by a supernatural flame, known as the “fire of the mind” (Xinhuo, 心火), that not even the rain of the Dragon Kings can extinguish. [G] He finally manages to extinguish the fire with the sweet dew from Guanyin’s holy willow sprig and retrieve his master. [H]

The group comes to an endless, ocean-like river and question how they will ever reach the “other side”. [I] They eventually take a derelict boat, but infighting between Dadian and the disciples coincides with a monstrous black storm that erupts overhead, producing powerful winds that blow them thousands of miles off course to the Rakshasa Kingdom (羅剎國). This land of monsters is ruled over by the Bull Demon King and Lady Iron Fan (fig. 3), adversaries from chapters 59 to 61 of the original. After learning of the pilgrims’ arrival, Lady Iron Fan sends an army of demon soldiers to capture them so she can exact revenge for perceived misdeeds by their predecessors. [4] Dadian once again enters meditation to avoid evil influences and is quickly rescued by Monkey. Luzhen attempts to save Yijie, who once again falls prey to temptation and is captured, but is stopped by a black whirlwind created by Black Boy (黑孩兒), the second son of the demonic couple. [J] Monkey is forced to retrieve a sutra from the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in the underworld. Upon reading the sutra, a magic red cloud appears and shines light on the kingdom, destroying all of the demons and leading the monks to freedom. [K]


Fig. 3 – An artist’s depiction of Lady Iron Fan and the Bull Demon King.

III. Allegory explained

A) These names refer to Geteng (葛籐, Creepers and Clinging Vines), a term used in Buddhist literature to refer to the net of desire that ensnares humans. Liu (1994) notes the Avadanas Scripture (Chuyao jing, 出曜經, late 5th to early 6th-cent.) contains two mentions of the term, one of which reads: “Entrapped in the net of desires, common people are bound to undermine the right (orthodoxy) way … like the creepers and vines which twine round a tree and eventually cause its death” (p. 70).

B) The aforementioned creepers and clinging vines also refer to Geteng Chan (葛籐禪, Wordy Chan/Zen), a term often applied “to people who resort to long-winded words or writings, rather than to their intuitive perceptions to grasp the essence of Buddhist principles” (Liu, 1994, p. 71). This love for speaking/writing is believed to hinder the path to enlightenment. This explains why the vines stop growing when Monkey stops talking. The group, in essence, frees themselves from Wordy Chan and relies more on intuition. This puts them one step closer to enlightenment.

C) The demon king and generals are physical embodiments of desires that keep people from attaining enlightenment.

D) This represents the consequence of temptation, no matter how small.

E) These demons represent the seven emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate, and desire.

F) Dadian’s capture represents those who erroneously think meditation is simply sitting quietly instead of inner reflection and the examination of truths. His inability to focus his mind is the real reason for his capture. Monkey represents the mind, so his arrival allows the monk to regain consciousness. Therefore, this episode teaches one to focus the mind and thereby not fall prey to desires. This is yet another step closer to enlightenment.

G) This fire represents Sun Luzhen and Zhenyuanzi’s anger, which ignites when both enter into an argument. Anger is one of the emotions thought to inhibit enlightenment.

H) This liquid is referred to in Buddhist literature as being able to extinguish everything from desires to negative emotions. For example, Liu (1994) comments: “In a parable in Za baozang jing 雜寶藏經 (Sutra of Miscellaneous Treasures [5th-cent.]), the Buddha was said to use the Water of Wisdom to extinguish the Three Fires of Desire, Anger and Delusion” (Liu, 1994, p. 81). Therefore, the dew/water represents wisdom, or the ability to use reason and not become angry. The use of the dew causes Monkey to switch from knee jerk reaction to reason, as exemplified by this statement:

It was my mistake in the first place. I should not have quarreled with him to stir up his fire. Once his fire is stirred up [donghuo, 動火], my fire is stirred up too. I don’t know how long the fire will burn. This surely would cause delay in our master’s proper business (Liu, 1994, p. 80).

I) This ocean/river is a common metaphor in Buddhist literature referring to desire, and the “other side” refers to a life free from desire (Paramita), or achieving enlightenment. For example, Huineng (惠能, 638-713), the sixth Chan patriarch, says: “The perverted mind is the great sea and the passions are the waves … if the perverted mind is cast aside the ocean will dry up, and when the passions are gone the waves will subside” (Liu, 1994, p. 81).

J) The black whirlwind represents ignorance, or the Buddhist concept of Wuming (無明, darkness without illumination), and the demon kingdom represents the unenlightened mind that falls prey to its own demons (desire, ignorance, anger, etc.). The metaphors of the black whirlwind and demon kingdom are mentioned in the Collected Essentials of the Five Lamplight Histories (Wudeng huiyuan, 五燈會元, c. 1252), one of several accepted histories of Chan Buddhist orthodoxy in China (Liu, 1994, pp. 84-85).

K) The illuminated red cloud represents sudden enlightenment that sweeps away all ignorance and desire.


1) This is false within the novel’s fictional universe because Tripitaka attained living Buddhahood in chapter 100 of the original.

2) Tripitaka serves as Guanyin’s successor in this respect, for it was the Bodhisattva who recruited the “scripture pilgrim” in chapter 12.

3) Liu (1994) notes that this is based on actual history. Han Yu, who was a Confucian scholar and the Vice Minister of the Justice Department, “presented a memorial to the throne, denouncing Buddhism as an alien doctrine and criticizing the emperor for receiving and showing reverence for the ‘decayed and rotten bone’ of the Buddha” (pp. 63-64). So in this case it was a relic belonging to the Buddha and not Tripitaka. Han was actually sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to exile thanks to parties arguing on his behalf.

4) She wishes to exact her revenge because their predecessors, Tripitaka, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, were instrumental in the subjugation and reformation of her first son Red Boy by Guanyin.


Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the Later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Golden Fillet

Last updated: 08-16-20

The golden fillet (金箍圈, jingu quan) is one of the Monkey King’s most recognizable iconographic elements appearing in visual media based on the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). It is generally portrayed as a ringlet of gold with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows (type one) (fig. 1). A different version is a single band adorned with an upturned crescent shape in the center (type two) (fig. 2). Another still is a simple band devoid of decoration (type three) (fig. 3). Sun first earns the headband as punishment for killing six thieves shortly after being released from his five hundred-year-long imprisonment. The circlet is a heaven-sent magic treasure designed to reign in the immortal’s unruly, rebellious nature. Since Sun Wukong is a personification of the Buddhist concept of the “Monkey of the Mind” (心猿, xinyuan,), or the disquieted mind that bars humanity from enlightenment, the fillet serves as a not so subtle reminder of Buddhist restraint. Few scholars have attempted to analyze the treasure’s history. In this paper I present textual and visual evidence from India, China, and Japan that suggests it is ultimately based on a ritual headband worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. I also show how such fillets became the emblem of some weapon-bearing protector deities in China, as well as military monks in Chinese opera.

1. The Fillet’s Literary Origin and Purpose

The headband is first mentioned in chapter eight when three such “tightening fillets” are given to the Bodhisattva Guanyin by the Buddha in order to conquer any demons that she may come across while searching for a monk who will bring sutras back to China from India. The “Enlightened One” explains their purpose: “If [the monster] is disobedient, this fillet may be put on his head, and it will strike root the moment it comes into contact with the flesh. Recite the particular spell which belongs to the fillet and it will cause the head to swell and ache so painfully that he will think his brains are bursting. That will persuade him to come within our fold” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 206-207). He notes that there are different spells for each piece, including “the Golden, the Constrictive, and the Prohibitive Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 206).

Sun Wukong earns the “Constrictive” band in chapter fourteen after brutally murdering six thieves who accost his master Tripitaka, the chosen scripture seeker, on the road to the west. [1] The killings cause the two to part ways, and it is during Monkey’s absence when Guanyin gives the monk a brocade hat containing the fillet and teaches him the “True Words for Controlling the Mind, or the Tight-Fillet Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 317). Sun is eventually persuaded to return and tricked into wearing the hat under the guise of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. It soon takes root, and the powerful immortal is brought under control through the application of pain. He then promises to behave and to protect Tripitaka during their long journey to the Western Paradise. [2]

The remaining two fillets are used by Guanyin to conquer other monsters in later chapters. She throws the “Prohibitive” band onto the head of a black bear demon in chapter seventeen and, after reciting the spell, he agrees to become the rear entrance guard of her Potalaka island paradise (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 365). The “Golden” band is split into five rings—one each for the head, wrists, and ankles—and used to subdue Red Boy (紅孩兒, Hong hai’er), the fire-spewing son of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan, at the end of chapter forty-two and the beginning of forty-three (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 251-252). The child demon becomes her disciple and eventually takes the religious name Sudhana. [3]

Monkey is forced to wear the fillet until he attains Buddhahood in chapter one hundred, causing it to vanish (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 4), p. 383). The band’s disappearance at the end of the novel denotes Sun’s internalization of self-control. But the treasure doesn’t disappear forever. It appears once more in the Later Journey to the West (後西游記, Hou Xiyouji, 17th-cent.), a sequel set 200 years after the original. The story follows a similar trajectory with Monkey’s descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真, “Monkey who Walks Reality”) attaining immortality and causing havoc in heaven. But this time the macaque Buddha is called in to quell the demon. Monkey quickly disarms the “Small Sage Equaling Heaven” of his iron staff and pacifies him not with trickery but with an enlightening Buddhist koan. He then places the band on Luzhen’s head to teach him restraint (see Liu, 1994).

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Fig. 1 – (Left) A type one fillet from the comedy A Chinese Odyssey 2 (1995). Fig. 2 – (Center) A type two fillet from the 1986 TV show. Fig. 3 – (Right) A  type three fillet from an 11th-century painting in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China.

2. Past Research

It appears very few scholars writing in English have attempted to trace the origins of the golden fillet. Wang Tuancheng theorizes that the idea for the headband came from two sources. First, the historical journal of Xuanzang (602-664 CE), the Tang Dynasty monk on whom Tripitaka is loosely based, details how he was challenged to a religious debate by a man in a foreign kingdom who offered his own head as the price of defeat. Xuanzang won, but instead of collecting his prize, the monk took the man as his servant. Second, Wang notes that slaves during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) wore a metal collar around their neck shaped like the Chinese character for twenty (廿, nian). He goes on to explain: “…the author transformed the metal hoop that the non-Buddhist might have worn to Sun Wukong’s headband” (Wang, 2006, p. 67). I’m not particularly persuaded by this argument since Wang doesn’t offer any evidence as to why a Han-era slave implement would still be in use during the Tang (618-907 CE) four to five hundred years later; nor does he suggest a reason for why such a collar would be moved from the neck to the head. Besides, there exists religious art featuring the fillet (see below) that predates the novel by some three centuries, meaning it wasn’t the sole invention of the author/compiler of the novel.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the 13th-century precursor of the novel, The Story of Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, does not mention the fillet at all (this is just one of many differences between it and the final 16th-century version). Monkey is simply portrayed as a concerned individual who purposely seeks out Tripitaka to ensure his safety, as the monk’s two previous incarnations have perished on the journey to India. In other words, he comes as a willing participant, which negates the need for positive punishment via the ringlet. [4] But at least two works coinciding with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) depict Monkey wearing a band, which, again, excludes the treasure being a later invention.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 13th-century stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and, most importantly, a type one fillet on the forehead (Fig. 4). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet “recalls the band around the head of representations of Andira, the simian guardian of Avalokitesvara” (the Indian counterpart to Guanyin) (Walker, 1998, p. 70). He goes on to list similarities between the stone relief and depictions of Andira, while also suggesting said depictions are based on south and southeast Asian representations of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman:

Identical earrings (these are key iconographic features of H[anuman] in many Southeast Asian R[ama saga]s), comparable tilt of the head… which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair… flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on the forearm and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H[anuman]. (Walker, 1998, p. 70).

So as it stands, the 13th-century appears to be the furthest that the motif has been reliably traced.

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Fig. 4 (Left) – The 13th-century stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China (larger version). Fig. 5 – (Center) A portion of the 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two (larger version). Fig. 6 – (Right) The 12th-century Japanese painting “Aka-Fudo” (赤不動) (larger version).

3. My Findings

While Mair suggests a Southeast Asian Hindo-Buddhist influence, I know of at least one 11th-century example from northeastern China that suggests an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist influence. The Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (東千佛洞, Dong qianfo dong) in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank. Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. He is portrayed with a type three circlet on his head, waist length hair, and light blue-green robes with brown pants (fig. 3 and 5). This painting was completed during a time when China was seeing an influx of monks fleeing the inevitable fall of India’s Buddhist-led Pala Dynasty (750-1174) from the 10th to the 12th-century. They brought with them the highly influential Pala Buddhist art style and Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism. The MET (2010) writes:

A mixture of Chinese-style and Vajrayana traditions and imagery was employed in the Tangut Xixia Kingdom …  which was based in Ningxia, Gansu, and parts of Shanxi … It is difficult to imagine that this “new” type of Buddhism, which not only was flourishing in Tibet in the late tenth century but was also found in the neighboring Xixia Kingdom and may have been practiced by Tibetans based in the Hexi Corridor region of Gansu Province, was completely unknown in central China until the advent of the Mongols (p. 19).

The painting of Monkey and Tripitaka was surely created by an Indian/Tibetan Buddhist monk (or at the very least a fellow Tangut/Chinese practitioner) living in the area. This suggests the imagery within the painting, such as the fillet, could have an esoteric Buddhist pedigree, and textual evidence shows such headbands were indeed worn in some esoteric rituals. For example, the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-cent.) instructs adherents on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka, a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles:

The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears the bone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250).

Furthermore, it describes how each of the ritual adornments and implements used in the ceremony represents each of the five esoteric Buddhas, as well as other religio-philosophical elements:

Aksobhya is symbolized by the circletAmitabha by the ear-rings, Ratnesa by the necklace, and Vairocana (by the rings) upon the wrists. Amogha is symbolized by the girdle. Wisdom by the khatvanga [staff] and Means by the drum, while the yogin represents the Wrathful One himself [Heruka]. Song symbolizes mantra, dance symbolizes meditation, and so singing and dancing the yogin always acts (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251).

As can be seen, the circlet represents Aksobhya (Sk: “Immovable”; Ch: 阿閦如来, Achurulai). This deity is known for his adamantine vow to attain buddhahood through the practice of Sila, or “morality”, the aim of which “is to restrain nonvirtuous deeds of body and speech, often in conjunction with the keeping of precepts” (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, pp. 27 and 821). So the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making it the best candidate for the origin of Monkey’s fillet. Sun is after all the representation of the “Monkey of the Mind” (as noted in the introduction), so his inclusion in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave painting was probably meant to convey the taming of this Buddhist concept via the circlet (apart from referencing the popular tale itself).

The Hevajra Tantra, the text in which the circlet appears, was first translated into Tibetan by Drogmi (993-1074) and adopted during the 11th-century as a central text by the respective founders of the Kagyu and Sakya sects, two of the six major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Various members of the Sakya sect were invited by Mongol royalty to initiate them into the text’s esoteric teachings during the 13th-century. These include Sakya Pandita and his nephew Chogyal Phagpa, who respectively tutored Genghis Khan’s grandson Prince Goden in 1244 and Kublai Khan in 1253. The meeting between Kublai and Chogyal resulted in Vajrayana Buddhism becoming the state religion of Mongolia. The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Chinese by the Indian monk Dharmapala (963-1058 CE) in 1055 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The text, however, did not become popular within the Chinese Buddhist community like it would with the Mongols in the 13th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455). But this evidence shows how the concept of the 8th-century ritual circlet could have traveled from India to East Asia to influence depictions of Sun Wukong in the 11th-century. And the relatively unknown status of the text in China might ultimately explain why there are so very few depictions of Chinese deities wearing the fillet, or why it does not appear in the 13th-century version of Journey to the West.

While the Xixia painting (fig. 5) lacks many of the ritual adornments (apart from the fillet) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, the Quanzhou stone relief (fig. 3) includes the band, earrings, necklace, bangles, and possibly even a tiger skin apron, suggesting it too has an esoteric origin (most likely based on Chinese source material). [5] The band’s connection to esoteric Buddhism is further strengthened by a 12th-century painting from Japan. Titled Aka-Fudo (赤不動), or “Red Fudo [Myoo]”, it depicts the wrathful esoteric god seated in a kingly fashion, holding a fiery, serpent-wrapped Vajra sword in one hand and a lasso in the other (fig. 6). He wears a golden, three-linked headband (similar to the curls of type one), which stands out against his deep red body and flaming aureola. Biswas (2010) notes: “…the headband on his forehead … indicate[s], according to some, a relation to the habit of groups of ascetics who were among the strong supporters of Acalanatha” (112). His supporters were no doubt yogin practitioners in the same vein as those who worshipped Heraku and other such wrathful protector deities.

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Fig. 7 – (Left) Huang Ji’s “Sharpening a Sword” (early 15th-century) (larger version). Fig. 8 – (Center) Example of a jiegu (戒箍) fillet from a TV show. Fig. 9 – (Right) A late Ming woodblock of the warrior monk Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version).

3.1. The Fillet as a Symbol of Martial Deities and Warrior Monks

It’s important to note that Monkey was not the only cultural hero of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to wear a golden fillet. Another example is Li Tieguai (李鐵拐), or “Iron Crutch Li”, the oldest of the Eight Immortals.[6] Li is generally portrayed as a crippled beggar leaning on a cane. Legend has it that his original body was cremated prematurely by a disciple while the immortal traveled in spirit to answer a summons from Lord Laozi, the high god of Daoism. Li’s spirit returned a day later to find only ashes, thus forcing him to inhabit the body of a recently deceased cripple. According to Allen and Philips (2012), “Laozi gave him in recompense a golden headband and the crutch that was to become his symbol” (p. 108). Some depictions of Li wearing the fillet predate Journey to the West. The most striking example is Huang Ji’s Sharpening a Sword (early 15th-century) (Fig. 7), which portrays the immortal wearing a type three band and sharpening a double-edged blade on a stone while staring menacingly at the viewer. [7] One theory suggests Li’s martial visage identifies him as a “spirit-guardian of the [Ming] state” (Little, 2000, p. 333). Both Monkey and Li are therefore portrayed as brutish, weapon-bearing, golden headband-wearing immortals who serve as protectors. This shows the fillet was associated with certain warrior deities during the Ming.

The fillet’s connection to religion and martial attributes culminated in the Jiegu (戒箍, “ring to forget desires”), a type two band worn by Military Monks (武僧, Wuseng) in Chinese opera to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (fig. 8). Such monks are depicted as wearing a Jiegu over long hair (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.[8] I would like to suggest the band’s half-moon shape may have some connection to a Ming-era woodblock print motif in which martial monks are shown wielding staves tipped with a crescent (fig. 9). The exact reason for the shape is still unknown (Shahar, 2008, pp. 97-98), but the association between the crescent and martial monks seems obvious. The use of the fillet in Chinese opera led to it being worn by Sun Wukong in the highly popular 1986 live-action tv show adaptation of the novel (fig. 2).[9]

4. Conclusion

Examples of past research into the origins of the golden fillet respectively point to a slave collar from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and circa 13th-century South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman as possible precursors. However, the first isn’t credible, and the second, while on the right track, doesn’t go back far enough. An 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave complex depicts Sun Wukong wearing a type three fillet with possible ties to a ritual circlet worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. The Hevajra Tantra, the esoteric text that mentions the band, associates it with the Aksobhya Buddha and thereby his moralistic, self-restraining practices. The text was transmitted from india to Tibet, China, and Mongolia from the 11th to the 13th-centuries, showing a clear path for such imagery to appear in East Asia. A 12th-century Japanese Buddhist painting of the guardian deity Fudo Myoo with a fillet suggests the practice of wearing circlets in esoteric rituals continued for centuries. Other non-Buddhist deities became associated with the fillet during the Ming Dynasty. A 15th-century painting of the immortal Li Tieguai, for example, depicts him as a type one circlet-wearing, sword-wielding guardian of the Ming dynasty. All of this suggests the band became a symbol of weapon-bearing protector deities. The association between the fillet and religion and martial attributes led to its use as the symbol of military monks in Chinese opera.

Update: 12-23-17

I’ve been wondering what the 8th-century version of the circlet (along with the other ritual implements) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra might have looked like. While I have yet to find a contemporary sculpture or painting, I have found an 11th to 12th-century interpretation from Tibet. Titled The Buddhist Deity Hevajra (fig. 10), this copper alloy statue somewhat follows the prescribed iconography of the god as laid out in the aforementioned text:

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

Fig. 10 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 11 – Detail of the circlet.

The circlet here is depicted as a fitted band with crescent trim and a teardrop-shaped adornment (a conch?) (fig. 11). The statue’s iconography more closely follows that from the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries. The following information probably derives from the later part of this period:

He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).

Our statue has many of these features but lacks the image of the Buddha in his hair. This suggests the knob visible in the coif (fig. 10) once carried such a figure. So once again we see the importance of the Aksobhya Buddha. The statue is similar to 10th and 11th-century stone statues from India.[10]

While this doesn’t get us any closer to what the original circlet looked like, this statue adds to the mutability of the fillet imagery. The Hevajra Tantra is vague in its description, and so it is no surprise that so many variations have appeared over the centuries. The original sanskrit text uses the word cakri (circle) to refer to the band (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62). This might explain the simple type three fillet worn by Monkey in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave two painting (fig. 2).

Update: 08/16/2020

I have written an article suggesting an origin for the type one headband, or as I now call it, the “curlicue headband”.


1) The type of band that is given to particular characters is explained in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 251.
2) For the entire episode, see Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 314-320.
3) The child first speaks his new name in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 354. The name Sudhana originates from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 386-387 n. 3).
4) For a complete English translation, see Wivell (1994).
5) This is just one of many relief carvings that grace the pagoda. It includes other guardian-type figures with esoteric elements but rendered in the Chinese style. See Ecke and Demiéville (1935).
6) The Eight Immortals are Daoist saints who came to be worshipped as a group starting sometime in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) (Little 2000: 319).
7) The sword is usually a symbol of the immortal Lu Dongbin, but, as noted above, it is used to identify Li Tieguai as a Ming guardian (Little 2000: 333).
8) Shahar (2008) discusses the historical differences between religious and military monks in ancient China.
9) The actor who played Monkey, Liu Xiao Ling Tong (Born Zhang Jinlai 章金萊, 1959), comes from a family who has specialized in playing Sun Wukong in Chinese opera for generations (Ye, 2016).
10) See the Heruka chapter in Linrothe (1999). He includes our statue in his study, but other sources describe it as Tibetan instead of India (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 458).


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