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

How Many Humans Does Sun Wukong Kill in Journey to the West?

Last updated: 01-17-2023

Someone on Tumblr recently asked me if I knew how many monsters, spirits, and humans that Sun Wukong kills throughout Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). But since he’s a “hyper murder monkey” (fig. 1), this is impossible to quantify without an overly extensive survey of the book. However, the task becomes far more manageable if narrowed down to just humans. I know of at least seven instances in chapters 14, 27, 28, 44, 46, and 56. Although I can’t give an exact count, the number slain is over 1,030!

This study is by no means exhaustive. I’ve surely missed a few examples in the latter half of the book. But I’ll update this piece in the future if anything else pops up.

Fig. 1 – The story of the hyper murder monkey by @FlorkOfCows (larger version).

I. Chapter 14

  • Six robbers

The first instance happens when Sun and his master are accosted by six robbers shortly after the immortal is released from under Five Elements Mountain:

Master and disciple had traveled for some time when suddenly six men jumped out from the side of the road with much clamor, all holding long spears and short swords, sharp blades and strong bows. “Stop, monk!” they cried. “Leave your horse and drop your bag at once, and we’ll let you pass on alive!” Tripitaka was so terrified that his soul left him and his spirit fled; he fell from his horse, unable to utter a word. But Pilgrim lifted him up, saying, “Don’t be alarmed, Master. It’s nothing really, just some people coming to give us clothes and a travel allowance!” “Wukong,” said Tripitaka, “you must be a little hard of hearing! They told us to leave our bag and our horse, and you want to ask them for clothes and a travel allowance?” “You just stay here and watch our belongings,” said Pilgrim, “and let old Monkey confront them. We’ll see what happens.” Tripitaka said, “Even a good punch is no match for a pair of fists, and two fists can’t cope with four hands! There are six big fellows over there, and you are such a tiny person. How can you have the nerve to confront them?”

As he always had been audacious, Pilgrim did not wait for further discussion. He walked forward with arms folded and saluted the six men, saying, “Sirs, for what reason are you blocking the path of this poor monk?” “We are kings of the highway,” said the men, “philanthropic mountain lords. Our fame has long been known, though you seem to be ignorant of it. Leave your belongings at once, and you will be allowed to pass. If you but utter half a no, you’ll be chopped to pieces!” “I have been also a great hereditary king and a mountain lord for centuries,” said Pilgrim, “but I have yet to learn of your illustrious names.” “So you really don’t know!” one of them said. “Let’s tell you then: one of us is named Eye That Sees and Delights; another, Ear That Hears and Rages; another Nose That Smells and Loves; another, Tongue That Tastes and Desires; another, Mind That Perceives and Covets; and another, Body That Bears and Suffers.” “You are nothing but six hairy brigands,” said Wukong laughing, “who have failed to recognize in me a person who has left the family, your proper master. How dare you bar my way? Bring out the treasures you have stolen so that you and I can divide them into seven portions. I’ll spare you then!” Hearing this, the robbers all reacted with rage and amusement, covetousness and fear, desire and anxiety. They rushed forward crying, “You reckless monk! You haven’t a thing to offer us, and yet you want us to share our loot with you!” Wielding spears and swords, they surrounded Pilgrim and hacked away at his head seventy or eighty times. Pilgrim stood in their midst and behaved as if nothing were happening.

What a monk!” said one of the robbers. “He really does have a hard head!” “Passably so!” said Pilgrim, laughing. “But your hands must be getting tired from all that exercise; it’s about time for old Monkey to take out his needle for a little entertainment.” “This monk must be an acupuncture man in disguise,” said the robber. “We’re not sick! What’s all this about using a needle?” Pilgrim reached into his ear and took out a tiny embroidery needle; one wave of it in the wind and it became an iron rod with the thickness of a rice bowl. He held it in his hands, saying, “Don’t run! Let old Monkey try his hand on you with this rod!” The six robbers fled in all directions, but with great strides he caught up with them and rounded all of them up. He beat every one of them to death, stripped them of their clothes, and seized their valuables. Then Pilgrim came back smiling broadly and said, “You may proceed now, Master. Those robbers have been exterminated by old Monkey” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, pp 314-315).

This ends with Tripitaka becoming angry and exiling Monkey. The cleric later welcomes him back, only to rein in his disciple’s unruly behavior with the heaven-sent golden headband (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 315-317 and 318-320). This becomes a reoccurring theme (see below).

The six murders (fig. 2) are allegories for defeating the desires of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, mind, and body that hinder one’s spiritual progression. [1] This is explained by Monkey in chapter 43 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).

Fig. 2 – A woodblock print depicting Sun killing the six bandits (larger version). It comes from The Illustrated Journey to the West (Ehon Saiyuki, 繪本西遊記), a 19th-century Japanese translation.

II. Chapter 27

  • Unknown

The second is alluded to during the White Bone Spirit episode. In her attempts to eat the monk, the wily skeleton demon takes on the guises of a beautiful girl, her elderly mother, and her elderly father in turn. But each time Sun attacks her with his staff, she leaves a fake corpse in her wake, [2] making it seem like the immortal has murdered yet another person. This naturally upsets Tripitaka, but Monkey explains that evil spirits commonly disguise themselves as something welcoming in order to catch and eat humans. He uses himself as an example, claiming to have done the same as a young monster:

“Master,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “how could you know about this? When I was a monster back at the Water-Curtain Cave, I would act like this if I wanted to eat human flesh. I would change myself into gold or silver, a lonely building, a harmless drunk, or a beautiful woman. Anyone feebleminded enough to be attracted by me I would lure back to the cave. There I would enjoy him as I pleased, by steaming or boiling. If I couldn’t finish him off in one meal, I would dry the leftovers in the sun to keep for rainy days. Master, if I had returned a little later, you would have fallen into her trap and been harmed by her.” That Tang Monk, however, simply refused to believe these words; he kept saying instead that the woman was a good person (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 20).

In the end, the cleric isn’t convinced that Sun didn’t kill an entire family, and so he punishes him with the band-tightening spell before once again banishing him from the group (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 26-28).

I know some online commentators believe that Monkey lies here about eating people. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision. But even if his claims are true, there is no way of quantifying the number eaten.

III. Chapter 28

  • 1,000-plus hunters

The third happens shortly after Sun’s exile. Upon returning to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he learns that more than half of his 47,000 monkey subjects had been killed centuries ago in a great fire set by Erlang, and then half of the survivors later fled elsewhere due to a lack of food. In addition, half of those who remained were killed and eaten or captured for entertainment by a band of over 1,000 human hunters who recently came to inhabit the mountain. Hearing this greatly enrages the Monkey King. He thereafter instructs his subjects to gather piles of small rocks for a magical wind attack (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp. 31-32):

Making the magic sign with his fingers and reciting a spell, he drew in a breath facing the southwest and blew it out. At once a violent wind arose. Marvelous wind!

It threw up dust and scattered dirt;
It toppled trees and cut down forests.
The ocean waves rose like mountains;
They crashed fold upon fold on the shore.
The cosmos grew dim and darkened;
The sun and the moon lost their light.
The pine trees, once shaken, roared like tigers;
The bamboos, hit abruptly, sang like dragons.
All Heaven’s pores let loose their angry breaths
As rocks and sand flew, hurting one and all.

The Great Sage called up this mighty wind that blew up and scattered those rock pieces in every direction. Pity those thousand-odd (qianyu, 千餘) hunters and horses! This was what happened to every one of them:

The rocks broke their dark heads to pieces;
Flying sand hurt all the winged horses.
Lords and nobles confounded before the peak,
Blood stained like cinnabar the earth.
Fathers and sons could not go home.
Could fine men to their houses return?
Corpses fell to the dust and lay on the mountain,
While rouged ladies at home waited.

The poem says:

Men killed, horses dead—how could they go home?
Lost, lonely souls floundered like tangled hemp.
Pity those strong and virile fighting men,
Whose blood, both good and bad, did stain the sand!

Lowering the direction of his cloud, the Great Sage clapped his hands and roared with laughter, saying, “Lucky! Lucky! Since I made submission to the Tang Monk and became a priest, he has been giving me this advice:

‘Do good a thousand days,
But the good is still insufficient;
Do evil for one day,
And that evil is already excessive.’

Some truth indeed! When I followed him and killed a few monsters, he would blame me for perpetrating violence. Today I came home and it was the merest trifle to finish off all these hunters.”

He then shouted, “Little ones, come out!” When those monkeys saw that the violent wind had passed and heard the Great Sage calling, they all jumped out. “Go down to the south side of the mountain,” said the Great Sage, “and strip the dead hunters of their clothes. Bring them back home, wash away the bloodstains, and you all can wear them to ward off the cold. The corpses you can push into the deep mountain lake over there. Pull back here also the horses that are killed; their hides can be used to make boots, and their meat can be cured for us to enjoy slowly. Gather up the bows and arrows, the swords and spears, and you can use them for military drills again. And finally, bring me those banners of miscellaneous colors; I have use for them” (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, pp 33-34).

This is by far the largest number of humans killed in one go by the hyper murder monkey.

IV. Chapter 44

  • Two Daoists

The fourth happens shortly after the pilgrims arrive in the Cart-Slow Kingdom. Sun is appalled to learn that three self-proclaimed immortals have convinced the region’s monarch to not only destroy all Buddhist institutions but also to enslave the clerics to the Daoists. His initial response is to play a joke on two cocky Daoist overseers by convincing them (under the guise of an aged coreligionist) that he has a relative among the 500 monks who should be set free. But when they ask which one, our hero claims all of them to be his kin (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 269-275):

The Daoists said, “You must be a little crazy, for all at once you are babbling! These monks happen to be gifts from the king. If we want to release even one or two of them, we will have to go first before our masters to report that they are ill. Then, we have to submit a death certificate before we can consider the matter closed. How could you ask us to release them all? Nonsense! Nonsense! Why, not to speak of the fact that we would be left without servants in our household, but even the court might be offended. The king might send some officials to look into the work here or he himself might come to investigate. How could we dare let them go?” “You won’t release them?” said Pilgrim. “No, we won’t!” said the Daoists. Pilgrim asked them three times and his anger flared up. Whipping out his iron rod from his ear, he squeezed it once in the wind and it had the thickness of a rice bowl. He tested it with his hand before slamming it down on the Daoists’ heads. How pitiful! This one blow made

Their heads crack, their blood squirts, their bodies sink low;
Their skin split, their necks snap, their brains outflow! (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 275).

V. Chapter 46

  • One civil official

The fifth happens during a magical contest of torture against one of the three supposed immortals. Monkey easily survives a bath in boiling oil but fakes his death in order to play a trick on Zhu Bajie. The officer in charge of the execution reports the development to the monarch, leading Tripitaka to eulogize and present offerings to his disciple’s spirit. But once Zhu hijacks the proceedings by calling Sun a Bimawen, [3] our hero erupts from the caldron to chastise his religious brother. Fearing possible punishment for seemingly lying to the king, the aforementioned official claims the primate is instead a ghost (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 310-312):

Maddened by what he heard, Pilgrim leaped out of the cauldron, dried himself from the oil, and threw on his clothes. Dragging that officer over, he whipped out his iron rod and one blow on the head reduced him to a meat patty. “What ghost is this who’s manifesting itself?” he huffed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 312-313).

VI. Chapter 56 – Part 1

  • Two bandit chiefs

The last two instances that I know of take place shortly after the scorpion spirit episode. The sixth follows a similar pattern to chapter 14: Tripitaka is confronted by bandits → He gets scared and falls off the horse → The bandits demand money and the horse → Sun intervenes → His banter enrages them and they hit and stab at his adamantine pate to no avail → They comment on his hard head → Monkey pulls out his iron staff, referring to it as a needle → The bandits infer that he works in a certain profession and claim to have no use for the needle → He enlarges the weapon and eventually beats them to death. [4] The only difference here is that Sun first challenges the men to lift his staff:

… Sticking the rod into the ground, Pilgrim said to them, “If any of you can pick it up, it’s yours.” The two bandit chiefs at once went forward to try to grab it, but alas, it was as if dragonflies were attempting to shake a stone pillar. They could not even budge it half a whit! This rod, you see, happened to be the compliant golden-hooped rod, which tipped the scale in Heaven at thirteen thousand, five hundred [catties]. How could those bandits have knowledge of this? The Great Sage walked forward and picked up the rod with no effort at all. Assuming the style of the Python Rearing its Body, he pointed at the bandits and said, “Your luck’s running out, for you have met old Monkey!” One of the bandit chiefs approached him and gave him another fifty or sixty blows. “Your hands must be getting tired!” chuckled Pilgrim. “Let old Monkey give you one stroke of the rod. I won’t do it for real either!” Look at him! One wave of the rod and it grew to about seventy feet, its circumference almost as big as a well. He banged it on the bandit, and he at once fell to the ground: his lips hugging the earth, he could not make another sound.

The other bandit chiefs shouted, “This baldy is so audacious! He has no travel money, but he has killed one of us instead!” “Don’t fret! Don’t fret!” said Pilgrim, laughing. “I’ll hit every one of you, just to make sure that all of you will be wiped out!” With another bang he beat to death the other bandit chief Those small thieves were so terrified that they abandoned their weapons and fled for their lives in all directions (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, pp. 80-81).

VII. Chapter 56 – Part 2

  • One unfilial son
  • twenty-ish bandits

The seventh happens sometime after one of the surviving bandits, the son of an elderly couple surnamed Yang (楊), discovers that his parents are feeding and sheltering the pilgrims for the night. He and his brothers-in-arms make plans to attack the monks after eating dinner and sharpening their weapons, but old Mr. Yang alerts them, giving Tripitaka and his disciples ample time to escape:

Every bandit was darting forward like an arrow, and by sunrise, they caught sight of the Tang Monk. When the elder heard shouts behind him, he turned to look and discovered a band of some thirty men rushing toward him, all armed with knives and spears. “Oh, disciples,” he cried, “the brigand troops are catching up with us. What shall we do?” “Relax, relax!” said Pilgrim. “Old Monkey will go finish them off!” “Wukong,” said Tripitaka as he stopped his horse, “you must not hurt these people. Just frighten them away.” Unwilling, of course, to listen to his master, Pilgrim turned quickly to face his pursuers, saying, “Where are you going, sirs?” “You nasty baldie!” cried the thieves. “Give us back the lives of our great kings!”

As they encircled Pilgrim, the bandits lifted their spears and knives to stab and hack away madly. The Great Sage gave one wave of his rod and it had the thickness of a bowl; with it, he fought until those bandits dropped like stars and dispersed like clouds. Those he bumped into died at once, those he caught hold of perished immediately, those he tapped had their bones broken, and those he brushed against had their skins torn. The few smart ones managed to escape, but the rest of the dumb ones all went to see King Yama!

When Tripitaka saw that many men had fallen, he was so aghast that he turned and galloped toward the West, with Zhu Eight Rules and Sha Monk hard on the horse’s heels. Pilgrim pulled over one of the wounded bandits and asked, “Which is the son of old Yang?” “Father,” groaned the thief, “the one in yellow.” Pilgrim went forward to pick up a knife and beheaded the one in yellow. Holding the bloody head in his hand, he retrieved his iron rod and, in great strides, caught up with the Tang Monk. As he arrived before the horse, he raised the head and said, “Master, this is the rebellious son of old Yang, and he’s been beheaded by old Monkey.” [fig. 3] Paling with fright, Tripitaka fell down from the horse, crying, “Wretched ape! You’ve scared me to death! Take it away! Take it away!” Eight Rules went forward and kicked the head to the side of the road, where he used the muckrake to bury it (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 88-89).

The quote is clear that not all 30 bandits are killed. Apart from Yang the bandit, I think 20(-ish) is a conservative estimate based on the wording.

And just like chapters 14 and 27, this episode ends with Tripitaka punishing his disciple with the band-tightening spell before exiling him from the group (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 89-90).

Fig. 3 – Monkey presenting the head of Yang the bandit to his master. This screenshot comes from episode 10 of OSP’s retelling of Journey to the West (larger version).

VIII. Conclusion

To my knowledge, the Monkey King kills over 1,030 humans in Journey to the West. This includes six allegorical robbers in chapter 14, an unknown amount alluded to in chapter 27, over 1,000 hunters in chapter 28, two Daoists in chapter 44, one civil official in chapter 46, and two bandits chiefs, one unfilial son, and maybe 20-ish bandits in chapter 56. I may have missed a few instances in the latter half of the novel, so please don’t look at the above total as complete.


Update: 01-17-2023

I previously mentioned an instance in chapter 27 where Monkey admits to eating humans in his youth, something that some online commentators believe to be a fib. Well, a Tumblr user, who goes by both @abitfiendish and @localcactushugger, reminded me that dialogue in chapter 39 further calls this into question.

After a pill of immortal elixir fails to revive a long-dead king, Tripitaka suggests mouth-to-mouth necessitation is needed to complete the resurrection process. Sun is ultimately chosen for this job since he had apparently never eaten meat:

Eight Rules walked forward and was about to do this when he was stopped by Tripitaka. “You can’t do it,” he said. “Wukong still should take over.” That elder indeed had presence of mind, for Zhu Eight Rules, you see, had been a cannibal since his youth, and his breath was unclean. Pilgrim, on the other hand, had practiced self-cultivation since his birth, the food sustaining him being various fruits and nuts, and thus his breath was pure. The Great Sage, therefore, went forward and clamped his thundergod beak to the lips of the king: a mighty breath was blown through his throat … (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 195-196).

But it should be remembered that Journey to the West is crammed full of inconsistencies (likely born from the novel coalescing from different oral tales). For example, this chapter shows that all it takes to revive a dead person is an elixir pill and mouth-to-mouth. However, in chapter 97, Monkey has to physically retrieve the soul of a recently deceased householder from the underworld in order to resurrect him (see the material below figure 3 here).

Again, I’ll leave it up to the reader to make their own decision.

Note:

1) Things that arouse the eyes (sights), ears (sounds), nose (smells), tongue (tastes), and mind and body (wants and desires).

2) This is related to an ancient Daoist concept called “Release by means of a corpse” (Shijie, 尸解). Stories as far back as the Han describe immortals leaving behind a fake corpse (sometimes a magically disguised object) while they ascended in secret to heaven (Kirkland, 2008).

3) This plays on the homophonous relationship between Bimawen (避馬瘟, lit: “avoid the horse plague”), an ancient belief that female monkeys placed in horse stables could ward off equine sickness, and Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), Sun’s former station as keeper of the heavenly horses (see here).

See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 78-81.

Source:

Kirkland, R. (2008). Shijie In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 2) (pp. 896-897). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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

A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 02-14-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru. The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another (see 02-14-23 update below). This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).


Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

即於睡中夢一大神長數丈,執戟麾曰:「何不強行,而更臥也!」

After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?


Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [4] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [5]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.


Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [6]

那怪攜著行者,一直行到洞裡深遠密閉之處。卻從口中吐出一件寶貝,有雞子大小,是一顆舍利子玲瓏內丹。行者心中暗喜道:「好東西耶。這件物不知打了多少坐工,煉了幾年磨難,配了幾轉雌雄,煉成這顆內丹舍利。今日大有緣法,遇著老孫。」

As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.


Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.


Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).

因我萬聖老龍生了一個女兒,就喚做萬聖公主。那公主花容月貌,有二十分人才。招得一個駙馬,喚做九頭駙馬,神通廣大。前年與龍王來此,顯大法力,下了一陣血雨,污了寶塔,偷了塔中的舍利子佛寶。公主又去大羅天上,靈霄殿前,偷了王母娘娘的九葉靈芝草,養在那潭底下,金光霞彩,晝夜光明。

This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.


Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel like I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.

Note:

1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

5) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

6) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.

Source:

Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Does the Buddha Lie in Journey to the West?

I was recently directed to an online Chinese article by Ye Zhiqiu (叶之秋) (n.d.) in which they claim that the Buddha makes “four grand, overarching lies” (sige mitian dahuang, 四個彌天大謊) throughout the course of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter). They believe this is because the literary version of the Enlightened One is a master strategist who uses lies in a calculated attempt to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. This is admittedly a fascinating idea but one that falls apart under careful analysis. Ye (n.d.) displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. In this article, I will show that there are far more plausible reasons for the Buddha’s statements than lying.

I. First Lie

The Buddha states the following about the novel’s Hindo-Buddhist cosmos (ch. 8), which features four island-like continents floating in a great sea around a cosmic mountain (fig. 1) (see the 06-25-22 update in section 1.2 here for a slightly more detailed explanation):

I have watched the Four Great Continents, and the morality of their inhabitants varies from place to place. Those living on the East Pūrvavideha revere Heaven and Earth, and they are straightforward and peaceful. Those on the North Uttarakuru, though they love to destroy life, do so out of the necessity of making a livelihood. Moreover, they are rather dull of mind and lethargic in spirit, and they are not likely to do much harm. Those of our West Aparagodānīya are neither covetous nor prone to kill; they control their humor and temper their spirit. There is, to be sure, no illuminate of the first order, but everyone is certain to attain longevity. Those who reside in the South Jambūdvīpa, however, are prone to practice lechery and delight in evildoing, indulging in much slaughter and strife. Indeed, they are all caught in the treacherous field of tongue and mouth, in the wicked sea of slander and malice. However, I have three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 204-205).

我觀四大部洲,眾生善惡,各方不一:東勝神洲者,敬天禮地,心爽氣平;北俱盧洲者,雖好殺生,只因糊口,性拙情疏,無多作踐;我西牛賀洲者,不貪不殺,養氣潛靈,雖無上真,人人固壽;但那南贍部洲者,貪淫樂禍,多殺多爭,正所謂口舌兇場,是非惡海。我今有三藏真經,可以勸人為善。

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Enlightened One is lying because most of the monsters show up not in the supposedly evil continent of South Jambūdvīpa (the Land of the East, i.e. China) but in the Buddha’s home of West Aparagodānīya (India). They even provide a long list of monsters encountered there. Also, the writer theorizes that the planned scripture pilgrimage is just a ploy to spread the Buddha’s influence to the Land of the East, making him the ruler of two of four continents. The implication here is that he is slowly chipping away at the Jade Emperor’s domain.

However, the Buddha was likely referring to the people in those particular continents and not the monsters. And most importantly, his words appear to mirror the views of foreign Buddhist monks. When the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘; 602-664), on whom Tripitaka is based, planned to return home from India, his friends tried dissuading him by describing China in similarly negative terms. Brose (2021) comments:

For many of the monks he had befriended, the decision was hard to fathom. “India is the birthplace of the Buddha,” they reminded him. “Although the Great Sage is gone, his traces remain. To travel around and venerate them is enough to make one’s life content. Why would you want to give this up after having come here? China is a barbarian land where people are neglected, and the Dharma is despised. That is why no buddhas have ever been born there. The people have narrow aspirations and deep impurities, so sages do not go there. The air is cold and the land is dangerous. How can you think of returning there?” Xuanzang reportedly responded by quoting an exchange from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, where the noble layman Vimalakīrti asks Śāriputra, “Why does the sun come to Jambudvīpa?” The answer: “To illuminate it and eliminate the darkness.” If Xuanzang remained in India, the true Dharma might never be known in China (pp. 61-62).

Additionally, Xuanzang is known to have left China illegally when he first began his journey. Brose (2021) explains:

Xuanzang almost didn’t make it to India. Before setting out on his pilgrimage, his initial request for a travel permit was denied by the [Tang] court and, after traveling over five hundred miles from the capital to the westernmost Chinese city of Liangzhou, the local governor ordered him to turn back. Hiding during the day and traveling at night, Xuanzang quietly continued on to the desert outpost of Guazhou. There, he learned that the court had issued a warrant for his arrest. The local prefect, it turned out, was a pious Buddhist and urged Xuanzang to leave quickly… (p. 16).

Conversely, the monk in JTTW is portrayed as a loyal Confucian-type person. Therefore, in order to frame Tripitaka as a faithful, law-abiding citizen of China, the novel had to provide a reason for his pilgrimage, one that the Tang emperor would give his blessing to. [1]

Fig. 1 – A diagram of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk.

II. Second Lie

During Sun Wukong’s battle with the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 58) (fig. 2), the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathāgata [the Buddha], “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [2] who

Knows transformations,
Recognizes the seasons,
Discerns the advantages of earth,
And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang,
Understands human affairs,
Is adept in its daily life
And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon,
Shorten a thousand mountains,
Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious,
And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear,
Discernment of fundamental principles,
Knowledge of past and future,
And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

如來道:「第一是靈明石猴,通變化,識天時,知地利,移星換斗;第二是赤尻馬猴,曉陰陽,會人事,善出入,避死延生;第三是通臂猿猴,拿日月,縮千山,辨休咎,乾坤摩弄;第四是六耳獼猴,善聆音,能察理,知前後,萬物皆明。此四猴者,不入十類之種,不達兩間之名。我觀假悟空乃六耳獼猴也。此猴若立一處,能知千里外之事;凡人說話,亦能知之。

Ye (n.d.) claims the Buddha concocted the list of supernatural primates in order to hide the fact that Six Ears was an aspect of the Monkey King’s mind. They reason that the falsehood was used to avoid offending the Daoist hierarchy who couldn’t figure out the doppelganger’s true identity.

I think the author’s issue here is that the Daoist gods considered Six Ears a real figure, while the Buddha knew him to be an aspect of Sun’s mind. Something being real and illusory at the same time may seem like a big contradiction, but it’s not in the JTTW cosmos. Campany (1985) explains that, as physical threats, the monsters enable Monkey and his religious brothers to build Buddhist merit (zhenguo, 正果; lit: “right fruit”) by fighting them. At the same time, being illusory aspects of the mind, the monsters help the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, to understand that reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “Aware of Emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the journey.

Ye (n.d.) also points out that the listed powers of the Horse Monkey and Tongbi Gibbon don’t appear to be true, for they (under the guise of the commanders Ma and Liu and Beng and Ba – see section 2 here) are supposedly killed by Erlang’s forces in chapter six. They claim this proves that the two supernatural primates don’t actually exist. However, two things need to be said. One, the aforementioned underlings appear alive and well in chapter 28 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 32), meaning that they were not killed. And two, an irregularity in the story does not equate to a lie. The author hasn’t even come close to offering conclusive evidence of intent. Instead, I suggest that this is just an inconsistency born from the novel’s origin as individual oral tales that were eventually compiled, expanded, and published in book form. See, for instance, the 13th-century version of the story cycle. Therefore, irregularities are bound to pop up throughout the narrative.

But even if this lie was somehow true, how exactly does it further the Buddha’s supposed plan to take power from the Jade Emperor?

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and Six Ears battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

III. Third Lie

After the Buddha learns that the holy beasts of two bodhisattvas have escaped their respective mountain paradises and become man-eating demons on earth (ch. 77) (fig. 3), he has the following conversation with his disciples:

[…] Tathāgata left the lotus throne and went out of the monastery gate with the rest of the buddhas. There they saw Ānanda and Kāśyapa leading Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra [3] on their way to the monastery also.

As the two bodhisattvas bowed to him, Tathagata asked, “How long have your beasts of burden been gone from your mountains?” “Seven days,” replied Mañjuśrī. “Seven days in the mountain,” said Tathāgata, “are equivalent to several thousand years on earth. I wonder how many lives they have taken down there. You must follow me quickly if we are to retrieve them.” With one bodhisattva standing on each side of him, the Buddha and his followers rose into the air (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 29-30).

如來即下蓮臺,同諸佛眾,徑出山門。又見阿儺、迦葉引文殊、普賢來見,二菩薩對佛禮拜。如來道:「菩薩之獸,下山多少時了?」文殊道:「七日了。」如來道:「山中方七日,世上幾千年。不知在那廂傷了多少生靈,快隨我收他去。」二菩薩相隨左右,同眾飛空。

Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is lying about the corresponding time on earth in order to mask his guilt over not intervening sooner. As evidence, they cite the fact that the novel states “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). However, this could just be one of the aforementioned inconsistencies. One oral tradition may have said one day equals one year, while another said it equals one thousand years, and then both of these made it into the novel. But there is a more likely answer (see below).

They also claim that the respective Bodhisattvas’ mountain paradises are on earth, meaning they would be subject to the same time as the mortal world. This carries the implication that the beasts were eating people for at least a few hundred years and none of the Buddhist deities did anything to stop them. But the author clearly doesn’t understand earthly paradises like Mañjuśrī’s Mount Wutai (Wutai shan, 五臺山; lit: “Five Terrace/Platform Mountain”), which they mention by name in the article. Chou (2018) notes that a “central paradox of Mount Wutai” is that it is “both an earthly place and a Buddhist paradise (pure land)” (p. 142). Kōtatsu (Kōtatsu & Otowa, 1996) explains that Pure Lands (Jingtu, 净土) are “world[s] of another dimension” that are “temporally different from this one” (p. 45). Therefore, it seems more likely that the Enlightened One was referring to the time difference between Buddhist mountain paradises and the mortal realm. This is distinct from the Daoist heaven, which is expressly associated with the “one heavenly day = one earthly year” time dilation.

Additionally, Ye (n.d.) claims that Mañjuśrī is lying about the length of time his beast was absent because of a similar bout of guilt. It’s strange, though, that the writer’s answer for everything is “such and such Buddhist figure is being dishonest”. I’d be interested to read some of their other work to see if there’s a pattern of deconstructing Buddhism. JTTW clearly treats the religion with reverence, placing the Buddha and his disciples at the top of the novel’s cosmic hierarchy. Therefore, selectively interpreting details to support some agenda against Buddhism wouldn’t reflect positively on the author or their writing.

And again, I have to ask: How would this lie further the Buddha’s supposed plans?

Fig. 3 – Sun Wukong and his religious brothers battling the bird, elephant, and lion demons from Lion-Camel Cave (larger version). Artist unknown. Image found here. The elephant and lion are the missing holy beasts who became monsters on earth.

IV. Fourth Lie

After the Buddha captures the Great Peng (ch. 77) (fig. 4), the bird demon submits to Buddhism but stubbornly refuses to stop eating meat. The Enlightened One thinks for a moment and then offers him the following solution:

“In the four great continents of my domain,” said Tathāgata, “there are countless worshippers. I shall ask those who wish to do good to sacrifice first to your mouth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 31).

我管四大部洲,無數眾生瞻仰,凡做好事,我教他先祭汝口。

Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is deceptively bragging here in order to placate the uber powerful monster. At the same time, his statement about having dominance over the four continents is thought to be a lie since the Jade Emperor is the stated ruler of the cosmos. They reason that it’s evidence of the Enlightened One wanting to govern all four continents. But it’s important to remember that, as mentioned above, the novel takes place in a world modeled after Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which Ye (n.d.) is fully aware of. The Daoist bureaucracy of JTTW is therefore a syncretic veil that has been draped over a pre-existing Buddhist structure. In the original system, the world is overseen by the Devarāja Śakra (Sk: Śakro devānāṃ indraḥ; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋) from the heaven of the thirty-three gods atop Mount Sumeru (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 739-740 and 921-922). (Interestingly, the novel hints that the Daoist bureaucracy is located in this very same heaven – see the material above figure two here). But despite the gods’ divine lifespans, as inhabitants of the Realm of Desire, they are still subject to death and therefore susceptible to the Wheel of Reincarnation (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233). Only the Buddha can help such beings escape from the endless rounds of rebirth by leading them to enlightenment. He does this within the confines of his own domain or “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹). Buswell and Lopez (2014) explain:

[W]hen a buddha achieves enlightenment, a “container” or “inanimate” world is produced in the form of a field where the buddha leads beings to enlightenment. The inhabitant of that world is the buddha endowed with all the [qualities of an Enlightened One]. Buddha-fields occur in various levels of purification, broadly divided between pure and impure. Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cakravāḍa), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe; here, ordinary sentient beings (including animals, ghosts, and hell beings) dwell, subject to the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Each Cakravāḍa is the domain of a specific buddha, who achieves enlightenment in that world system and works there toward the liberation of all sentient beings… (p. 153).

Therefore, the JTTW cosmos is the Enlightened One’s Buddha-Field. But Ye (n.d.) appears to be aware of this fact (at least on some level), for they write: “The truth of the matter is that the Buddha is the lord of all sentient beings in the Buddhist schools of the four continents” (Zhenshi qingkuang shi, Rulai shi si dabu zhou fopai zhongsheng zhi zhu, 真實情況是,如來是四大部洲佛派眾生之主). So why would the writer still claim that the Buddha’s statement is a lie when they know it isn’t? This is a prime example of the author selectively interpreting facts.

Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of the Great Peng trapped above the Buddha’s head (larger version). Artist unknown.

V. Conclusion

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Buddha is a master strategist who makes “four grand, overarching lies” in a bid to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. But the writer demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. I show that the supposed falsehoods are instead likely based on the viewpoints of historical foreign monks, are inconsistencies within the JTTW narrative, reference Buddhist views of time, and reflect the Buddhist world system.

Notes:

1) The ruler’s decision to allow said pilgrimage is associated with a subplot in chapters 11 and 12 where he learns of countless orphaned souls in the underworld and searches for a monk to release them from their torments via a grand Buddhist ceremony. Tripitaka is chosen to lead the ceremony but is later convinced by the Bodhisattva Guanyin to halt the ritual until he has retrieved more appropriate scriptures from India.

2) Source altered slightly.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) originally translates Puxian (普賢) as “Viśvabhadra” (vol. 4, pp. 29). I’ve changed it to “Samantabhadra” as this appears to be a more well-known version of the Bodhisattva’s name.

Sources:

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195.

Chou, W. (2018). Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Kōtatsu, F., & Otowa, R. (1996). The Origin of the Pure Land. The Eastern Buddhist, 29(1), 33–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44362148.

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

Ye, Z. (n.d.). Rulai fo sa de sige mitian dahuang [The Four Grand, Overarching Lies Cast by the Buddha]. Sohu. https://web.archive.org/web/20220731055723/https://m.sohu.com/n/474302290/.