Yuebei xing, Daughter of the Monkey King

Last updated: 01-18-2023

Ever since I published my article “The Monkey King’s Children” (2021), I’ve noticed that people have fallen in love with Sun Wukong’s monstrous, magic skull-wielding daughter Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). For instance, search Tumblr and you will find plenty of art and short stories featuring her. The character does not appear in the original Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) novel, so I’m honestly surprised that she has captured the imagination of so many.

Here, I would like to collect all that I’ve written about her, along with new information, into a single article. This piece discusses her brief character arc, her astrological origins, her appearance in other literature, and her religious iconography.

I. Character arc

In chapter 17 of Journey to the South, Sun Wukong is framed for once again stealing immortal peaches. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give him a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit. Monkey returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, and it is here, among his people, that the story briefly mentions three children, including sons Jidu (奇都, “Ketu”) and Luohou (羅猴, “Rahu”) and daughter Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”).

Sun eventually seeks out Guanyin, who reveals that the troublemaker is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光). Returning home once more, Monkey’s news prompts his daughter to volunteer to battle the impostor. But her tribe simply pokes fun at her monstrous appearance. Yuebei Xing is said to have a crooked head with huge eyes and a broad mouth, coarse hands, a wide waist, and long legs with thunderous steps.

Sun travels with his daughter to Huaguang’s home of Mt. Lilou (Lilou shan, 離婁山) to provoke battle by chastising him for stealing the immortal peaches. Monkey strikes at him with his magic staff, causing Huaguang to deploy his heavenly treasure, a golden, triangular brick (sanjiao jinzhuan, 三角金磚). But Sun responds by creating untold monkey clones that not only confiscate the weapon but also overwhelm the immortal. Huaguang is seemingly defeated at this point; however, he manages to deploy one last treasure, the Fire Elixir (Huodan, 火丹). This weapon engulfs the Great Sage in heavenly flame (akin to the Red Boy episode), causing him to flee to the Eastern Sea. Yuebei xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull (kulou tou, 骷髏頭). The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.

Huanguang’s religious teacher, the Flame King Buddha of Light (Huoyan wang guangfo, 火炎王光佛), then intervenes in order to sooth the situation between his disciple and the Great Sage. He promises to bring the rogue immortal to justice on the condition that Yuebei Xing withdraws her deadly magic. In the end, all parties are pardoned by the Jade Emperor, and Huaguang and Monkey become bond brothers (Yu, n.d.).

II. Astrological origins

The Monkey King’s daughter is based on Yuebei xing, a shadowy planetary deity representing the lunar apogee, or the furthest point in the moon’s orbit. They are counted among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) of East Asian astrology (fig. 1). These include the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”) of Hindu astrology, namely the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and Rahu and Ketu (Gansten, 2009), as well as Yuebei and another shadowy planet called Ziqi (紫氣/紫炁; “Purple Mist”) (Kotyk, 2017, p. 60). The latter two are mentioned in Daoist writings as early as the late-9th-century (Kotyk, 2017, pp. 61-62).

Fig. 1 – A Chinese depiction of the Eleven Luminaries from the Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶, c. 13th-century) (larger version). Yuebei xing is located first from the left on the top row. Image found here.

The late-Yuan to early-Ming scripture Secret Practice of the Primordial Lord Yuebei (Yuanhuang Yuebei mifa, 元皇月孛祕法; Secret Practice hereafter) describes them having two forms, one human and the other monstrous:

姓朱, 諱光, 天人相, 披髮裸體, 黑雲掩臍, 紅履鞋, 左手提旱魃頭, 右手杖劍, 騎玉龍, 變相青面獠牙, 緋衣, 杖劍, 駕熊。

Surnamed Zhu [Vermillion] with the honorific title of Guang [Luminous]. In the form of a celestial human, their hair is let down over their naked body. Their mass of black hair covers the navel. Red sandals. Their left hand holds the head of a drought demon. Their right hand holds a blade. They ride a jade dragon. In their modified form, [they display] a blue face with long fangs, a crimson garment and blade, while driving a bear (Kotyk, 2017, p. 62).

Both versions are known from late-Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) art. The first figure takes the form of a lightly clad or even topless woman with long, sometimes unkempt hair and red garments. One painting shows her with a bloody head in her right hand and a sword hanging from her hip (fig. 2). (Though, I should point out that she isn’t always depicted with the head in Xixia or Chinese art (fig. 3 & 4).) The second figure is much rarer and takes the form of a yaksha-like guardian with green skin, a fiery red beard and hair, and red garments. He wields a flaming sword in his right hand and a bloody head in the other (fig. 5). Thank you to Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk for bringing these to my attention.

Fig. 2 – Yuebei as a woman (larger version). Take note of the severed head in her right hand and the sword at her waist. Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 3 – A topless Yuebei wielding only a sword (larger version). Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 4 – Detail of Yuebei from the Chinese Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (c. 13th-century) (larger version). She too is holding only a sword. Take note of her lunar halo. Fig. 5 – Yuebei as a man (larger version). He clutches a small head in his left hand. Detail from a 13th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum.

What’s interesting about the yaksha-male Yuebei is that his iconography is strikingly similar to Arabo-Persian depictions of al-Mirrīkh (Mars), who is also known for wielding a sword and head. Dr. Kotyk has directed me to several examples (fig. 6-8). Carboni (Carboni & MET, 1997) suggests that the war god’s imagery is connected to another deity:

The bold iconography of the severed head underscores the warlike character of the planet but it probably is also related to the astronomical image of the constellation of Perseus, called in Arabic ḥāmil ra’s al-ghūl (“the Bearer of the Demon’s Head”), which represents a transformation of the Greek iconography of the severed head of Medusa [fig. 9] (p. 17).

The literary Yuebei’s use of a deadly skull is fitting considering its possible link to the beheaded Gorgon. [1] Remember that the Secret Practice describes Yuebei’s symbol as that of a “drought demon’s head” (batou, 魃頭), and Arabic sources call Perseus’ symbol the “demon’s head” (ra’s al-ghūl). This shows that both cultures considered the head some kind of supernatural monster.

Fig. 6 – Detail of al-Mirrīkh (Mars) on a late-12th to early-13th century bowl from Central or Northern Iran (larger version). From the Met Museum website. Fig. 7 – Detail from The Wonders of Creation (‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat, 13th-century) (larger version). Found on the Library of Congress website. Fig. 8 – Detail from the Degrees of Truths (Daqa’iq al-haqa’iq, 1272) (larger version). Found on the Bibliothèque nationale de France website. Fig. 9 – The Perseus constellation from the early-11th-century Book of Pictures of the (fixed) Stars (Kitāb Ṣuwar al-kawākib (al-thābitah) (larger version). Found on the Bodleian Library website.

Dr. Kotyk tells me that East Asian depictions of Mars do not show him holding a head. But given the similar iconography of the Arabo-Persian deity and the yaksha-male Yuebei xing, there could be a South Asian intermediary. Bhattacharyya (1958) describes the Indian Buddhist iconography of Maṅgala (Mars) in similar terms: “[He] rides on a Goat. He is red in colour. In the right hand he holds the Kaṭṭāra (cutter) and in the left a severed human head in the act of devouring” (p. 368). But I don’t know how established this description is considering that a cursory search doesn’t turn up any ancient depictions of the Hindo-Buddhist deity holding a head (I’ll update the article if new evidence arises). Another possibility is that the similarities are evidence of cultural exchange between Muslim and Xixia (Tangut) astrologers. Either way, I should point out that the paintings of the yaksha-male Yuebei xing and al-Mirrīkh come from the same time period, the 13th-century. 

Recall that Xixia dynasty art (refer back to fig. 2) and the Secret Practice associate the human-female Yuebei xing with the head and sword, showing that it’s not the purview of the yaksha-male figure. It’s interesting to note that both the female figure and Mars are associated with the color red. Kotyk (2017) explains that there is a likely connection between Yuebei xing and the Irano-Semitic ĀlLīlīṯ (a.k.a. Lilith), who is also described as a demoness with a red, naked body and long, unkempt hair (pp. 63-64).

While I’m unsure if there is a connection, Yuebei’s imagery brings to mind the Hindo-Buddhist goddess ChinnamastāChinnamunda (Vajrayoginī). She is commonly shown as a naked, red-bodied figure holding a bloody head in one hand and a sword in the other (Kinsley, 1997, p. 144). In this case, the severed head is her own. Her sister attendants are also sometimes shown holding a head and sword (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 – A 19th-century lithograph of Chinnamastā (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Beyond art, I learned that the respective astrological paths of Yuebei xing and Mars can cross in East Asian astrology. According to Wan Minying (萬民英), author of the Great Compendium of Astral Studies (Xingxue dacheng, 星學大成, 1563): “If Yuebei and Mars are conjunct in the same sign, [the native’s] heart will enjoy virtue, but they will be unable to actually act. They will also have many noxious sores, and pus and blood 孛火同宮心好善而實不能行亦多癰疽膿血.” [2] 

III. Appearance in other literature

Apart from Journey to the South, Yuebei briefly appears in an earlier Ming-era fiction titled Drama of Yang Jiajiang (Yang Jiajiang yanyi, 楊家將演義, 16th-century). Kotyk (2017) explains that she is depicted as a red-skinned figure “holding in her hand a skeleton (手執骷髏骨)” (p. 63). I should note that the kulou (骷髏) in kulou gu (骷髏骨) can also mean “skull”, which aligns with her iconography. 

Recall that the Irano-Semitic demoness Lilith and the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda are described or depicted as having red skin. This might explain Yuebei xing’s vermillion body in the novel.

IV. Religious iconography

I know nothing of the actual worship of Yuebei xing, but Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project was kind enough to show me a pattern sheet of her from an idol-maker’s shop in 1970s Singapore (fig. 11). She wears flowing robes just like her ancient Chinese depictions (refer back to fig. 4), but the signature sword and head are not included. They are instead replaced by a fly-whisk and a placard marked “moon” (yue, 月), which compliments the lunar halo behind her head. Additionally, she is labeled Zhuli fu niang Yuebei tianjun (朱李孚娘 月孛天君). This is similar to the way it’s listed among the 36 celestial generals of the Journey to the North (Beiyou ji, 北遊記, 1602), Zhubei wei Yuebei tianjun (朱孛娘為月孛天君). I also found a more recent religious drawing that appears to mix the feminine and masculine iconography to depict her as an armored general named Taiyi Yuebei xingjun (太一月孛星君) (fig. 12). Both the head and sword are present.

Fig. 11 – The vintage Yuebei pattern sheet from a Singaporean idol shop (larger version). Original photograph by Keith Stevens. Fig. 12 – The Yuebei general image (larger version). It was posted by an Indonesian Daoist priest of the Quanzhen school on Facebook.

IV. Conclusion

Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) briefly appears in chapter 17 of Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century) as the Monkey King’s monstrous daughter who uses a magic skull weapon to curse a rogue immortal. The demoness is based on a shadowy planetary deity from East Asian astrology that represents the lunar apogee. Xixia dynasty art and the Yuan-Ming Secret Practice scripture depict this deity having two forms, a lightly clad or even topless human-female with red clothing and long, disheveled hair, or a green-skinned, red-bearded yaksha-male. Both of these forms are sometimes depicted wielding a sword and a disembodied head.

The yaksha-male Yuebei xing surprisingly shares iconography with Arabo-Persian depictions of al-Mirrīkh (Mars), who is also represented as a bearded figure wielding a sword and head. Carboni (Carboni & MET, 1997) suggests that the Middle Eastern iconography is related to the constellation of Perseus (a.k.a. “Bearer of the Demon’s Head”) in which he holds the head of Medusa. This is interesting as the head held by the human-female figure is called a “drought demon” in the Secret Practice. This suggests a possible connection between the literary Yuebei xing’s skull and the deadly Gorgon.

Kotyk (2017) notes a possible connection between the human-female Yuebei xing and the Irano-Semitic Lilith. The latter too is described as having a red, naked body and unkempt hair. This same iconography is shared by the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda, who is also depicted bearing a sword and (her own) head. This may then explain why Yuebei xing is described as having red skin in the Drama of Yang Jiajiang (16th-century), which predates Journey to the South.

Yuebei xing is worshiped in modern Chinese folk religion. Religious art depicts them as either a robed figure or an armored general. In both cases, the deity is a woman, but only the martial aspect is shown with the head and sword.


Update: 01-11-2023

Bunce (1994) describes Maṅgala (Mars) just like Bhattacharyya (1958) (refer back to the material below figure 9):

Face: one, angry; arms/hands: two, right hand holds ritual chopper (karttrika, grig-gug), left hand holds severed human head (emphasis added); legs: two; color: red; vahana: goat (p. 328).

But I still haven’t been able to find any ancient drawings of the planetary deity like this.

The iconography of the Hindu goddess Kālī also includes a sword and severed head (fig. 13). I didn’t mention her in the original article because she is traditionally depicted with dark skin, but she likely influenced the red-skinned Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda. It’s important to note that her mythos also associates the head with demons (asuras). For example, the Devī-Māhātmyam (c. 400-600 CE) reads:

Mounting her great lion, the Goddess ran at Caṇḍa, / And having seized him by the hair, she cut off his head with her sword. / On seeing Caṇḍa slain, Muṇḍa rushed at her. / She caused him to fall to the ground, wrathfully smitten with her sword. / On seeing Caṇḍa slain, and also the valorous Muṇḍa, / What was left of the assaulted army was overcome with fear and fled in all directions. / Picking up the heads of Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, Kali / Approached [Durgā] and spoke words mixed with loud and cruel laughter: / “Here, as a present from me to you, are Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, two beasts / slain in the sacrifice of battle…” (Coburn, 1991, p. 62).

This adds to our list of sword-wielding, demon head-holding deities: 1) Perseus-Medusa; 2) Yuebei xing-Drought Demon; and 3) Kali-Asura.

Fig. 13 – An early-20th-century painting of Kali by Raja Ravi Varma (larger version). Image found here.


Update: 01-16-23

I thought of a way for artists and fan fiction writers to mix Yuebei xing’s skull with Medusa’s head. But first recall that section 1 reads:

Yuebei xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull. The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.

Perhaps the skull’s gaze can turn any living thing into stone, but this lithic death happens over the aforementioned three days. After the target’s name is called, the skull’s glowing eyes open wider and wider upon the dawn of each successive day, causing compounding confusion and pain. The final dawn sees the eyes open wide (fig. 14), making the unfortunate soul (no matter their location) turn to stone.

Fig. 14 – The skull would look something like this on the third and final dawn (minus the bullet hole) (larger version). Image found here.


Update: 01-17-23

“Who is the mother of Sun Wukong’s children in Journey to the South?” This is a question I’ve been asked a few times on Tumblr. The novel never answers this, but one can make an educated guess for the purposes of fan fiction.

Each child is based on one of three lunar deities appearing among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) (mentioned above). The specific gods are:

  1. Jidu (奇都, “Ketu”) = Represents the southern (descending) lunar node, or the point where the moon crosses the earth’s orbit around the sun. Associated with eclipses.
  2. Luohou (羅睺, “Rahu”) = Represents the northern (ascending) lunar node. Also associated with eclipses.
  3. Yuebei Xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) = Represents the lunar apogee, or the furthest point in the moon’s orbit.

Given their close connection to the night time celestial body, it would make sense for the mother to be Taiyin xing (太陰星, “Star of Supreme Yin”), goddess of the moon from the Eleven Luminaries.

Taiyin xing is commonly equated with Chang’e, goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology. The latter briefly appears in Journey to the West as a victim of Zhu Bajie. The former celestial general was exiled from heaven for drunkenly forcing himself on her (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 379).

The goddess’ past connection to Zhu wasn’t lost on me, but I like the way @sketching-shark articulates the potential for comedy (lightly edited):

There’s something hilarious about the idea that Zhu considers his yaoguai-ness a punishment. He was kicked out of heaven for harassing a moon goddess, and then Sun ‘always was & always will be a proud yaoguai.’ Wukong ends up forming a romance with a moon goddess that at least lasted long enough for them to have 3 kids together. Just imagine Sun Wukong: ‘Haha yeah idk she’s a cool lady & we just clicked. I guess Zhu Bajie with teeth clenched & trying hard not to cry: ‘Huh…imagine…that…’ […] Cue Zhu Bajie eating his heart out (see the tags here).

Fig. 15 – A detail of Taiyin xing from the Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶, c. 13th-century) (larger version). See figure 1 for the complete image. She is the fourth person from the left on the top row.

Update: 01-18-23

I’ve decided to make this the only article on my blog where Yuebei xing information can be found. Therefore, I have removed all of it from “The Monkey King’s Children“. This means I have to also transfer some previous updates.

Posted: 02-13-22

I’ve recently started watching the Lego Monkie Kid series, which follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s human disciple, MK, in a very toyetic, Lego-inspired world. This is why @TustiLoliPop‘s lovely drawing of Yuebei xing (fig. 16) really stood out to me. They were kind enough to give me permission to post it here. It’s based on the Xixia dynasty painting from figure 2.

Fig. 16 – The Lego Monkie Kid-style Yuebei xing by @TustiLoliPop (larger version). Used with permission.

Posted: 07-13-22

Tumblr user @sketching-shark has drawn some great pictures of Monkey and his children. Here is one of them (fig. 17). I love the alternating black and white color scheme of Rahu and Ketu, as well as Yuebei xing’s size.

Fig. 17 – Monkey’s family by @sketching-shark (larger version). Used with permission.

Note:

1) I’ve already suggested that an acquaintance draw Yuebei wielding Medusa’s head in place of her signature skull. The real question is: Could Medusa’s glare actually kill an immortal? This insightful reddit post provides evidence from the Dionysiaca showing that even the god Dionysus considered it deadly enough to bring a magic diamond to protect himself from the Gorgon’s death stare. 

2) Translation by Dr. Kotyk.

Sources:

Bhattacharyya, B. (1958). The Indian Buddhist Iconography: Mainly Based on the Sādhanamālā and Cognate Tāntric Texts of Rituals (2nd ed.). Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.

Bunce, F. W. (1994). An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons: With Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes (Vols.1-2). New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Carboni S. & Metropolitan Museum of Art. (1997). Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Coburn, T. B. (1991). Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and a Study of its Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kinsley, D. R. (1997). Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kotyk, J. (2017). Astrological Iconography of Planetary Deities in Tang China. Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 30, 33-88, Retrieved from http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-BJ001/bj001575268.pdf

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=506975&remap=gb#%E5%8D%8E%E5%85%89%E4%B8%89%E4%B8%8B%E9%85%86%E9%83%BD

 

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

I’ve previously written an article describing The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century), a seventeen chapter novelette that likely served as a prompt for oral storytellers. It is the oldest printed version of the Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) story cycle. Here, I would like to present an English translation of this tale by Charles S. Wivell (1994).

Archive link:

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

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

Disclaimer:

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

Citation:

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

無上雄文貝葉鮮,幾生三藏往西天。行行字字為珍寶,句句言言是福田。苦海波中猴行復;沈毛江上馬馳前。長沙過了金沙難;望岸還知到岸緣。夜叉歡喜隨心答;菩薩精虔合掌傳。半千六十餘函在,功德難量熟處圓。

The tribute references elements that would later appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his (missing) hands are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A closer detail showing people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

5. Conclusion

[UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

Notes:

1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).

Sources:

Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.

Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-28-2022

I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.

Current count: 108

  1. He was likely influenced by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Ch: Ha nu man, 哈奴曼) in different waves, one possibly from the north (via Tibet) and another from the south (via Southeast Asia). But the parallels are most apparent from the standard 1592 edition of JTTW, suggesting that the author-compiler had access to some form of the Indian epic Rāmāyana (7th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). The novel even includes material from the epic Mahābhārata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE).
  2. In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
  3. He has the second longest association with the JTTW story cycle, appearing as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) circa 1000 (or before). Sha Wujing’s earliest antecedent appeared during the 8th-century, while Zhu Bajie didn’t appear until the 14th-century.
  4. The oldest published mention of the Monkey Pilgrim is a eulogy appearing in a tale from Zhang Shinan’s (張世南) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). One scholar dates the story to around 1127.
  5. The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
  6. A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.

  7. This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.

  8. He is called the “Monkey King” (Houwang, 猴王) as far back as the 13th-century version. This position is likely based on a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys.
  9. The immortal is bestowed the title “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) at the end of the story by Tang Taizong.
  10. This immortal was heavily influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana).
  11. He was popular even in Korea and appeared in a set of carvings from a 14th-century stone pagoda.
  12. The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
  13. The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).

  14. The surname “Sun” (孫) means “grandson” but is an open reference to husun (猢猻, lit: “grandson of the barbarian”), the Chinese word for “macaque“. It was also a popular surname for supernatural primates in stories associated with the Lingyin Temple (靈隱寺), which also likely influenced the Monkey King.

  15. The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.

  16. So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).

  17. The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).

  18. Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).

  19. His story in the 1592 version takes place not in our world but in one modeled after ancient Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which features four island-like continents floating in a great ocean around the four respective faces of a cosmic mountain. And yet the novel was published during a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe, precisely 49 years after Copernicus suggested that the Earth orbits the sun.
  20. His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
  21. He has had past lives (see the 11-24-20 update here).
  22. He’s not the only figure from world myth born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.

  23. While his stone birth (ch. 1) is likely based on that of Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a legendary King of the Xia dynasty (more on this below), it may ultimately be linked to Tibetan stories of stone-born monkey deities.
  24. He was likely born during the late-Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046-256 BCE).
  25. He serves as a physical manifestation of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist philosophy denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep Man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra (see the material below figure three here). This phrase is also surprisingly associated with sexual desire.
  26. Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
  27. The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branch shen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
  28. The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).

  29. His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’s Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
  30. Despite modern media portraying him as an adult-sized humanoid character that is sometimes handsome and/or very muscular, the 1592 version describes him as an ugly, bald, and skinny Rhesus macaque that is less than four feet tall. This means that one of the most powerful warriors in the Buddho-Daoist cosmos is the size of a child.
  31. While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
  32. The breathing and energy circulation methods that Monkey uses to achieve immortality (ch. 2) are based on real Daoist elixir practices.
  33. The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
  34. This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
  35. He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
  36. But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
  37. While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
  38. He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
  39. His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
  40. Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
  41. The novel only mentions him learning martial arts in passing (ch. 67 – see section 4.5 here), but one episode (ch. 51) features a battle between Monkey and a demon king in which they use a host of real world fighting techniques that are still known and practiced today.
  42. His favorite style of boxing is “Short Fist” (duanquan, 短拳) (see the 05-02-18 update here).
  43. His skill with the staff is so great that the novel compares it to techniques from two manuals listed among the Seven Military Classics of China (see the 08-07-18 update here).
  44. The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
  45. When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
  46. The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
  47. The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
  48. It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).

  49. The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬五百斤.

  50. He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
  51. His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!

  52. His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
  53. His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
  54. The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
  55. His conflict with Erlang (ch. 6) can be traced to ancient Han-era funerary rituals, and their battle of magic transformations shares parallels with ancient Greek tales and can ultimately be traced to even older stories from the Near East.
  56. His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
  57. He is shown to be weak against spiritual fire and smoke (see the 06-28-22 update here).
  58. Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
  59. The message that he leaves on the Buddha’s finger (ch. 7) is a popular form of graffiti in East Asia.
  60. His time under Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山) (ch. 7) is based on stories of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi (無支奇/巫支祇) being imprisoned under a mountain by Yu the Great.
  61. He was pressed under the mountain during the late-Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE – see section II here).
  62. A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
  63. This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
  64. One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
  65. Monkey’s mountain imprisonment was only part of his punishment. The other half was a hellish diet of hot iron pellets and molten copper, punishments straight from Buddhist canon.
  66. His golden headband (ch. 13) has three influences: 1) a historical ritual circlet worn as a physical reminder of right speech and action by Esoteric Buddhist yogins in ancient India; 2) adornments, likely based on stylized lingzhi mushrooms, worn by Daoist protector deities; and 3) an Iranic triple-crescent crown.
  67. The oldest depiction of Monkey with his headband that I know of appears in a late-Xixia (late-12th to early-13th-century) Buddhist cave grotto in Northwestern China.
  68. The earliest depiction of his double “curlicue-style” headband that I’m aware of is a 13th-century stone carving in Fujian.
  69. The secret spell that tightens his headband is likely the Akshobhya Buddha mantra.
  70. Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.

  71. Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
  72. Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
  73. The baby-shaped fruit that he eats (ch. 24) comes from a tree based on Indo-Persian lore.
  74. He claims to have eaten people when he was a monster in his youth (ch. 27) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).
  75. His greatest feat of strength is carrying two mountains while running at meteoric speeds (ch. 33). One is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, while the other is the place from which (according to legend) Buddhism spread upon entering China. This episode is based on an older tale in which Erlang does the lifting.
  76. His doppelganger, the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 56-58), is actually an aspect of his troubled mind. Once he kills him, Monkey takes one step closer to Buddhahood.
  77. He fights and is defeated by an ancient bird demon who is a spiritual uncle of the Buddha (ch. 77). This monster is based on the Hindu bird god Garuda.
  78. He and his religious brothers take human disciples in India (ch. 88), and Monkey later performs an arcane ritual in which he grants them superhuman strength (and possibly some form of immortality).
  79. His title, “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Douzhan sheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) (ch. 100), is based on a real world deity numbering among the “Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas“.
  80. The novel ranks him higher than Guanyin after his ascension (see the third quote here).
  81. As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
  82. Despite his association with the Victorious Fighting Buddha, he is primarily worshiped as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in East and Southeast Asian Chinese folk religion.
  83. Fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan yundong, 義和團運動, 1899-1901) believed that they could channel the Monkey King to gain his great combat skills.
  84. Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
  85. Chinese folk religion recognizes more than one Great Sage, usually between three and five individuals.
  86. Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
  87. He was even worshiped in 19th-century America!
  88. The iconic pose where he shades his eyes to search the horizon is likely based on a common motif associated with Chinese sea gods.
  89. He has a number of religious birthdays, one of which is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month (the day after the Mid Autumn Festival).
  90. There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishing kyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwar kyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
  91. His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
  92. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was a fan of the Monkey King, even associating himself with the character in his poetry. Also, a CCP propaganda play of the 1960s associates the scripture pilgrims with members of the Communist Party, with Monkey referencing Mao.
  93. He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
  94. He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).

  95. He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).

  96. He time travels to different points in Chinese history in an unofficial 17th-century sequel to JTTW.
  97. He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.

  98. He influenced the manga/anime hero Son Goku (a Japanese transliteration of 孫悟空) from the Dragon Ball Franchise.
  99. He almost appeared in an Indiana Jones movie!
  100. He has appeared in both Marvel and DC comic book series.
  101. The world’s tallest statue of Monkey is 40 ft (12.192 m) tall and resides at the Broga Sak Dato Temple (武來岸玉封石哪督廟) in Malaysia.
  102. He is the mascot of several entities in Taiwan, including the HCT delivery company, the Hang Yuan FC football team, and the Taipei Water Department.
  103. He has appeared in nearly 65 video games.
  104. He is the namesake for a Chinese satellite designed to search for dark matter.
  105. He is the namesake of a fossa on Pluto. This plays on his association with the underworld.
  106. He is the namesake of the Wukongopterus (Wukong yilong shu, 悟空翼龍屬), a genus of Chinese pterosaur.

  107. He is the namesake of Syntelia sunwukong, a Synteliid beetle from mid-Cretaceous Burma.
  108. A Covid-19 lab in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China adopted the name “Fire Eyes” (Huoyan, 火眼) in honor of Monkey’s ability to discern evil spirits.

Sources:

Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.

Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming in Early Medieval China. In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150), University of Hawaii Press.

Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.

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

Archive #34 – Understanding Reality: A Taoist Alchemical Classic

Last updated: 03-17-2022

The Wuzhi pian (悟真篇, “Writings on Understanding / Becoming Aware of Reality”, 1075) is a Song-era work of Buddho-Daoist philosophy by the Southern Quanzhen School Patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid to late-980s-1082) (fig. 1). Shao (1997) expertly shows that Zhang’s writing had a huge impact on the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) (see especially ch. 4). For example, the reason that the first half of Sun Wukong‘s story (ch. 1 to 7) is Taoist heavy (i.e. his quest for immortality and later ascension to heavenly rank) is because this follows the first part of Zhang’s philosophy, which is attaining the golden elixir (jindan, 金丹). And the reason the second half (ch. 14 to 100) is Buddhist heavy (i.e. building merit by protecting Tripitaka on the pilgrimage west and the rise to Buddhahood) is because the second part of Zhang’s philosophy involves attaining the Buddha-Mind. Combined, these achievements make someone a true transcendent, one free from the wheel of rebirth.

A line from the Wuzhi pian is a prime example of Zhang’s stance on those who strive only to attain the elixir: “A halo behind the head is still a phantom; / Even when clouds rise beneath your feet you are still not an immortal” (Zhang, Liu, & Cleary, 1987, p. 161). This explains why Monkey is banished from heaven and imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. He has yet to attain the Buddha-Mind.

An even better example of this two-stage process among Zhang’s other works reads:

The elixir is the most precious treasure for the physical body.
When cultivated to perfection, the transformations are endless.
If one further explores the true meaning of the buddha-nature,
One is bound to attain the ineffable bliss of the birthless (Xue, 1977, as cited in Shao, 1997, pp. 99-100).

I’m archiving an English translation of the Wuzhi pian by Thomas Clearly, with explanations by the Qing-era Daoist scholar Liu Yiming (1734-1821).

Fig. 1 – A print of Zhang Boduan (a.k.a. Zhang Ziyang, 張紫陽) from the Ming-era Traces of Immortals and Buddhas (Xianfo jizong, 仙佛奇蹤) (larger version).

Archive link:

Click to access Chang-Po-Tuan_-Thomas-Cleary_-Liu-Yiming-Understanding-Reality-University-of-Hawaii-Press-1987.pdf

Disclaimer:

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


Update: 03-17-2022

Jeff Pepper, writer and publisher of Imagin8 Press, left an informative comment reminding me that Zhang actually appears in a later chapter of JTTW.

It’s worth noting that Zhang Boduan (also referred to as Zhang Ziyang and Great Heaven’s Immortal Purple Cloud) appears in Chapter 71 of JTW. Sun Wukong has just returned Lady Golden Sage Palace to her husband, the king of Scarlet Purple Kingdom. The king tries to embrace her but is painfully pricked by the poison thorns on her cloak. Zhang appears in the clouds, comes to earth, points his finger at the Lady, and her poison cloak disappears. He explains that he was the one who put the cloak on her in the first place, to protect her from her captor, the evil demon Jupiter’s Rival.

Citation:

Zhang, B., Liu, Y., & Cleary, T. (1987). Understanding Reality: A Taoist Alchemical Classic. Honululu Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.