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).


Allan, T., & Phillips, C. (2012). Ancient China’s myths and beliefs. New York: Rosen Pub.

Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Chicago, Ill: Serindia Publications.

Biswas, S. (2010). Indian influence on the art of Japan. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre.

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

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

Donaldson, T. E. (2001). Iconography of the Buddhist sculpture of Orissa. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The twin pagodas of Zayton: A study of the later Buddhist sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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

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

Little, S. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago.

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

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), Leidy, D. P., Strahan, D. K., & Becker, L. (2010). Wisdom embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

Wang, T. (2006). Dust in the wind: Retracing Dharma Master Xuanzang’s Western pilgrimage. Taipei: Rhythms Monthly.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Ye, X. (2016). Liu Xiao Ling Tong and Sun Wukong. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from

The Later Journey to the West: Part 1 – Sun Luzhen’s Early Adventures

The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) spawned numerous unofficial sequels years after its publishing in 1592. One such sequel, titled Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記) by an anonymous author of the 17th-century, is set two hundred years after the original and follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s spiritual descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真). He too learns the secrets of immortality and causes havoc in heaven, before being tasked to protect the historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) on a similar journey to India. The two are accompanied by the son of Zhu Bajie, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), and the disciple of Sha Wujing, Sha Zhihe (沙致和). This may at first seem like a cookie cutter retelling of the story, but it is so much more. Unlike the original, which only used allegorical terms for given characters, Later Journey to the West is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning, from the names of characters and the words they speak to the places they visit and the villains they face. Below, I present the first of a three-part overview (part 2 and part 3), which covers Sun Luzhen’s early adventures. I rely very heavily on the engaging work of 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 three sections of the article. These correspond with said letters in the fourth section containing information explaining the allegorical meaning of that part of the story.

I. The riddle

The novel begins with the following riddle:

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)

Liu (1994) notes that the answer is: “The Mind is none other than the Buddha” (ji xin ji fo, 即心即佛), a common Chan (Zen) Buddhist saying referring to self-enlightenment (p. 22). He continues:

The author uses the verse to announce the theme of his book and to prepare the reader for the mental or spiritual journey he is going to undertake through the experience of reading it […] [T]he novelist wants to make sure that the readers is aware of the allegorical nature of his various episodes and is ready to apply the same technique he would employ in solving a riddle to the reading of the novel, i.e. to go beyond the literal level of the text in order to find the solution or to decipher the intended message (Liu, 1994, p. 24).

II. Sun Luzhen’s early adventures

The story opens on the Flower Fruit Mountain (fig. 1), home of the original Monkey King and the axis mundi, or center of the cosmos through which all creative energies flow freely between heaven and earth. Our hero Sun Luzhen is born from a stone and, upon hearing of the adventures of Sun Wukong, takes the title “Small Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian xiaosheng, 齊天小聖). [A][1] He follows in his ancestor’s footsteps by sailing to the Aparagodaniya continent in a quest for immortality. There, he finds an immortal’s temple but is barred from meeting the patriarch by a Daoist monk until he has completed a number of tasks, including purifying himself in the Hall of Calming the Mind and the Hall of Nourishing the Breath, [B] taming a dragon and a tiger, [C] and visiting several locations, such as the Cinnabar Field and the Divine Mansion. [D] Monkey completes the purification rituals, but soon leaves the temple when he discovers the immortal cavorting with an old woman and two young maidens. [E]

Monkey leaves the temple and continues his search the world over for a worthy master, finding only false immortals and hypocritical monks along the way. [F] He returns to Flower Fruit Mountain determined to bring about his own immortality, and there the small stone monkey finds the “No-Leak” Cave (wulou dong, 無漏洞) on the backside of the mountain, making it his hermitage. [G] He meditates for forty-nine days before Sun Wukong appears in spirit, sharing with him magical formulas and eventually merging with him. This causes Monkey Jr. to realize: “The true master is after all in one’s own mind, but people don’t know where to look for him” (Liu, 1994, p. 38). [H]

Having achieved immortality, Sun Luzhen discovers his ancestor’s “as-you-will” gold-banded cudgel in the cave and sets out to find additional ways of increasing his spiritual attainment. [2] First, he forces the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea and the Old Tiger King of the Western Mountains to respectively submit to his power. [I] Next, Monkey travels to the underworld below and uses his wits to prove the other worldly judgements of the ten magistrates of hell are unjust, making their rulings listed in the ledgers of life and death null and void. [J][3] Finally, the small stone monkey travels to the celestial realm above to visit the Jasper Pool, the abode of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母) (fig. 2). [K] He gets drunk on immortal wine and soon creates such a disturbance that the August Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, calls up the celestial army to deal with the menace. The Small Sage is too powerful, and so the emperor enlists the help of the Great Sage, now an enlightened Buddha (fig. 3), [4] to halt his descendant’s onslaught. [L][5]

Fig. 1 – A depiction of Flower Fruit Mountain from a modern video game (larger version). Fig. 2 – A Ming Dynasty painting of the Queen Mother of the West riding a stone lion (larger version). Fig. 3 – A live action depiction of Sun Wukong after attaining Buddhahood (larger version).

III. Sun Luzhen’s enlightenment

Sun Wukong arrives and soon deprives the small stone monkey of the magic iron staff, and when the latter complains that he won’t be able to defend himself, Monkey Sr. tells him: “It is already in your ear [where he used to hide the magically reduced weapon]. How can I give it back to you?” (Liu, 1994, p. 50). [M] This Chan gong’an (Zen koan) instantly brings about Sun Luzhen’s enlightenment. Before returning to the Western Paradise, the Great Sage places the golden fillet on his head and instructs him:

There is a limit to brute force,
But Wisdom and courage are boundless;
If you fail to achieve the right fruition,
You will forever be a wild immortal. (Liu, 1994, p. 49)

Liu (1994) explains the significance of the verse:

In the poem Sun Wukong tells his descendant to resort to wisdom and courage, rather than brute force, to achieve this goal. This teaching is borne out by the fact that it is not the celestial army but Sun Wukong who subdues Monkey with his enlightening words. But more important is the message conveyed in the last two lines. Though Monkey has obtained physical immortality, he is still a yexian 野仙 (wild immortal), because he is unable to quench his desires and emotions […] According to Chan Buddhist doctrine of wunian 無念 (no-thought), man’s original nature is pure and free from all thoughts and passions. In the first section of the novel, Monkey tries a Taoist approach in his effort to seek immortality. Though he succeeds through Taoist meditation in calming his mind and in realizing his self-nature, his desire for immortality and his practice of internal alchemy, symbolized by his celestial adventures, violate the Chan Buddhist principle of non-attachment, and are therefore considered “wild” and “unorthodox” by Buddhist ontological non-dualism. The completion of the Taoist physiological alchemy is only the beginning of a self-cultivation process for the hero whose ultimate goal … is to accomplish zhenguo 正果 (right or orthodox fruition), i.e. to achieve the Buddhahood inherent in one’s own nature, through the journey proper to the Holy Mountain in the Western Paradise. (p. 49)

IV. Allegory explained

A) Just like Sun Wukong in JTTW, Sun Luzhen represents the “Monkey of the Mind” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddhist metaphor for the restlessness of the human mind/heart (the character of xin (心) can mean both) (Liu, 1994, pp. 27-28).

B) These represent the early stages of spiritual cultivation, namely meditation and the regulation of breathing. The latter involves absorption of yang energy during prescribed times of the day.

C) These animals represent yin and yang energy, respectively. So taming said animals refers to a mastery of said energies.

D) These represent areas of the body, namely a region just below the navel and the upper region of the head, respectively. See J below.

E) These people represent Daoist terms associated with sexual cultivation, a type of internal cultivation popular during the Han dynasty but fell out of favor by the Ming when the novel was written (Liu, 1994, pp. 35-37).

F) These people represent the wrong path to enlightenment, including non-Chan Buddhist sects and even Daoism.

G) The name represents the Buddhist concept of Anasrava and the Daoist concept of Wulou (無漏)/Loujin (漏盡), or the cessation of emotional outpouring (or leaking) upon achieving enlightenment (Liu, 1994, p. 38).

H) This represents self-realization.

I) This follows the Daoist monk’s instructions to tame a dragon and a tiger. This again represents his mastery of yin and yang energies.

J) This represents Monkey’s status as an immortal who is beyond the reach of death. I believe the downward journey symbolically follows the Daoist monk’s instructions to visit the Cinnabar Field, an area of the body below the navel normally associated with the storage of spiritual and sexual energy. Although Liu (1994) does not say this explicitly, he does comment: “According to the Taoist microcosmic view, the human body [has] features corresponding to the cosmic universe […] For example, the Celestial Palace … and the Jasper Pool are not only the heavenly residence of the Jade Emperor and the Mother Queen [of the west], but also terms referring to the upper regions of the head” (p. 45). See K below.

K) Going to heaven represents the upward propulsion of energy to the head, the last step in achieving immortality.

L) As the ruler of heaven, the August Jade Emperor represents the Primary Spirit (yuanshen, 元神), or the original pure spirit that everyone is born with. This is also known as the “Heavenly Mind/Heart” (tianxin, 天心). Therefore, Monkey’s rebellion represents the attempt of the “Conscious Spirit or the Heart of Blood and Flesh” at usurping the spiritual mind before all attachments are extinguished upon enlightenment (Liu, 1994, pp. 47-48).

M) This represents one’s own internal or spiritual strength.


1) This mirrors the title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) taken by Sun Wukong in chapter 4 of JTTW.
2) Daoism recognizes up to five categories of immortality, each increasing in spiritual attainment from the last: 1. Ghost; 2. Human; 3. Earthly; 4. Divine; and 5. Heavenly (Liu, 1994, p. 55, n. 36).
3) This contrasts with Sun Wukong who used force to erase his name (and those of all other monkeys living at that time) from the ledgers of life and death (see chapter 3 of JTTW).
4) Monkey Sr. is granted Buddhahood, along with the title “Buddha Victorious in Strife” in chapter 100 of JTTW.
5) Sun Luzhen’s drunken episode, havoc in heaven, and subjugation by a Buddha recalls the adventures of his ancestor from chapters 4 to 7 of JTTW.


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 Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.

In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), an island that lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches a stone egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.

The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to the void” or “monkey who realizes sunyata“. The sage teaches him the seventy-two methods of earthly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon whom had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to find such a weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to set the depths of the fabled world flood, as well as to calm the seas. Named the “‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.

Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the seventy-two caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun is visited by two psychopomps who drag his soul to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he is no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.


Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).

Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 弼馬温) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until he learns from an assistant that he’s not a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.

Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.

Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up seventy-two heavenly generals, comprising the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods, and 100,000 celestial soldiers. In response, Monkey mobilizes his own army comprising the demon kings of the seventy-two caves and all manner of animal spirits, including his own monkey soldiers. But soon after the battle commences, the demon kings fall to the heavenly forces, forcing Sun to take on three heads and six arms and multiply his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical steel bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.

Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his rendered remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, having found protection in the wind element (xun, 巽). But intense smoke inside the furnace had greatly irritated his eyes, refining his pupils the color of gold and giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles, as well as to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, Sun demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain, yet the Enlightened One explains that the baneful spirit had never left his palm. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.

Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).

Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how six hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, 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), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.

Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).

A Supplement to the Journey to the West: An Overview

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補) is a sixteen chapter Chinese novelette written in 1640 CE by Dong Yue (董說). It acts as a sequel and addendum to the famous Journey to the West (1592) and takes place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62.[1] In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty (608-907), he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.[2]

There is a debate between scholars over when the book was actually published. One school of thought favors a political interpretation which lends itself to a later publication after the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The second favors a religious interpretation which lends itself to an earlier publication during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Evidence in favor of the former includes references to the stench of nearby “Tartars,” a possible allusion to the Manchus who would eventually found the Qing and conquer China. Evidence in favor of the latter includes references to Buddhist sutras and the suppression of desire and the lack of political statements “lament[ing] the fate of the country.”[3] The novel can ultimately be linked to the Ming because a mid-17th century poem dates it to the year 1640.


Shortly after getting into an argument with his master over the blazingly red color of flowers (a representation of desire), Monkey kills a group of women and children who accost Tripitaka for his robes. However, when Sun Wukong tries to talk his way out of punishment, he finds his traveling companions have all conveniently fallen asleep. Taking his leave to find food, he happens upon a large city flying the banner “Great Tang’s New Son-of-Heaven, the Restoration Emperor, thirty-eighth successor of Taizong.” This strikes Monkey as odd since it was Taizong who had originally sent them on their mission to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures in India. This either means the pilgrims’ journey had taken hundreds of years, or the city is a fake. He flies to heaven in order to learn more about the Great Tang, but finds the gates are locked because an imposter Monkey King has stolen the Palace of Magic Mists. The situation becomes even stranger when he returns to the city and learns that the king has sent someone to invite the Tang Priest to become a general of his military. But when Sun tries to intercept the messenger, the person is nowhere to be found, and he instead comes upon mortal men flying on magic clouds and picking at the very foundations of heaven with spears and axes. From them he learns that the Little Moon King (小月王), the ruler of the neighboring Kingdom of Great Compassion, has put up a great bronze wall and a fine mesh netting so as to block Monkey’s path to India. But because the monarch feels sorry for the Tang Priest, the Little Moon King forced the men to dig a hole in the firmament of heaven so that Tripitaka could hop from the Daoist heaven to the Buddhist heaven to complete his mission. But in the process, the men accidentally caused the Palace of Magic Mists to fall through to earth, hence the reason why heaven blames Monkey.


Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).

Monkey goes to the Emerald Green World, Little Moon King’s imperial city, in order to fetch his master but is blocked from entering once inside the main gate. When he uses his great strength to bust open the wall, he falls inside of a magic tower of mirrors that act as gateways to different points in history and other universes. Monkey travels to the “World of the Ancients” (the Qin Dynasty) by drilling through a bronze mirror. He transforms himself into Beautiful Lady Yu, concubine of King Xiang Yu of Chu, in order to retrieve a magic “Mountain-removing Bell” from the first Qin Emperor so that he can use it to clear the group’s path to India of any obstacles blocking their way. But Sun later learns that the Jade Emperor had banished the emperor to the “World of Oblivion,” which lies beyond the “World of the Future.” Xiang Yu takes him to a village housing a set of Jade gates leading to the World of the Future. Monkey leaps through and travels hundreds of years forward in time to the Song Dynasty.

Upon his arrival, he is accosted by the ghosts of six thieves (representing the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind—the sources of desire) because they think he is a beautiful woman. He resumes his true form and exorcises them with his cudgel.[4] Shortly thereafter some junior devils appear and tell him that King Yama has recently died of an illness and that Monkey must take his place as judge of the dead until a suitable replacement can be found. He ends up judging the fate of the recently deceased Prime Minister Qin Hui. Monkey puts Qin through a series of horrific tortures, after which a demon uses its magic breath to blow his broken body back into its proper form. He finally sends a demon to heaven to retrieve a powerful magic gourd that sucks anyone who speaks before it inside and melts them down into a bloody stew. He uses this for Qin’s final punishment. Meanwhile, Monkey invites the ghost of General Yue Fei to the underworld and takes him as his third master.[5] He entertains Yue until Qin has been reduced to liquid and offers the general a cup of the Prime Minister’s “blood wine.” Yue, however, refuses on the grounds that drinking it would sully his soul. Sun then conducts an experiment where he makes a junior devil drink of the wine. Sometime later, the devil, apparently under the evil influence of the libation, murders his personal religious teacher and escapes into the “gate of ghosts,” presumably being reborn into another existence. Yue Fei then takes his leave to return to his heavenly abode. Monkey sends him off with a huge display of respect by making all of the millions of denizens of the underworld kowtow before him.

After leaving the underworld, Sun is able to return to the tower of mirrors with the help of the “New Ancient,” a man who had been trapped in the World of the Future for centuries. However, when he tries to leave the tower through a window, Monkey becomes hopelessly entangled by red threads (another representation of desire). He becomes so worried that his very own spirit leaves his body and, under the guise of an old man, snaps the threads. He later discovers from a local Daoist immortal that the Qin Emperor has loaned the Mountain-removing Bell to the founder of the Han Dynasty, his former enemy. In addition, he learns that the Tang Priest has given up the journey to India, dismissed his other disciples Zhu Wuneng (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand), taken a wife, and accepted the position as a general of the imposter Great Tang military.

Tripitaka begins to amass a huge army to fight the forces of the physical manifestation of desire. Monkey manages to infiltrate the ranks and presents himself as his own relative, a Six-Eared Macaque named Sun Wuhuan (孫悟幻, “Monkey Awakened to Fantasy”). Tripitaka names Wuhuan his “Vanguard General to Destroy [the] Entrenchment [of Desire]” and orders him to lead a contingent of yellow banner soldiers to face the “Western Barbarians”. General Sun’s forces come to bear against green banner soldiers led by King Paramita, one of the Monkey King’s five sons born to Lady Iron Fan.[6] Tripitaka soon arrives with purple banner soldiers to bolster Sun’s ranks, while black banner soldiers come to support King Paramita. The green banner soldiers eventually overpower the purple, killing the Little Moon King and beheading Tripitaka. A great wave of confusion then washes over the battlefield, causing soldiers of all colors to attack both friend and foe.

The shock of seeing his master die causes Monkey to take on his fierce three-headed and six-armed form. But his rage is halted by an aged deity sitting on a lotus platform in the sky. This “Master of the Void” reveals that Sun has been trapped in a magical dream world by the Qing Fish demon (鯖魚情) who wishes to eat Tripitaka to gain immortality. It turns out Monkey had become sexually aroused while in the stomach of Lady Iron Fan (at the end of chapter 61).[7] The Qing Fish took advantage of this chink in Sun’s spiritual armor to trap him. Both Monkey and the demon share a bond because they were born at the same time from the same primordial energies at the beginning of time. The only difference is that Monkey’s positive Yang energy is offset by the demon’s far more powerful negative Yin energy. The monster is in effect the physical embodiment of Monkey’s desires.

When he finally awakens, having dreamed the entire adventure in only a few seconds, Sun discovers the demon has infiltrated the Tang Priest’s retinue by taking on the form of a young and beautiful Buddhist monk name Wuqing (悟情, “Awakened to Desire”). The fiend had cast an illusion that Guanyin’s disciple Moksha introduced him as Tripitaka’s newest attendant and claims the Bodhisattva has requested he be placed second only to Wukong. This is because the religious name of all four disciples (Wukong, Wuqing, Wuneng, and Wujing) will form the phrase “make empty of desire and be purified” (kong qing neng jing, 空情能淨). Monkey takes advantage of the demon’s lowered defenses and kills it with his cudgel, thereby freeing himself of desire. Tripitaka is initially shocked, but sees the monk’s corpse revert to its true form, a mackerel fish (鯖魚). Sun then explains everything that had transpired, to which the Tang Priest commends him for his great effort.

Question and Answer

At the end of the novel, the author answers a list of twelve hypothetical questions that a reader might ask after reading the novelette. Some of the answers are very similar in nature and are sometimes contradictory.

The first question asks whether a supplement was even necessary since the original novel did not seem to be incomplete. He explains that it was written so Monkey would face an enemy—in this case desire—that he could not defeat with his great strength. By experiencing desire he learns to separate himself from it, thus helping to bring about true enlightenment. The second asks why he faces a single enemy who tricks him with magic, instead of many who want to eat the Tang Priest. The author answers this question with a quote by the philosopher Mencius: “There is no better way of learning than to seek your own strayed heart.”[8] The third asks why Dong waited to reveal the monster Monkey faces at the end of the novel, instead of doing so in the title of one of the chapters like in the original. He states that desire is formless and soundless, meaning people can be affected by it without knowing it. Therefore, the Qing fish monster is present throughout the entire book. The fourth asks how it’s possible for the spirit of Qin Hui, who lived during the Song, to be in the Tang Dynasty. Dong points out that anything is possible in a dream. The fifth asks why Monkey becomes the fearsome King Yama in the future. He explains a person who travels to the future must embolden their spirit when facing adversity. By killing the six thieves and torturing Qin, Monkey is able to break free of the Qing fish’s power. The sixth asks why the Tang Priest becomes a general. He becomes a general to wipe out the forces of desire. The seventh indirectly asks why the Tang Priest cries when a young girl plays the pipa.[9] Dong quotes the Buddhist tenet that sorrow is the source of desire. The eighth asks how it’s possible for Monkey to have a wife and children. He states that the book is simply a dream. The ninth asks why a chaotic battle erupts between the five armies after Monkey escapes from inside the Qing fish. It’s because the accumulation of desire reaches the breaking point. It can be likened to being forced awake during the worst part of a nightmare. The tenth asks why Monkey is able to escape the dream world just by participating in combat. Dong says combat is how he kills his desire. The eleventh asks if it’s possible to gouge holes in heaven like the flying men do. This is not directly answered. The author states Monkey could not have been trapped inside of the Qing fish without encountering these men. The twelfth asks why the Qing fish is portrayed as being young and beautiful. Dong explains that these are the qualities that desire has taken from the beginning of time.[10]

Proper dating

There is a debate between scholars over when the book was actually published. One school of thought favors a political interpretation which lends itself to a later publication after the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The second favors a religious interpretation which lends itself to an earlier publication during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Proponents of the political interpretation take the qing (情, desire) of the Qing fish to be an allusion to the qing (清, pure) of the Qing Dynasty (清朝).[11] The English translators of the book, who appear neutral in the debate, point out three things that may support this view: First, the reason Dong included Qin Hui in the story may have been because the Prime Minister historically betrayed the Song to the Jurchen-ruled Jin Dynasty. Centuries later, the Manchu chieftain Nurhachi, an ancestor of the Jurchens, founded the Later Jin Dynasty in 1616. This dynasty was later renamed the Qing Dynasty in 1636. So even if the book was published prior to the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the Qing fish may indeed been meant as an analogy for the Qing. Second, Monkey is offended by an odor created by Tartars “right next door.”[12] Since the Manchus resided “next door” to northern China, the idea of an invasion may have been on Dong’s mind while he was writing the book. Third, Dong may have been ridiculing the Ming’s inaction towards an imminent Manchu invasion when the New Ancient tells Monkey that his body will take on the stink of the barbarians if he stays too long.[13] Proponents who favor the political interpretation include the scholars Xu Fuming and Liu Dajie.[14]

Fig. 2 – Sudhana (left) learning from one of the fifty-two teachers (right) along
his journey toward enlightenment. Sanskrit manuscript, 11th to 12th century.

Proponents of the religious interpretation prefer to take the Qing fish for what it is, an embodiment of desire. The author Dong Yue is known to have been alienated by Buddhism’s denigration of desire, and so the Tang Priest’s position as the General of “Qing-killing” is simply a satire aimed at the religion. Madeline Chu believes the constant repetition of the color green (青, qing)—green cities, green towers, green robes, etc.—is an analogy for human emotions. She also points out that the Chinese characters used to spell Little Moon King (小月王) are visually similar to the three that comprise desire (情).[15] The English translators note that the physical tower of mirrors recalls a tale from the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra in which the Bodhisattva Maitreya creates a self-contained universe inside of a tower in order to bring about the enlightenment of Guanyin’s disciple Sudhana (fig. 2). Therefore, Monkey is just like Sudhana because the events he experiences inside of the tower eventually leads to his enlightenment.[16]

There are also other reasons to accept a Ming publication. The scholar Lu Xun muses, “Actually the book contains more digs at Ming fashions than laments over the fate of the country, and I suspect that it was written before the end of the [Ming] dynasty.”[17] Most importantly, there is a woodblock edition of the novel that was printed during the 1628-1644 reign of the Chongzhen Emperor. The preface is dated to the year xinsi (辛巳), which Madeline Chu believes to be the year 1641. Additionally, a note appearing in the poem “Random Thoughts” (1650) comments that the author Dong Yue “supplemented the Xiyouji ten years ago,” which dates the writing of the novel to 1640.[18]


The Supplement‘s episode of the torture of Qin Hui in hell has many elements that appeared in earlier fictional literature. The idea of someone serving as an adjunct king of hell was first mentioned in a collection of oral traditions called Popular tales of the Record of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi pinghua, 三国誌評話), the literary ancestor of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.[19] This was one of five such compilations printed in the Newly Published, Fully Illustrated Popular Stories (Xinkan quanxian pinghua, 新刊全相评話) series during the reign of Yuan Emperor Yingzhong (1321-1323).[20] It was later popularized in Feng Menglong’s Stories of Old and New (Gujin xiahua, 古今小說, 1620), a collection of original works and earlier oral traditions.[21] The tale entitled “Sima Mao Disrupts Order in the Underworld and Sits in Judgment” is about a poor Han Dynasty scholar named Sima Mao who is constantly passed over for promotion to various government posts in favor of wealthy men who underhandedly pay for their positions. Sima writes a poem criticizing the celestial hierarchy and claims he could do a better job at righting wrongs than the king of hell. The Jade Emperor of heaven initially wishes to punish Sima for his blasphemy, but the embodiment of the Planet Venus talks him into letting the scholar act as the King of Hell for twelve hours to test his worth. Sima is given Yama’s throne under the stipulation that he will enjoy success in his next life if he solves hell’s most difficult cold cases, but will be damned never to be reborn into the human realm if he fails. He tries four cases involving famous Han Dynasty personages—Han Xin, Peng Yue, Liu Bang, etc.—and passes sagely verdicts. For his great deed, Sima and his wife are born into wealth in their next lives.[22]

Portions of the story dealing with Yue Fei’s retribution originally appeared in several storytelling compilations, including the fifteenth-century work An Imitative Collection of Stories (Xiaopin ji, 小品集), and in an early folklore biography on the general named Restoration of the Great Song Dynasty: The Story of King Yue (Da Song zhongxing Yue Wang zhuan, 大宋中興岳王傳, c. 1552).[23] Feng Menlong later used such oral tales when he adapted the aforementioned story about Sima Mao to write “Humu Di Intones Poems and Visits the Netherworld,” which was included in his collection.[24] It is about a poor Yuan Dynasty scholar named Humu Di (胡母迪) who fails to gain a government post because he cannot pass the imperial exams. After a bout of drinking, Humu writes a series of poems criticizing heaven for not punishing the wicked and states he would torture Qin Hui for the murder of Yue Fei if he was the king of hell.[25] For his irreverent remarks, Humu’s soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld of Diyu. There, King Yama orders an underworld official to take Humu on a tour of the various tortures of hell in order to witness firsthand the result of karmic cause and effect. The two first come to Qin Hui’s personal hell where his punishments are similar to those mentioned in the Supplement. His destroyed body is blown back into its proper form by a “sinister whirling wind” after each punishment has been metered. The official explains after three years of continuous torture, Qin will be reborn on earth as all manner of animals, including pigs, to be slaughtered and eaten until the end of time. The two then view the tortures of other wicked people before returning to Yama’s palace. After having tea with the souls of righteous men waiting on their rebirths, Yama sends Humu back to the world of the living satisfied that the heavenly hierarchy is doing its job. Humu becomes an official in hell upon his death years later.[26]

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 3 – The headless ghost of Yue Fei (middle) confronting the recently
deceased spirit of Qin Hui (right) in hell. 
The plaque held by the atten-
dant on the left reads: “Qin Hui’s ten wicked crimes.” From a 19th-cen-
tury Chinese Hell Scroll (larger version).

A modified version of the former tale appears in Yue Fei’s later folklore biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). This story is about a rich, drunken Song Dynasty scholar named Hu Di (胡迪) who writes a blasphemous poem and is himself dragged to hell for his remarks about King Yama. He is taken on a tour and attends the punishment of the recently deceased Qin Hui, which includes the same tortures and endless karmic rebirths as animals. Qin’s damaged body is, again, put back into its proper form by a magical wind. Hu returns to Yama’s palace convinced that he was too quick to judge the ways of heaven and hell. Yama allows Hu to write out formal charges against Qin and his family. Meanwhile, in a manner similar to the Supplement, the soul of Yue Fei is brought to hell. He learns the reason he suffered an untimely death is because he went against the ways of heaven in his former life.[27] Qin Hui is then brought before Yue to be summarily beaten with iron rods for the charges brought against him. After seeing the general off from Hell, King Yama orders a demon to quickly return Hu’s soul to the world of the living in order to avoid his earthly body from decomposing. He lives a life of charity and dies in his nineties.[28]

The story of Qin’s torture in hell is so well known that Beijing’s Daoist Eastern Peak Temple (Dongyue miao, 東嶽廟), which is famous for its statuary representations of the celestial hierarchy, has a small hall dedicated to Yue Fei in which a likeness of the former Prime Minister is being led off to the underworld by a demon.[29] It is also important to note that the ghost of Yue confronting the recently deceased spirit of Qin (fig. 3) is a prominent fixture in religious Chinese Hell Scrolls.[30]


[1] Madeline Chu, “Journey Into Desire: Monkey’s Secular Experience in the Xiyoubu,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 117, no. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1997): 654-64, 654.
[2] Dong, Yue, Shuen-fu Lin, Larry James Schulz, and Cheng’en Wu. The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000.
[3] Chu, 9.
[4] He kills the thieves in chapter 14 of the original novel. The appearance of their ghosts in the Supplement is most likely meant to represent lingering feelings of desire that Monkey has. The “Six Thieves” are a concept that comes from the Heart Sutra of the Buddhist Cannon. See C.T. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel; a Critical Introduction. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 129.
[5] He claims this completes his lessons on the three religions since: 1) the immortal Subhodhi taught him Daoist magic; 2) the Tang Priest taught him Buddhist restraint; and 3) Yue Fei taught him Confucian ideals (Dong, 80).
[6] King Paramita explains his mother Lady Iron Fan became pregnant when Sun went inside her stomach (see note #7 below).
[7] Chapter 61 of the original novel describes how Monkey secretly enters Lady Iron Fan’s stomach in the form of an insect. He then causes her so much pain with his cudgel that she gives him the magic fan they need to quell the heavenly fire of the Flaming Mountain blocking their path to India.
[8] Dong, 134.
[9] This takes place just before the Tang Priest accepts the invitation to become a general for the Great Tang (Ibid, 96).
[10] Ibid, 133-135.
[11] The only difference between the two Qings is the type of Chinese radical located on the left of each character. The Qing of desire (情) has the radical for heart (心, xin), while the character for the Imperial Qing (清) has the radical for water (水, shui). Both characters contain the core character green (青, qing).
[12] Dong, 11.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Chu, 654, n. 1.
[15] The three characters are heart (心, xin), birth (生, sheng), and moon (月, yue) (Chu, 9).
[16] Dong, 9.
[17] Chu, 654, n. 1.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Patrick Hanan, The Chinese Vernacular Story (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U.P., 1981), 8.
[20] Hsia, 35-36 and 332 n. 3.
[21] Menlong Feng, Shuhai Yang, and Yunqin Yang, Stories of Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), xx and xxi.
[22] Feng, 537-556.
[23] Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang, History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novels (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 10 and 176.
[24] Yenna Wu, The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme (Cambridge (Mass.) u.a: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 242 n. 33.
[25] This particular tale claims Yue Fei to be a reincarnation of the famous Han General Zhang Fei (Feng, 565). Yue Fei’s popular folklore biography The Story of Yue Fei (1684), on the other hand, states Yue to be the celestial bird Garuda reborn on earth (Hsia, 154).
[26] Feng, 557-571.
[27] This differs from Yama’s opinion given in Feng’s work. He claims Yue Fei died unjustly for no certain reason (Ibid, 565).
[28] Cai Qian, General Yue Fei, Trans. Honorable Sir T.L. Yang (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd., 1995), 859-869.
[29] L. C. Arlington, and William Lewisohn, In Search of Old Peking (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1967), 257-258.
[30] K.E. Brashier, “Narratives informing Chinese notions of hell,” The gates to Taizong’s Hell, (accessed November 7, 2010).


Arlington, L. C., and William Lewisohn. In Search of Old Peking. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1967.

Brashier, K.E. “Narratives informing Chinese notions of hell.” The gates to Taizong’s Hell. (accessed November 7, 2010).

Chang, Shelley Hsueh-lun. History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novels. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Chu, Madeline. “Journey Into Desire: Monkey’s Secular Experience in the Xiyoubu.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 117, no. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1997): 654-64.

Dong, Yue, Shuen-fu Lin, Larry James Schulz, and Cheng’en Wu. The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000.

Feng, Menlong, Shuhai Yang, and Yunqin Yang. Stories of Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Hanan, Patrick. The Chinese Vernacular Story. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U.P., 1981.

Hsia, C.T. The Classic Chinese Novel: a Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Qian, Cai. General Yue Fei. Trans. Honorable Sir T.L. Yang. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd., 1995.

Wu, Yenna. The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme. Cambridge (Mass.) u.a: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.