Is Sun Wukong FTM Trans?

Note #1: Unless cited here, all information is cited in the respective linked articles below.

Note #2: Please see the 05-19-23 update for an important message.

Last updated: 05-27-2023

Warning: This article contains adult language and content.

The notion that Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is transgender (fig. 1) became popular on English-speaking social media sometime around 2022. The central idea appears to be that the Monkey King, or I should say “Monkey Queen,” was originally born a cis-woman but magically changes to a trans-man sometime after learning the art of transformation. Whether this is true or not has two possible answers:

1) If you or a loved one are trans, identify with Monkey’s ability to transform his body, and choose to personally interpret the character or portions of his story as an allegory for transness, then yes Sun Wukong is trans. 

2) Historically and canonically speaking? No.

In this article, I will present common arguments (A) in favor of a trans Monkey King that I’ve seen on social media. I will also introduce counterarguments (CA) supported by historical oral, published, and pictorial evidence that calls any claims of canonical proof into question. If I don’t have a particular counterargument in mind, I will simply post a comment (C).

Before continuing, I want to expressly state that this piece was written for two kinds of people: 1) Those who might openly claim that Sun Wukong is canonically trans; and 2) Those who don’t know enough about the character’s history or JTTW in general and might be swayed by seemingly knowledgeable online comments. It does not pertain to those who already personally interpret Monkey as trans and/or don’t care about canon because they were first exposed to him via movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, etc.

General readers will certainly find this article interesting as it features a lot of lesser-known historical information about the simian immortal.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Sun Wukong standing in front of the trans flag (larger version). The base drawing is by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). It was originally posted on this article.

1. An Important Statement

If someone claims that the Monkey King appearing in the 1592 edition of JTTW is canonically FTM trans, or they state the novel hints that he is without openly admitting that this is their own personal interpretation, that person, whether they realize it or not, is not telling you the whole truth. I don’t think they are doing this maliciously, though. It’s perfectly natural for people to want to see some of themselves in their favorite heroes. After all, who wouldn’t want to be an immortal rage wizard who can fly around the cosmos, transform into anything, lift mountains, and beat up gods and devils. I can see how it might be attractive to a trans youth to have the power to push back against authorities that wrongly vilify and strip them of their human rights. So, in that sense, I think I understand why the idea of a trans Sun Wukong is so popular. But having said that, I should highlight that anyone who goes beyond an allegorical reading of the novel by touting the reality of Monkey’s transness is either unaware of the character’s historical development or is willfully ignoring it.

2. Arguments and Counterarguments

2.1. Gender Neutral Terms 

A: ta (他; commonly “him”) and wang (王, commonly “king”) [1] are “gender neutral terms” and therefore can be used to refer to Sun Wukong as a cis-woman.

C: These are indeed gender neutral terms in dynastic material. Here are two examples from the 1592 JTTW: 1) Wang (王) appears in the royal title of the “Queen Mother” (Wangmu niangniang, 王母娘娘), the high-ranking Daoist goddess who owns the immortal peach groves; and 2) Ta (他) is used to refer to the female Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音). Part of a descriptive poem in chapter eight reads: “She is the merciful lord of the Potalaka Mountain” (Ta shi Luojiashan shang Cibei zhu, 他是落伽山上慈悲主) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 206).

However, the gender neutral status of these terms do not by themselves constitute evidence that the Monkey King is a cis-woman.

2.2. Matriarchal Primate Society

A: Real world monkey troupes are matriarchal, so it would make more sense for Sun Wukong to be a cis-woman.

CA: Real world biological concepts don’t mesh well with religious mythology. For example, Monkey is born from stone, and he later attains his authority through a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall. So where does the primate matriarchy fit into this? Also, in chapter 11 of the 13th-century oral version of JTTW (see here and here), Sun’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), explains that, prior to becoming the primate monarch, he had been exiled to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in the distant past for stealing immortal peaches from the Queen Mother’s heavenly garden (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195). It’s important to note that the tale presents him as a supremely ancient immortal, one who has seen the Yellow River dry up nine times (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1182-1183). So, it’s not a stretch to suggest that his position as the Monkey King is related to his divinity. So I ask again: Where does the primate matriarchy fit into this?

Most importantly, mythic stories about male monkey monarchs do exist. Two such characters are Vali/Bali (Sk: वाली) and Sugrīva (Sk: सुग्रीव) from the Hindu epic Rāmāyaṇa (Sk: रामायणम्, c. 5th-century BCE). Another is the Mahākapi (Sk: महाकपि; lit: “Great Monkey,” c. 2nd-century BCE), an Indian Buddhist jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys. One 2,000-year-old carving even depicts him with testicles (fig. 2). These few examples alone challenge the idea that monkey troupes have to be matriarchal in a mythic setting.

In fact, I suggest in this article that the Mahākapi tale influenced the 13th-century oral JTTW in several ways: 1) The Great Monkey is described as the chief of his tribe, and one 3rd-century Chinese version of the story even refers to him as the “Monkey King” (Mihou wang, 獼猴王). This is a likely source for the Monkey Pilgrim’s position as the primate monarch; 2) The Great Monkey leads 80,000 monkeys. The 3rd-century Chinese version changes this number to 500 (wubai, 五百), while the later Monkey Pilgrim leads 84,000 (bawan siqian, 八萬四千). But all three numbers are used in Buddhism to refer to large numbers of things. In the case of the respective Indian and Chinese versions, the 80,000/500 monkeys are said to be the past lives of Buddhist monks. But most importantly, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) is considered shorthand for 84,000 (bawan siqian, 八萬四千), showing a possible connection between the numbers of monkeys in the Indian original and the 13th-century oral JTTW; 3) The Great Monkey and his tribe live in or around a mountainous, fruit-bearing tree. This could be one of several sources for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (see note #4 below for another); and 4) The 3rd-century Chinese version sees the Great Monkey steal from the imperial fruit garden of a human monarch. This could be one of several sources for the Monkey Pilgrim stealing immortal peaches from the Queen Mother’s heavenly garden.

See this article for the many parallels shared between the 1592 Sun Wukong and the historical Buddha.

Fig. 2 – The “Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). He is the uppermost yellow figure reaching for the green tree. Take note of his testicles. The colored and labeled elements are used in my article to describe this “continuous narrative” scene.

2.3. Feminine Title

A: Sun Wukong calls himself the “Handsome Monkey King” (Meihou wang, 美猴王), but the character for handsome, “mei (美),” traditionally means “beautiful.” So, it would make more sense for Monkey to call themself beautiful if they were a cis-woman.

CA: I think that there is a much better explanation. Recall that the 1592 JTTW depicts our hero as an ugly creature. For instance, part of a descriptive poem in chapter 44 reads:

A bumpy brow, and golden eyes flashing;
A round head and a hairy face jowl-less;
Gaping teeth, pointed mouth, a character most sly;
He looks more strange than thunder god
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 276).

磕額金睛晃亮,圓頭毛臉無腮。咨牙尖嘴性情乖。貌比雷公古怪。

In fact, Sun’s association with being ugly goes back centuries. For example, writing in the 1250s, the Song-era poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) used Monkey as a metaphor to describe his own failing appearance:

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

背傴水牛泅磵髪白氷蠶吐絲貌醜似猴行者詩痩於鶴何師

Therefore, the primate monarch definitely is not “handsome” or “beautiful.”

I suggest instead that Sun refers to himself as mei (美) because of his egotistical personality. He is after all an allegory for the Monkey Mind (see the material below figure three here). This same overinflated sense of self leads him to later challenge the primacy of the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝). Monkey’s self-conceit is best illustrated by the rebellious poem that he recites to the Buddha in chapter seven. The latter part reads:

[…]
In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,
For king may follow king in the reign of man.
If might is honor, let them yield to me.
He only is hero who dares to fight and win!”(Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 193).

[…]
靈霄寶殿非他久,歷代人王有分傳。
強者為尊該讓我,英雄只此敢爭先。

2.4. Etymology of Surname

A: In chapter one, the Patriarch Subodhi (Puti zushi, 菩提祖師) relies on Monkey’s appearance to derive a surname for them. Some of the etymology mentions feminine concepts, adding support to the idea that Sun Wukong was originally a cis-woman:

The Patriarch laughed and said, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun [猢猻]). This gives me the idea of taking a surname for you from your appearance. I intended to call you by the name Hu [猢]. If I drop the animal radical [犭] from this word, what’s left is a compound made up of the two characters, gu [古] and yue [月]. Gu means aged and yue [“moon”] denotes feminine yin energy [陰], but aged yin cannot reproduce (emphasis added). Therefore, it is better to give you the surname of Sun [猻]. If I drop the animal radical from this word, what we have left is the compound of zi [子] and xi [系]. Zi means a boy and xi means a baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy. So your surname will be ‘Sun’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115).

祖師笑道:「你身軀雖是鄙陋,卻像個食松果的猢猻。我與你就身上取個姓氏,意思教你姓『猢』。猢字去了個獸傍,乃是個古月。古者,老也;月者,陰也。老陰不能化育,教你姓『猻』倒好。猻字去了獸傍,乃是個子系。子者,兒男也;系者,嬰細也,正合嬰兒之本論。教你姓『孫』罷。」

CA: Our hero’s association with the surname Sun predates the 1592 JTTW by centuries, appearing as early as an early-Ming JTTW zaju play. Therefore, Subodhi’s etymological breakdown is just an excuse to change husun (猢猻), one of the historical terms for the macaque, into Sun. It’s also an excuse to tie the surname to historical Daoist longevity practices.

Also, Sun has been used since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as a surname for monkeys associated with Buddhist monks. According to the Tang poet Li Shen (李紳, d. 846):

There are many monkeys in the [Lingyin and Tianzhu] monasteries. They are called the Sun group (or the group of Sun, “Sun tuan” [孫團]). They have been reared there for a long time (Shahar, 1992, pp. 202-203).

2.5. Stable Monkeys

A: It was a common historical practice to place female monkeys in horse stables because their menstruation was believed to ward off equine sickness (see my past article for a source). Hence, Sun’s time as the heavenly stable master supports the idea that he was originally a cis-woman.

CA: Just because something influenced a character in a story doesn’t mean that thing and all of its traits become the character. That’s like saying Son Goku is Superman just because Dragon Ball Z-era Akira Toriyama borrowed the “alien sent to earth” element from the Man of Steel’s mythos. But that isn’t the case since each character and their respective stories have definable differences. And it’s the same for the female stable monkeys and Sun Wukong.

After becoming the Bimawen (弼馬溫) (fig. 3), Sun dotingly cares for nearly 1,000 horses day and night, making sure that they are all well-fed, exercised, and rested. At no point does the 1592 JTTW even hint that their health is in any way tied to menstruation. But having said that, I suggest the reason that Monkey gets so upset when people call him Bimawen, what Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates as “BanHorsePlague” (vol. 1, p. 354), is because it references the homophonous term for the historical practice, Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”). Surprisingly, the latter phrase does not appear in the novel.

Fig. 3 – A 2014 stamp featuring a scene from the classic 1960s animation Havoc in Heaven in which Sun Wukong serves as the Bimawen (larger version). Image found here.

3. Final Counterarguments

3.1. Historical Male Depictions

I don’t know of any historical oral, published, or pictorial sources that portray or describe Sun as a cis-woman in their regular form. To my knowledge, he has always been depicted as a cis-man.

I won’t pretend to know the full extent of our hero’s history. But I always strive to learn more about the subject. Just look at the following as a brief survey.

3.1A. Art

The earliest art depicting the aforementioned Monkey Pilgrim shows him as either a simian cleric or soldier accompanying the monk Tripitaka. But I think the best example to present for this discussion is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving (fig. 4), which portrays him as a muscular, sword-wielding protector deity.

Fig. 4 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version).

3.1B. Oral literature

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), the aforementioned 13th-century oral version of JTTW, first introduces the Monkey Pilgrim as a “scholar dressed in a white robe” (Baiyi xiucai, 白衣秀才) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). The word translated here as scholar, “xiucai (秀才; lit: “cultivated talent”), was “[f]rom antiquity a categorical rubric under which talented men were nominated to be considered for official appointments” (Hucker, 1985, p. 284). During the Song dynasty (960-1279), when this tale was first recorded, the xiucai was an informal term for candidates of the metropolitan-level exams (Hucker, 1985, p. 284). That is to say they were educated commoners who had yet to receive an official office. Dudbridge (1970) suggests that disguising oneself as a traveling, white-robed scholar would have then “conferr[ed] anonymity on the wearer” (p. 32). [2] This means that Monkey is likely using the disguise to walk among mortals without them realizing his divine nature.

Dudbridge (1970) also notes that this disguise was used by male characters in later published media (p. 32 n. 1). These examples instead use “xiushi” (秀士; lit: “cultivated scholar”). For instance, in chapter 81 of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400), a literary version of Song Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) dresses this way in order to meet in secret with his favorite sex worker: 

Accompanied by a young eunuch, the sovereign arrived through the secret tunnel at the rear door of the courtesan’s house. He was dressed in the white garb of a scholar (emphasis added) (Shi & Luo, 1993/2021b, p.1715).

只見道君皇帝引着一個小黃門,扮做白衣秀士,從地道中逕到李師師家後門來。(Shi & Luo, 1975/2021b, p. 1104)

The male disguise even carried over into the 1592 JTTW. For example, in chapter ten, the Dragon King of the Jing River (Jinghe Longwang, 涇河龍王) takes on such a form to investigate a fortune teller with dangerously accurate predictions that threaten the fish of his kingdom: 

[H]e abandoned his sword and dismissed the clouds and the rains. Reaching the river bank, he shook his body and changed into a white-robed scholar (emphasis added) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 239).

龍王 … 遂棄寶劍,也不興雲雨,出岸上,搖身一變,變作一個白衣秀士)

3.1C. Zaju play

The early-Ming Journey to the West zaju play (Xiyou ji zaju, 西遊記雜劇) contains many familiar episodes that would come to appear in the 1592 JTTW. [3] But despite these parallels, there are many interesting differences. For example, in act nine (of 24), Sun Wukong is said to be the brother of several divine siblings:

We are five brothers and sisters: my older sister is the Venerable Mother of Mount Li, my younger sister is the Holy Mother Wuzhiqi, my older brother is the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, I myself am the Great Sage Reaching Heaven (emphasis added), and my younger brother is the Third Son Shuashua (based on Dudbridge, 1970, p. 110).

小聖弟兄、姊妹五人,大姊驪山老母,二妹巫枝祗聖母,大兄齊天大聖,小聖通天大聖,三弟耍耍三郎。

(That’s right! The play refers to Monkey as the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” instead of “… Equaling Heaven.”)

He also has a wife, a princess whom he had kidnapped from the “Country of the Golden Cauldron” (Jinding guo, 金鼎國) (Ning, 1986, pp. 63-66). This portion of the play draws directly from a genre of Han to Song-era tales in which magic apes kidnap young maidens in order to rape and impregnate them. [4]

The most apparent differences are the addition of bawdy elements like sex, cursing, and dirty jokes by the author, the 15th-century Mongol playwright Yang Jingxian (杨景賢). For instance, act 18 sees the pilgrims travel through the famous Woman Kingdom, where Sun, Zhu, and Sha all fall prey to temptations of the flesh. But whereas the latter two are successful in their sexual ventures, poor Monkey is struck by a bout of erectile dysfunction caused by the painful constricting of his headband:

Master, listen and I’ll tell you. There I was pinned down by a woman. My lustful nature was about to come forth, when suddenly the iron hoop on my head tightened, and the joints and bones up and down my whole body began to ache. The throbbing conjured up a bunch of vegetable names in my brain.

My head hurt so my hair stood up like radish-tops, my face turned as green as smartweed sprouts, my sweat beaded up like the moisture on an eggplant soaked in sauce, and my cock fell as limp as a salted cucumber (emphasis added). When she saw me looking for all the world like chives sizzling in hot oil, she came around, suppressed her itch and set me free (Ning, 1986, pp. 138-139).

聽行者告訴一遍:小行被一個婆娘按倒,凡心卻待起。不想頭上金箍兒緊將起來,渾身上下骨節疼痛,疼出幾般兒蔬菜名來:頭疼得髮蓬如韭菜,面色青似蓼牙,汗珠一似醬透的茄子,雞巴一似醃軟的黃瓜。他見我恰似燒蔥,恰甫能忍住了胡麻。他放了我

(Notice that ta (他) is used in the quote above to refer to the girl. Refer back to section 2.1 for a reminder of the significance.)

Later in act 19, Monkey attempts to seduce Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主) in order to gain access to her magic Banana leaf fan. Sun does this by reciting a poem in which he makes a veiled allusion to his penis being the right size for her vagina:

The disciple’s not too shallow,
the woman’s not too deep (emphasis added).
You and I, let’s each put forth an item,
and make a little demon
(Ning, 1986, p. 141).

弟子不淺,娘子不深。我與你大家各出一件,湊成一對妖精。

When this plan fails and the Princess threatens him with her sword, Sun angrily explains that the supernatural durability of his body and penis renders him impervious to physical harm:

Why this lowdown wench has no manners at all! I am the Lord of the Crimson Cloud Cavern, the Great Sage [Reaching Heaven]! I plundered Laozi’s gold Pill of Immortality, and have endured so many alchemical transformations that my muscles are brass, my bones iron, my eyes fire, my pupils gold, my asshole lead and my prick is pewter. Why should I fear a steel [sword] slicing off my pizzle? (emphasis added) (Ning, 1986, p. 142).

這賊賤人好無禮。我是紫雲羅洞主,通天大聖。我盜了老子金丹,煉得銅筋鐵骨,火眼金睛,金俞石屁眼,擺錫雞巴。我怕甚剛刀剁下我鳥來?

I want to highlight that this play did not influence the story cycle; it only reflects characters and episodes that were common to the cycle at that time. The bawdy elements were solely added to spice up the tale, making it more entertaining for zaju audiences. Therefore, this sex-crazed, dirty-mouthed version of the Monkey King should be considered a separate entity from his counterpart in the 1592 JTTW. However, I have included him here because the play clearly establishes that the character is a cis-man.

3.1D. Other Published Literature

A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640) is an unofficial sequel to the 1592 JTTW with a trippy, time-jumping story that mentions Sun Wukong fathering children with a woman. The first reference to his offspring appears in chapter 13 when actors in a royal play describe an alternate timeline where our hero had settled down:

His wife is so beautiful, his five sons so dashing. He started out as a monk, but came to such a good end! Such a very good end! (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 114).

你看他的夫人這等標致,五個兒子這等風華。當初也是個和尚出身,後來好結局,好結局!

Later, in chapter 15, Monkey meets one of these sons, King Pāramitā (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王), on the battlefield. This general recounts his family history to the stranger, revealing that, although he’s never met his father (jiafu, 家父), he’s the son of the Great Sage and the Rakshasi (Luocha nu, 羅剎女), Princess Iron Fan (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In addition, he suggests that he was conceived during an event from chapter 59 of the original novel: 

[Sun Wukong] changed into a tiny insect and entered my mother’s belly. He stayed there a while and caused her no end of agony. When my mother could no longer bear the pain, she had no choice but to give the Banana-leaf Fan to my father, Monkey. [5] When my father, Monkey, got the Banana-leaf Fan, he cooled the inferno at Flaming Mountain and left. In the fifth month of the next year, my mother suddenly gave birth to me, King Pāramitā. Day by day I grew older and more intelligent. If you think about it, since my uncle [the Bull Demon King] and mother had never been together, and I was born after my father, Monkey, had been inside my mother’s belly, the fact that I am his direct descendant is beyond dispute (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 124).

後來又變作小蟲兒鑽入家母腹中,住了半日,無限攪炒。當時家母認痛不過,只得將芭蕉扇遞與家父行者。家父行者得了芭蕉扇,扇涼了火焰山,竟自去了。到明年五月,家母忽然產下我蜜王。我一日長大一日,智慧越高。想將起來,家伯與家母從來不合,惟家父行者曾走到家母腹中一番,便生了我,其為家父行者之嫡系正派,不言而可知也。」

It should be evident from the examples presented above that the Monkey King was portrayed or described in his regular form as a cis-man throughout the long course of his character development.

This by itself should put the idea of a canonically trans Sun Wukong to rest, but there is one more counterargument that I think is even stronger.

3.2. Spiritual Gender Transitions in Buddhism

Buddhist literature actually includes instances of girls or women transforming into men upon enlightenment or rebirth. [6] The former is best exemplified by the “Dragon Girl” (Longnu, 龍女) from chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra (Miaofa lianhua jing, 妙法蓮華經; a.k.a. Fahua jing, 法華經, c. 3rd-century) (fig. 5), a work mentioned in the 1592 JTTW six times. She is first introduced to an assembly of Buddhist deities as the eight-year old daughter of the Dragon King Sāgara (Suojieluo longwang, 娑竭羅龍王) and one of an unfathomable number of dragonfolk enlightened by the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī’s (Wenshu shili, 文殊師利) lessons on the Lotus Sutra. Her teacher describes her as a great student prodigy with a deep knowledge of Buddhist Law, as well as having many advanced spiritual achievements. But this upsets some among the assembly because the notion of a young girl approaching Buddhahood so quickly flies in the face of convention, which normally calls for untold aeons of severe austerities before one can achieve awakening. Her accomplishments are called into question at first, but everyone is appeased when she offers a priceless jewel to the Buddha, and he quickly accepts it as a symbolic gesture. Then:

The girl said [to the assembly], “Employ your supernatural powers and watch me attain Buddhahood. It will be even quicker than that!” 

At that time the members of the assembly all saw the dragon girl in the space of an instant change into a man (emphasis added) and carry out all the practices of a bodhisattva, immediately proceeding to the spotless World of the south, taking a seat on a jeweled lotus, and attaining impartial and correct enlightenment. With the thirty-two features and the eighty characteristics [of a Buddha], he expounded the wonderful Law for all living beings everywhere in the ten directions (Watson, 1993, p. 188). [7]

女言:「以汝神力,觀我成佛,復速於此。」

當時眾會,皆見龍女忽然之間變成男子,具菩薩行,即往南方無垢世界,坐寶蓮華,成等正覺,三十二相、八十種好,普為十方一切眾生演說妙法。

This kind of spiritual gender transition was certainly known to the host of historical oral storytellers [8] and author-compilers who contributed to the formation of the novel due to their vast shared knowledge of Buddhist and Daoist religion and lore.

Therefore, if the Sun Wukong from the 1592 JTTW was originally intended to be trans, he would have been OPENLY portrayed as such, without the need for subtle hints, due to scriptural precedent. And the fact that he wasn’t makes this what I consider to be the most damning argument against a canonically trans Sun Wukong.

Fig. 5 – A frontispiece to a Song-era edition of the Lotus Sutra (larger version). Image found here.

4. Final Thoughts

I hope that anyone unfamiliar with the Monkey King’s history can now make an informed judgement about online comments making claims about his gender.

And for those who still might want to go beyond an allegorical reading of the novel, you need to answer two questions:

  1. Why did the 1592 JTTW hint that Sun Wukong is FTM trans despite him being depicted as a cis-man for centuries?
  2. Why were said hints used in place of scriptural examples of spiritual gender transition?

Answering these questions will require evidence, not an interpretation. I’m honestly not sure what that evidence would be since the evidence against it is so overwhelming. 

I would be willing to accept the “possibility” of a trans Sun Wukong, though, if anyone can find an analysis of the character by a pre-20th-century Chinese literary critic expounding the same view. Please do not misinterpret this as me saying that there were no trans people prior to the 20th-century. I’m sure there have been many throughout history, and I’m sure the terms applied to or used by them in the past were wildly different from the ones used today. But without some kind of historical support, the reality of a canonically trans Monkey King, beyond a personal interpretation, is nothing more than a wish. 


Update: 05-19-2023

It’s recently come to my attention that this article has upset some people, namely those who are aware of the Monkey King’s worship and those who disagree with the concept of transgender people. The first group needs to understand that, while a religious figure, Sun Wukong is far more widely known around the world as a literary figure. And since people primarily view him as a fictional character—one who is in the public domain, in fact—they are free to interpret the simian immortal however they see fit. This means that both the Monkey God and the literary Monkey King should be viewed as two separate entities.

For the second group, the trans identity is outside my area of research and personal experience. Therefore, I can’t really say anything about the subject that would affect your point of view. My advice would be to ignore political pundits and instead start a dialogue with someone in the trans community to understand their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

I’ve also learned that my article has apparently been weaponized by some on discord in an attempt to invalidate the views of trans individuals who identify with Sun Wukong. I don’t like that my work is being used to harass people. I want to make it clear that this article was not written to attack the trans community. It was solely made to place Monkey in his correct historical context. My first concern as a student of JTTW is that the history of the novel and its characters are presented accurately. But I am fully aware that perceptions of popular characters can and do evolve over time. That’s why I mentioned in the opening that viewing Sun as trans is perfectly fine as long as it’s clear that this is a personal interpretation. So, if you are a trans person and some troll presents my article as proof that your personal allegory is wrong, please have the confidence to tell them, “off you fuck.”


Update: 05-27-23

I found this lovely drawing of the Dragon Girl online (fig. 6). The image depicts her at the moment when she hands the Buddha the priceless jewel, just prior to transforming into a man.

Fig. 6 – A drawing of the Dragon Girl and the priceless jewel (larger version). Image found here.

Notes:

1) One of the suggested earliest meanings for wang (王) is “big man,” and it was used as a title by the tribal chieftains that would evolve into Chinese emperors (Qi, 1991).  

2) Yes, I am aware that Dudbridge (1970) also associates white robes with female demons (p. 32 n. 3). However, the Monkey Pilgrim is expressly associated with the white clothing of the historically male xiucai scholar candidates.

3) These similar episodes include the reincarnation of a heavenly being as Tripitaka, the murder of his father, Sun Wukong stealing immortal peaches from heaven and eventually being imprisoned under a mountain, his punishment with the restricting headband, the subjugation of Zhu Bajie (here and here) and Sha Wujing, the addition of a royal dragon-turned-white horse, the ordeal at Fire Mountain, the Country of Women, etc. This shows that the centuries-old story cycle was starting to become standardized by the 14th or 15th-century.

4) One example is “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong Baiyuan Zhuan, 補江總白猿傳, c. late-7th-century). In the story, a general’s young wife is kidnapped by a mysterious force, but he and his soldiers later find her living among a large harem of women in a mountain paradise. They tell the commander that their captor is a magic white ape who uses them night after night to fuel his Daoist sexual alchemy. The women also warn him and his men that they are no match for the beast’s great power, so the captives devise a plan that eventually leads to the primate’s death. In the end, the general learns that his wife is pregnant with the spirit’s child. 

What’s interesting for the purposes of this blog is that the titular white ape shares many surprising parallels with the Sun Wukong from the 1592 JTTW. Both: 

  • Are supernatural primates possessed of human speech. 
  • Are one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts. 
  • Are masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance. 
  • Are warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army. 
  • Have a fondness for armed martial arts. 
  • Have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them. 
  • Have eyes that flash like lightning. 
  • Live in verdant mountain paradises (like the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit). 
  • Reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave). 

5) See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129.

6) An example of the latter appears in Chapter 23 of the Lotus Sutra. Women are promised a male rebirth in paradise for having heard and practiced the scripture (Watson, 1993, pp. 287-288).

7) For the Dragon Girl’s story, see Watson, 1993, pp. 187-189.

8) The Lotus Sutra, which contains the story of the Dragon Girl, is given prominence in the 13th-century oral JTTW. It is painted as an important scripture, one even hailed in heaven. Chapter three sees the monk Tripitaka (referred to here by his historical name Xuanzang) give a detailed lecture on the sacred text:

The arhats said: “We thank the Master for coming to the [heavenly] palace today. Does the master excel in explaining sutras?” Xuanzang replied: “If it is a sutra, I can explain it. If it is not, I do not.” “Can you explain the Lotus Sutra?” the arhat asked. Xuanzang replied: “That’s easy.” (emphasis added)

Thereupon the five hundred arhats, the [king of heaven] Mahabrahma Devaraja, and in all a company of over a thousand gathered to listen to the sutra. Xuanzang recited flawlessly without pausing for breath. Like pouring water from a vase, he clarified the obscurities of the text (emphasis added). Everyone praised his marvelous delivery (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

羅漢問曰:「今日謝師入宮。師善講經否?」玄奘曰:「是經講得,無經不講。」羅漢曰:「會講《法華經》否?」玄奘:「此是小事。」當時五百尊者、大梵王,一千餘人,咸集聽經。玄奘一氣講說,如瓶注水,大開玄妙。眾皆稱贊不可思議。

Sources:

Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

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

Hucker, C. O. (1985). A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Taipei: SMC Publishing Inc.

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju (UMI No. 8612591) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.

Qi, W. (1991). An Inquiry into the Original Meaning of the Chinese Character for King (wang). Chinese Studies in History, 25(2), 3-16, DOI: 10.2753/CSH0009-463325023

Shahar, M. (1992). The Lingyin Si Monkey Disciples and The Origins of Sun Wukong. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 52(1), 193-224. https://doi.org/10.2307/2719331

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2021a). Shuihu zhuan (shang, zhong, xia) [Tale of the Water Margin (Vols. 1-3)]. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe. (Original work published 1975)

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2021b). Outlaws of the Marsh (Vols. 1-4) (S. Shapiro, Trans.). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)

Watson, B. (Trans.) (1993). The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

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

Archive #39 – Journey to the West Adaptations

The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Monkey Ruler (Twitter and Tumblr). They have graciously written an essay on the global nature of Journey to the West adaptations, as well as provided a link to their ongoing project recording JTTW media (fig. 1). As of the publishing of this article, it includes a long list of almost 570 movies, 90 TV shows, and 160 video games! – Jim

Fig. 1 – Depictions of Sun Wukong from adaptations produced over 50 years apart: (left) Havoc in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 大鬧天宮, 1961) and (right) Monkey King: Hero is Back (Xiyouji zhi Dasheng guilai, 西遊記之大聖歸來, lit: “Journey to the West: Return of the Great Sage,” 2015) (larger version). Courtesy of Monkey Ruler.

I. Media adaptations

This started out as a collection of Xiyouji (西遊記; lit: “Journey to the West,” 1592) movies and TV shows for the sake of a Master’s class project; it was simple enough to look for Xiyouji media and start adding them to a collection datasheet. But even when the project was over, I kept finding more and more adaptations, even stumbling across others trying to show the magnitude of how much this novel has encompassed popular culture throughout the centuries. It has been told and re-told again and again in oral and published literature, plays, art, songs, poems, etc., and now on the big and small screens. Audiences are re-introduced to the image of Sun Wukong and his fellow pilgrims with every new media addition.

What really inspired me was the book Transforming Monkey: Adaptations and Representation of a Chinese Epic (2018) by Hongmei Sun, where she explained in depth the cultural impact that Sun Wukong (fig. 2) and Xiyouji has had on Chinese media, as well as how this loose set of franchises have come to represent Chinese culture as these shows and movies have become more globally accessible. Xiyouji is such an iconic cultural universe that it can be both heavily entertaining while still being so personal to audiences of any generation depending on how the artist/writer portrays their interpretation of these characters and their stories. 

There hasn’t been a lot written about how these interpretations influence modern Xiyouji adaptations despite how the story has greatly influenced popular culture.

Fig. 2 – The front cover of Transforming Monkey (2018) (larger version).

Xiyouji is such an influential story, one that will continue to grow more and more globally known throughout time because it is such an all-encompassing piece that can cover politics, identities, and allegories, while still being a very personal and interpersonal work that artists or writers can relate to. 

However, even with these layers of meaning and symbolism to be found, the story never loses the charming and entertaining aspects that can and have captured audiences. Despite being published over 430 years ago (with a history stretching back even further), Xiyouji is still able to relate to modern audiences through its allegories of oppression, rebellion, and self-identity. It has the capability to resonate with any generation depending on what artists or writers at the time wish to highlight or personally connect with themselves or their current world around them, using Xiyouji as a medium for their own struggles.

As Xiyouji starts to become more and more globally known, it is important to understand and resonate that this is still a Chinese story and how to address further adaptations with cross-nation gaps in both translation and cultural differences. There are media forms that are far more exploitative of the mythical journey, creating impractical scenarios of the narrative and thus changing the message of the story and characters completely. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what doesn’t work as Xiyouji adaptations due to the ever-changing zeitgeist in not only its home of origin but introducing it to a global sphere as it adds influence. 

In order to see what works for adaptations, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what is the core of the story and just why it remains popular, story-beat or character-wise. For example, Sun Wukong can be used as a great model for positive ambivalence in media, moving away from set limits of a single stereotype and rather being a constant motion of new ideas and new identities. Monkey has been changed from a mischievous monkey to a revolutionary hero to a post-modern rebel against authority throughout the years. But even throughout the constant changes and interpretations, people never lose sight of what the nature of Sun Wukong is: rebelliousness, variability, optimism, and persistence. 

Monkey is a transcending character as he is able to mediate contradictions within his own design, one being his gold-banded staff, a symbol of breaking barriers, and his golden filet (fig. 3), a symbol of limits. These two simple but prominent pieces of iconography immediately tell audiences who the character is supposed to be and what they are about.

Fig. 3 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden filet or headband (larger version).

While it is entertaining and able to be enjoyed by younger audiences, Xiyouji still has a deeper meaning that can be interpreted and recognized into adulthood. This is one of the few stories that I imagine can be adapted again and again without the issue of overlap as there are so many ways people can personally connect with these characters. 

Having that any generation, anyone really can find enjoyment in this media, and perhaps even be inspired to read the novel itself.

II. Archive link

Please consult the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet linked below. They are listed as “Movie Information,” “Movie Links,” “Honorary Shows,” “Game Information,” “Game Pictures,” “Honorary Games,” and “Sources.” – Jim

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1GsiCGzE1DZDy2Vpc85wiVXSyLWpxMbxj/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=112097376285754662736&rtpof=true&sd=true

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.

Refer back to note #1 for a possible defense.

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:

The thyrsus was held up in his hand, and to defend his face he carried a diamond, the gem made stone in the showers of Zeus which protects against the stony glare of Medusa, that the baleful light of that destroying face may do him no harm (Rouse, 1940, vol. 3, p. 413). 

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.

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

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

Rouse, W. H. D. (Ed.) (1940), Nonnos. Dionysiaca, with an English Translation by W. H. D. Rouse, Mythological Introduction and Notes by H. J. Rose and Notes on Text Criticism by L. R. Lind (Vols. 1-3). Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/dionysiaca03nonnuoft/page/412/mode/2up.

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

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?

Last updated: 06-04-2023

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE, “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 CE) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century CE). 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 CE), 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 CE) 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 CE) 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 CE) (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 CE) 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 CE) 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 CE) (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 CE) 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 CE, 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 CE) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century CE 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 CE (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 CE) (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 CE (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 CE (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 CE 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 CE. 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 CE 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 CE 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.


Update: 06-04-23

I was happy to learn that the Monkey Pilgrim appears among a large set of late-12th-century ritual scrolls portraying the famed 500 Arhats. [6] He is depicted as a monkey-headed, black robe-wearing figure with the lower half of his body obscured by clouds, making him hard to see unless you zoom in on the image. He holds what appears to be the head of a staff in his left hand (fig. 21). Our hero is located just behind Tripitaka, who is riding a white horse led by a spirit-soldier(?) or perhaps Sha Wujing’s antecedent (fig. 22). The full scroll shows this scene happening above the heads of four arhats (fig. 23), indicating that the Tang Monk is considered to be one of these Buddhist sages.

I actually found the simian immortal by accident while researching an article about Tripitaka’s Buddha title. Dr. Meir Shahar tells me that this depiction of Monkey doesn’t appear to have been mentioned in previous JTTW scholarship (personal communication, June 3, 2023). [7] Therefore, I’m so very happy that I can share this discovery with my readers!

Fig. 21 – (Left) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). From Lin Tinggui and Zhou Jichang, Images of the 500 Arhats (Wubai Luohan tu, 五百羅漢圖, 1178-1188 CE). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Image from Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo, 2014, p. 86. Courtesy of Dr. Liu Shufen, a research fellow at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica. Fig. 22 – (Center) A detail of Xuanzang on his his horse (larger version). Fig. 23 – (Right) The full scroll (larger version).

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).

6) To learn more about these paintings, see Zhou (2021).

7) Dr. Benjamin Brose tells me that the painting appears in a Japanese source, but the Monkey Pilgrim is only listed as an “ape-like figure” (personal communication, June 3, 2023). See Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo henshū, 2014, p. 86.

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.

Nara kuniritsu hakubutsukan, Tōkyō bunkazai kenkyūjo henshū [Nara University Tōkyō Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Ed.)]. (2014). Daitokuji denrai gohyaku rakan zu [Daitoku Temple’s Tradition of the 500 Arhats Paintings]. Kyōto: Shitau bungaku.

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.

Zhou, Y. (2021). The Daitokuji Five Hundred Arhats Paintings and Their Beholders [Master’s dissertation, University of Alberta]. Education and Research Archive. https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/f0bf436c-f6e5-46a2-920a-91c8b9dd5ba9