Archive #20 – Qing-Period Color-Illustrated Complete Edition of Journey to the West

Upon the initial release, I was entranced by the cover art for the 2012 revised edition of Anthony C. Yu’s famed Journey to the West translation. For example, the cover for volume one (fig. 1) featured the pilgrims crossing the Flowing-Sands River via a boat made from Sha Wujing‘s skull necklace and a heaven-sent gourd. I loved the individuality and color scheme of each figure. They look almost like characters from a comic book. Though the art style was old, I assumed the bright, vibrant colors signaled the illustration was a modern reproduction. This was not the case. I later learned that the art was made by an anonymous painter of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The paintings from this series were later gathered into an abridged ten-volume set titled Qing-Period Color-Illustrated Complete Edition of Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記, 2008). Here I present lower res PDFs of this work, complete with the gorgeous artwork. Each page is formatted with simplified Chinese dialogue on the left side and art on the right (fig. 2).

Fig. 1 – The cover of volume one (larger version). Fig. 2 – An example of the page format (larger version). It portrays the pilgrims finally coming before the Buddha in India. The formerly subjugated “Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles” (i.e. Garuda) can be seen hovering above the Enlightened One’s throne.

Book links


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


Ming, Q. (Ed.). (2008). Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji [Qing-Period Color-Illustrated Complete Edition of Journey to the West]. Beijing: Zhongguo shudian.

The Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), a Catalog of Chinese Gods

I recently learned about an interesting website called the Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), which catalogs information and pictures for Chinese gods from all over the world. There are currently 2,000 listings and counting.

It is based on the work of religious scholar Keith Stevens (d. 2016), who wrote the amazing Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons (Collins & Brown, 1997) (fig. 1). I recently volunteered to help the project. So far, I’ve written two articles (see reference no. W1001 and W1011) and updated two other existing listings with information and pictures (see the bottom of W8620 and W9305).

Fig. 1 – My well-worn personal copy of Chinese Gods (larger version).

Due to the great number of listings, there are no direct links. Instead, the site has adopted a somewhat confusing (but necessary) cataloging system based around reference numbers, pinyin, Mandarin, and Wade-Giles. However, it’s easy to use once you get used to it. For example, if you were going to search for Sanqing, the “Three Pure Ones“, using, say, Pinyin, I recommend first getting the reference number (RefNo). 

Deities —> Tabular Listing of Xian Shen Deities —> Field: Pinyin —> Type: Contains —> Value: San qing (you may have to play around with the spacing like I did here) —> Filter —> Then look for the correct listing (since other listings mentioning them might appear in the list) —> ☰ —> copy the “RefNo”, in this case W5540 (fig. 2) —> Deities —> Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar —> Field: RefNo —> Type: Contains —> Value: W5540 —> Filter (fig. 3) —> The listing (fig. 4)

If you know the Mandarin or Wade-Giles for the deity you are looking for, the process would be similar. You would just need to change the field to “Mandarin” or “Wade-Giles”. You could just jump to “Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar” to search using pinyin, mandarin, and Wade-Giles, but it’s been my experience that a different listing will pop up first based on a higher RefNo or Romanized spelling. First finding the reference number seems to be the easiest method for me.

I can’t recommend this website enough. New gods, as well as new stories or beliefs associated with more established deities, are appearing all the time, so it is very important to catalog everything as soon as new information becomes available. If you would like to volunteer in some way, please contact Ronni Pinsler using the “contact” form on the BOXS website.

Fig. 2 – How to acquire the reference number (RefNo) (larger version). Fig. 3 – How to navigate to the listing (larger version). Fig. 4 – The listing as seen from the top of the page (larger version).

Archive #19 – The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (1981)

Not many people know that there are three main editions of Journey to the West from the Ming Dynasty. The best known is the standard 1592 edition, Newly Printed, Illustrated, Deluxe and Large Character, Journey to the West (Xin ke chu xiang guan ban da zi Xiyou ji, 新刻出像官板大字西遊記) in 20 rolls and 100 chapters (99 in its original form). The second is the “Zhu edition”, Newly printed, Completely Illustrated, Chronicle of Deliverances in Sanzang of the Tang’s Journey to the West (Xin qie quan xiang Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi ni (e) zhuan, 新鍥全像唐三藏西遊释尼(厄)傳) in ten rolls (with three to ten chapters each) by Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣) of Yangcheng (羊城, i.e. Guangzhou). The third is the “Yang edition”, Newly Printed, Complete Biography of Sanzang’s Career (Xin qie Sanzang chu shen quan zhuan, 新鍥三藏出身全傳) in four rolls and 40 chapters by Yang Zhihe (陽至和) of Qiyun (齊雲).

For decades, various scholars have debated the relationship between these three editions. Points raised in this discussion suggest the following: the 1592 edition is based on Yang; Zhu and Yang are based on the 1592 edition; Yang is based on Zhu and the 1592 edition came later, using Zhu as a source; Zhu is based on Yang; Zhu and Yang predate the 1592 edition but all three are based on an earlier, extinct version; Yang is based on Zhu, which is based on the 1592 edition; and the 1592 edition is based on the yang version, which is based on the extinct version.

Koss (1981) performs an in-depth analysis of all three editions, showing that the 1592 edition is an expansion of Zhu and Yang is a later abridgement of the former. Zhu being the oldest, with portions likely predating 1450, is based on its earlier style phrasing and chapter structure; the use of vernacular language with simplistic two-person dialogue and fewer and less literary poems, suggesting a reliance on oral literature; and Zhu illustrations serving as the basis for many pictures from the 1592 edition. This two volume tome is a fascinating, though extremely technical, read for anyone interested in the development of Journey to the West.

An image from the Zhu edition (larger version).

Dissertation link


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


Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (Vol. 1 and 2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)

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


An analysis of historical, transcultural, and transmedia adaptation, Transforming Monkey: Adaptation and Representation of a Chinese Epic examines the ever-changing image of Sun Wukong (aka Monkey, or the Monkey King), in literature and popular culture both in China and the United States. A protean protagonist of the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), the Monkey King’s image has been adapted in distinctive ways for the representation of various social entities, including China as a newly founded nation state, the younger generation of Chinese during the postsocialist period, and the representation of the Chinese and Chinese American as a social “other” in American popular culture. The juxtaposition of various manifestations of the same character in the book present the adaptation history of Monkey as a masquerade, enabling readers to observe not only the masks, but also the mask-wearers, as well as underlying factors such as literary and political history, state ideologies, market economies, issues of race and ethnicity, and politics of representation and cross-cultural translation Transforming Monkey demonstrates the social and political impact of adaptations through the hands of its users while charting the changes to the image of Sun Wukong in modern history and his participation in the construction and representation of Chinese identity. The first manuscript focusing on the transformations of the Monkey King image and the meanings this image carries, Transforming Monkey argues for the importance of adaptations as an indivisible part of the classical work, and as a revealing window to examine history, culture, and the world.

Book link


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


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

Origin of the Six-Eared Macaque and the Character’s Influence on Black Myth: Wukong

The Six-Eared Macaque (Liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴) (fig. 1) is one of the most interesting villains that Sun Wukong faces in Journey to the West. He is an example of the evil twin archetype from world mythology. But unlike modern media which sometimes differentiates evil twins with goatees,—think of Evil Spock from the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror“—this malicious spirit is an exact duplicate of Monkey with the same features, voice, clothing, and fighting abilities. He’s so similar in fact that no one in the cosmos, save the Buddha, can differentiate him from Wukong. But who is he really and where did he come from?

In this article, I suggest that the Six-Eared Macaque is based on Buddhist concepts of mind and nonduality (Sk: advaya; Ch: bu’er, 不二). In addition, I discuss the character’s origin within the book as a former friend of the Monkey King, explain the significance of the six ears to Buddhism, and detail references to him in a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West. Finally, I describe the character’s influence on the upcoming Chinese video game Black Myth: Wukong (2023).

Fig. 1 – The Six-Eared Macaque by Zhang Ji (larger version here).

1. Description of the episode

In chapter 56, Monkey magically disguises himself as a 16-year-old monk and comes to the rescue of Tripitaka, who had been captured by mountain bandits demanding money for safe passage. The bandits let the priest go under the pretense that his young disciple has money. However, Wukong murders the two bandit chiefs with his iron cudgel, causing the remaining thirty or so men to flee in terror. That night, the pilgrims find lodging with an old couple. But they soon discover that the couple’s son is one of the bandits routed by Monkey earlier in the evening. The son returns home with his gang late at night and, upon learning of the monks, hatches a plan to attack them in their sleep. But the old man alerts the pilgrims to the danger and allows them to escape out a back gate. The bandits take chase, catching up to them at sunrise, only to meet their death at Wukong’s hands. Monkey finds the old couple’s son and beheads him as punishment for disrespecting his parents. All of this killing horrifies Tripitaka, who recites the tight-fillet spell (jin gu zhou, 緊箍咒) and banishes Wukong from the group.

In chapter 57, Wukong travels to Guanyin’s island paradise to complain about Tripitaka casting him out from the pilgrimage. He asks the goddess if he can be released from monkhood and return to his old life, but she instead uses her eyes of wisdom to foresee a future event in which Monkey will need to rescue his master. Meanwhile, Tripitaka asks his remaining disciples to find him food and drink. However, in their absence, Wukong attacks the priest, knocking him unconscious with the staff and stealing the group’s belongings containing the travel rescript (tongguan wendie, 通關文牒). [1] Sha Wujing is sent to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to retrieve their things, but Monkey refuses to return the rescript as he wishes to win all of the merit and fame by finishing the quest on his own. Wujing points out that the Buddha will only give the holy texts to the chosen scripture seeker. Wukong, however, shows that he’s prepared for this outcome by parading doppelgangers of Tripitaka, Zhu Bajie, Sha, and the white dragon horse. Wujing kills his double (which is revealed to be a transformed monkey spirit) and attempts to attack Monkey but is forced to retreat. He flees to Guanyin only to attack Wukong once more when he finds him sitting next to the goddess. Guanyin stays his hand and explains that Monkey has been with her the entire time. She then sends them both back to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to investigate the double.

In chapter 58, upon seeing the impostor, Wukong rushes forward to attack the double, who defends himself with his “Acquiescent Iron Pole Arm” (Suixin tie gan bing, 隨心鐵桿兵). [2] The two battle their way through the sky to Guanyin’s island paradise in order to determine who is the real Monkey. But when she attempts to weed out the impostor by reciting the tight-fillet spell, both Wukong’s drop to the floor in pain. In the face of failure, Guanyin sends them up to the celestial realm in the hopes that the deities who fought Monkey centuries ago will be able to tell one from the other. Both of them fight their way into heaven and gain an audience with the Jade Emperor, but not even the imp-reflecting mirror (zhao yao jing, 照妖鏡) [3] can tell them apart. The two then battle their way back to earth, and when Tripitaka’s use of the tight-fillet spell fails, they fight down to the underworld. There, the judges are unable to find the impostor in their ledgers, but Investigative Hearing (Diting, 諦聽), the omniscient celestial mount of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, finally solves the riddle. However, the creature is reluctant to reveal the false Wukong for fear he will use his powers to disrupt the underworld. The bodhisattva therefore sends them to the Western Paradise in India to stand before the Buddha, who instantly recognizes the impostor. The Enlightened One gives Guanyin a short lecture on four spiritual primates that fall outside of the ten categories of mortal and immortal life in the cosmos: 1) the intelligent stone monkey (ling ming shihou, 靈明石猴, i.e. Sun Wukong); 2) the red-buttocked baboon (chikao mahou, 赤尻馬猴); 3) the bare-armed gibbon (tongbi yuanhou, 通臂猿猴); and 4) the six-eared macaque (liu’er mihou, 六耳獼猴). When the Buddha identifies the doppelganger as the fourth kind, the fake Monkey attempts to flee in the form of a bee but is trapped under the Enlightened One’s alms bowl. In the end, Wukong kills the macaque with his cudgel.

2. Origin

2.1. Background in the novel

Lam (2005) reveals that the Six-Eared Macaque is actually Monkey’s sworn brother, the Macaque King (Mihou wang, 獼猴王) (fig. 2), from his younger days as a demon (p. 168). [4] He explains:

The latter’s other agnomen, “the Great Sage Informing Wind” (Tongfeng dasheng, 通風大聖 …) [5] suggests further that its ears are as good as the six-eared macaque’s in information gathering. Despite all these archaic or anachronistic traces, however, Monkey never comes to recognize the six-eared macaque as his old sworn brother as is the case with the Bull Demon King” (Lam, 2005, p. 168).

This should come as no surprise considering the spirit copies Monkey’s life, including his early years as a king. Interestingly, Wukong is a macaque himself.

The novel doesn’t mention the original home of the Macaque King, only that Wukong “made extensive visits to various heroes and warriors” while “tour[ing] the four seas and disport[ing] himself in a thousand mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). The Macaque King could live on anyone of these thousand mountains.

Fig. 2 – A Zbrush rendering of the Macaque King by Zcool user Nerv99 (larger version here).

2.2. Significance of the six ears

Yu suggests the macaque’s six ears come from the Buddhist saying “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear [i.e., the third pair or person]” (fa bu zhuan liu er, 法不傳六耳) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 387 n. 7). He continues: “This idiom is already used in chapter 2 when Monkey assured Patriarch Subhodi that he could receive the oral transmission of the secret formula for realized immortality because ‘there is no third party [sixth ear] present'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 387 n. 7). This phrase refers to a closely guarded secret that must be kept at all cost, something that can only be passed from a qualified teacher to an initiated disciple.

In this case, the Six-Eared Macaque is the second set of ears, for the Buddha states: “[E]ven 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). Who knows how long this creature listens in on Monkey’s life before he makes an appearance. Perhaps he hears Subhuti’s secret teachings. This might explain why the impostor has similar abilities to our hero.

As the embodiment of the “sixth ear”, the Six-Eared Macaque also represents heterodoxy (waidao, 外道; pangmen, 旁們, lit: “side door”), for someone eavesdropping on esoteric secrets without full initiation into a tradition would have an incomplete understanding. And any supernatural gifts derived from subsequent practice, though powerful as they may be, would just be pale imitations of that achieved by true disciples. This concept is featured in chapter 46 when three animal spirits-turned-Daoist priests challenge Wukong to contests of torture, but each dies because their magic is not as strong as Monkey’s. The novel stresses this is because their training was only partially completed under a teacher. [6] Wukong is more powerful because he completed his training under Subhuti.

2.3. The Ramayana vs. Buddhist philosophy

Hoong (2004) claims the concept of two identical apes fighting each other “evolved from the well-known episode of the Ramayana where Rama was unable to distinguish between [Vali] and the monkey king Sugriva … when the twin brothers were fighting hand to hand” (p. 36 n. 32). This is an enticing suggestion, and indeed the episode is paraphrased in a collection of Buddhist jataka tales translated into Chinese in the third-century, [7] showing that the story existed in China for centuries prior to the publication of the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. However, I should point out that the jataka doesn’t mention the pugilistic primates being identical. In fact, they’re not even brothers. It simply reads, “The following day the monkey fought with his uncle. The [human] king bent the bow and took out arrows … Though far off, the uncle shuddered with horror. He was mighty afraid. He wandered about [a while] and ran away” (Mair, 1989, p. 677). That’s not to say the author-compiler of Journey to the West wasn’t influenced by the tale and independently came upon the idea of twin monkeys. It’s just that I think there are other avenues open to research.

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

In Chapter 58, the Buddha gives his congregation a sermon on nonduality, discussing existence and nonexistence, form and formlessness, and emptiness and nonemptiness. Just as the battle between Monkey and his double erupts on Spirit Vulture Mountain (fig. 3), the Buddha tells his congregation, “You are all of one mind, but take a look at two Minds in competition and strife arriving here” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113). “One mind” (Sk: ekacitta; Ch: yixin, 一心) is a high-level philosophy and core tenet of many Buddhist schools that refers to a tranquil, immovable mind that encompasses nonduality (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 1031-1032; Huang, 2005, p. 68). “Two minds” (erxin, 二心) refers to the dichotomy of the “true mind” (zhenxin, 眞/真心), “the original, simple, pure, natural mind of all creatures, [or] the Buddha-mind” and the “illusionary mind” (wangxin, 妄心), “which results in complexity and confusion” (Soothill and Hodous, 1937/2006, pp. 24-25). A poem in chapter 58 specifically associates two minds with confusion. The first two lines read: If one has two minds, disasters he’ll breed; / He’ll guess and conjecture both far and near” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 113).

It’s important to remember that Wukong is an embodiment of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. [8] As his double, the Six-Eared Macaque is also a Mind Monkey. Therefore, I suggest the battle between these twin primates is an allegory for the struggle between the true and illusionary minds within not just our hero but also readers of Journey to the West. After all, Wukong is the true Monkey, while his double, the fake Monkey, lives under the fantasy that he can take the Great Sage’s place and finish the quest on his own. Furthermore, given chapter 58’s emphasis on nonduality, I argue Monkey killing the Six-Eared Macaque in the end represents the blossoming of one mind/true mind by extinguishing the illusionary mind. This fits with Sun’s (2018) suggestion that the killing “is an action of eliminating the monster in him [Wukong], indicating that he is getting closer to achieving Buddhahood at this point in the journey” (p. 25). [9]

3. Appearance in other literature

The Six-Eared Macaque is mentioned by name twice and referenced once in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, c. 1640), a 16-chapter sequel and addendum to the original novel taking place between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62. In the story, Monkey is trapped in a dream world where he wanders from one disjointed adventure to the next searching for a magic weapon needed to clear the pilgrims’ path to India. In chapter ten, he attempts to leave a magic tower of mirrors and becomes hopelessly entangled in a net of sentient red threads that adapt to any transformation he uses to escape. An elderly man claiming to be Sun Wukong, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, comes to his rescue by snapping the threads for him. But upon hearing the man’s name, Monkey lashes out at him with his weapon, exclaiming: “You rascally six-eared ape! Have you come to trick me again? Take a look at my cudgel!” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 87). But after the old man vanishes in a flash, Wukong realizes that he was saved by his very own spirit.

In chapter 12, a blind court singer plays a tune recounting events from the original novel for the enjoyment of Tripitaka and a foreign king. A section of the song goes: “A pair of Sage Monkeys deceived Guanyin” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 104). [10]

In chapter 15, after giving up the quest and becoming a commander for the foreign king, Tripitaka starts amassing an army. Sun Wukong is listed among the generals, but because Monkey is investigating his master’s change of heart, he instead presents himself as his brother, the Six-Eared Macaque:

The name “Great General Sun Wukong” was called. The Tang Priest blanched and gazed below his platform. It happened that Monkey had mixed amongst the army for the past three days in the form of a six-eared monkey soldier. When he heard the three words “Sun Wukong” he leaped out of formation and knelt on the ground, saying, “Little General Sun Wukong is transporting supplies and couldn’t be present. I’m his brother Sun Wuhuan [孫悟幻, “Monkey Awakened to Fantasy”] , and I wish to take his place in battle. In this I dare disobey the Commander’s order.”

The Tang Priest said, “Sun Wuhuan, what is your origin? Tell me quickly, and I’ll spare your life.”

Hopping and dancing, Monkey said:

In the old days I was a monster,
Who took the name of Monkey.
After the Great Sage left the Tang Priest,
I became his close relation by way of marriage.
There’s no need to ask my name,
I’m the Six-eared Monkey, Great General Sun Wuhuan.

The Tang Priest said, “The six-eared ape used to be Monkey’s enemy. Now he’s forgotten the old grudge and become generous. He must be a good man.” He ordered [the minor general] White Banner to give Sun Wuhuan a suit of the iron armor of the vanguard and appointed him “Vanguard General to Destroy Entrenchment” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 122).

4. Black Myth: Wukong

Black Myth: Wukong (Hei shenhua: Wukong, 黑神話:悟空, 2023) is an upcoming action RPG by the independent Chinese developer Game Science (Youxi Kexue, 遊戲科學) (Adler, 2020; Skrebels, 2020). A trailer with 13 minutes of gameplay was released August 20th and has garnered over 6.7 million views on YouTube alone (as of 11/4/20) (video 1). It opens on an aged, furry and squint-faced, long-nailed monk (likely Wukong) sitting in a rundown temple and recalling assorted legends about Monkey. One says the hero became a Buddha and stayed on Spirit Mountain; another that he died on the journey and a different figure was given buddhahood in his place; and another still that Wukong is just a fictional character from a story. The monk then tells the viewer, “But you must not have heard the story I’m going to tell”, thus alluding to the unofficial or “black myth” (hei shenhua, 黑神話).

The trailer features a gorgeous, immersive world in which Wukong travels by foot, wing, and cloud battling underlings and demonic bosses. Monkey is shown capable of freezing enemies in place, making soldiers with his hair, and hardening his body to avoid damage, as well as transforming into a cicada (for covert travel and reconnaissance) and a large golden ape (for boss battles). See here for a great explanation of the cultural and literary references in the game.

Video 1 – The 13 minute game play trailer for Black Myth: Wukong.

Interestingly, some characters in the game hint at a second Wukong. For example, a low-level demon boss says, “Hmm…another monkey?” upon meeting Wukong. Later, an earth god sees him and proclaims, “Similar!”, thus alluding to the other Monkey. This mystery comes to a head at the end of the trailer when Wukong goes to strike another character and his weapon is blocked by a staff with little effort. The camera pans upwards along the shaft, passed glowing Chinese characters for the “‘As-you-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), revealing the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in his golden armor. This implies the “real” Sun Wukong has arrived and the gamer has been playing as a “fake” Monkey the entire time. But who is this figure?

I suggest this fake Monkey is the Six-Eared Macaque. As noted above, this impostor wishes to win all the glory by completing the quest on his own. His exact words read:

I struck the Tang Monk [with my staff] and I took the luggage not because I didn’t want to go to the West, nor because I loved to live in this place [Flower-Fruit Mountain]. I’m studying the rescript at the moment precisely because I want to go to the West all by myself to ask Buddha for the scriptures. When I deliver them to the Land of the East, it will be my success and no one else’s. Those people of the South Jambudvipa Continent will honor me then as their patriarch and my fame will last for all posterity (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

This would explain why the fake Monkey is traveling alone and why the real Wukong stops him at the end of the trailer.

4. Conclusion

The Six-Eared Macaque is a supernatural primate who wishes to take Wukong’s place in order to win all the glory by finishing the quest on his own. He is in fact Monkey’s former sworn brother, the Macaque King, who took the title “Great Sage Informing Wind”. His six ears are likely based on the Buddhist phrase “The dharma is not to be transmitted to the sixth ear”, denoting a great secret that must only be passed to an initiated disciple. His ability to eavesdrop on such secrets from a thousand miles away identifies him as a practitioner of heterodoxy. Being a copy of Monkey, the macaque also symbolizes the “Mind Monkey”, thereby marking their battle as an allegory for the internal struggle between the true and illusionary minds. The spirit’s death at the end represents the blossoming of One Mind.

The Six-Eared Macaque is referenced several times in the sequel A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640). In chapter ten, Monkey is freed from a magical trap by his very own spirit, who presents himself as Sun Wukong, causing our hero to mistakenly assume his doppelganger has returned. In chapter 12, a court singer alludes to Guanyin’s failure to distinguish the true Great Sage from the fake one. Finally, in chapter 15, Wukong presents himself as the macaque in order to infiltrate Tripitaka’s army.

The spirit is likely the main character of the upcoming action RPG Black Myth: Wukong (2023). The trailer shows this Monkey fighting all manner of underlings and bosses along his solo quest. But the “real” Wukong appears at the end to cross staves, thus showing the gamer is playing as the impostor.


1) The travel rescript is like an imperial passport that needs to be stamped by each kingdom to guarantee legal passage along the quest to India. It contains an introductory letter from the Tang emperor and the stamps of all the kingdoms already visited.

2) Yu translates the name as “acquiescent staff of iron” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 105). My thanks to Irwen Wong for suggesting the alternative translation. “Acquiescent” or “to fulfill one’s desires” (suixin, 隨心) is a play on the “as-you-wish” (ruyi, 如意) of Monkey’s “‘As-you-wish’ Gold-banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒).

3) The imp-reflecting mirror is used in chapter six to see through Monkey’s various magical disguises during his battle with Erlang (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 179 and 184).

4) Wukong takes his six sworn brothers in chapter three shortly after establishing his monkey tribe as a military power. The other brothers include the Bull Monster King, the Dragon Monster King, the Garuda Monster King, the Giant Lynx King, and the Orangutan King (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 138-139).

5) Yu translates the name as “Telltale Great Sage” (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 157).

6) For example, after he successfully meets a goat spirit’s challenge to boil in oil, Wukong discovers the liquid is somehow cool to the touch during the animal’s turn. Monkey then summons a dragon king who tells him:

[T]his cursed beast did go through quite an austere process of self-cultivation, to the point where he was able to cast off his original shell. He has acquired the true magic of the Five Thunders, while the rest of the magic powers he has are all those developed by heterodoxy, none fit to lead him to the true way of the immortals (Wu, & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 313).

7) This tale, commonly known in English as the “Jataka of an Unnamed King” (no. 46), appears in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, third-century) (CBETA, 2016), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). See Mair, 1989, pp. 676-678 for a full English translation.

8) Examples of the term’s use include titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”).

9) Alternatively, Sun (2018) suggests: “[H]e kills the six-eared macaque because the latter has copied him too closely, the best demon among the ones that Monkey has conquered” (p. 25).

10) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin. All other quotes from this source will be thus changed.


Adler, M. (2020, August 26). Black Myth: Wukong – Everything We Know About Gameplay, Release Date, and More. Retrieved from

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016). T03n0152_005 六度集經 第5卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas, scroll no. 5]. Retrieved from

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.

Hoong, T. T. (2004). Some Classical Malay Materials for the Study of the Chinese Novel Journey to the West. Sino-Platonic Papers, 137, 1-64. Retrieved from

Huang, Y. (2005). Integrating Chinese Buddhism: A Study of Yongming Yanshou’s Guanxin Xuanshu. Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing.

Lam, H. L. (2005). Cannibalizing the Heart: The Politics of Allegory and The Journey to the West. In E. Ziolkowski (Ed.). Literature, Religion, and East/West Comparison (pp. 162-178). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

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

Skrebels, J. (2020, September 11). Black Myth: Wukong – 19 New Details We’ve Learned. Retrieved from

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

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

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

When was the Monkey King Born?

Last updated: 07/08/2020

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen herehere, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I was recently contacted by someone writing a Journey to the West fanfiction and asked when the Monkey King was born from stone. I have therefore decided to write an entry for those interested in the subject. I will start at the end of the novel and work my way backwards. The years presented are guesstimates and should not be taken as wholly accurate considering that the novel does not follow a strict historical timeline.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with his religious birthday, which is variously celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the twenty-third (Fuzhou) or twenty-fifth day (Putian) of the second lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), and the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month (Taiwan) (see here).

Monkey’s birth from stone (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950).

Chapter 100

Upon the pilgrims’ return to China from India, Tang Emperor Taizong tells Tripitaka, “We have caused you the trouble of taking a long journey. This is now the twenty-seventh year of the Zhenguan period!” (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, p. 374). It should be noted that this era historically lasted from 627 to 650 CE (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). So the novel dates their return to 654 CE, adding four fictional years to the reign period.

The historical Xuanzang returned in 645 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

Chapter 13/14

In chapter fourteen, Tripitaka releases Sun Wukong from under the Mountain of Two Frontiers (a.k.a. Five Elements Mountain) a short time after leaving the confines of the Chinese empire. But prior to taking Monkey as a disciple, he is briefly guarded by the hunter Liu Boqin on his trek westward. Liu tells Tripitaka the history of the area during their journey across the mountain: “A few years ago, I heard from my elders that during the time when Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Han emperor, this mountain fell from Heaven with a divine monkey clamped beneath it” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 306). [1] The former Han official Wang Mang historically ruled from 9 BCE–23 CE (Bielenstein, 1986). I will return to this point below.

Chapter thirteen states Tripitaka leaves from Chang’an “on the third day before the fifteenth of the ninth month in the thirteenth year of the period Zhenguan” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 293). This dates his departure to the year 640 CE.

The historical Xuanzang left China in 627 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

Chapter 7/8

In the beginning of chapter eight, the Buddha says, “We do not know how much time has passed here since I subdued the wily monkey and pacified Heaven, but I suppose at least half a millennium has gone by in the worldly realm…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 203). But as noted above, Wukong is imprisoned during the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9 BCE–23 CE). Therefore, if he is discovered in 640 CE, this means Monkey’s imprisonment lasts anywhere from 617 to 649 years and not 500 as is commonly thought.

Prior to his wager with the Buddha in chapter seven, Wukong is placed into Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. The novel reads, “Truly time passed swiftly, and the forty-ninth day arrived imperceptibly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative previously revealed that “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years, starting between 40–26 BCE.

Chapter 5

Following Monkey’s initial rebellion and being granted the empty title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, he is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves. He later flees back to earth after eating the life-prolonging fruits and wreaking havoc on the Queen Mother’s peach banquet. Upon his return, his commanders ask him, “The Great Sage has been living for over a century in Heaven. May we ask what appointment he actually received?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 166) (emphasis mine). This dates his ascension to heaven somewhere below the range of 140–126 BCE (150–136 BCE?). I Obviously can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Chapter 3/4

After Wukong bullies the Eastern Dragon King and the Judges of hell, Heaven appoints him the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his unruly adventures in check. But upon learning that his position is the lowest in heaven, he returns home in rebellion. His children ask, “Having gone to the region above for more than ten years, you must be returning in success and glory” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150) (emphasis mine). This dates his first ascension somewhere below the range 150–136 BCE (160–146 BCE?). Again, I can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Shotaro_Honda_1939 - Hell (small)
Monkey strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death in hell (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

During his time in hell, Monkey calls for the ledger containing his information. Under a heading marked “Soul 1350”, Wukong reads, “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). [2] If we use 160–146 BCE as a conservative estimate for his first ascension, then this dates his birth to somewhere between 502–488 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). I think 500 BCE is a nice round number.

This means that Sun Wukong is roughly 1,100 years old when he attains Buddhahood at the end of the novel.

Update: 07/08/2020

The novel suggests a two hour window for the time of Wukong’s birth. This takes place in chapter 61 when Monkey is preparing to battle the Bull Demon King over the palm-leaf fan. Our hero recites an emboldening poem, to which Zhu Bajie replies:

Yes! Yes! Yes!
Go! Go! Go!
Who cares if the Bull King says yes or no!
Wood’s born at Boar,
the hog’s its proper mate,
Who’ll lead back the Bull to return to earth.
Monkey is the metal born under shen [申]:
Peaceful and docile, how harmonious!
Use the palm-leaf
As water’s sign.
When flames are extinct, Completion’s attained.
In hard work we persist both night and day
And rush, merit done, to Ullambana Feast (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 154). (emphasis mine)

The monkey is one of twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, each corresponding to an earthly branch, an elemental phase, and a time period. The monkey is born under the shen (申) branch, which is associated with metal and the hours 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM.


1) I am indebted to study_of_journey_to_the_west on Instagram for bringing this passage to my attention.

2) These include three years as Subhuti’s student (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 121), seven as a junior monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117), and “more than ten years” searching the world for a master (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).


Bielenstein, H. (1986). Wang Mang, the Restoration of the Han Dynasty, and Later Han. In D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Ed.). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220 (pp. 223-290). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

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

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

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

Zhang, Q. (2015). An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Belgium: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.


Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).


Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.


1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

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

Mair, V. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

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

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 02/06/21

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Update: 12/28/19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


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

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

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: Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Monkey Fist: The Connection Between Primates and Martial Arts in Ancient China

Look up the terms “monkey” or “ape” in the dictionary and you’ll find that they serve as verbs meaning to mimic the movements or actions of another. This is because monkeys and apes have a propensity for observation and mimicry. Being primates ourselves, humans are no different. But interestingly this mimicry sometimes mirrors our primate cousins. Chinese martial arts, for example, has developed several primate-based fighting arts, including White Ape Connected Arms boxing (Baiyuan tongbei quan, 白猿通背拳) and several flavors of Monkey boxing (Houquan, 猴拳), and other styles have even adopted primate techniques, such as the monkey footwork of Praying Mantis boxing (Tanglang quan, 螳螂拳). Humans have long marveled at the physical prowess and acrobatic mastery of apes and monkeys. So it’s only natural that boxers would want to incorporate the powerful arm movements and awe-inspiring leaps and flips of primates into various fighting arts. But how long have our cousins been associated with martial arts in Chinese culture, and when and how did primate-based martial arts develop?

Two approaches can be used in an attempt to answer both questions. The first method involves charting similarities in techniques shared between modern regional primate-based Chinese martial arts styles and relying on folk lineages, ethnographic data, and (when possible) historical manuals to discover the earliest vestiges of primate boxing in China. A second method is to search for references to primate-based martial arts in the historical record. A benefit of the first approach would be pinpointing the areas in China where these styles likely first emerged in recent history. The downside is that martial arts are passed from teacher to student via embodied practices (e.g. fist and weapons forms and sparring), often without the material being recorded in a manual. This means such styles can’t be reliably traced beyond a certain time period. A benefit of the second approach is that it provides a deeper view of history, giving the researcher license to record not only the odd mention of historical boxing styles but also associations between primates and weapons and other forms of physical exercise in ancient folklore, literature, medicine, and religion. Obviously, the best approach would be a combination of the two. However, I lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese martial arts techniques. Such a grand project will have to wait for a more qualified researcher. I have instead decided to adopt the second approach.

This article is divided into five sections. The first presents a folk history for Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern form of Monkey boxing, to serve as an example of how such styles can be created. The second provides three references to premodern Monkey boxing appearing in military and travel writings of the 16th-century during late Ming (1368-1644), pointing to the commonplace nature of the style. Here I suggest the lack of evidence for pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing points to the style emerging during this time. This section also gives examples of armed techniques associated with apes in military literature of the 16th and 17th-century. The third discusses the story of the noted literary monkey hero Sun Wukong (孫悟空), his portrayal as a master of armed and unarmed fighting, and how he bridges the gap between the aforementioned lack of pre-Ming boxing references and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. The fourth presents ancient stories pitting a magic white ape against the martial skills of legendary Chinese heroes, including the archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) and the swordswoman the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 5th-c. BCE). And the fifth discusses ancient animal mimicry and suggests primate-based boxing is tied to war-like shamanic totemic dances and yoga-like daoyin calisthenics (8th-c. to 2nd-c. BCE). [1]

I. Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey boxing

There are three main styles of monkey boxing:

  • Shaolin Monkey – This combative style is said to have developed among various animal styles at the famed Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) in Henan province, China. Matsuda (2013) claims this particular style to be thousands of years old (p. 50); however, this has no basis in history, as will be explained below.
  • Wushu Monkey – This modern, non-combative style focuses on gymnastic leaps and flips for entertainment purposes. It is used in both Chinese opera and the floor routines of form competitions (video 1) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 54-56).
  • Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey – This is the Cantonese variant of the Mandarin Dasheng Pigua men (大聖劈掛門), or the “Great Sage Ax School” of boxing. This combative style is said to be quite young, being a little over 100 years old (Matsuda, 2013, p. 56).

To this I add one more:

Video 1 – The first half of this video shows a youth performing Wushu Monkey for a form competition.

Tai Shing Pek Kwar is a combination of two different styles. The first, which I will only describe briefly, is Pek Kwar kyun (Pigua quan, 劈掛拳), a style that mimics the swinging of an ax, relying on the lively arm movements to generate power much like the Choy Li Fut style of southern China. It is said to have been created over two hundred years ago in Shandong (northern China) by a woodcutter named Ma Chi Ho (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 64-68). The weapons practiced by this style include the double-edged sword (jian, 劍), the single-edged saber (dao, 刀), and the staff (gun, 棍) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 70-75).

The Tai Shing kyun (Dasheng quan, 大聖拳) style is said to have been founded in northern China around the year 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) by a prisoner named Kou Si (寇四). [2] After being sent to jail for murder, Kou discovered his cell faced a forest where he could observe the day-to-day lives of a troupe of monkeys. He noted five distinct behaviors among them that, when combined with his knowledge of Great Earth boxing (Di tang quan, 地趟拳), a type of ground combat, could be adapted for fighting.

  1. Lost Monkey (Mi Hou, 迷猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a frightened monkey, comprising periods of attack and retreat, with lots of rolling, low kicks, and quick, frantic running low to the ground (video 2).
  2. Stone Monkey (Shi Hou, 石猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an enraged alpha male, comprising slower but drastically more powerful fist, elbow, and knee strikes, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  3. Tall Monkey (Qi Hou, 企猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a tall monkey, comprising longer, quicker swinging arm strikes and higher-level kicks.
  4. Drunken Monkey (Zui Hou, 醉猴) – This form mimics the behavior of intoxicated monkeys, comprising falls, swaying motions with broken footwork, and circular punches, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
  5. Wooden Monkey (Mu Hou, 木猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an intelligent, deceptive monkey, comprising quick, low attacks and rolls similar to the Lost Monkey, but feigning retreat only to turn and unleash strikes upon the pursuing opponent.

After perfecting the style, Kou Si is said to have named it “Great Sage boxing” in honor of the monkey hero Sun Wukong (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-116). This is a reference to the title taken by the character during his rebellion against heaven (see section III below). The weapons practiced by this style include the staff and the metal ring (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 118-131).

Video 2 – The Lost Monkey form.

II. Primates and martial arts during the Ming

Textural evidence for Monkey boxing actually predates Kou Si’s lineage, appearing in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) records. The first reference appears in the eighteen volume edition of famed general Qi Jiguang‘s (戚繼光, 1528-1588) (fig. 1) New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shiba juan ben, 紀效新書十八卷本), a military training manual completed in 1561 or 1562. The fourteenth chapter, titled “Chapter on the Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness” (Quanjing Jieyao Pian, 拳經捷要篇), reads:

Among the past and present fist specialists, the Song Great Founder had the Long Fist system with thirty-two positions. Moreover there are six pace and fist techniques, the Monkey Fist, and the Feinting Fist. The famous positions each have their own names, but in reality they are quite similar and scarcely differ from one another (Gyves, 1993, p. 34).

While Qi believed boxing had no place in armed conflict, he thought such training was useful as it strengthened soldiers’ bodies, coordinated their limbs, improved their weapons skills, and bolstered their courage (Gyves, 1993, pp. 33-37). Qi gathered what he considered the most efficient techniques to achieve this goal, meaning he consulted with many martial artists in the process. The fact that he mentions Monkey boxing suggests it was a common style among fighters of this time.

Qi Jiguang statue (Fuzhou) - small

Fig. 1 – A modern statue of General Qi Jiguang (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The second reference appears in Zheng Ruozeng’s (郑若曾, 1505-1580) Strategic Situation in Jiangnan (Jiangnan jinglue, 江南經略, 1564), which was written in response to the ever-present threat of the Woukou (倭寇), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits, invading China’s coastline. In the eighth volume, Zheng provides a long list of armed and unarmed martial arts, including the “thirty-six roads (forms) of Monkey boxing” (Houquan sanshiliu lu, 猴拳三十六路) (Zheng, 1564). Again, this suggests Monkey boxing was quite common.

The third appears in scholar Wang Shixing’s (王士性, 1547-1598) A Journey to Mt. Song (Song you ji, 嵩遊記), a travel log of the mountain on which the famed Shaolin monastery is located:

Martial monks again each came to present skills. With fists and staves contending, they struck as if flying. Their teacher with folded hands looked on. Among them was a monkey striker, spinning and leaping, just like a monkey… (Wells & Chang, 2004, p. 23).

This shows a single Shaolin warrior monk practiced Monkey boxing. But does this mean the style was part of the monastery’s official curriculum at this time? The answer is no. According to Shahar (2008), textual evidence suggests Shaolin officially took up boxing in the proceeding 17th-century, and the first styles practiced were Drunken Eight Immortals boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳) and Lost Track boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), possibly followed by Plum Flower boxing (Meihua quan, 梅花拳) in the 18th-century. The monks adopted pugilism as a form of calisthenic exercise, later combining it with Daoyin (導引) calisthenics and spirituality to create a new form of self-cultivation. [3] Prior to this, the Shaolin monks were only known for their proficiency with the staff. Therefore, given the seeming commonplace nature of Monkey boxing during the late Ming, the monk could have learned the style from an outside source.

Modern folklore associated with one primate-based style, White Ape Connected Arms Boxing (Baiyuan tongbei / bi quan, 白猿通背 / 臂拳), traces its origins to religious and military figures of the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries prior to the Ming (Lu, 2006, pp. 103-105, for example). However, it should be said that having a Song-era foundation is a reoccurring theme in many martial arts legends. For instance, the famed Song general Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142) is commonly attributed Eagle Claw boxing (Yingzhao quan, 鷹爪拳) and Form-Intent boxing (Xingyi quan, 形意拳) (Liang & Yang, 2002, pp. 15-16, for example). But textual evidence for these styles don’t appear until the Ming and Qing, respectively. [4] Most importantly, the oldest source associated with White Ape Connected Arms Boxing, titled the Connected Arms Boxing Manual (Tongbi quan pu, 通臂拳谱), was written during the late Ming and finally published in 1665 during the early Qing (List of surviving Ming period martial arts, 2017). Likewise, concrete references to primate-based boxing do not predate the Ming. This might suggest such styles arose during this time when there was an explosion in the popularity of pugilism. But this tells us nothing about how primate-based boxing may have developed. The history of animal mimicry in Chinese martial arts can be traced to much older concepts based in medicine and religion. This is discussed in section V below.

Japanese and ape sword-fighting combination - small

Fig. 2 – A compilation of images of the sword-fighting apes from the Collection of Military Works (c. 1621) (larger version). By the author. Fig. 3 – A compilation of the original stick figures and Japanese calligraphy from the fourteen volume edition of the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (1584) (larger version). From Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. Note the similarities in stance and the position of the blades. 

As for the association between primates and armed combat during the Ming, the animals are occasionally referenced in the named fighting techniques of military literature. For example, the tenth volume of Qi Jiguang’s aforementioned manual includes a feinting lance technique titled “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance” (Baiyuan tuo dao shi, 白猿拖刀勢) (Yang & Xie, 1995, p. 336). The 35th volume of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques compiled by Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594-1640), includes “White ape exits cave” (Baiyuan chudong shi, 白猿出洞勢), a stance appearing in the sequence for an overhead sword guard. [5] (Incidentally, this is also the name of a fist set practiced in some lineages of Praying Mantis boxing). Additionally, the same volume includes a two-section sword manual, the first section of which portrays fanciful images of apes practicing with the “Sprout saber” (miaodao, 苗刀) (Mao, 1621), a long, two-handed blade similar to the Japanese Katana (fig. 2). These strange images differ from the human-based figures in the rest of the source. It’s important to note that the original sword manual, called Saber Techniques of the Xinyou-era (i.e. 1561) (Xinyou daofa, 辛酉刀法), is taken directly from the fourth volume of the revised fourteen volume edition of Qi’s New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shisi juan ben, 紀效新書十四卷本, 1584). The first of the aforementioned two sections reproduces a series of sword-wielding stick figures taken from a Shadow School (Kage-ryu, 影流 / 陰流) manual of Japanese sword fighting. The section is prefaced by lively Japanese calligraphy, and the few words recognizable to readers of Chinese include “ape flying” (yuanfei, 猿飛) and “ape returning” (yuanhui, 猿回) (fig. 3), both of which are Kenjutsu techniques still practiced today (video 3). [6] This then might explain why the stick figures were changed to apes when the material was reproduced in the Collection of Military Works decades later. But I would also like to suggest that the change (as well as the allusion to the sword-wielding white ape from the lance technique mentioned earlier) was influenced by a famous first-century Chinese story about a talented swordswoman who has her skills tested by a magic white ape. This is discussed in section IV below.

Video 3 – A modern demonstration of the “ape-flying” technique.

III. Sun Wukong the Monkey King

By far, the most famous weapon-bearing primate of the late Ming-period is Sun Wukong (a.k.a. “Monkey”), the simian protagonist of the highly popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). According to the tale, the stone-born monkey rules a mountain utopia before learning magic, martial arts, and the secret of immortality under a Buddho-Daoist sage. He soon thereafter acquires a magic, size-changing iron staff, which he uses to wage war against the celestial realm (fig. 4), proclaiming himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖, hence the name for Kou Si’s Monkey boxing). But his rebellion is eventually quelled by the Buddha, who imprisons the indestructible monkey demon beneath a mountain for his crimes. Five hundred years later, the repentant immortal is called upon to use his great strength, martial arts, and powers of transformation to protect the monk Tripitaka on a journey to procure scriptures from India.

Mr. Li's Criticism - Detail of Monkey fighting Heaven (small)

Fig. 4 – A woodblock print of Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army with his magic staff (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhouwu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West, late 16th-century. 

The narrative portrays Sun as a well-rounded martial artist proficient in both weapons and boxing. For example, during his rebellion with heaven, he trains his monkey children as soldiers, teaching them troop movement and weapons, including swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. But he is best known for his skill with the staff (fig. 5). One episode sees Monkey give a display of his martial prowess while he and his master travel through a spooky mountain. His skill is so great that the story likens it to the strategy taught in two of the Seven Military Classics of China: 

“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as he walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the Six Secret Teachings and Three Strategies [Liu Tao San Lue, 六韜三略)]. [7] What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

Sun Wukong In-Flames action figure - small

Fig. 5 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).

Furthermore, Monkey displays a mastery of unarmed fighting (fig. 6) in two episodes. A poem in chapter 51, for example, is important because it describes a battle between Sun and a rhinoceros demon in which they use real boxing techniques, many of which are still known and practiced to this day:

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13).

While the techniques are not Monkey boxing, the narrative certainly helped solidify the connection between primates and martial arts during the late Ming when references to the style were recorded.


Fig. 6 – Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

Sun Wukong’s image as a master of armed and unarmed combat led to his veneration among northern Chinese martial artists at the end of the Qing. As noted in this article, fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) were known to channel the spirit of the Monkey King (among other deities) in order to gain his martial prowess. A German catholic missionary active in Shandong in the late-19th and early-20th-century recorded how four boxer youths were chosen as possible vessels, and after a ritual enticed the deity to earth, the “possessed” individual performed a frightening saber dance, indicating the Great Sage had taken control. Additionally, Dudbridge (1970) cites one 17th-century source that describes Sun’s veneration in the southern Chinese province of Fujian for “appear[ing] in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates” (p. 158). This refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by the aforementioned Wokou pirates. Interestingly, Sun Wukong fighting pirates puts him in the same company as the Shaolin warrior monks, who used their martial arts skills to rout the same bandits during the 1550s (Shahar, 2008, pp. 68-70).

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 7 – The Monkey Pilgrim stone relief carving, 1237, from the Kaiyuan Temple Western Pagoda, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China (larger version).

Monkey is important to this study because he bridges the gap between the lack of pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. Sun first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. The narrative presents our hero wielding two staves, one a golden-ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron staff, in defense of his Buddhist master. These two staves would later be combined by storytellers to create his signature weapon.

Older still, the Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺) of Fujian is home to a nearly life-sized carving of the hero (fig. 7), who is presented as a saber-wielding guardian deity. He appears alongside other such wrathful gods, as well as bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, and eminent monks, on a stone pagoda that was erected in the year 1237. So Monkey was associated with various weapons as far back as the 13th-century.

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 8 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88.

Apart from possible Indian influences, Sun Wukong’s origins can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty tales in which a magical white ape or gibbon (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnaps human woman and spoils their innocence (fig. 8). For example, the unnamed primate antagonist of “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong baiyuan zhuang, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-c.) is described as a 1,000-year-old hermit who lives in a mountain utopia, practices Daoist longevity arts, wields the power to fly and change his shape, and has supernatural strength and an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him. Most importantly, he is depicted as a master of armed combat, one displaying a fondness for sword dancing. His blade is said to “circl[e] his body as fast as lightning and as round as a full moon”. [8] As noted above, this is not the first story involving a magic white ape who is fond of swordplay. 

IV. Magic apes and ancient Chinese heroes

The Chinese classic the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) describes the literary heroes Hou Jian (侯健), Lin Chong (林沖), and Zhang Qing (張清) (fig. 9) each having ape-like arms, denoting their great strength and agility. This same nickname was applied to powerful archers of the past. Ma (2010) writes:

[I]t is said that the Xiongnu warrior Liu Chong ‘had arms like an ape, was skilled at archery (yuanbei shanshe 猿臂善射), and could pull a bow of three hundred jin’ 斤(Book of Wei《魏書》). Similarly, History of Ming describes General Chang Yuchun 常遇春 as ‘distinguished looking, with peerless courage and strength, had arms like those of an ape and was skilled at archery’; and in the same vein, Tang poet Cui Daorong 崔道融 wrote that ‘the ape-armed general runs as if on wings, sparing no one with his bow from a hundred paces’ (General Li’s Biography [Ti Li jianjun zhuan 題李將軍傳]) (p. 24).

Zhang Qing (Water Margin hero) with Sun Wukong tattoo - small

Fig. 9 – A woodblock print of the hero Zhang Qing by Kuniyoshi produced between 1827 and 1830 (larger version). It is part of the artist’s “One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, 通俗水滸傳濠傑百八人一個). Original image found here. Look closely and you’ll notice that the tattoo on Zhang’s back portrays Sun Wukong producing magical clones of himself from his mouth.

Oddly enough, the earliest tales mentioning archers and magic white apes do not liken one to the other. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. For example, a third-century BCE tale about the famed archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) portrays the creature as an elusive target for his arrow:

Once in the palace of Jing 荊 there was a supernatural white ape. Even the skillful archers of Jing could not hit it. Then the king of Jing asked … Yang Youji to shoot it. Yang straightened his bow and went to the palace with arrows in his hands. Before shooting he aimed at a place where the [moving] ape had not yet arrived. When he let the arrow fly, the ape fell immediately. Thus Yang Youji could be called the archer who could hit a target before it was there (Wu, 1987, p. 103; see also Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

A similar version of the tale states the ape recognizes Yang’s supernatural skill, anticipating the arrow and crying out in pain moments before actually being struck (Wu, 1987, p. 103; Gulik, 1967, p. 41).

Perhaps the most famous story associating the magic white ape with martial arts is the “Maiden of Yue” (Yuenu, 越女, 1st-c. BCE), named after its protagonist, a peerless swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE. The story describes how she participates in a sparring match with the shape-changing ape:

The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king [Goujian of Yue]. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was “Old Mr. Yuan” [Yuan Gong, 袁公].

He said to the young woman, “I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I’d like to see a demonstration.”

She replied, “I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.”

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan [fig. 10]. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿, hence the surname]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king. [9]

Upon meeting the king, the Maiden reveals the secret to her fighting ability is the application of yin and yang energy, which are metaphorically described as the opening and closing of large and small swinging doors. This is “[t]he earliest extant published exposition of [the] theory applied directly to the martial arts” (Henning, 2001, p. 746), predating the artificial categorization of Chinese boxing into “internal” (neijia, 内家) and “external” (waijia, 外家) styles during the 17th-century (Henning, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, the importance of the story in the annals of Chinese martial arts history can’t be overstated. Nor can the inclusion of the white ape. His supernatural challenge and subsequent defeat respectively tests and confirms the effectiveness of the theory.

This tale likely influenced the association between white apes and swordplay in later sources, such as the sword-dancing antagonist of the Tang-era “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (section III) and the sword-wielding primates of military literature (section II). For example, “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance”, the aforementioned feinting lance technique from New Treatise on Military Efficiency (c. 1561/1562), may refer to Old Mr. Yuan’s defeat.

Maiden of Yue vs Old Man Yuan (the white ape) - small

Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the Maiden of Yue fighting Old Mr. Yuan by martial historian Stan Henning (larger version). From Henning, 2007, p. 24.

Our heroes’ respective stories make no reference to animal mimicry, the cornerstone of primate-based boxing. In fact, it’s the reverse in the second narrative: an ape mimics man. [10] The tales instead promote the idea of trained human skill conquering the raw, often magical, power of nature. In the case of the Maiden of Yue, her mastery of yin and yang energy enabled her to best the magic white ape. Yang Youji is more of a mythic figure capable of miraculous feats, such as sinking an arrow into a boulder simply because he mistook it for a rhino (i.e. mind over matter) (Selby, 2000, p. 131). But he succeeded in falling a white ape when many archers failed. These tales are therefore the antithesis of primate-based boxing, representing what might have been considered more “civilized” or “noble” forms of martial arts, namely the armed disciplines of archery and swordplay.

V. Animal mimicry in Chinese medicine and religion

I suggested above that primate-based styles may have arisen during the Ming. But how the styles developed is likely tied to the long history of animal mimicry in China. For example, around the year 60 BCE (during the Han), the courtier Tan Changqing (檀長卿) is said to have been reprimanded for violating ritual norms by performing the dance of the “dog and macaque combat” (wu wei mu hou yu gou dou, 舞為沐猴與狗鬭) while at a drunken party (Harper, 2001, p. 18). This dance may have some connection to a funerary motif appearing in Han-era stone tombs in which dogs are shown intimidating apes, the motif representing the conquering of evil influences. [11] Tan’s display can’t be assigned a martial role, however, because it was likely a comical pantomime. [12] But this shows mimicking primates served a variety of purposes in Chinese culture.

Primate-based movements figure in a number of ancient therapeutic exercises. For instance, the monkey appears in the Five Animals’ Frolic (Wuqin xi, 五禽戲), a 3rd-century system of daoyin calisthenics, which mimics the movements or behaviors of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird (in that order), each animal set strengthening a particular area of the body (Kohn, 2008, pp. 163-169). Movements mimicking the bear, monkey, and bird actually predate this system, appearing among forty-four exercises listed in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (Daoyin tu, 導引圖, 168 BCE), the oldest known diagram of daoyin exercises, discovered in Mawangdui (馬王堆) (fig. 11 and 12). Primate-based exercises include the “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (muhou guan yinling zhong, 沐猴灌引靈中) (#35) and “Gibbon Shouting” (yuanhu, 猿謼) (#40) (fig. 13 and 14) (Harper, 1998, pp. 315 and 316). [13]

The Masters of Huainan (Huananzi, 淮南子, 139 BCE), a compendium of Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist thought, references another primate-based daoyin set in a section criticizing such exercises as inferior to spiritual cultivation:

If you huff and puff,
exhale and inhale,
blow out the old and pull in the new,
practice the Bear Hang [xiongjing, 熊經], the Bird Stretch [niaoshen, 鳥伸],
the Duck Splash [fuyu, 鳧浴], the Ape leap [yuanjue, 蝯躩],
the Owl Gaze [chishi, 鴟視], and the Tiger Stare [hugu, 虎顧]:

This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind (Liu & Major, 2010, p. 236).

Daoyin tu - Original, reconstruction, monkey and gibbon - 35 and 40

Fig 11 – (Top left) The Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling, 2nd-c. BCE, paint on silk, 142 x 70 cm (55.9 x 27.5 in) (larger version). Image originally found here. Fig. 12 – (Top right) A modern reconstruction (larger version). Image originally found on Wikipedia. Harper (1998) warns such reconstructions “should be regarded as conjectural in many details” since the original is in such poor condition (p. 191). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) The reconstruction of “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (larger version). Fig. 14 – (Bottom right) The reconstruction of “Gibbon Shouting” (larger version).

These therapeutic exercises likely find their origin in ancient Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences (Harper, 1985, pp. 487-488). One such dance was the seasonal Da Nuo (大儺 / 難; Jp: Tsuina, 追儺) ritual in which a bearskin-clad exorcist (Ch: fangxiangshi; Jp: hōsōshi, 方相氏) and his army of fur, feather, and horn-clad youths, representing twelve animal deities, expelled evil spirits from human dwellings. Evidence suggests it may have been performed as early as the Shang (17th to 11th-c. BCE), but the earliest concrete references come from the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE) (Poo, 2009, p. 286). What’s interesting for our purposes is that the exorcism has a martial aspect; not only does the exorcist bear a lance and shield for ritual combat (fig. 15), but also the group travels throughout the given location dancing and shouting, with the youths beating drums and commanding twelve spirits by name to devour or eviscerate anthropomorphic representations of malevolent influences (Poo, 2009, pp. 287-288). So by wearing animal products, the exorcist and his ritual army gained the strength of animal deities to combat dark forces.

Nuo exorcist expelling demon (Hayaike Yu Okami and Oni Yarai) - small

Fig. 15 – A Japanese woodblock print portraying the Da Nuo exorcist expelling a “pestilence” spirit with his lance and shield (larger version). Originally found here. Note the four-eyed mask. This is based on the four golden-eyed bear skin worn by the exorcist in ancient Chinese records (Poo, 2009, p. 287).

It’s possible that the “twelve animals” of the Da Nuo exorcism refer to some precursor of the Chinese zodiacal animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig). If true, monkey fur could have been among the animal products worn by the ritual army. After all, monkeys have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. [14] A modern example of exorcists who don monkey fur are the shamans of the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan. The Qiang worship monkeys as the source and savior of their sacred knowledge, as well as the progenitor of their people, the latter being a myth cycle common among ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China.

Henning (2001) highlights the connection between animal totemism and animal boxing:

Another view is that at least some animal forms may hark back to a distant totemic past that still occupies a place in the Chinese psyche. This totemic influence is difficult if not impossible to trace in majority Han Chinese boxing styles; however, it can be seen in the combination of martial arts and dance practiced by some of China’s many national minorities. Cheng Dali, in his Chinese Martial Arts: History and Culture, points to Frog Boxing, practiced by the Zhuang Nationality of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as an example, the frog being considered their protector against both natural and man-made disasters (p. 16).

Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming could descend from totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices. The development could have gone something like this:

  1. Early shamanic dances drawing on the totemic power of primate deities (via their fur) to exorcise evil influences through ritual combat, including the bearing of weapons, drumming, dancing, and the shouting of spells.
  2. The animal fur and martial dancing give way to calisthenics drawing on primate mimicry to expel sickness and strengthen the body.
  3. These calisthenic movements are adapted for fighting.

It’s even possible that the war-like shamanic dancing gave way directly to boxing. Martiality (wu, 武) and dance (wu, 舞) have long been associated in Chinese history, for drums and gongs were used to direct the movements of both troops and dancers (Lorge, 2012, p. 26-27). Musical accompaniment remains a staple of folk martial arts performances. A modern example of totemic mimicry, dancing, and martial arts is the Lion Dance (wushi, 舞獅) popular in Asian communities throughout the world (video 4).

Video 4 – Five lion dancing teams performing before a crowd. 

VI. Conclusion

Apes and monkeys have been associated with armed and unarmed martial arts in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern combat style of Monkey boxing created in the early 20th-century, is predated by even older instances of Monkey boxing alluded to in military and travel writings of the 16th-century, suggesting it was a common form of pugilism. Additionally, military literature of the 16th and 17th-century associates white apes with swordplay. The lack of historical references to primate-based boxing prior to the Ming (1368-1644) suggests such styles developed during the explosion in popularity of pugilism at this time. The image of the highly popular late Ming literary monkey hero Sun Wukong as a master of armed and unarmed martial arts, as well as his association with staff and sword fighting in 13th-century oral literature and Buddhist art, respectively, helps bridge this gap between the lack of historical boxing references and older material associating primates with armed combat. He can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty stories about magic white apes who, due to their supernatural abilities, were portrayed as the ultimate test of a warrior’s martial skills. The most famous of these tells how the Maiden of Yue, a talented swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE, vets her yin-yang theory-based sword style by defeating a white ape-turned-old man in a sparring match. This story is important because it’s the first recorded association of yin-yang theory and martial arts in Chinese history. This tale and another involving the mythic archer Yang Youji are the antitheses of primate-based boxing because each touts the superiority of trained human skill over the raw, magical power of nature. Despite this, animal mimicry played a large role in early therapeutic yoga-like Daoyin calisthenics, such as the Five Animals Frolic (3rd-c. CE) and those appearing in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (168 BCE), which copied the movements of monkeys and apes (among other animals) to strengthen given areas of the body. These exercises likely find their origin in ancient war-like Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences, one example being the seasonal Da Nuo exorcism of the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE). The Da Nuo exorcist and his ritual army wore animal products (fur, horns, feathers, etc.) to invoke the power of animal deities capable of driving away malevolent forces. Monkey fur may have been worn by members of the ritual army because the animal and its products have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. Shamans among the modern Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan worship monkeys and draw on the power of their fur to perform exorcisms. Animal totemism plays a part in some animal-based martial arts, such as the Frog boxing of the Zhuang ethnic group. Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming may have been influenced by the ancient totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices, those that formed the basis of later animal-based therapeutic exercises. This is where the historical study would benefit from modern ethnographic field research. A follow-up study might bridge the gap between the historical data and modern practice.


1) A shorter paper with a similar focus is Ma (2010). The editor of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies was gracious enough to provide me with a PDF copy of the article when I was nearing completion of this paper.

2) Regarding the name of the creator of Monkey boxing, Kou Si (寇四), kou (寇) means “bandit, foe, or enemy”. I find this especially interesting given he was imprisoned for murder, the reasons for which range from accidentally killing a villager in a fight to purposely killing a military official to avoid service (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-87). It’s possibly this name is simply a folk title given to an unknown creator, or one known to have been active in crime.

3) See chapters three and four.

4) The earliest mention of Eagle Claw appears in Qi Jiguang’s training manual. It refers to “Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling methods” (Yingzhao Wang zhi na, 鷹爪王之拿) (Gyves, 1993, p. 35). Qing-era manuals and family histories suggest Xingyi was created by a certain Ji Jike (姬際可, fl. 1650) (Shahar, 2008, pp. 134-135).

5) For an English translation of the sword technique mentioning the stance, see Chen, 2018, pp. 73-75.

6) Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. I’m indebted to the operator of the Great Ming Military blog for explaining the connection between the ape images and the visible characters from the Japanese calligraphy, as well as providing me with a digital copy of the fourteen volume edition of Qi’s training manual.

7) The original English translation omits the two named books from the Chinese version. It reads, “…the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).

8) Chen, 1998, p. 84. Some readers may have noticed the sword is a reoccurring theme in Sun Wukong’s history: 1) The Qing-era boxers are said to have performed a saber dance under his possession; 2) he is depicted with a saber on the Kaiyuan temple pagoda in Fujian; and 3) the magic white ape on whom he is likely based loves performing sword dances. In addition, two other sources mention Monkey’s association with the sword. First, a 15th-century Zaju play describes Guanyin giving Sun Wukong a Buddhist saber (jiedao, 戒刀) (apart from other magic items) to protect his master on the eve of their journey. Second, a 17th-century tale set in Fujian describes the Great Sage magically afflicting a merchant with painful leg sores using a “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

I don’t think these have any unifying significance, however. For example, the saber requires less training and is cheaper than other implements of war. So it was often the go to weapon for soldiers and bodyguards. Monkey’s association with the saber on the pagoda is likely tied to this same concept. As a guardian deity, he is portrayed with the same weapon used by mortals to protect others in times of need. The magic white ape is portrayed as a Daoist gentleman, one in possession of a pair of treasure swords (baojian, 寶劍), the kind used in Daoist ritual. His fancy for the sword may be based on Old Mr. Yuan from the Maiden of Yue (see section IV). Another literary character with Buddhist sabers is Wu Song from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). I explain in this article (footnote #2) that his sabers are based on real world Buddhist knives issued to monks. The same concept is no doubt tied to Monkey’s weapon from the play. Having said that, I will admit, though, that the saber from the pagoda may have had some influence on that mentioned in the 17th-century story. After all, the pagoda example is portrayed with a lick of heavenly flame, just like one would expect from a celestial sword. Also, both the story and the pagoda take place/are located in Fujian, home to the Great Sage’s cult.

9) Selby, 2000, pp. 155-156. The famous Tang poet Li Bai (李白) referenced Mr. Yuan’s defeat in one of his poems. A line reads “The White Ape was ashamed of his fencing” (Ma, 2010, p. 24). This is fascinating as Li Bai was also known to have been a proficient swordsmen in his youth (Liu, 1967, pp. 46-47).

10) This is based on an old concept in which primates were thought to progress through a type of magical evolution, similar to modern day Pokémon. The Baopuzi (抱朴子, 2nd-c. CE) states a monkey will transform into a gibbon after 800 years of life. It will then change into several legendary apes over some 3,500 years, before evolving into an old man (Ball, 1927, p. 117). Gulik (1967) cites a tale in which the soothsayer Zhou Qun (周羣 / 周群) learns the secrets of divination from a gibbon-turned-old man (p. 50).

11) As noted in this article, Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s hound is tied to the Han-era tomb motif of dogs intimidating apes.

12) Ma (2010) translates the historical passage, noting those at the party were “drinking wine and making merry, then Tan Changqing, the high official of Changxin Palace, starts to dance, to imitate a monkey fighting with a dog, bringing laughter to all present” (p. 25).

13) Harper (1998) suggests an alternate reading for “Gibbon shout” (yuanhu謼) is “Gibbon Jump” (yuanjue, 蝯躩) based on graphical similarities to an exercise from the Huainanzi. (淮南子, 139 BCE) (p. 316, n. 1).

14) This is tied to a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52). This is why heaven appoints Sun Wukong the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “Keeper of the (Heavenly) Horses”), which is a pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, “Avoid the horse plague”). Due to his former exalted position, earthly horses are shown to fear the Monkey King throughout the narrative (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309, for example).

In Japan, monkeys were also associated with horses and healing via the warding of evil. Apart from monkeys being kept in stables like their Chinese counterparts, their fur was applied to the harnesses and quivers of Samurai because the warriors believed it gave them more control over their mounts. Furthermore, monkey body parts have been consumed for centuries as curative medicines, and their hides have even been stuffed to make protective amulets (kukurizaru) to ward off illness. Likewise, a genre of painting depicts divine monkeys (saru gami), messengers of the mountain deity, performing Da Nuo-like dances to ensure a good rice harvest (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987, pp. 43-50)


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Matsuda, M. (2013). Monkey kung fu: History & tradition. (n.p.): Michael Matsuda.

Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1987). The monkey as mirror: Symbolic transformations in Japanese history and ritual. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Poo, M. (2009). Ritual and ritual texts in early China In J. Lagerwey and M. Kalinowski (Ed.). Early Chinese religion, part one: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (pp. 281-313). Leiden: Brill.

Qi, J. (2001). Jixiao xinshu shisi juan ben [New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Fourteen volume edition]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. (Original work published 1584)

Selby, S. (2000). Chinese archery. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yang, J., and Xie, G. (Ed.) (1995). Zhongguo bingshu jicheng [Collection of Chinese Military Literature]. Beijing: Liaoshen shushe.

Zheng, R. Z. (1564). Jiangnan jinglue: juan ba shang [Strategic Situation in Jiangnan: vol. 8]. Retrieved from江南經畧_(四庫全書本)/卷8上

Archive #10 – Journey to the West 2012 Revised Edition

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

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

Information about the translation

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

2012 Vol. 1 book cover - small

The cover of volume one (larger version).

PDF Files

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4


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

Parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song

Last updated: 10/04/2020

It recently occurred to me that Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) (hereafter, JTTW) and Wu Song (武松) from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) (hereafter, WM) share a number of similarities. Each is a reformed supernatural spirit, a tiger-slayer, a Buddhist monk nicknamed “Pilgrim”, and a monastic martial artist, and each wears a moralistic headband and wields a weapon made from the same fanciful metal. Since the WM predates the publication of JTTW by nearly two hundred years, one might be tempted to speculate that the latter influenced the former. However, both story cycles first appeared during the Song dynasty, with various iterations from the Yuan to the Ming (see Ge, 2001). In this article I show the parallels are due to the respective narratives drawing on similar religious, folkloric, and historical source material. I feel such a comparison is important as it presents a fuller picture of the cultural landscape in which the Monkey King developed. 

I. Reformed supernatural spirits

Chapters one through seven of JTTW present Sun Wukong as a celestial stone-born monkey who studies under a Buddho-Daoist master and achieves great magic powers, which he uses to rebel against heaven. After being defeated by the Buddha, Monkey is imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain for five hundred years. In chapter fourteen, the repentant immortal is later released to protect the monk Tripitaka on his journey to retrieve scriptures from India.

Sun Wukong trapped under mountain - In Flames toy - small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).

Chapter one of the WM tells how one hundred and eight spirits were quelled by a Daoist sage during the Tang dynasty and imprisoned in a bottomless pit under a great stone slab. Four or five hundred years later during the Song dynasty, a haughty government official orders the slab dug up and removed to sate his curiosity, allowing the spirits to escape in a plume of miasmic black fumes and later be reborn on earth. Wu Song, whose main story appears in chapters 23 to 32, is one of these extraordinary men and women who come to use their martial, intellectual, or magical skills to rebel against the corrupt Song government. A heaven-sent stone slab in chapter 71 is later discovered to list the names of each bandit with the corresponding name of their previous incarnation, which make up the “Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars” (Tiangang sanshiliu xing, 天罡三十六星) and the “Seventy-Two Earthly Fiend Stars” (Disha qishier xing, 地煞七十二星). Wu Song is listed as the “Heavenly Harm Star” (Tianshang xing, 天傷星), the fourteenth of the Thirty-Six Heavenly Stars.

So we see both are formerly evil spirits who were conquered by a religious figure and imprisoned under stone for centuries. After being released, each rebellious figure becomes a force for good.

Monkey’s punishment can be traced to Tang and Song dynasty tales about the sage king Yu the Great imprisoning a simian water demon under a mountain. To my knowledge, the first recorded mention of this punishment appears in an early Ming zaju play in which Guanyin traps Sun Wukong under Flower Fruit Mountain. Wang (1992) suggests the stone slab from the WM was likely influenced by the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 2), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72 and 254). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means the evil would be completely immobilized by the great weight.

Taishan stone example - small

Fig. 2 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia

Additionally, the pit containing the spirits can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井/丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮), [1] and creating an earth prison. The Compilation of Rituals of the Way (Daofa huiyuan, 道法會元) reads:

[U]se the Sword mudrā to draw the character for “well” on the ground. Transform it into a black prison, ten-thousand zhang deep, and ten thousand li wide. [2] Black vapors burst out of it. Inside the prison, visualize how cangues and locks, as well as tools and machinery are laid out. Then recite the Spell for Fast Arrest [cu zhuo zhou, 促捉咒] (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 142).

The black vapors should remind readers of that released upon the spirits’ escape from their centuries-long imprisonment.

Mountain mudra with Chinese character

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 4 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 5 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.

Another version of the ritual sees the spirits being coaxed or forced inside of a liquid-filled jar placed in the center of the well diagram. Afterwards, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain (just like the aforementioned Taishan stone). [3] Meulenbeld (2007) writes:

The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 3 and 4]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 5], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).

This means the respective punishments of Sun Wukong and Wu Song (and his brethren) are for all intents and purposes the same: they are imprisoned under mountains. The Taishan stone and the Mountain mudra are no doubt based on the same belief that mountains can immobilize evil spirits. Most importantly, the mudra likely influenced the concept of the Buddha transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain in chapter 7 of JTTW. The fictional mountain is then a cognate of Mount Tai. 

Five Thunders talisman - small

Fig. 6 – A paper fu talisman marked with an image of the Five Thunders (Wu Lei, 五雷) (larger version).

Lastly, the idea that evil spirits can be reformed and their powers put to good use—i.e. Sun Wukong protecting Tripitaka and Wu Song standing against a corrupt government—is tied to the Song-era “Thunder Ritual” (Leifa, 雷法). Meulenbeld (2007) explains stories from the Tang to the Song present the characteristics of the thunder god, Sire Thunder (Lei Gong, 雷公), becoming increasingly demonic, changing from a muscular deity to a number of animals and finally a Garuda-like bird monster. Likewise, while he was a respected force of nature in the past, Sire Thunder becomes an impulsive agent of heaven, one capable of being challenged and even captured by a brave individual or ritual master. The subjugation of this demonic god allows his captors to appropriate his heavenly power for their own purposes. The deity and his four brothers, comprising the “Five Thunders” (Wu Lei, 五雷) (fig. 6), can be summoned on command via talismans and charms and made to bring rain, heal sicknesses, or conquer demons. [4] Such ritual accouterments are just a small part of a much larger subsequent Thunder Ritual liturgy that is, according to one Song dynasty source, capable of “control[ing] the demons and spirits of the Sixfold Heavens, [expelling] evil and avert[ing] disaster” (Meulenbeld, 2007, p. 67). 

II. Tiger-Slayers

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong’s first act of protecting Tripitaka upon his release is effortlessly killing a tiger with a single stroke of his staff. This happens the day after a huntsman had come to the monk’s defense by fighting a tiger for hours before dispatching it with a trident. The difference in power between the immortal and human heroes leads the monk to exclaim, “For the strong, there’s always someone stronger!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

WM, ch. 23 – Wu Song gets drunk on a trip home to see his elder brother, and after ignoring warnings not to take a mountain shortcut, the hero is set upon by a ferocious man-eating tiger. In the process of initially defending himself, Wu snaps his walking staff on a nearby tree, forcing him to resort to brute strength. He manages to wrestle the big cat’s face into the dirt and rains down sixty or seventy fist blows before it stops moving (fig. 7). He then finishes off the beast with the remains of his staff.

Wu Song kills tiger - small

Fig. 7 – “Wu Song Beats the Tiger” (Wu Song da hu, 武松打虎) by Wang Kewei (王可偉) (larger version).

I can’t help but imagine the episode from JTTW is a sly nod to that from the WM. Tripitaka’s statement could be a way of propping up the Monkey King as the most powerful hero, one who can dispatch tigers with no effort at all.

The ability to kill a tiger was considered the sign of a powerful warrior in Chinese folklore. For example, A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu, 世說新語, 5th-century), a collection of historical and fictional anecdotes, tells the story of how the Western Jin general Zhou Chu (周處, 236–297) was originally a wayward youth considered the worst of Yixing‘s “Three Scourges”—a tiger, a dragon, and himself. Wanting to prove his strength, Zhou is said to have easily killed the tiger but disappeared for three days and nights fighting the dragon. The youth later returned to find the people celebrating his apparent death. This caused Zhou to mend his ways and eventually become a great general (Knechtges & Chang, 2010, pp. 2274-2275).

III. Buddhist monks with matching religious nicknames 

JTTW, ch. 14 – Sun Wukong takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk upon his release. [5] His master Tripitaka then gives him the religious nickname “Pilgrim Sun” (Sun xingzhe, 孫行者), and the character is often simply referred to as “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者; literally: “traveler”) throughout the narrative.

WM, ch. 31 – Wu Song kills a thug and his Song government official friend for framing the hero for theft and attempting to have him murdered en route to a prison camp. As a result, he is forced to dress as a Buddhist monk, taking a slain priest’s religious garb and ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) and calling himself “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者).

The term Pilgrim refers to a “postulant”, a lay Buddhist acolyte who has yet to be ordained but lives as an untonsured monk, one expected to follow the Five Precepts (Pali: Pañcasīla; Ch: Wujie, 五戒) against killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and drinking alcohol (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1011-1012). Ch’en (1956) writes that such trainees were historically required to complete a long period of intense religious study and pass a rigorous examination before being awarded the aforementioned ordination certificate (fig. 8), thereby becoming a full-fledged monk. This certification system was originally initiated during the Tang to weed out those wanting to evade the draft and taxes, as well as bandits like Wu Song who sought refuge from the law. However, during the Song, the government sold these documents like war bonds in order to help pay for their ongoing struggle against the barbarians of northern China. Therefore, ordination certificates were often exuberantly expensive, [6] meaning those who had the training but could not afford the document were doomed to live as a postulant. This contrasts with the thousands upon thousands of people who bought their way into the Buddha’s fold simply for the draft and tax exemption. They forwent the training altogether and were monks only on paper. This continued practice naturally resulted in a major decline in the quality of monks during the Song.

Monk with ordination certificate - small

Fig. 8 – A present day monk showing his ordination certificate (jiedie, 戒牒) (larger version). Original image found here.

Having read the above, we can say Sun Wukong is called Pilgrim because he assists a Buddhist priest but lacks the religious education and ordination certificate. While Wu Song has the document (taken from a dead priest), he lacks the required education. It should be remembered that Wu is a bandit-turned-monk. At the same time, both characters typify the “itinerant monk”, the second meaning of Pilgrim (xingzhe, 行者), as both are on a journey: Sun is traveling to India and Wu is traveling the road—albeit secretly to meet with fellow outlaws. But I would like to suggest that the titles may have also been meant as a jab at the violent, untrained riffraff passing for monks during the Song (more on this below). After all, the earliest references to our characters with these titles come from this period.

“Pilgrim Wu” appears in scholar-painter Gong Shengyu‘s (龔聖予, 1222–1307) In Praise of the Thirty-Six [men] of Song Jiang (Song Jiang sanshiliu zan, 宋江三十六贊), a collection of poems eulogizing each of the thirty-six bandits then associated with the early WM story cycle.

Pilgrim Wu Song: You resisted women, obeyed the Five Precepts, among Wine, Women, Wealth and Force, you were inclined to kill people (Børdahl, 2013, p. 29).

Gong claims the poems were based on “stories of the streets and tales of the lanes” (jie tan xiang yu, 街談巷語), popular narratives performed by storytellers at local venues.  Given that such early tales no longer exist, its impossible to say whether or not Wu Song was always a monk or a bandit-turned-impostor monk like his counterpart from the published edition of the WM (Børdahl, 2013, pp. 28-29). Either way, this suggests Wu’s predilection for killing was a prominent aspect of his story cycle by at least the 13-century.

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Like Wu Song, Monkey is also depicted as comfortable with killing. For example, in chapter five, he turns an evil sorcerer’s wife into grass so that she will be eaten by a young monk who had been transformed by her husband into a donkey. After both parties are changed back to normal, Monkey threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e. kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man ever misuses his magic again. [7] Later in chapter six, Monkey brutally tortures and then kills a white tiger demon who tries to eat his master (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1181-1207)

Wu Song and Lu Zhishen - Small

Fig. 9 – The “Pilgrim” Wu Song (right) and the “Flower Monk” Lu Zhishen (left) from a recent WM television series (larger version).

Additionally, two early WM-related tales titled “Pilgrim Wu” (Wu xingzhe, 武行者) and the “Flower [Tattooed] Monk” (Hua heshang, 花和尚) are listed under the “staff” (ganbang, 桿棒) category of popular stories in The Drunken Man’s Talk (Zuiweng tanlu, 醉翁談錄), a circa 13th-century collection of short stories, anecdotes, and poetry. [8] So-called staff tales were character-driven narratives about heroes, in this case Wu Song and his fellow outlaw-turned-monk Lu Zhishen (fig. 9), righting injustices using staves. [9] I should note that The Story describes the Monkey Pilgrim wielding two such weapons in his adventures.

Sun and Wu’s association with killing and staff fighting were likely influenced by historical warrior monks and bandit monks. Shahar (2008) explains warrior monks were seasoned fighters who lived in subsidiary shrines away from the devout community and protected monasteries in times of trouble. These “monks” regularly drank wine and ate meat, associating the latter with physical strength and fighting ability, and even worshiped wrathful deities like Vajrapani, who is described in scripture as killing in the name of Buddha. Their weapon of choice was a wooden staff, which was originally chosen for being non-lethal. However, a metal staff like the one wielded by Sun Wukong in JTTW was sometimes used by warrior monks for its killing capacity in times of war. The most famous monastic staff method belongs to the Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) (video 1). After the Shaolin warrior monks helped the Ming dynasty government repel Japanese pirate incursions from the Chinese coast during the 1550s, their staff method was touted in military encyclopedias and civilian weapons manuals. [10]

Video 1 – A demonstration of Shaolin Wind Devil Staff (Fengmo gun, 風魔棍).

Bandit monks are outlaws like Wu Song who dressed as monks to avoid problems with the law. [11] Lorge (2012) comments that the characteristics of bandit monks were nearly indistinguishable from that of warrior monks.

[I]t is easy to see how bandit-monks are virtually the same as warrior-monks. These men drank wine, at meat, and had sex with women—practices alien to true Buddhist monks. A number of Buddhist authorities were deeply troubled by the presence of monks who directly violated Buddhist precepts. We do not know whether there was a sharp break between ordained and trained monks who carefully followed monastic rules in their search for enlightenment and men who simply claimed to be monks, wore monastic robes, shaved their heads, but otherwise did not follow monastic rules (p. 174).

He goes on to explain that the Shaolin monastery, for example, became heavily militarized after a nasty defeat in 1356 during the Red Turban Rebellion and so may have replenished its ranks using formerly deactivated soldiers at the turn of the Ming dynasty. Such violence-prone men would naturally turn towards a life of crime. Therefore, these bandits “would have been easy enough to recruit and send out as warrior-monks to fight against [other] bandits” (Lorge, 2012, p. 175).

So we see there existed a class of staff-bearing pseudo-monks who regularly took life and drank alcohol. Serving as mainly monastic bodyguards, these fighters lacked the devotion to the precepts and, especially, the religious education to be considered real monks. Therefore, Sun and Wu’s characterization as such warriors may further explain why they are called Pilgrim.

IV. Monastic martial artists

I want to preface this section by stating upfront that it overlaps to some degree with the previous one. But while the former explored Sun and Wu’s connection to staff-wielding warrior monks by way of their characterization in late Song oral literature, this one will discuss the connection between their images as monastic martial artists and the historical practice of boxing by warrior monks.

While the Great Sage is primarily known for his skill with the staff, he displays a mastery of unarmed combat twice in JTTW. Chapter 51, for example, describes Sun and a demonic opponent fighting with a long list of punches, kicks, grapples, and throws.

Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!

Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13)

I show in this article that many of the named techniques are real and are still practiced to this day. Furthermore, the poem’s bias for close-range fighting over long-range “is typical of late Ming and early Qing military literature”, as noted by Shahar (2008, p. 117). He continues, “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century military experts allude to various short-range styles including ‘Cotton Zhang’s Close-Range Fist’ (Mian Zhang duanda [綿張短打]), ‘Ren Family Close-Range Fist’ (Renjia duanda [任家短打]), and ‘Liu [Family] Close-Range Fist’ (Liu duanda [劉短打])” (Shahar, 2008, p. 117). This shows the author-compiler of JTTW consulted real martial arts material to make this fight more authentic.

Having donned the monk persona, Pilgrim Wu stops by an inn while on a journey to meet with fellow outlaws in chapter 32. The monk’s great tolerance for wine (fig. 13) and request for meat surprises the inn keeper, whom Wu slaps to the ground upon seeing the man serve better wine and even chicken to a different patron. The patron and his friends attack the monk but are soundly beaten by his superior strength and fighting ability. [12]

Wu’s characterization as a meat-eating, alcohol-drinking monk with a thirst for combat is obviously tied to the warrior and bandit monks discussed earlier.

Wu Song with jug of wine and sword - small

Fig. 15 – A modern depiction of Pilgrim Wu holding a jar of wine and brandishing a saber (larger version). By Leewiart user Du_YH. Original image found here

While it precedes Wu becoming a monk, the best example of his martial prowess appears in chapter 29:

But Jiang was scornful of his foe [Wu Song], thinking that he was drunk, and he closed in rapidly. Quicker than it takes to tell, Wu Song flourished his two fists at Jiang’s face, then turned and started away. Enraged, Jiang raced after him. Wu Song lashed out backwards with his left foot and kicked him in the groin. As Jiang clasped his injured section and doubled over in pain, Wu Song whirled around and swung his right foot in a flying kick to the forehead that slammed the big man over on his back. Wu Song planted one foot on his chest and, with keg-like fists, began pommeling Jiang’s head.

This maneuver we just described—the flourish of fists and turning away, the backward left kick, the whirling around and the forward right kick—is called “the Jade-Circle Steps with Duck and Drake Feet” [Yuhuan bu, yuanyang jiao, 玉環步, 鴛鴦腳]. It was one of Wu Song’s most skillful moves. A remarkable trick! (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 332).

Wu’s style is possibly another name for “Piercing Foot” (Chuojiao, 戳腳), a northern Chinese martial art known for its dynamic kicking skills. Modern folklore traces the style to the Song dynasty due to its association with WM heroes. [13]

While JTTW never openly describes Sun Wukong training in martial arts, it does imply that he learns armed and unarmed combat as a young monk studying under the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti. Monkey learning boxing in a religious institution is actually a faithful depiction of one aspect of monastic life during the Ming. Shahar (2008) shows Shaolin warrior monks took up unarmed combat during the late Ming-period, when boxing saw an explosion in popularity in Chinese culture (as demonstrated by the named techniques recorded in JTTW and the WM). Textual evidence suggests the first styles practiced by Shaolin were Drunken Eight Immortals Boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳), popularized by Jackie Chan in The Drunken Master (1978), and Lost Track Boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), the fighting style of the national hero Huo Yuanjia popularized by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972). The monks may have adopted boxing as a form of calisthenic exercise. To this they later added Daoyin (導引), a regimen of yoga-like Daoist breathing and stretching exercises designed to absorb qi (氣) energy and circulate it throughout the body. Therefore, the monks elevated their boxing practice from mere fighting to a form of spiritual cultivation. This synthesis of martial and spiritual practices simultaneously took place in wider Ming culture, leading to the creation of so-called “internal” (Neijia, 内家) martial arts like Taiji and Xingyi boxing. [14]


Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the monk Sengchou showing off his newfound powers by jumping above the rafters of the Shaolin monastery (larger version). Original image found here.

That’s not to say Shaolin monks did not practice unarmed martial arts prior to the 17th-century. It’s just boxing was only a form of entertainment practiced by a few and not part of the official training regimen. For example, the Tang-era anthology Complete Records from Court and Commonality (Chaoye qian zai, 朝野僉載, c. 8th-century), contains the story of the famed dhyana master and Shaolin monk Sengchou (僧稠, 480–560) beseeching a religious statue of Vajrapani to bless him with martial strength so that the other monks, who enjoy sparring in their free time, will stop bullying him. After six straight days of prayer, the deity appears before him and offers the young novice a bowl of sinews to eat. Sengchou initially refuses due to the prohibition against eating meat, but he ultimately finishes the meal for fear Vajrapani will smite him with his vajra club. Like the radioactive spider bite that changes Peter Parker into Spider-Man, the sinews transform the monk, blessing him with a god-like physique and miraculous powers, such as the ability to walk on walls, leap great heights (fig. 10), and lift thousands of pounds. Most importantly, it drastically improves his fighting skills, so much so, in fact, that his former tormentors come to grovel in his presence (Shahar, 2008, pp. 35-37).

From whom might have Sengchou’s religious brothers learned their unarmed martial arts centuries prior to it becoming an official part of Shaolin’s training regimen? The simplest answer is someone like Wu Song who learned boxing as a bandit or soldier and later joined the sangha. Readers may recall such violence-prone men may have been tapped as warrior monks to protect the monastery in times of trouble. They could have easily passed their fighting skills to the next generation of warrior monks.

A good example of a soldier-turned-monk is the brutish former general Huiming (惠明) from the Platform Sutra (Liuzu tanjing, 六祖壇經, written from the 8th to 13th-c.). The text tells how the disciples of Hongren (弘忍, 601–674), the fifth Chan patriarch, were enraged when their master passed the mantle onto the illiterate postulant laborer Huineng (惠能, 638–713). Hundreds of monks are said to have pursued the fleeing Pilgrim south intent on forcefully taking the patriarchal symbols of the begging bowl and robe for themselves. Huiming persevered and managed to corner Huineng on a mountain. He attempted to wrestle the treasures away, but, by a miracle, he could not lift them. Realizing Huineng was the rightful heir, the monk became his disciple (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 11-12). Jealousy and anger are obviously qualities unbecoming of a real monk. In fact, the only thing that separates Huiming’s actions of hounding and attempted strong arm robbery from a bandit is his monkhood.

So we see Sun Wukong typifies a next generation warrior monk who learns boxing inside a religious institution. Wu Song typifies the soldier or bandit who learns boxing outside the monastery and later becomes a monastic fighter, one who passes on their skills to younger monks.

V. Moralistic headbands

JTTW, ch. 14 – The Monkey King is tricked into wearing a brocade hat under the pretense of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. However, the hat houses a golden fillet (jinguquan, 金箍圈) that soon takes root and painfully tightens around the immortal’s head when the correct spell is chanted (fig. 11). This allows the feeble monk Tripitaka to control the celestial monkey’s unruly nature.

WM, ch. 31 – When Wu Song disguises himself as a monk, he wears the garments of a priest who had previously been killed by bandits. The habit includes a metal “Precepts fillet” (jiegu, 戒箍) that he wears over his long hair (fig. 12).

Fillet examples - small

Fig. 11 – (Top left) Sun Wukong’s golden fillet from the 1986 JTTW television series (larger version). Fig. 12 – (Top right) Wu Song’s Precepts fillet from a recent WM television series (larger version). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) A late 11th to early 12th-century copper alloy statue of the wrathful deity Hevajra (larger version). He is portrayed with the same Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire as his followers, including the headband, arm cuffs, a bone (skull) rosary, bracelets, a girdle, anklets, and a tiger skin sarong. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of ArtFig. 14 – (Bottom center) A detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet featured in an 11th-century mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China (larger version). It has been slightly enhanced for clarity. A fuller version of the image can be seen here. Fig. 15 – (Bottom right) A military monk from a modern Beijing Opera production (larger version). From Bonds, 2008, p. 178.

I explain in this article that the heroes’ fillets share a common origin in an ancient Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband, one representing the Buddha Akshobhya and thereby moral self-restraint. It was one of several ritual items worn while worshiping wrathful protector deities like Heruka. Such deities were often depicted wearing the same attire as their followers, leading to the band becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits (fig. 13). The Hevajra Tantra (Ch: Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經), the original 8th-century Indian Buddhist text mentioning the ritual items, was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century. Interestingly, the earliest example of Monkey wearing the circlet (likely symbolizing the taming of the monkey of the mind) hails from this time (fig. 14). But Wu’s association with the headband was likely influenced by the Precepts fillet worn by the warrior monks of Chinese Opera (fig. 15). These heroes wear the band to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328).

VI. Bin steel weapons

JTTW, ch. 3 – Sun Wukong comes into possession of a magic staff (fig. 16) taken from the Dragon King’s underwater treasury. A poem in chapter 75 describes the weapon being hand-forged from Bin steel (bintie, 鑌鐵) by the high Daoist god Laozi.

WM, ch. 31 – Apart from wearing the fallen monk’s religious clothing, Wu Song also takes possession of his Buddhist sabers made from “snowflake pattern” Bin steel (huaxue bintie jiedao, 雪花鑌鐵戒刀) (fig. 17). [15]

Sun Wukong and Wu Song weapons - small

Fig. 16 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong holding his magic Bin steel staff (larger version). Fig. 17 – A modern painting of Wu Song wielding his Bin steel sabers (larger version). Artist unknown. 

Sun’s staff and Wu’s sabers are not the first bin steel weapons to appear in Chinese literature. A bladed pole arm example is the Bin steel great sword (bintie da podao, 鑌鐵刀) wielded by a bandit from the Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the Great Song Dynasty (Da Song Xuanhe Yishi, 大宋宣和遺事, mid-13th-century), a storytelling prompt containing WM material predating the published novel. [16] Another pole arm is the Bin steel spear (bintie qiang鑌鐵槍) wielded by a general from The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt (San sui pingyao zhuan, 三遂平妖傳, c. late 16th-century), which also takes place in the Song-era (Luo, n.d.). 

I explain in this article that Bin steel is a real world metal akin to Damascus that was imported to China from Persia starting from the 6th-century, and the secret of its manufacture eventually reached the Middle Kingdom by the 12th-century. The metal was considered an exceptionally fine steel and was often used to make strong, durable, and sharp knives and swords, some worth more than silver. One general is described as boasting that rebels would “have to nick (chi, 齒) his sword of bin iron” if they wished to rise up (Wagner, 2008, p. 269). This is a simultaneous declaration of his unbreakable resolve and a statement praising the seemingly indestructible metal. Therefore, JTTW and the WM portray the finest of heroes wielding the finest of steel weapons.

VII. Conclusion

As shown, the parallels between Sun Wukong and Wu Song are the result of JTTW and the WM borrowing from the same cultural source material. Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements mountain and Wu’s time as an evil spirit trapped in a well beneath stone was influenced by the Daoist belief that mountains—be they sympathetically represented by stone or hand mudras—could immobilize malevolent forces. Likewise, our heroes’ portrayal as reformed demons can be tied to the Daoist “Thunder Ritual”, which aims to conquer evil and repurpose its power for good. Sun and Wu’s image as tiger-slayers was influenced by stories of tiger-killing strongmen from Chinese folklore. Their religious nickname “Pilgrim” and characterization as monastic martial artists can be tied to uneducated pseudo-monks and holy warriors skilled in both staff fighting and boxing from Chinese history. Their religious fillets were inspired by an Esoteric Buddhist ritual headband worn as a reminder of moral self-restraint. And the metal comprising Sun and Wu’s weapons can be traced to a real world steel prized in ancient China for its durability. 

This was a fun piece to write because it shows the Great Sage obviously didn’t develop in a vacuum. It’s interesting to me that much of Sun and Wu’s influences hail from the Song dynasty. These include the Daoist rituals for trapping and reforming spirits, the Pilgrim nickname and characterization as staff-wielding warrior monks, and the translation of the tantric text mentioning the moralistic headband and Monkey’s earliest known depiction wearing it.

Update: 10/04/2020

I have written a follow up article explaining the parallels between Monkey and the historical Buddha.


1) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions (N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.

2) A zhang (丈) is ten Chinese feet, so 10,000 zhang would be 100,000 feet. A li (里) is one-third of a Western mile. More importantly, in Chinese culture, the number 10,000 represents an infinitely large concept. Therefore, by squaring the number, the well prison is described as an unfathomably large and inescapable place. I would like to thank the Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula (his website) for suggesting this note as it helps better visualize the prison. He was kind enough to read an earlier draft of this article.

3) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.

4) See chapter two.

5) This is not openly stated in chapter 14 but is implied in chapter 27. See this article for more information.

6) Ch’en (1956) gives examples. During the Song, the official selling prices for the certificates ranged from one hundred thirty to eight hundred strings of cash. To put these prices in perspective, he notes the lowest cost would pay for the equivalent of seventy-five bolts of silk or one hundred twenty-five bushels of rice (pp. 316-317). 

7) Wivell, 1994, p. 1187. The full episode appears on pages 1186-1187.

8) Ge, 2001, p. 38. The eight types of stories appearing in The Drunken Man’s Talk are: “lingguai [靈怪] (spirits and demons), yanfen [煙粉] (rouge and powder), chuanqi [傳奇] (marvels), gong’an [公案] (court cases), podao [朴刀] (broadsword), ganbang [桿棒] (staff), shenxian [神仙] (immortals), and yaoshu [妖術] (sorcery)” (Ge, 2001, p. 209, n. 6).

9) Huang, 2018, p. 61 and n. 8. It’s interesting to note that the monk Lu Zhishen is said to wield an impossibly heavy metal staff like Sun Wukong. See this article for more details.

10) See chapters three and four.

11) Lorge (2012) cites a Tang-era story about an 8th-century prince who discovers an abandoned wardrobe while hunting in the forest. It is found to contain a young woman who had been kidnapped the previous night by bandits but was subsequently whisked away by two monks among the group. The prince replaces her with a wild bear that later mauls the bandit monks to death when the wardrobe is reopened (pp. 106-107). The monks were likely impostors like Wu Song.

12) Wu Song is famed in Chinese folklore for his martial arts ability. This led to the creation of a wushu form known as “Wu Song Breaks Manacles” (Wu Song tuo kao, 武松脫拷), which mimics a person fighting with their hands clasped as if shackled, forcing them to rely on doubled fist and elbow strikes and lots of kicking. The form is based on an episode from chapter 30 of the WM when the hero is attacked by assassins while being led in shackles to a prison camp. Wu Song is forced to defend himself in such a manner before breaking his restraints.

13) See, for example, Chlumsky, 2005, p. 72. The author also repeats folklore further tying the style to the Song dynasty heroes Yue Fei and his teacher Zhou Tong.

14) See chapters five and six.

15) I think it’s interesting that each weapon is presented as having some level of sentienceCalled the “As-you-wish” Gold-Banded Cudgel (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), Sun’s staff grows or shrinks according to his whim. Wu’s peerless blades are said to “often groan in the night” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 2015, p. 350), suggesting a magic longing for combat. The sentience of each weapon is based on different sources, however. I note in this article that the compliance of Monkey’s weapon is based on the Ruyi (如意) scepter, a symbol of religious and secular authority that was at some point associated with the similarly named wish-fulfilling cintamani jewel (ruyi zhu, 如意珠) from Buddhist mythology. The vocal ability of Wu Song’s blades may be based on the Chinese belief that swords have a soul. Two prime examples are the famed treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) made by the legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi (歐冶子) during the Spring and Autumn period. Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-ccentury) described them as mated lovers who pine for each other when separated and even leap from the scabbard to seek out their beloved (Lee & Wiles, 2015, pp. 161-163).

16) See Luo (n.d.). The original source says “po bintie dadao” (潑鑌鐵大刀). This is likely a transcription error. I have corrected it above. 


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

Børdahl, V. (2013). Wu Song fights the tiger: The interaction of oral and written traditions in the Chinese novel, drama and storytelling. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

Ch’en, K. (1956). The sale of monk certificates during the Sung dynasty: A factor in the decline of Buddhism in China. The Harvard Theological Review 49(4), pp. 307-327.

Chen, P., & Petersen, V. (2016). The development of Chinese martial arts fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Chlumsky, N. (2015). Inside kungfu: Chinese martial arts encyclopedia. [n.p.]:

Da song xuanhe yishi [Old incidents in xuanhe period of the great Song dynasty] (n.d.). [archived document]. Retrieved from

Huang, Y. (2018). Narrative of Chinese and western popular fiction: Comparison and interpretation. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Ge, L. (2001). Out of the margins: The rise of Chinese vernacular fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Knechtges, D. R., & Chang, T. (2010). Ancient and early medieval Chinese literature: A reference guide. Leiden: Brill.

Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical dictionary of Chinese women: Tang through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Luo, G. (n.d.). San sui pingyao zhuan [The three sui quash the demons’ revolt] [archived document]. Retrieved from

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Padula, D. (2016). Dragon ball culture: Volume 5. (n.p.): Derek Padula.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (2015). Outlaws of the marsh. California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wagner, D. (2008). Science and civilisation in China: volume 5, chemistry and chemical technology, part 11, ferrous metallurgy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Wang, J. (1992). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin, and the journey to the west. Durham, N.C: Duke 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: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #9 – The Magic White Ape of the Tang Dynasty

The brief Tang-era tale “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) tells how the beautiful young wife of General Ouyang He (歐陽紇, 538–570) is kidnapped by a seemingly invisible force while he is engaged in conquering minority groups of the south lands. The general and his men scour the surrounding area for hundreds of miles before discovering a mountain where she and other women are being kept by a magic white ape (baiyuan, 白猿) (fig. 1). The captives caution that his soldiers are no match for the powerful primate, and so the ladies devise a plan to get him drunk and incapacitate him long enough for a killing blow to be dealt. With their help, the general manages to fall the beast with a well-placed sword strike below the navel, his only weak spot. Before dying, the ape reveals the general’s wife is pregnant and begs him not to kill the child. Ouyang subsequently returns to the north with his wife, the other women, and the monster’s priceless treasures. The tale ends with the birth of an unnamed son a year later.

White Ape and General's Wife - small

Fig. 1 – A modern drawing of the white ape and General Ouyang He’s wife by Japanese artist Natsuki Sumeragi (皇名月) (larger version). Original image found here. The silken ropes around his wrists refer to those intertwined with hemp and triple-tied to ensure that he can’t break free in the story. 

I. Historical background

Chen (1998) explains the original Biography of a White Ape story, purportedly supplemented by the above tale, [1] never existed. The Supplement is actually a standalone piece anonymously published to slander the historical scholar Ouyang Xun (歐陽詢, 557–641), who was known for his legendary monkey-like ugliness and almost supernatural intellect. The tale implies that he was the unnatural offspring of the general’s wife and the magic white ape (p. 76-79).

These mischievous simian spirits are known for kidnapping young maidens in tales from the Han to the Song (fig. 2). The mythical creature is based on the Gibbon (fig. 3), a small, long-armed, arboreal ape present in Asia (see Gulik, 1967).

Han-era Stone tomb rubbing showing a white ape - small

Fig. 2 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88. Fig. 3 – A woodblock print of a “white ape” or Gibbon from a Ming version of the Shanhai Jing (larger version).

II. Parallels with Sun Wukong

The story’s unnamed primate antagonist shares many surprising similarities with Sun Wukong. Both:

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

The character and his home appear to be an early model for the Monkey King, his abilities, and Flower Fruit Mountain.

III. Translation

Chen (1998) provides a complete translation of the brief tale, along with an informative translator’s introduction. The following PDF was put together from smartphone photos as I don’t currently have access to a scanner.

IV. Analysis

Chen (2003/2004) followed up his translation with a detailed analysis of the story. The PDF was located freely on the internet.


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


1) A supplement (bu, 補) is an addendum to an existing body of work, sort of like modern fan fiction. See, for example, A Supplement to the Journey to the West (1640).


Chen, J. (1998). A supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape. Renditions, 49, pp. 76-85.

Chen, J. (2003/2004). Revisiting the yingshe mode of representation in “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s biography of a white ape”. Oriens Extremus, 44, pp. 155-178.

Gulik, R. H. (1967). The gibbon in China: An essay in Chinese animal lore. Leiden: Brill.

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Sun Wukong and Miao Folklore

Sun Wukong appears in a body of Buddhist folklore passed on by the Miao ethnic group of Sichuan, also known as the “River Miao” (Chuan Miao, 川苗) or “Old Miao” (Miao: Hmong Bo) (fig. 1). The particular tale is quite different from the popular narrative appearing in Journey to the West (1592). For example, the unnamed monkey tends to a dragon king’s injury and later escorts a Tang dynasty emperor to India.

A Monkey Went Fishing, or Securing Buddhist Sacred Books (97)

The monkey changed into a fisherman and daily went fishing (with a line and hook). He hooked the dragon’s upper lip. When he pulled, the fishhook broke off in the dragon’s upper lip. The dragon’s lip therefore pained him every day. Then every day the dragon king called on his soldiers to go and get a doctor and heal it, but they could not find a doctor.

The monkey daily went to the sand bank to look for his fishhook. One day when he was looking for it two of the dragon king’s soldiers came and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for medicine.” The two soldiers then said, “Old scholar, our old man’s upper lip pains him and he sent us to help him find a doctor. Can you heal him?” The monkey thought, “Probably he has been caught by my fishhook.” He then said, “I can heal it, but I must first look at the injury, then I will give the medicine.” Then the two soldiers invited him to come.

He said, “How can I go since there is so much water?” He had to go down into the water of the stream. The two men then said, “You may get under our fins and close your eyes, and do not open your eyes until we call you.” The monkey wanted to see the dragon, so he closed his two eyes. The two soldiers held him under their fins, and in a short time one of them called him, and he opened his eyes and looked.

When he opened his eyes he had already entered a fine palace. In a little while he heard the soldiers of the dragon king from both sides calling to the dragon king to come and have his wound looked at.

The monkey heard the inside gate resound, “Gu, ga.” He then saw the hands of a big man carrying the dragon king so that he could sit in the chair. Then they requested him to look at the wound. The monkey kowtowed just once to the dragon king and then looked. Then he took a pair of chop sticks and pushed aside the dragon king’s lips, and saw that the fishhook was hooked in the dragon king’s upper lip. Then he took the chopsticks and loosened the fishhook a little. He then asked the dragon king, “Is it any better?” The dragon king answered, “It is a little better.” Then the monkey sat down and rested a little. The dragon king said, “I am afraid that I will die from this illness.”

The monkey said, “You will not die from this sickness. You will certainly recover.” The dragon said, “If you are willing to heal me, I will give you whatever you want.” The monkey then used the chopsticks to push open the lips. Then he seized the fishhook with his chopsticks and with one jerk pulled out the fish book. The lip of the dragon king hurt no longer.

Then the dragon king called to his daughters to entertain the monkey fisherman. The monkey remained there several days. The dragon king was afraid that he [the monkey] was in a hurry and told his soldiers to give him some gold and silver. The monkey said, “I do not want gold and silver. I only want you to permit me to stay here a few days longer.” When the soldiers had reported this to the dragon king, he was glad to have him remain longer. He stayed several months.

One day he was visiting with the women in the palace. The monkey saw a yellow golden club. He then picked it up to play with. He struck with the golden club outside, and the club flew with him to the sea. Then he knew that this club was an ancient golden club. The dragon king did not pursue him.

The monkey lived until the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty king wanted to go and get sacred books. But the king could not go himself because the demons and spooks were very numerous along the road. The Tang emperor then sent a messenger to call the monkey to him. The monkey said, “I cannot go. If anybody wants me to go, he must change likenesses with me, and then I will go.”

The Tang emperor himself returned, and for three years sought for a method. One day he came and said to the monkey, “Now I am able to change.” The monkey then requested the Tang emperor to change. The Tang emperor then changed into a big mountain, and the monkey went into the mountain. Then he was unable to come out again. The Tang emperor then said, “Now will you go with me?” The monkey then promised to go with him. Then the Tang emperor lifted aside the written character that had imprisoned him, and then the monkey came out. The monkey then went with the Tang emperor to the western horizon and brought back the sacred books. [79]


79) The Ch’uan Miao said that this is a story about a monkey of some repute, but they did not know his name. It is evidently the monkey god Sen Hou Tzu [Sun houzi, “the monkey Sun”] 孫猴子 or Sen Wu K’ung [Sun Wukong孫悟空 (Graham, 1954, p. 211).

I. Story influences

I suggest the first three-quarters of the Miao tale draws on the Asian variant of a widely known story cycle in which a fisherman is rewarded for releasing a magic fish (B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful, n.d.). This version sees the fisherman release a carp to later discover it was actually the transformed son of a dragon king. He is then rewarded with a magic treasure for his kindness. [1] This cycle is partially played out in another Miao legend in which a fisherman catches a fish, who turns out to be the daughter of the dragon king Ryuang Lan, and later marries her in human form (Graham, 1954, pp. 226-227). In our story, the monkey-turned-fisherman catches the dragon king and then frees him of the hook. He is subsequently rewarded with a prolonged stay in the dragon kingdom and thereafter retrieves the golden club, which is itself a magic treasure.

Miao couple (for Sun Wukong article) - small

Fig. 1 – A Miao couple (larger version). She is wearing traditional dress, while he wears that of the Chinese. From Graham, 1954, p. 125. Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong meets the dragon king Ao Guang (larger version). A screenshot from the classic Chinese animation Uproar in Heaven (1965).

Elements of the first three-quarters and all of the last quarter clearly borrow from Journey to the West. The monkey is presented as a shape-shifting immortal, for he changes into a fisherman and lives until the Tang dynasty. His aversion to water in the tale is a common trope throughout the novel, such as when Sun Wukong uses water-propelling magic or relies on others to fight water-based monsters. [2] The golden club is the Monkey King’s “As-you-will” gold-banded cudgel retrieved from the undersea dragon kingdom. This in turn identifies the dragon king as Ao Guang, the ruler of the Eastern Sea (fig. 2). The unnamed “Tang dynasty emperor”, Tang Taizong in Journey to the West, replaces the monk Tripitaka originally sent to retrieve holy scriptures. The monkey’s imprisonment inside the emperor-turned-mountain is based on Sun’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain in the novel, complete with a written amulet weighing the landmass down.

The monarch’s transformation into a mountain is particularly interesting to me, for I don’t recall ever reading any Asian folklore featuring such an event. I know of at least one instance of a hero in ancient European folklore being changed into a mountain as punishment (see fig. 5 in my article here). However, our tale presents the ruler’s transformation as a willing metamorphosis. The Miao consider mountains to be living beings, [3] having “heads, feet, hands, eyes, ears, hearts, breasts, veins, and arteries” (Graham, 1954, p. 9). Therefore, the mountain is a macrocosm of the human body, making the transformation one of degree and not kind. But this portion of the narrative remains a mystery to me as the original intended outcome was “switch[ing] likenesses.” I take this to mean that the monkey would look like the emperor and visa versa. Does this imply the primate was keen on usurping the throne and the monarch then used his transformation as a deterrent?

II. Monkey progenitors

The Monkey King’s inclusion in Miao folklore should come as no surprise since monkeys play an important role in their mythology. They believe humans are descended from a pair of monkeys who broke off their tails by accident and eventually evolved human features (Graham, 1954, p. 204). As explained in this article, having a monkey ancestor is a common belief among the various ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China. Sun Wukong also appears in the legends of the neighboring (and related) Qiang people of Sichuan.


1) One version appears in the Complete Tale of Guanyin of the Southern Seas (Nanhai Guanyin quanzhuan, 南海觀音全傳), a 16th-century pious novelette detailing Guanyin’s former life as the Princess Miaoshan. After achieving enlightenment, Miaoshan/Guanyin looks to take on disciples. One is a dragon princess (longnu, 龍女) who bestows the Bodhisattva with a magic jewel for saving her brother, a dragon prince who had been caught by a fisherman while transformed into a carp (Idema, 2008, p. 31).

2) The water-propelling magic is first displayed in chapter three when Sun seeks a magic weapon from the underwater dragon kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). An example of Monkey relying on others to fight a water-based monster happens in chapter 22 when he asks Zhu Bajie to battle Sha Wujing (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 423).

3) According to Graham (1954), “The Ch’uan Miao regard all things as alive and sentient. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, thunder, the echo, the rainbow, homes, fields, plains, recompense or karma, beds, marriage, swords, the harvest, the year…the ceremonial drum, and even the sound of the ceremonial drum are considered to be living things” (p. 9).


B375.1. Fish returned to the water: grateful (n.d.). S. Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature. Retrieved from

Graham, D. C. (1954). Songs and stories of the Chʻuan Miao. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from;view=1up;seq=7

Idema, W. L. (2008). Personal salvation and filial piety: Two precious scroll narratives of Guanyin and her acolytes. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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


Sun Wukong and the Qiang Ethnic Group of China

Last updated: 08/02/2019

The Qiang (Chinese: 羌; Qiangic: Rrmea) ethnic group have been mentioned in Chinese records as far back as the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th-century BCE). Originally inhabiting the northern reaches of China, these sheepherders and warriors were driven southwest over many centuries of conflict with neighboring ethnic groups, as well as the Chinese. Many Chinese dynasties attempted to assimilate them, but the Qiang have resisted up to the present. Today, they live in western Sichuan near the Tibetan border and are listed among the 56 recognized ethnic groups of China (Yu, 2004, pp. 155-156; Wang, 2002, pp. 133-136).

What’s interesting about the Qiang for the purposes of this blog is that both magic monkeys and heavenly stones, and even Sun Wukong himself, play a part in the people’s religious mythology.

Map of China showing location of Sichuan Province, home to Qiang ethnic group, some of whom worship Sun Wukong

Fig. 1 – A map of China showing the location of Sichuan province in red. Larger version available on wikicommons.

I. Monkeys and Qiang shamanism

Shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi; Chinese: Duan gong, 端公 or Wu, 巫) are the heart of Qiang religious life. During special ceremonies, they wear three-peaked hats (fig. 2 and 3) made from the fur of golden monkeys (fig. 4), each peak respectively representing the deities of heaven, earth, and shamanism (more on the latter below). [1] These hats are especially worn during exorcisms because the monkeys are considered “the purest of animals, [which stand] in extreme contrast to the vilest of beings—the demons” (Oppitz, 2004, p. 13). There are several legends, with many variants, explaining the origins of the headdress. One version states:

[T]he Qiangs used to have a written language, and their patriarch recorded the scriptures he obtained from the gods and other important writings on human affairs on the bark of birch trees. One day when he took out the pieces of bark to be aired, a mountain sheep came and ate them all. With the help of a golden monkey the patriarch captured the guilty sheep and made its skin into a drum. When he beat on the drum he was able to recall the words written on the birch bark. To prevent future mishaps to these precious documents, he memorized them by heart (Yu, 2004, p. 160).

So in essence the hats are worn to commemorate the assistance of the golden monkey. Interestingly, another version replaces the patriarch and golden monkey with Tripitaka and Sun Wukong:

A long time ago, in the Tang period, there was a monk by the name of Tang Seng [唐僧, “Tang Monk”], who undertook a journey to the western skies in the company of a monkey named Sun Wukong, in order to collect sacred scriptures. On their way back, they encountered a sheep ghost who ate all the newly acquired scriptures. The monkey got very angry, killed the sheep ghost, and used its skin to fabricate a drum. Thereupon Tang Seng and the monkey met with the Eighteen Arhats … Listening to their teachings, Tang Seng picked up the sheep-skin drum and repeated all that he heard through their mouths. Since then all shamans use a drum when reciting their knowledge from memory (Oppitz, 2004, p. 23).

Qiang shaman hat and goldn monkey

Fig. 2 – The three-peaked golden monkey skin shaman hat. From the Sichuan University Museum. Larger version on wikipedia. Fig. 3 – A shaman wearing the headdress and playing the ritual sheep skin drum (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. From Oppitz, 2004, p. 14. Fig. 4 – A golden monkey with child. Larger version on wikipedia.

The golden monkey is closely associated with the Qiang’s pantheistic worship of sacred white stones, each one representing the gods of heaven, sun, fire, mountains, rivers, and trees. [2] Yu (2004) provides another legend for the origins of the Shaman’s hat, describing how the monkey is the offspring of the sacred stone and noting parallels with the birth of Sun Wukong:

Another legend depicts the golden monkey as a Prometheus-like figure who stole fire from heaven. The first two attempts failed because the god of wind and the god of rain extinguished the fire, but the monkey succeeded the third time by concealing the fire in a white stone. It is worth noting that in this legend the golden monkey is closely related to the white stone. In the Qiang language, the first syllables in the names of the monkey’s mother and father mean respectively “stone” and “fire.” “This implies that fire is produced by stone and hidden inside the stone, and that the half-human, half-simian golden monkey was an offspring of the union between stone and fire”. The white stone and the golden monkey, as the source of fire and the messenger who brought it to the human world, became the totems of the Qiang people. To commemorate the recovery of the lost scriptures, wearing the monkey hat and playing the sheepskin drum also became an indispensable part of Sacrifice to the Mountain[, a Qiang ceremony]. However, the monkey legend is not particular to the Qiang people. The Yi minority people of northwestern Guizhou province have a nuo drama known as bianren xi (changing-into-people drama) based on a legend that people derived from monkeys. Actors wear monkey masks for this performance. There is also the famous monkey, Sun Wukong, who was born from a stone in the Han Chinese novel Xiyou ji (Journey to the West, 1592) by Wu Chengen (ca. 1506-1582). [3] The novel was first published in 1592, but the monkey lore included in it was of much earlier time (p. 160).

A celestial, stone-born monkey who steals from heaven certainly sounds like the Monkey King. As noted here, stories about Sun Wukong have been circulating in Asia for a millennia. So it seems only natural that the Qiang’s reverence for heavenly stones and monkeys would lead to some of them worshiping the beloved cultural figure.

Graham (1958) notes Sun Wukong and Sha Wujing figure among the Chinese patron deities of the “red” shamans (p. 53). [4] What’s interesting is that the red shamans are said to speak a special demon language and use their skills to exorcise demons (p. 54). Therefore, their worship of the Monkey King should come as no surprise considering Sun Wukong is the exorcist par excellence.

As noted above, one of the peaks of the ritual headdress represents the patron deity of shamanism. Known among other names as the Abba mula (“father god”), this is the title given to the shaman’s main focus of worship. For instance, Sun Wukong is the Abba mula of those who revere him. Most importantly, the chosen deity is further represented by a small bundle that the shaman carries with him and guards jealousy, as it is the source of his knowledge and power. Graham (1958) describes the sacred bundle’s importance, construction, and use:

He is the patron or guardian deity and instructor of the Ch’iang priest, and without him the priest could do nothing. It consists of a skull of a golden-haired monkey wrapped in a round bundle of white paper. Its eyes are old cowry shells or large seeds. Inside are also dried pieces of a golden-haired monkey’s lungs, intestines, lips, and fingernails. It is so wrapped that the face of the skull is visible at one end, and the other end is closed [fig. 5 and 6]. After each ceremony in the sacred grove, [5] the priest wraps another sheet of white paper around it, so that it gradually increases in diameter. Some priests will not allow another person to touch his Abba Mula and only the priest worships this god (pp. 51-52).

I mention this because there are no doubt sacred bundles representing Sun Wukong, which are used under his supernatural guidance.

Qiang abba mula bundle and shaman holding one

Fig. 5 – The Abba mula bundle. Note the visible monkey skull with cowry shell eyes (larger version). Original photograph by Wolfgang Wenning. Fig. 6 – A Qiang shaman carry a bundle and sacred cane (larger version). Original photograph by Michael Oppitz. Both images are from Oppitz, 2004, p. 41.

Oppitz (2004) explains stories alluding to Sun Wukong appear in Qiang pictorial divination books. Furthermore, he suggests the ritual of wrapping the Abba mula bundle with additional paper represents the lost written knowledge saved by the Monkey King / golden monkey, which is now passed on orally.

In Qiang divination books the monkey features in various passages. In one book the picture of a monkey alludes to a story in which he destroys a heavenly palace; another book addresses a monkey’s trip to a western land, where he acquires written texts. In both cases the monkey Sun Wukong of popular literature and protagonist of the novel Xi yu ji [sic], who escorts the Tang pilgrim Xuanzang, stands as the model. This character’s association with the acquisition of books and the role a golden-haired monkey plays in a Qiang myth as the inventor of the drum replacing the lost scriptures, suggests that the paper which is wrapped around the venerated monkey skull may also be interpreted as a hint to the conflict between scriptural versus oral tradition at the intersection of which the monkey stands as a mediator (p. 42).

II. Monkeys and the Qiang origin myth

Called “Mutsitsu and Tugantsu” (Mujiezhu yu Douanzhu, 木姐珠與斗安珠), the Qiang origin myth centers around the romance of Mutsitsu, the daughter of the supreme god Abamubi (or Mubita), and the earthbound monkey Tugantsu. The latter saves the goddess from a ferocious tiger when she visits the mortal world and both instantly fall in love. She brings him to the celestial realm, where Abamubi only agrees to their marriage if Tugantsu can successfully complete a series of impossible herculean tasks. These include falling the trees of ninety-nine mountains, burning the trees, and using the arable land to plant a crop of corn (other sources say grain); but each time Mutsitsu secretly enlists the aid of fellow gods to insure the tasks are completed on time. During the burning of the forest, Tugantsu’s fur is singed, revealing him to be a handsome man. In the end, the supreme god agrees to their marriage and Mutsitsu and Tugantsu become the progenitors of mankind. [6]

Academia Sinica (n.d.) comments that some Qiang communities who revere Chinese gods often equate Abamubi with the Jade Emperor of Daoism and Tugantsu with Sun Wukong. I find this especially fascinating as the Monkey King then becomes a sacred protoplast.

Tibetan origin myth painting - Monkey and Ogress - small

Fig. 7 – A modern painting showing the monkey and rock ogress of Tibetan myth (larger version). Original from Wikipedia.

In addition, Academia Sinica (n.d.) explains this “monkey transforming into human” motif (i.e. Tugantsu becoming a man) has similarities with Tibetan mythology, for the Qiang live in close proximity to the people of Tibet. This refers to the Tibetan origin myth in which the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (the Indo-Tibetan variant of Guanyin) and Tara are respectively reborn on earth as a monkey and his wife, a rock ogress (fig. 7). (Again, the association between the monkey and rock reminds one of Sun Wukong.) The union produces six half-human half-monkey children, from which originate the six original tribes of Tibet. These children and their offspring eventually evolve human features (Stein, 1972, pp. 37 and 46).

III. Conclusion

The religious mythology of the Qiang ethnic group of China pays reverence to both heavenly monkeys and sacred stones. Examples include stories about a golden monkey born from a stone who both bestows fire on man and creates the sheepskin drum needed to recover lost scriptural knowledge. Qiang communities that revere Chinese deities often replace the golden monkey with Sun Wukong, no doubt due to his birth mirroring the former’s origins. The same holds true for the Qiang origin myth in which a goddess and monkey-turned-man become the progenitors of mankind. The Monkey King is sometimes equated with the father, transforming him from a literary character and cultural figure into a sacred protoplast. Interestingly, the monkey-rock and monkey-to-man motifs have connections to a wider myth cycle present in Tibet.

Some shamans (Qiangic: Shüpi) specializing in exorcism worship our hero as their patron deity, or Abba mula (“father god”). Such deities are given form as a bundled monkey skull successively wrapped in white paper. This sacred object is considered the source of the shaman’s power. It’s possible the wrapping paper references the lost scriptural knowledge that Sun Wukong/the golden monkey helped recover.

To my knowledge, most of what has been written about the Qiang, and by extension their connection with Sun Wukong, was collected by ethnographers during the 20th and 21st centuries. Considering the Qiang have no written language (hence the importance of oral knowledge), it’s impossible to say how far back this connection goes. But as noted in this article, the Monkey King has been worshiped by the Chinese since at least the 17th-century. So the Qiang reverence for Sun Wukong could also be centuries old.

Update: 04/19/2019

Sun Wukong also appears in the folklore of the neighboring (and related) Miao ethnic group. The Miao also believe man derives from monkeys.

Update: 08/02/2019

Rockhill (1891) provides a complete translation of the Tibetan monkey-ogress origin myth taken from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century), a collection of Tibetan Buddhist texts centered around Avalokitesvara. [7] The translation is too long to transcribe here, so I have made a PDF of the relevant pages. It’s interesting to note that the Bodhisattva Hilumandju, the protagonist, is a monkey king with magic powers. 

Archive link

Click to access the-land-of-the-lamas-notes-of-a-journey-through-china-mongolia-and-tibet-1891-by-william-woodville-rockhill-rock-ogress-and-a-monkey-info-pages-extracted.pdf

Hilumandju and Hanumanji are quite similar, as noted by other writers (Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa, 2011, p. 152). The Tibetologist Per K. Sørensen notes “the idea of an ape-gestalt in this myth is directly associated with or inspired by the ape-king … and champion … Ha-lu ma-da = Hanümän, the resourceful figure and protagonist known from Välmlki’s Rämäyana, a tale of considerable popularity already in the dynastic period in Tibet” (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 127, n. 329).

Additionally, the Chinese of Sichuan also have stories regarding primates fathering human children. A body of Han and Tang dynasty tales that heavily influenced the creation of Sun Wukong describes magic white apes (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnapping and impregnating young woman. One example appears in both Zhang Hua’s Encyclopedic Records of Things (Bowuzhi, 博物志, c. 290) and the Records of Spirits (Soushenji, 搜神記, c. 340):

In the high mountains of southwestern Shu [Sichuan and Tibet] there is an animal resembling the monkey. It is seven feet in height, it can imitate the ways of human beings and is able to run fast in pursuit of them. It is named Jia-guo 猳國 or Ma-hua 馬化; some call it Jue 貜. It watches out for young women travelling on the road and seizes and bears them away without anyone being aware of it. If travelers are due to pass in its vicinity they lead one another by a long robe, but even this fails to avert disaster. The beast is able to distinguish between the smell of men and women and can thus pick out the women and leave the men. Having abducted a man’s wife or daughter it makes her its own wife. Women that fail to bear its children can never return for the rest of their lives, and after ten years they come to resemble the beast in appearance, their minds become confused, and they no longer think of return. Those that bear sons return to their homes with the infants in their arms. The sons are all like men in appearance. If any refuse to rear them, the mothers die. So the women go in fear of the beast, and none dares refuse to bring up her son. Grown up, the sons are no different from men, and they all take the surname Yang 楊, which is why there are so many people by that name now in the south west of Shu: they are mostly descended from the Jia-guo or Ma-hua (Wu, 1987, pp. 91-92).

I find the last part fascinating because it states the inhabitants of the Sichuan-Tibet region were fathered by the ape. This recalls the Tibetan, Qiang, and Miao tales of humans descending from monkeys. It also suggests the aforementioned ethnic stories about a primate progenitor stretch back to the early part of the first millennium.


1) Graham (1958) notes the headdress is one of eleven sacred implements of the Qiang shaman. He provides a detailed description of the hat’s significance.

This is made of a golden-haired monkey skin and is believed to be very efficacious, greatly adding to the dignity and potency of the priest and his ceremonies. The eyes and ears of the monkey are left on, and the tail is sewed on at the back. The eyes enable the hat to see and the ears to hear, and add to the efficiency of the hat. The tail also adds to its efficiency. The front of the hat is ornamented with old cowry shells arranged in ornamental designs, one or two polished white bones that are said to be the kneecaps of tigers, and sometimes with carved sea shells. These ornaments improve the looks of the hat and also add to its efficiency. Other ornaments believed to add efficiency when used are two cloth pennants, one or two small circular brass mirrors, and one or two small brass horse bells much like sleigh bells, on which the Chinese character wang 王 meaning king is carved. Near Wen-ch’uan the priests sometimes assist the magistrate in praying for rain and in turn are presented with a small, thin silver plaque to be worn on the hat, on which is stamped the Chinese word shang 賞, or “reward.” This plaque also adds dignity and efficiency (pp. 55-56).

2) The Qiang reverence for these stones is tied to the aforementioned conflict with neighboring tribes. For example, legend states the great heavenly ancestor of the Qiang sent them three white stones to aid in their battle with a neighboring tribe, transforming them into mountains from which weapons were made. Another legend claims these stones help the Qiang make fire (Yu, 2004, pp. 156-157). These white stones often appear on buildings (both temples and houses), walls, altars, and graves in Qiang society (Graham, 1958, p. 103).

3) The original paper reads, “…in the Han Chinese novel Xiyu ji (Journey to the West, 1982)…” I have corrected the typos.

4) The colors red, white, and black signify the class of magic (good vs. dark), though shamans often inhabit all three roles (Graham, 1958, p. 54).

5) Sacred groves are home to a village’s temple and white stone altar, where many rituals are performed at night and in the early morning (Graham, 1958, p. 64).

6) A Chinese version of the tale can be read here. This forum has scans of an illustrated bilingual book presenting a different version of the tale.

7) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.


Academia Sinica. (n.d.). A Brief Introduction to the Qiang People – Religion. Retrieved from

Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The mirror illuminating the royal genealogies: Tibetan buddhist historiography : an annotated translation of the XIVth century Tibetan chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Chattopadhyaya, A., & Chimpa. (2011). Atīśa and Tibet: Life and works of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (alias Atīśa) in relation to the history and religion of Tibet, with Tibetan sources. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Graham, D. C. (1958). The customs and religion of the Ch’iang. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from

Oppitz, M. (2004). Ritual objects of the Qiang shamans. Res: Anthropology and aesthetics, 45, 10-46. Retrieved from

Rockhill, W. W. (1891). The land of the lamas: Notes of a journey through China, Mongolia and Tibet with maps and illustrations. New York: Century Co.

Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Wang, M. (2002). Searching for Qiang culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Inner Asia, 4(1), 131-148. Retrieved from

Wu, H. (1987). The earliest pictorial representations of ape tales: An interdisciplinary study of early Chinese narrative art and literature. T’oung Pao LXXIII, pp. 86-112.

Yu, S. (2004). Sacrifice to the Mountain: A Ritual Performance of the Qiang Minority People in China. TDR 48(4), 155-166. Retrieved from

Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of tens of thousands of arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

I. Explanation

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.

(Note 06/15/19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hard-won “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of hours or minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few hours or minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.

II. Conclusion

This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few hours or minutes.

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known colloquially as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.


1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

2) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Master Subhuti’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist dietary laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

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

Monkey and the Summoners of Hell: The Story and Origins of the Heibai Wuchang

Last updated: 10/29/2018

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West happens in chapter three after Sun Wukong returns from the undersea palace with his magic staff and is chosen as lord of the 72 monster kings. Following a lavish banquet in his honor, the Monkey King falls asleep and his soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld by two spirits:

In his sleep the Handsome Monkey King saw two men approach with a summons with the three characters “Sun Wukong” written on it. They walked up to him and, without a word, tied him up with a rope and dragged him off. The soul of the Handsome Monkey King was reeling from side to side. They reached the edge of a city. The Monkey King was gradually coming to himself, when he lifted up his head and suddenly saw above the city an iron sign bearing in large letters the three words “Region of Darkness [You mingjie, 幽冥界].” The Handsome Monkey King at once became fully conscious. “The Region of Darkness is the abode of Yama, King of Death,” he said. “Why am I here?” “Your age in the World of Life has come to an end,” the two men said. “The two of us were given this summons to arrest you.” When the Monkey King heard this, he said, “I, old Monkey himself, have transcended the Three Regions and the Five Phases [1]; hence I am no longer under Yama’s jurisdiction. Why is he so confused that he wants to arrest me?” The two summoners paid scant attention. Yanking and pulling, they were determined to haul him inside. Growing angry, the Monkey King whipped out his treasure. One wave of it turned it into the thickness of a rice bowl; he raised his hand once, and the two summoners were reduced to hash (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 139).

The two unnamed psychopomps are simply referred to in the story as “[those who] arrest the dead” (Gou siren, 勾死人). Modern media sometimes portrays these two wearing contrasting black and white uniforms with tall hats (fig. 1).

Heibai Wuchang summon Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – The summoners taking Sun Wukong’s soul in his sleep (larger version). From episode 7 of the Little Fox ESL Journey to the West series.

The Heibai Wuchang

The specific color-coded deities are known in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore as the Heibai wuchang (黑白無常), or the “Black and White [spirits of] Impermanence.” Tan (2018) describes their mythic background and religious importance:

[A] good deal of importance attaches to the worship in Malaysia and Singapore of Heibai Wuchang … popularly known as Da Er Ye (大二爺, Eldest and Second Uncles). In charge of policing the netherworld and protecting humans from evil, they are believed to be two soldiers of the Tang dynasty, General Xie [謝] and General Fan [范]. The former was tall and was hanged by the enemy, while the latter was shorter and was drowned while fighting enemies. General Xie’s image is that of a tall person with a protruding long tongue; he’s wearing a white shirt, and his high hat has the characters yijian daji ([一見大吉] “big luck on seeing me”) or yijian shengcai ([一見生財] “getting wealth on seeing me”). General Fan’s image has a dark face, and his square hat bears the characters tianxia taiping [天下太平], or “peace in the world.” Also called Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), the two generals are in charge of rewarding good people and punishing evil ones. General Xie is more popular among worshippers; frightening as he is, the Elder Uncle benefits from his association with blessing wealth (p. 58).

Chen (2014) provides a different background for the two, which is commonly told in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou in Fujian province:

The Seventh Lord (七爺) and Eighth Lord (八爺) are frequently seen and are well-known in Taiwanese religious parades. These two deities were originally two brother-like friends in Fuzhou (福州). One was called Xie Bian (謝必安), and the other one was named Fan Wujiu (范無救; 范無咎). On a rainy day, they had an appointment to meet under the Nan Tai Bridge (南臺橋). Fan Wujiu was short with a dark complexion, but Xie Bian was tall with a light complexion. Fan Wujiu arrived at the meeting place earlier, waited there in spite of the heavy rain, and was drowned. Xie Bian tried to bring umbrellas for Fan Wujiu and was therefore late. When he arrived at the bridge, Fan Wujiu was already dead, so he decided to commit suicide because of his friendship and guilt. According to legends, the Heavenly Emperor (玉皇大帝) was touched by this pair of brother-like friends, and promoted their ghosts to supernatural officers from the underworld. The Seventh Lord is Bai Wuchang (白無常), and the Eighth Lord is Hei Wuchang (黑無常). Their mission is to bring dead people’s ghosts from the ordinary human world to the underworld at the moment of their deaths (p. 220).

Heibai wuchang statues - small

Fig. 2 – A depiction of the spirits taking a soul to the Chinese underworld (larger version). From the Haw Par Villa theme park in Singapore. Original picture from Baike.

Stevens (1997) goes into more detail about their function and veneration:

The pair are despatched on orders from the City God when the due date of a person’s death arrives, to seek out and identify the correct human through the local spiritual official, the Earth God [fig. 3]. They appear before the human and the Tall Demon [the white spirit] announces that the time has come. The Short Demon [the black spirit] binds the soul and drags it before the City God. The Short Demon carries the tablet of authority and the chains to arrest the soul whose due date of death has arrived [fig. 2].

The Tall Demon … receives considerable attention from devotees, often relatives of the very sick, and in a few temples he is provided with cigarettes which are to be seen continually burning having been forced in between his lips. More popularly, his mouth is smeared with a black substance to win his favour and bribe him to keep away. This used to be opium and is still said to be opium, though the substance appears to be more of a sweet sticky mess. In northern and central China, only the Tall Demon is found (p. 173).


Fig. 3 – A monumental statue of an Earth god in Taiwan (larger version).


The sources above provide two backgrounds for the spirits, historical generals or brother-like friends, all of whom died unnatural deaths. Both origins involve the tall, white figure being hanged, while the short, black figure was drowned. Both of these backgrounds have respective ties to religious beliefs of the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. It was common practice during the Han for generals, especially those slain by the enemy, to be deified as gods. This concept of deified mortals carried over into the Song Dynasty when tutelary gods were popular. Those deified were often pious or loyal people who died unnatural deaths. But most importantly, these individuals were deified by the very communities in which they lived, meaning they were worshiped as the protector of the specific locale and its people (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 164).

These tutelary cults find their origin in earth gods (tudishen, 土地神) worshiped as early as the Han. Just like people of the Song worshiped the worthy among their fallen community members, people of the Han worshiped the gods believed to inhabit the very earth on which their communities were established. Considering the dead were buried underground, these earth gods also served the function of “escort[ing] the deceased to the world of the afterlife” (Von Glahn, 2004, p. 165). Remember above that Stevens described the tall and short spirits relying on the local earth god to help locate the correct soul being summoned. Therefore, our spirits appear to be a combination of deified mortals (generals/worthy citizens) and earth gods who escorted the deceased to the afterlife. But there may be more to the story.

Wuchang (無常), or “impermanence”, is the Chinese term for the sanskrit Anitya. This is one of the “Three Marks” (Sk: Trilaksana) of existence in Buddhism, the other two being suffering (Duhkha) and non-self (Anatman) (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 47-48). The fact Wuchang is associated with these spirits suggests there is an added Buddhist influence. As I’ve written before, the Chinese underworld presented in Journey to the West is an amalgam of local Chinese and foreign Buddhist beliefs. In short, the Chinese Underworld consists of ten courts in which a soul is punished and sent on to the next until their karma is cleansed. The concept of purgatory and the Ten Kings or Judges of hell are products of 7th-century Chinese Buddhism. Prior to this, souls of the dead were kept en masse in a sort of Daoist city of the dead. So our two summoners were no doubt absorbed into this new Buddhist worldview. The spirits in effect could be viewed as personifications of Buddhist impermanence.

The contrasting black and white color scheme has at least two origins. One, it may have evolved from the belief that each performed duties at different times. Maspero (1981) writes, “The most famous of [the City God’s] subordinates are Master White (Bai laoye [白老爺]) and Master Black (Hei laoye [黑老爺]), who perceive everything that goes on within the constituency, the former during the day and the latter during the night” (p. 110). Two, it may draw from the dualistic nature of Chinese philosophy. Baptandier (2008) comments their color is a “personification of the yin and yang principles of life” (p. 146).

20180916_131548 - small

Fig. 4 – A wall mural depicting the Ba Jiajiang (Eight Generals), including General Xie (white) with the phrase “Big Luck” (daji, 大吉) on his hat (larger version) and to his left General Fan (black) with a square hat. Taken by the author in Taipei, Taiwan.


Both General Xie (the tall, white spirit) and General Fan (the short, black spirit) figure among the Ba Jiajiang (八家將), or “Eight Generals” (fig. 4). These spirit generals are considered protectors of the City God (as well as other popular folk deities) and destroyers of evil. They consist of our two spirits, two more underworld figures called Generals Gan (甘) and Liu (柳), as well as four other figures known as the Four Seasons (Siji, 四季). These generals are personified during festivals by temple parade dance troupes called Jiajiang (家將). Members paint their faces according to the prescribed wrathful iconography for each general (fig. 5) and perform all sorts of choreographed militaristic dances while wielding weapons (video 1). These performances serve to exorcize evil spirits.

National Akau Mazu’s Cup of Youth Ba-Jia-Jang and Guan-Jang-Shou Competition, Ci Feng Mazu Temple, Pingtung City, Taiwan

Fig. 5 – The facepaint of General Xie, the tall, white spirit. A larger version can be seen on this blog. Original picture by Rich J. Matheson.

The tradition originated in Fuzhou but later spread to Taiwan by the 1870s, making it a rather recent phenomenon (Sutton, 1996).

Video 1 – A Ba Jiajiang performance.

Update: 10/29/2018

Sutton (1996) explains the ceremonial procession of the Eight Generals is modeled after yamen officials making an arrest in dynastic China. In this case, the otherworldly generals would be sent to arrest evil spirits:

The performers seen on the march—excluding the Four Seasons—represent a process, though it is never ritually played out: arrest by yamen underlings. In principle the punishment bearer warns, the messengers search out, the stave bearers pursue, Erye and Daye [the Black and White Spirits] take into custody, and the justices at the rear interrogate and record (p. 215).

In video 1, the man dressed in civilian attire and carrying the strange, yoke-like device on his shoulders (visible at 00:26) is performing the part of the punishment bearer, which I take to mean a symbol of those previously arrested and used as warnings to the evil spirits being pursued.


1) The Three Realms are Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and the Five Phases are the elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. The point being that he is beyond the control of the three realms and the effects of the elements because he has achieved immortality.


Baptandier, B. (2008). The lady of Linshui: A Chinese female cult. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Chen, Y. (2014). Cinematic visualization of spiritual lesbianism in Monkia Treut’s Ghosted: countering essentialist concerns about Li Ang’s literary works In Y. Chen (Ed). New modern Chinese women and gender politics: The centennial of the end of the Qing Dynasty (pp. 210-222).

Maspero, H. (1981). Taoism and Chinese religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Sutton, D. S. (1996). Transmission in Popular Religion: The Jiajiang Festival Troupe of Southern Taiwan in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (Ed.) Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 212-249). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Tan, C. B. (2018). Chinese religion in Malaysia: Temples and communities. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Von Glahn, R. (2004). The sinister way: The divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volumes 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Sun Wukong and the Three Heavenly Calamities

Last updated: 09/10/2018

In chapter two, Master Subhuti warns Sun Wukong that he must protect himself from Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) sent by heaven to punish him for achieving immortality and defying his fate (fig. 1). These punishments come every half millenia in the form of destructive elements:

Though your appearance will be preserved and your age lengthened, after five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of thunder [lei zai, 雷災] to strike you. Hence you must be intelligent and wise enough to avoid it ahead of time. If you can escape it, your age will indeed equal that of Heaven; if not, your life will thus be finished. After another five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of fire [huo zai, 火災] to burn you. The fire is neither natural nor common fire; its name is the Fire of Yin [yin huo, 陰火], and it arises from within the soles of your feet to reach even the cavity of your heart, reducing your entrails to ashes and your limbs to utter ruin. The arduous labor of a millennium will then have been made completely superfluous. After another five hundred years the calamity of wind [feng zai, 風災] will be sent to blow at you. It is not the wind from the north, south, east, or west; nor is it one of the winds of four seasons; nor is it the wind of flowers, willows, pines, and bamboos. It is called the Mighty Wind [bi feng, 贔風], and it enters from the top of the skull into the body, passes through the midriff, and penetrates the nine apertures. [1] The bones and the flesh will be dissolved and the body itself will disintegrate. You must therefore avoid all three calamities (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 121-122).

These calamities are important because Monkey subsequently learns the 72 transformations in order to escape punishment by hiding under any one of a myriad number of disguises. Therefore, exploring the origins of the three calamities has merit.

Monkey learning from master - Elements (small)

Fig. 1 – Master Subhuti tells Sun about the Three Calamities (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

The novel likely borrows from a Buddhist cosmological concept called the Three Calamities (sanzai, 三災). We first need some background before continuing. Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). The Three Calamities are responsible for the destruction of each Mahakalpa.

Kloetzli (1983) describes the cyclical destruction of each Mahakalpa by an element:

The destructions are of three kinds: those by fire, those by water and those by wind. […] The destructions succeed one another in the following sequence: seven by fire followed by a destruction by water. This cycle of eight destructions is repeated a total of seven times. This is then followed by seven more destructions by fire, followed by a final by wind. Thus there are 7 x 8 or 56 destructions by fire; 7 by water and a final 64th by wind [fig. 2] (p. 75).

Therefore, the Three Calamities from Journey to the West follow a similar cycle of destructive elements appearing at set time intervals: lightning, fire, and wind every 500 years in place of fire, water, and wind at the end of every Mahakalpa. And instead of destroying the universe, the elements are sent to kill those who have achieved immortality.

X57p0473_01 - small

Fig. 2 – A chart mapping the cyclical destructions by fire, water, and wind. A larger version is available on the CBETA page.

The earliest mention of Buddhism’s Three Calamities in Chinese writing that I know of appears in scroll one of the Pearl Forest of the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin, 法苑珠林), a Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia published in 688. So there was plenty of time between this work and the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592.

I was interested to learn that Monkey’s calamities made their way into modern Wuxia (武俠, “Martial hero”) literature. For example, the author of the Immortal Mountain wordpress writes:

Heavenly Tribulation (天劫 tiānjié) (重劫 zhòngjié) – in some novels, a trial encountered by cultivators at key points in their cultivation, which they must resist and ultimately transcend. Because immortal cultivation (generally) goes against the Will of Heaven, the Heavens will send down tribulations to oppress high-level cultivators who make progress towards Immortality, often right when they enter a new cultivation stage. This typically takes the form of a lightning storm, with extraordinarily powerful bolts of lightning raining down from the Heavens to strike at the cultivator (source).

The trial by lightning is exactly like the calamity of thunder mentioned by Master Subhuti.

Update: 09/10/2018

The Wuxia/Xianxia (仙侠, “Immortal hero”) literature translator Deathblade (twitter) was kind enough to direct me to an example of a tribulation from a popular Chinese television show . The scene (video 1) involves a 20,000-year-old child immortal experiencing a trial by lightning. The heavenly bolts tear at his clothing and draw blood, but he survives the ordeal.

Video 1 – Start watching from minute 13:08.

Deathblade also directed me to an example from an online Xianxia novel called I shall Seal the Heavens (Wo yu feng tian, 我欲封天). Chapter 385(!) describes how the anti-hero Meng Hao (孟浩) uses a sentient heavenly treasure to protect himself from powerful bolts of lightning, which instead seek out and kill nearby spiritual cultivators on the cusp of immortality:

The Heavenly Tribulation boomed as one lightning bolt after another shot down onto Meng Hao, who held the meat jelly upraised in his hand to defend himself. The lightning would subsequently disperse into the area around him. Any nearby Cultivators would let out bloodcurdling screams. Soon, the air filled with the sounds of cursing and reviling.

Meng Hao didn’t care. This was something he had learned from Patriarch Reliance. When you con someone and then end up getting cursed by them, you must maintain your cool. It was really a realm unto itself.

Throughout the years, Meng Hao had conned many people, and had refined that skill to the very pinnacle. Therefore, he continued to redirect the descending lightning to the various Cultivators in the three thousand kilometer region.

Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a lake of lightning, along with plaintive cursing. What he left behind was scorched corpses.

To the Cultivators here, it was nothing but a massacre, a slaughter in which no one could do anything to fight back. They couldn’t attack him, nor could they flee as… they were horrified to discover that Meng Hao’ speed was incredible, even if he was being struck by lightning!

(read more here)

The character uses trickery to protect himself from the bolts just like Monkey intended to do with his transformations.


1) The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus.


Kloetzli, R. (1983). Buddhist cosmology: From single world system to pure land : science and theology in the images of motion and light. Oxford: Motilal Books.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volumes 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Archive #5 – A Mission to Heaven (1913) – The First English Translation

Here I present A Mission to Heaven (1913), the first English version of Journey to the West translated by the Welsh Baptist missionary Timothy Richard (1845-1919). Modern translator Anthony C. Yu describes it and a slightly later translation as “no more than brief paraphrases and adaptations” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. xiii). This is because Yu’s translation stretches over 2,000 pages, while Richard’s barely breaks 370 pages. Also, there are many mistranslations that will become apparent to those who have already read Yu’s version. For example, in chapter one when light from Sun Wukong’s eyes reach the celestial realm, A Mission to Heaven reads:

They saw the light burning brightly and ordered a telescope to be brought. (The telescope was invented by Galileo only in 1609 A.D., therefore the Chinese must have had some kind of telescope before we in Europe had it. — Tr.) It was taken to the South gate of heaven to be looked through from thence (Chiu & Richard, 1913, p. 3).

However, Yu’s more accurate version reads:

Upon seeing the glimmer of the golden beams, he [the Jade Emperor] ordered Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear to open the South Heaven Gate and to look out (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 102).

As can be seen, Richard completely glossed over the two named deities, choosing instead to refer to both as a telescope.

1913 Sun Wukong print - small

The full title of the translation (larger version).

It’s interesting to note the author of A Mission to Heaven/Journey to the West is listed as one Qiu Changchun, otherwise known as Qiu Chuji (1148-1227), founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism. This may be confusing to some since the novel has long been touted as the work of Wu Cheng’en (1500-1582). However, the novel was anonymously published in 1592. Qiu’s disciple is known to have written a travel journal titled Journey to the West (西遊記), which detailed his master’s journey to meet Genghis Khan. Therefore, early commentators confused this historical travel journal with the fictional narrative, thereby claiming Qiu as the author as early as the 17th-century. Wu Cheng’en wasn’t associated with the novel until the 1920s, and the association is again based on a similarly named work published by Wu. Historians remain divided on the true author.

PDF link

Click to access a-mission-to-heaven-1913-translation-of-xiyouji.pdf


The original file can be downloaded for free from


Chiu, C., & Richard, T. (1913). A Mission to Heaven. Shanghai: The Christian Literature Society’s Depot.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volumes 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Archive #1 – Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate

I have finally tracked down a digital version of Victor Mair’s often quoted summary of the scholarly debate on the possible connection between Sun Wukong (fig. 1) and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (fig. 2). This paper is extremely hard to find, so I am archiving it here to aid both amateur and professional scholars who may not yet have access to it.

Sammy Torres Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – Sun Wukong from birth to the Great Sage. This marvelous sequential drawing is by Sammy Torres on twitter. The full drawing can be seen here.


The chief aim of this article is to restore the debate to its original scholarly intent, namely to determine whether H [Hanuman], the redoubtable simian devotee of Prince Rama in his quest to recover Sita from Lanka, had anything to do with the formation of the character of SWK [Sun Wukong], Tripitaka’s formidable Monkey-disciple during his pilgrimage to India to retrieve scriptures. This can only be achieved by remaining as impartial and objective as possible while presenting the pertinent evidence. A clinically dispassionate examination of the widely varying opinions of authorities concerning the apparent affinity between SWK and H is also required if the present impasse is to be broken. Hence, this article is necessarily as much an investigation of scholarly methods and attitudes as it is about the origins of SWK. Accordingly, it is divided into two main divisions, “Evidence” and “Authorities and Interpretations.” These are further subdivided into a number of sections, “Evidence” by geographical area and “Authorities and Interpretations” by a chronological listing of major participants in the debate.

Paper link

Click to access suen-wu-kung-or-hanumat.pdf

Fig. 2 – A religious portrait of Hanuman (larger version). Artist unknown.


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


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

The Origin of Monkey’s Punishment Under Five Elements Mountain

Last updated: 06-29-2019

After escaping from Laozi’s furnace, Sun Wukong battles his way through heaven until the Buddha is called in to halt his rebellion. The Enlightened One makes him a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, he demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain. Yet the Buddha explains that he had used his infinite powers to cloud Sun’s mind, tricking him into thinking he had left, when he actually stayed in his hand the entire time. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 193-195).

Sun Wukong trapped under mountain - In Flames toy - small

Fig. 1 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong’s imprisonment under a section of Five Elements Mountain (larger version).

I. The source

The idea of a primate demon being imprisoned under a mountain can be traced to a story appearing in Tang (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279) sources. The first and shortest version appears in the Supplement to the History of the Empire (Guoshi bu, 國史補, early 9th-cent.):

There was a fisherman at Chuzhao 楚州 who unexpectedly hooked an ancient iron chain in the Huai [river 淮河], but could not pull it clear. He reported this to the Prefect, Li Yang 李陽, who summoned a large number of men to draw it out. At the end of the chain was a black monkey; it jumped out of the water, then plunged back and vanished. Later this was verified in the Shanhai jing 山海經, from the words—’A river-beast persistently wrought destruction. [1] Yu [the great 大禹] chained it below Junshan 軍山. It’s name was Wuzhiqi 無支奇 [fig. 2] (Andersen, 2001, pp. 15-16). [2]


Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of Wuzhiqi (larger version).

A longer and more well-known account appears in Extensive Records of the Taiping Reign (Taiping guangji, 太平廣記, 978). The entry explains how the water spirit Wuzhiqi came to wear the iron chain. The passage is quite long, so I’ll paraphrase the beginning and middle sections:

[While taking a boat (c. 797), Li Gongzuo 李公佐 of Longxi 隴西 by chance meets Yang Heng 楊衡 of Hongnong 弘農. Yang tells Li the following story.] [3]

In the reign period of Yongtai (765) Li Tang was governor of Chuzhou. One night, at that time, a fisherman was out fishing below Turtle Mountain [龜山], when his hook caught on something and would not come up again. The fisherman was an expert swimmer and quickly went down to a depth of fifty zhang (c. 150 meters), where he saw a great iron chain encircling the base of the mountain. He searched but could not find the end of it, and he subsequently informed Li Tang about it.

Li Tang ordered several tens of fishermen and people who could swim to get hold of the chain, but they were unable to pull it free. He increased their forces with that of fifty heads of oxen, and now the chain gave way and began little by little to move onto the shore. There was no wind at the time, but all of a sudden the waves started to roll and gush forth, and those who watched were greatly frightened. At the end of the chain a beast appeared, shaped like a monkey, with [a] white head and long mane, teeth like snow and golden claws, and it rushed onto the shore. It was more than five zhang high (c. 15 meters), and it squatted in the manner of a monkey; only it could not open its eyes, but sat motionless as if in a daze. Water ran down from its eyes and nose in a stream, and its spittle was so repellent and foul-smelling that people could not be near it. After a long while it stretched out its neck and lowered it, and suddenly opened its eyes [fig. 3]. They were as bright as lightning, and it looked at people around it, raging with madness. Those who watched took to their heels, and the beast very slowly pulled at the chain and dragged the oxen with it into the water, never to emerge again. Many knowledgeable and prominent men from Chu were present, and they looked at Li Tang and at each other, startled and fearful, not knowing the source of this. Since then the fishermen were aware of the location of the chain, but in fact the beast never appeared again.

[Li travels to Mt. Bao (Baoshan, 包山) and, with the help of the Daoist Zhou Jiaojun 周焦君, deciphers the following account found in the eighth scroll of the Classic of Peaks and Rivers (Yuedu jing, 岳瀆經).] [4]

When Yu regulated the waters, he went thrice to the Tongbai 桐栢 mountains, and each time a storm broke, with crashes of thunder, shattering the stones and making the trees groan. The Five Earls, Wubo 伍伯, restrained the waters, the Celestial Elder, Tianlao 天老, harnessed his troops, but they could not begin their work. In anger Yu summoned the hundred sacred powers. He searched for and called upon the Dragon Kui, Kuilong 夔龍, and the thousand spiritual lords and seniors of Mt. Tongbai bowed their heads and asked for his command. Yu then assigned Hongmeng 鴻蒙氏, Zhangshang 章商氏, Doulu 兜盧氏, and Lilou 犁婁氏, to the task, and they captured the god of the rivers Huai and Guo, whose name was Wuzhiqi 無支祁. It answered readily when spoken to and knew about the shallow and the deep parts of the Yangzi and the Huai, and about how far the marshlands extended. It was shaped like a monkey, with [a] flattened nose and high brows, black body and white head, metallic eyes and teeth like snow. Its neck stretched out to a length of a hundred feet (c. 30 meters), and its strength exceeded that of nine elephants. It attacked in high leaps and running swiftly, its movements were agile and sudden, and one could not keep it in sight or hearing for very long.

Yu turned it over to Zhanglu 章律, but he could not control it. He turned it over to Niaomuyou 鳥木由, but he could not control it. He turned it over to Gengchen 庚辰, and he could control it. For thousands of years the Chipi 鴟脾 and the Huanhu 桓胡, the tree goblins and the water spirits, the mountain sprites and the stone prodigies had roamed and roared and gathered around it, but Gengchen used his military prowess to chase them away. He tied a great chain around its neck, pierced its nose and attached a golden bell to it. He placed it under the base of Turtle Mountain at the southern bank of the Huai, so that forever after the Huai flowed peacefully into the sea. Since the time of Gengchen people would all make images of this shape in order not to suffer from the waves and rainstorms of the Huai (Andersen, 2001, pp. 17-21). [5]


Fig. 3 – A Japanese depiction of a Tarsier-like Wuzhiqi based on its description from the Song dynasty source (larger version). 

This entry presents Wuzhiqi as a supernaturally strong monkey demon with flashing eyes and the ability to perform transformations (by stretching its neck). The gods then imprison him below a mountain to punish his affront to the natural order (calm the waves created by him). It’s no wonder then how it influenced the final novel.

Update: 05-16-2018

Another source comes from the early Ming (14th-15th-cent.) zaju play Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) by Yang Jingxian (杨景賢). But instead of it being the Buddha, the monkey is trapped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and instead of Five Elements Mountain, it is his home of Flower Fruit Mountain. Dudbridge (1970) paraphrases scene nine, titled “The Holy Buddha Defeats Sun”:

Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] now appears: after an initial poem vaunting his celestial birth, his ubiquity and power, he lists out the members of his ape family, alludes to his career of misdeeds and his wife, the abducted Princess of Jindingguo [金鼎國, the Golden Cauldron Country].

Devaraja Li appears, with orders to recover the possessions stolen by Sun from the Queen Mother of the West. He issues orders to his son Nezha, who enters with troops upon orders from the Jade Emperor to capture Sun Xingzhe in his home Ziyun luo dong [紫雲羅洞, Purple Cloud Cave] on Huaguoshan.

The princess-wife now enters (the singer in this act) and tells in song the story of her abduction and the life on this mountain. She is joined by Sun and they prepare to feast.

The celestial troops surround them, Sun’s animal guards flee and Sun himself escapes. Devaraja Li ‘combs the hills’ and meanwhile finds the princess, who now sings through the remainder of her suite of songs until it is decided to give her escort back to her home.

Sun Xingzhe eludes the forces of Nezha and is captured only by intervention by Guanyin, who has him imprisoned beneath Huaguoshan to await the arrival of Tripitaka, his future master (p. 195). [6]

Update: 06-29-2019

The idea of the Buddha magically transforming his hand into Five Elements Mountain can be traced to a Song-era Daoist ritual in which an exorcist draws the character for “well” (jing, 井 / 丼) on the ground, thereby dividing the ritual space into nine sections, representing the Nine Palaces (jiugong, 九宮), [7] and in the center is placed a liquid-filled jar. After the target demons are coaxed or forced inside, the opening is sealed with paper and the exorcist performs a hand mudra representing the immense pressing weight of a mountain. [8] Meulenbeld (2007) writes:

The spirits captured within the grid of the Nine Palaces were kept inside their prison by symbolically pressing them down underneath a mountain. The symbolism here lies in the fact that the mountain was represented by a posture of the hand forming the character for mountain (“Mountain Mudrā” 山字訣 with the thumb, index-finger, and little finger all pointing upward [fig. 4 and 5]. Oftentimes the specific “mudrā of Mt. Tai” 泰山訣 [fig. 6], was used, representing the heaviest of all mountains. Moreover, many present-day exorcist talismans contain a character composed of a “demon” 鬼 underneath a “mountain” 山, namely the character wei 嵬 (p. 145, n. 92).

Mountain mudra with Chinese character

Fig. 4 – The Chinese character for mountain (shan, 山) (larger version). Fig. 5 – The Mountain mudra (shanzi jue, 山字訣) (larger version). Photo by the author. Fig. 6 – The double-handed Mount Tai mudra (Taishan jue, 泰山訣) (larger version). Original picture from here.

The “Mountain” and “Mount Tai” mudras are connected to a similar concept called the Taishan stone (taishan shi, 泰山石) (fig. 7), a class of “evil-warding stones” (shigandang, 石敢當) often placed outside of homes and temples or at the intersection of roads as protection from malevolent forces (pp. 71-72). The Taishan stone represents Mount Tai, a holy mountain in Shandong province, China, and its deity. The landmass is considered the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. This means any evil would be completely immobilized under its great weight. Therefore, this shows Five Elements Mountain serves as a cognate for Mount Tai because it is actualized in a similar manner⁠—i.e. the landmass is represented by a hand—and its great weight is used to weigh down an evil spirit, in this case Sun Wukong.

Taishan stone example - small

Fig. 7 – A modern Japanese example of a Taishan stone (larger version). They often read “Taishan stone takes upon itself” (Taishan shi gandang, 泰山石敢當), denoting its duty of protection (Wang, 1992, p. 71). Original image from Wikipedia


1) Anderson (2001) explains that no such entry for Wuzhiqi exists in this historical bestiary (p. 16).

2) The demon Wuzhiqi is presented as a sister to Sun Wukong in a Yuan-Ming era stage play.

3) Li Gongzuo (c. 770-c. 848) was a historical story teller and the presumed author of this particular tale (Andersen, 2001, p. 16).

4) This is most likely a fictional version of the aforementioned Shanhai jing (Andersen, 2001, p. 16).

5) One such statue dating to the Song Dynasty is held in the Museum fur Ostasiatische kunst in Berlin. It is discussed at length in Anderson (2001).

6) Source slightly altered. The Wade-Giles was changed to Pinyin.

7) The nine palaces are a cosmic geographical concept in which stars are mapped according to the five Chinese cardinal directions (N, S, E, W, and center) and the four intermediate directions. Thus, they represent the universe as a whole.

8) See Meulenbeld, 2007, pp. 143-145 for more information about the jar ritual. It likely influenced media that influenced Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame to create the Mafuba (魔封波; Ch: mofengbo), or “Demon Containment Wave” ritual. Padula (2016) describes the etymology and background of the Mafuba (pp. 122 to 126). He graciously provided me with a digital copy of his book.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Meulenbeld, M. R. E. (2007). Civilized demons: Ming thunder gods from ritual to literature (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No: 3247802).

Wang, J. (1992). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin, and the journey to the west. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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

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

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

I. The latter half of the journey

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxherding_pictures,_No._6 - small

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Land of Bliss (Large)

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

II. Returning with the interpretations and becoming Buddhas

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

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

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

III. Allegory explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

I. The Interpretation Pilgrim is chosen

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

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


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

II. The journey to India begins

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

III. Allegory explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

How the Hindu Bird God Garuda Came to Appear in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2018

Heroes from Chinese military fiction are often cast as reincarnations of celestial beings. For instance, the famous patriot General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103–1141) is portrayed as a reincarnation of the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda (Jialouluo, 伽樓羅; Jialiuluo, 伽留羅) in his folk biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). The bird, called the “Great Peng, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王), sits at the head of the Buddha’s throne in the Western Paradise. His fiery temper is aroused when a bat-spirit (the embodiment of the Aquarius constellation) passes gas during the Enlightened One’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. He swoops down from the throne and snatches her up in his beak, killing her instantly. The Buddha admonishes the bird for his transgression of Buddhist law and exiles him to earth. His rebirth in the human world actually serves to counterbalance the actions of a nomadic antagonist, originally a dragon sent from the Eastern Heaven to punish China (Qian, 2016). This storyline was influenced by a previous work, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), which explains how Garuda came to hold such an important position above the Buddha.

Called the “Peng of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), [1] the bird is portrayed as a spiritual uncle of the Buddha and an ancient demon king with unequaled strength, speed, and powers of transformation (fig. 1). He wields two magic weapons, a halberd and a vase capable of trapping and killing even immortals. Garuda is so powerful, in fact, that not even Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is strong enough to pacify the beast. Therefore, the Buddha himself is forced to leave the Western Paradise to confront the demon headon. He casts the illusion of a bloody piece of meat above his head, and when the man-bird pounces on the bait, the Buddha takes away his ability to fly, thus trapping Garuda above his head in the demon’s original form as a golden-winged vulture (Dapeng jinchi diao, 大鵬金翅鵰) (fig. 2). After some struggle, the bird agrees to become a protector of Buddhist law (Sk: dharma; Ch: fa, 法). Thus, Chinese fiction portrays Garuda as a powerful demon king that submits to the Buddha and perches above his throne as a hot-tempered guardian deity. [2]

The fact that this literary motif appears in two famous Chinese classics points to some widely known religious concept circulating during the 16th– and 17th-centuries. In this paper I will trace the origins of the motif from ancient South Asian literature and religious architecture to Esoteric Buddhist art in East Asia. The path we walk is a complicated one spanning centuries, belief systems, and artistic mediums.

Gardua from both novels

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the Roc demon in his humanoid form (artist unknown) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of the roc trapped above the Buddha’s head (artist unknown) (larger version).

1. India – Where our search begins

1.1. Garuda’s appearance in ancient literature

The origin of the Chinese literary motif is over two thousand years old, first appearing in the 4th-century BCE Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The holy work states that Garuda is the son of the creator-sage Kashyapa and his second wife Vinata. After gestating in his egg for one thousand years, the bird bursts forth and his massive, fiery body grows to engulf the entire cosmos. His sun-like splendor is so bright that the devas mistake him for Agni, the god of holy fire. Garuda is forced to reduce his size and illumination when the devas ask him to do so out of fear. Falling prey to an ancient curse, his mother Vinata loses a bet and is enslaved by her sister Kadru, mother of the naga-serpents. Garuda agrees to steal the vessel containing the immortal elixir of amrita from the devas in order to secure his mother’s release. He uses his great strength and speed to defeat the celestial army and kill the serpents guarding the elixir, and he uses his powers of transformation to extinguish the fire surrounding the treasured substance and sneak past the magic discus charged with dismembering thieves. Upon his return trip, Garuda is halted by the supreme deva Vishnu who grants him the boon of immortality for partaking in such a difficult quest. In return, the bird grants him the boon of serving as the carrier of his celestial vehicle (vimana) and positions himself above Vishnu’s head atop the flagpole (dhvaja). Not long after, Indra, king of the devas, strikes the bird with a lightning bolt in an attempt to retrieve the amrita. The bird pays him respect by shedding a single feather and grants him the boon of eternal friendship. After learning the reason for the theft, the devaraja grants Garuda the boon of taking his enemies the nagas as his food. Both of them then orchestrate a plan in which the bird pays the amrita ransom to free his mother, but Indra takes the elixir away before the serpents can drink of it. Finally, Garuda slaughters all of the nagas (Ganguli, 2003, pp. 57-82).

It’s easy to discern several aspects from Chinese fiction in the ancient story: 1) a powerful golden bird with great strength, speed, and powers of transformation; 2) a vessel with magical properties; 3) conflict between the bird and heavenly forces; 4) his subjugation by a higher power; 5) his installment above a deva’s head; and 6) continued conflict between the bird and his serpent foes. This adds to existing literature showing that the Mahabharata influenced Journey to the West (Subbaraman, 2002).

1.2. Garuda’s appearance on religious architecture

Since the Mahabharata was published, Garuda has been depicted on a number of ritual flagpoles (dvaja) in India. The dvaja pillar “is placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine [of a Hindu temple], on axis with the central image…it is an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Adherents would have paid reverence to it before entering the temple. People affected by snake bites would often embrace these types of pillars because they believed Garuda’s powers over the nagas (and their serpentine kin) would neutralize the poison (Zimmer, 1946, p. 75). The oldest of the stone dvaja columns still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE) erected by a Bactrian-Greek envoy and convert of that name in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha (fig. 3) (Walker, 1968, p. 246). The Garuda is no longer extant, having been eroded by time or destroyed by iconoclasts. It is considered the “first dated monument linked with Vishnu” (Elgood, 2000, p. 56). Clues to what the original capital may have looked like can be drawn from numismatic evidence. The golden dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375 CE) of the Gupta Empire, for example, features a Garuda dvaja (fig. 4) (Mookerji, 1973, p. 52). The capital is depicted as a bird, suggesting the eroded figure on the Heliodorus pillar may have originally taken such a form. This differs from later humanoid depictions of the god (see below).

pillar and coin

Fig. 3 – The Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE), Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda capital is missing. Photo by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Fig. 4 – The gold dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375) of the Gupta Empire (larger version). The Garuda dvaja can be seen to the left. Photo by the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA).

Garuda’s association with Buddhism seems to be quite old. His appearance on a number of standing gateways and carved cave temple entrances, collectively known as toranas, from the 1st-century BCE onward points to him being absorbed into the religion’s pantheon within a few centuries of the historical Buddha’s death. The oldest extant representation of Garuda appears on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 5) (Iyer, 1977, p. 52). Dated to the 1st-century BCE, the standing torana has three tiered architraves, the middle of which portrays a bodhi tree, an iconoclastic representation of the Buddha, flanked by real and mythical creatures paying homage to it. The far right side of this stone relief features Garuda standing next to a five-headed king of serpents (nagaraja) (fig. 6). The bird is depicted as a husky parrot with a delicate, forward curling crest, a thick beak, a pierced human ear, small flapping wings, and lacey tail plumage. The relationship between the two is amicable since it is a scene of religious reverence. This “Garuda and serpent” motif appears on the partial remains of a slightly younger stone architrave discovered in Kankali Tila at Mathura (Smith, 1969, p. 28). [3] The circa 1st-century BCE relief depicts him as a large bird of prey with similar iconography, including the curling crest, thick beak, and pierced human ear. But the tail plumage is far more flowery and ornate, indicating that the artist built off of the earlier example. Also, unlike the architrave from the Sanchi stupa, this piece portrays Garuda locked in a tense standoff with a three-headed nagaraja; the bird has a firm grasp of the hissing serpent with his beak, but the foe’s body is wrapped twice around the god’s neck and the tail is anchored at the base of a nearby tree (fig. 7) (Vogal, 1972, p. 172).

Stupa details

Fig. 5 – The reverse side of the East Torana of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (1st-cent. BCE), Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif is visible on the right side of the central architrave. Fig. 6 – Detail of the Garuda and serpent motif (larger version). Photos by the The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (HABRA), The Ohio State University. Fig. 7 – The partial architrave discovered in Kankali Tila (c. 1st-cent. BCE) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India (larger version). Drawing from Smith, 1969, p. 28 .

Later depictions of the motif anthropomorphize Garuda. For instance, he makes an appearance standing over the torana of the carved Bhuta Lena cave shrine number forty (c. 100 CE) in Junnar (fig. 8) (Qureshi, 2010, p. 315). He is coupled with a nagaraja at the apex of the arched doorway; the two are presented as peaceful humanoid companions wearing matching hats and clothing and standing in a similar pose. This could be related to a birth tale (jataka) in which the Buddha, in his previous life as a hermit, reconciles the hatred between Garuda and a naga by “rehears[ing] the blessings of loving kindness until they [are] both at one. Thenceforward they abode together happily in peace and harmony” (Vogal, 1972, p. 142).

Garuda and Nagaraja above the arch of the Chaitya hall (#40) at Maharashtra, stone, 2nd-3rd c

Fig. 8 – Garuda (left) and Nataraja (right) above the torana entrance of the Bhuta Lena cave shrine no. 40 (c. 100 CE) in Junnar, Maharashtra, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA.

Dhar (2009) notes that the standing gateway toranas were replaced in popularity by “the post, lintel, and eave-cornice (kapotapālikā) type entryways” sometime after the 2nd to 3rd-century CE (p. 16). She continues, “From the fifth century, such an entrance gateway became an integral part of temple doorframes…its posts served as pilaster-doorjambs (stamhaśākhās) and the eave-cornice integrated with the lintel” (Dhar, 2009, p. 16). It was around this time that Hindus followed the example of their Buddhist neighbors and began to create carved religious structures (Dehejia, 1997, p. 124). Such temples were considered the home of a given deity when they left their heavenly abode (Dehejia, 1997, p. 141). As such, these temples were profusely decorated with images of the deva, including the entrance way, to aid in their worship. A related root word for torana “suggests its role as an architectural symbol of a rite of passage or liminality” (Dhar, 2009, p. 1). This means whoever steps into the world of the “other” does so under the watchful eye of the deity placed on the torana. In the case of temples devoted to Vishnu and lesser devas associated with him, the image is either Garuda by himself (being a symbol of the god) or bearing the deva on his back, a variation on his portrayal in the Mahabharata that came to dominate his traditional iconography (Zimmer, 1946, p. 76).

1.3. Appearance of the antagonistic Garuda and Serpents motif

Whether alone or coupled with Vishnu, the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif began to appear on Hindu toranas by at least the 7th to 8th-century. In fact, the only examples that I can find come from this time period. I have seen examples of the “Garuda and Vishnu” motif above entrance ways as late as the 11th-century, but these are missing the serpents. However, later Tibetan art featuring the serpent variation suggests there may be Indian examples that I am not aware of. The 7th-century example appears on the torana of the Gaudar Gudi Temple in Badami (Gupte, 1967, p. 54) (fig. 9). Garuda is portrayed in humanoid form wearing a hat and clothing similar to figure 8. He is squatting over the entrance while grasping the tails of naga-serpents flanking him on both sides. The first c. 700 example appears on the torana of the Durga (Fort) Temple in Aihole (fig. 10) (Tartakov, 1997, p. 192). He is depicted as a smiling human in an erect flying posture with his left leg tucked under his groin and his right trailing behind him. Just like the first piece, he is wearing similar attire and grasping the tails of nagas on his left and right sides. The second c. 700 example appears over the entranceway of the Rajivalocana Temple in Rajim (fig. 11) (Patel, 1992, p. 146). But this version has Garuda transporting a four armed Vishnu. The figure is again depicted in human form and grasping the tails of his serpentine foes.

Early examples

Fig. 9 – The Gaudar Gudi Temple Garuda with serpents (7th-cent.), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by AIIS. Fig. 10 – The Durga (Fort) Temple Garuda with serpents (c. 700), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA. Fig. 11 – The Rajivalocana Temple Garuda and Vishnu with serpents (c. 700), Rajim, Chhattisgarh, India (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

2. Cambodia – The motif achieves perfection

The torana spread to Southeast Asia by the late 6th– or early 7th-century. Next to India, Cambodia has the largest number of and most diverse toranas in all of Asia (Dhar, 2009, p. 214). In fact, I would dare say this is where the Garuda and serpents motif reached the point of perfection. Parul Pandya Dhar’s wonderful monograph The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture (2009) features two beautiful examples from Buddhist temples carved in the unmistakable Khmer style. The first is an exquisitely crafted 9th-century entranceway from the Prasat Kok Po Temple in Siem Reap (pp. 222 and 228) (fig. 12 and 13). It portrays Garuda as a large, stout man-bird with pierced ears and wearing a Cambodian headdress and garment. He is standing on a pedestal and bearing a four-armed Vishnu on his back while grasping the flower garland-like tail of a three-headed nagaraja in each hand. The god is further flanked by two large creatures with gaping mouths known as “Faces of Glory” (Kīrtimukha). [4] Their arms interlock not only with the undulating serpents grasped by the man-bird, but two others located on the outermost left and right portion of the torana—the combination of arms and slithering serpentine bodies form a beautiful horizontal wave pattern with four crests. These larger nagarajas bear images of tiny Garudas standing on the back of their hoods. [5] The author notes that the “Kīrtimukha and makaras seen on Indian and Indonesian toranas are often replaced by the garuḍa-nāgas combination in Cambodia” (Dhar, 2009, p. 228). The second is a mid-10th-century entranceway from the Prasat thom Temple in Koh Ker (fig. 14 and 15). The depiction of Garuda is identical to the first example down to the clothing. But instead of bearing Vishnu and cooperating with the Kirtimukha to conquer nagas, he alone is grasping the long, flowery tails of his enemies who are positioned on pedestals at the same level as his own. Two small Buddhas use the bodies of the tightly drawn serpents as a place to meditate. Both nagarajas bear the Wheel of Buddhist Law (Dharmachakra) on their chests. The composition is therefore symbolic of Garuda and the nagas working together to literal “support” Buddhism.

Cambodian lintel with detail - 1

Fig. 12 – The Prasat Kok Po Temple lintel featuring the Garuda and Vishnu with serpents motif (9th-cent.), Siem Reap, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 13 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Prasat thom Temple lintel with the Garuda and serpents motif (mid-10th-cent.), Preah Vihear, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons.

3. The motif spreads to East Asia

3.1. Tibet – The motif jumps from architecture to art

The Buddhist examples from Cambodia appear to have been influenced by depictions of the Garuda and serpents motif from Hindu temples. This is because they depict Hindu deities like Vishnu and portray the bird and naga as (symbolic) enemies. The same can be said for Buddhist art and architecture in East Asia. For instance, Heather Stoddard (1996) comments that the motif “is in fact present in all the main Tibetan [Buddhist] styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art” (p. 40). She continues, “The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (Stoddard, 1996, p. 40). (It’s obvious that Stoddard was unaware of the architectural origins of the motif at the time of her study.) One of the three pieces that she cites as examples is a 13th-century Nepalese painting of Ratnasambhava (Baosheng rulai, 寶生如來, fig. 16), one of the five Esoteric Buddhas (Stoddard, 1996, p. 42). The painting shows the Buddha sitting on a throne comprised of a lotus flower base and a backrest framed by all sorts of real and mythical creatures. The Garuda and serpents motif crowns the apex of the throne. Art historians call this an “enlightenment torana” or a “gate of glory” (Beer, 1999, p. 88; Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). It’s clear that Buddhist artists came to equate the torana with the fiery halo that signifies a deity’s enlightened or divine nature. Robert Beer (1999) believes that these enlightenment toranas could have appeared as early as the 4th-century, but that it became a common fixture in Buddhist art from the 8th to the 12th-century (p. 90). Two beautiful examples of an enlightenment torana from the mid-6th-century appear in the Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety in Mumbai (Malandra, 1993, p. 110). It depicts two Buddhas standing under their own gates of glory, complete with what appears to be licks of heavenly flame (fig. 17). Though missing the motif, these examples are nearly identical to later Tibetan art, suggesting, as mentioned above, that there could be later Indian examples featuring the Garuda and serpents motif that I am unaware of.

Nepalses Thangka with double gates of glory

Fig. 16 – Ratnasambhava, with Bodhisattvas (13th-cent.), Nepal (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif can be seen at the apex of the throne. Photo by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 17 – Two Buddhas with enlightenment toranas, from Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India (mid-6th-cent.) (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhist art featuring the motif doesn’t appear to predate the 11th-century, so this may have something to do with the second coming of Buddhism in Tibet. The religion became popular among the common folk during the 11th-century after lying dormant for nearly two hundred years. The Tibetan people embraced the Indian Buddhist faith and flocked to India in order to study in various monastic universities. Jan Casey Singer (1999) notes:

Within this international Buddhist community, the Tibetans stood apart by virtue of the particular zeal with which they sought to master the Indian Buddhist tradition. They had both the will and, since Tibet is relatively close to eastern India, the opportunity to observe closely and gradually absorbed the highly sophisticated traditions of Buddhism and Buddhist art that flourished in eastern India at this time” (p. 6).

Tibetans living and traveling in India no doubt came into contact with architecture featuring the Garuda and serpents motif. This is evidenced by their depiction of Garuda as a chubby man-bird (see fig. 22 below, for example). The Vishnudharmottara Purana (7th-century) contains a treatise on prescribed Hindu iconography that mentions the deity “should be made slightly pot-bellied and adorned by all ornaments” (Kramrisch, 1928, p. 80).

3.2. The fiery Garuda halo

Variations of the motif appeared as it spread eastward. For instance, an 11th-century wall mural of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩) in Kashmir features five colored Garudas flying about his flaming halo (fig. 18). Beer explains that these represent the five Buddhas or Buddhist families of Esoteric Buddhism. He adds: “a yellow garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicoloured for space” (Beer, 1999, p. 62). This variation changed as it rapidly spread into China. An 11th-century painting from the famous Mogao caves of Dunhuang depicts the Bodhisattva Hayagriva (Matou Guanyin, 馬頭觀音), the “Horse-Headed Guanyin,” with three (of five?) fiery Garudas comprising his halo (Fig. 19). This “Garuda aureola” reached its zenith in Japan. One beautiful 11th-century example shows the Esoteric Buddhist guardian deity Fudō Myōō (Budong mingwang, 不動明王) set against a Garuda halo. The five Garudas are portrayed as flaming roosters encircling the god (fig. 20) (Akiyama, 1961, pp. 53 and 57). Thus, Esoteric Buddhism was the catalyst for the spread of the Garuda aureola motif towards the east.

Tibet, China, Japan

Fig. 18 – Five colored Garudas in the aureola of the the Lha khang Soma Vajrapani (11th-cent.), Kashmir (larger version). Photo by HABRA. Fig. 19 – Hayagriva with flaming Garudas (11th-cent.), Dunhuang, Gansu, China (larver version). The simplistic Garudas are located to the respective left and right of a Face of Glory, as well as in between his legs. Photo by the Musée national des Arts asiatiques. Fig. 20 – The God Fudo-myoo (Acala) and Two Attendants (11th-cent.), Japan (larger version). Photo by the University of California, San Diego.

3.3. China – The Mongols welcome the motif

The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were largely responsible for bringing the Garuda and serpents motif to China. They were ardent followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and so they invited Buddhist lamas to preach in the Middle Kingdom. The person who first introduced Tibetan Buddhist art to China was the Nepalese artist Anige (阿尼哥, 1245–1306). At the surprisingly young age of eighteen or nineteen years old, he arrived at the Mongol court in 1260 as the leader of twenty-four artisans. His most famous accomplishment is the White Pagoda of the Miaoying temple in Beijing (Stoddard, 2008, pp. 19-20). Anige is the father of a Tibetan Stylistic tradition that carried on long after his death.

For instance, the Mongols commissioned several stupa-arches to be constructed “on strategic roads leading to the capital [of Beijing]” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The only surviving example is the cloud platform of Juyong Pass (Juyong guan, 居庸關), a later addition to the Great Wall of China built in 1354. It originally supported three Buddhist stupas, but these disappeared within a century of their completion. Multilingual inscriptions on the arch indicate that it was built “in order to bring happiness to the people who pass under the stupa and receive thus the Buddha’s blessings” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The apex of the arch contains the Garuda and serpents motif (fig. 21 and 22). The man-bird is depicted as a stout, pot-bellied figure with the face, wings, and talons of a raptor bird and the ears, arms, and torso of a human. He wears a jeweled crown and his body is decorated with serpents on his wrists, arms, and chest. Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the humanoid naga-spirits as smaller in stature and importance. They are trying to run away from him, but their scaly heels are pierced by his talons.

Juyong pass with detail

Fig. 21 – The Gate of Glory from the Cloud Platform of Juyong Pass (1345), Beijing, China (larger version). Photo by Snuffy on Flicker. Fig. 22 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (photographer unknown) (larger version).

The motif continued to appear in Buddhist art into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the Chinese had overthrown the Mongols. This is because some Chinese rulers, such as the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝, r. 1402–1424), upheld the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ming examples include a painting in the Sotheby’s collection dated to the 15th-century (fig. 23 and 24); a relief carving on a 15th-century pagoda at Zhenjue Temple (真覺寺) in Beijing (fig. 25 and 26); and a stone stele in the Freer Art Gallery collection dated to circa 1500 (fig. 27 and 28). All of these pieces depict a Buddhist deity sitting before an enlightenment torana lorded over by Garuda and his serpentine foes. What’s important here is that the variety of media suggests the motif became a standardized element of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist art at least a century prior to the publishing of Journey to the West (1592). The commonplace nature of the motif might then explain why it was included in the story. There are numerous occasions in the novel when the author-compiler provides folk origins for everyday concepts, such as why rings are put through the noses of buffalos. [6] So a bird attacking serpents above the head of the Buddha would certainly need a fanciful genesis story.

Ming examples

Fig. 23 – The Amitabha Buddha with an enlightenment torana (15th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 24 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (larger version). Photos by Sotheby’s. Fig. 25 – Zhenjue Temple relief carving (15th-cent.), Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 26 – A detail of Garuda (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons. Fig. 27 – A stone stele of a Bodhisattva with an enlightenment torana (c. 1500) (larger version). Fig. 28 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by the Freer Gallery of Art.

4. Garuda’s transformation from a god to a demon

The Ming dynasty examples suggest Garuda was considered a common element of the Buddha’s enlightenment torana. The bird god is in effect a guardian of the faith who watches over the world from an exalted position high atop the Buddha’s throne. So why then did the author-compiler of Journey to the West transform him into a monster who needed conquering? This obviously follows the novel’s theme of powerful demons, such as Sun Wukong, being subjugated and put to good use. This can be traced to the Thunder Ritual (Leifa, 雷法), a Daoist liturgy designed to subjugate powerful gods and demons to be wielded as weapons against evil forces. One such god is Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公), a native Chinese weather deity responsible for making dragons produce rain when needed. And since lightning is his weapon, he is also considered a heavenly executioner who kills mortals guilty of unpunished crimes. [7] The god was sometimes portrayed as a human, but it was around the Tang Dynasty (618–907) when he took on a bird-like appearance with a beak, wings, and talons. This avian transformation coincided with the appearance of Garuda and Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon entering the Middle Kingdom, Garuda served many of the same functions as Sire Thunder. His power over dragons gave him control of rain and his fierce nature enabled him to be a heavenly executioner. Therefore, depictions of Sire Thunder came to absorb features of the bird god. Most importantly, Tang-era stories describe religious masters and certain brave individuals subjugating this demonic figure and using his powers for their own purposes. [8]

Artistic renderings of Sire Thunder after his metamorphosis are strikingly similar to Garuda. A prime example of this comes to us in the form of a 9th-century fresco from Xinjiang originally held in the Berlin Museum of Indian art. The piece depicts numerous beings paying homage to the Four Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) (fig. 29). The foreground depicts Sire Thunder caught in a hunter’s snare around his neck, while a hound bites at his leg. A larger figure, presumably a guardian deity of sorts, holds one of the god’s wrists and stands with a club held overhead ready to strike (fig. 30). This scene contrasts with the overall religious nature of the piece, giving the impression that this “demon” is being captured in the name of the heavenly kings. So here we have a bird monster being subjugated by Buddhist forces. Such art could have easily influenced Garuda’s depiction in Journey to the West.

Both hunting pics

Fig. 29 – A fresco showing the adoration of the Heavenly Kings (9th-cent.), Xinjiang, China (larger version). Fig. 30 – A detail of the subjugation of Sire Thunder (larger version).

5. Conclusion

A literary motif appearing in Journey to the West (1592) and The Story of Yue Fei (1684) depicts the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda as a demon-turned-Buddhist guardian who sits above the Buddha’s throne. This is based on the bird’s portrayal in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (4th-century BCE), where he comes to sit above the deva Vishnu after taking part in a filial quest and agreeing to carry the god’s celestial vehicle (vimana). Beginning around the 2nd-century BCE, Garuda started appearing on Hindu and Buddhist architecture that depicted him on ritual flag poles and above torana doorways. A motif of Garuda gasping the tails of naga-serpents, his eternal foes from Hindu lore, appeared by at least the 7th-century and spread as far away as Cambodia by the 9th– or 10th-century. The motif was adopted by Tibetan Buddhist artists by the 11th-century and incorporated into wall murals, thus making the jump from architecture to paint. It never lost its association with architecture, however, since the torana came to be equated with the halo of Buddhist deities. This “enlightenment torana” or “gate of glory” became a common feature of Tibetan Buddhist art and even made its way to Japan. This feature was depicted as the backrest of a throne, hence the Chinese literary motif of Garuda sitting above the Buddha can be directly tied to this style of art. The Mongols were largely responsible for bringing the motif to China as they were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued into the Ming dynasty thanks to royal patronage of Esoteric Buddhism. The motif appeared in Ming religious architecture, paintings, and stele, making it commonplace enough for the author-compiler of Journey to the West to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon. But the concept of a demonic bird being subjugated is most likely based on the Tang Dynasty Thunder Ritual and stories of Sire Thunder, a Daoist weather deity with bird-like features, being captured by mortals and compelled to use his powers in their service.

Update: 04-29-2018

Sire Thunder’s avian form has persisted to this day, having become his standard iconography. Here I present a late 19th to early 20th-century wooden altar statue depicting the deity with his counterpart the Mother of Lightening (Dianmu, 電母) (fig. 31). His similarities to Garuda are just as noticeable today.

20180428_171223 - small

Fig. 31 – Sire Thunder and the Mother of Lightning (19th to 20th-cent.), Taipei, Taiwan (larger version). In the author’s personal collection.

Sire Thunder actually appears with the Mother of Lightning (and other weather gods) in Journey to the West. Chapter 45 sees Monkey participating in a competition of transformations and ritual magic with three animal spirits disguised as Daoists. One competition involves making rain, during which time said gods appear. Although the spirit calling on the rain is powerful, Sun Wukong blocks his magic to make him look bad:

Becoming rather agitated, the Daoist loosened his hair, picked up his sword, and recited another spell as he burned a charm. Once more he brought down his tablet with a bang, and immediately the Heavenly Lord Deng arrived from the South Heaven Gate, trailed by the Squire of Thunder and the Mother of Lightning. When they saw Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] in midair, they saluted him, and he gave his explanation as before. “What powerful summons,” he said “brought you all here so quickly?” The Heavenly Lord said, “The proper magic of Five Thunder [Wulei fa, 五雷法] exercised by that Daoist was not faked.

He issued the summons and burned the document, which alerted the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor sent his decree to the residence of the Primordial Celestial Worthy of All-Pervading Thunderclap in the Ninefold Heaven. We in turn received his command to come here and assist with the rainmaking by providing thunder and lightning.” “In that case,” said Pilgrim, “just wait a moment. You can help old Monkey instead.” There was, therefore, neither the sound of thunder nor the flash of lightning (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).

The techniques used by the animal spirit for calling rain refers back to the aforementioned Thunder Ritual, where the powers of Sire Thunder are used in the service of another.


1) This name is a reference to the mythical Peng (鵬) bird mentioned in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), a philosophical work of the 3rd-century BCE. The chapter details how the creature starts life as a small Kun (鯤) fish and changes into a bird of unfathomable size with wings that span the sky (Zhuangzi & Watson, 2003, pp. 23-24).

2) See Wu & Yu (2012) chapters 74 to 77.

3) The sources are actually conflicting on which relief is older. For instance, Iyer (1977) claims the first is the “earliest representation of garuda” (p. 52). On the contrary, Dhar (2009) lists the second as being from “c. second-first century BCE” (p. 10), which would make it older than the Sanchi example. I, however, believe the second is younger than the first because it is clearly an embellished version of the first.

4) Although some of its iconographical elements can be similar to the bird god, the Face of Glory shouldn’t be confused with Garuda because it represents the “monster of greed” (Beer, 1999, pp. 69-70). This is why it is constantly in the act of eating.

5) This recalls the story of Krishna defeating the serpent Kaliya by dancing on his head (Leeming, 2006, p. 232).

6) For example, in chapters 50 to 52, Laozi’s buffalo runs amuck on earth as a demon. The monster uses a diamond bracelet that he stole from his master to capture Monkey’s staff. The simian hero enlists the aid of the Daoist patriarch, who subjugates the beast and later puts the bracelet through its nose and uses a sash as a lead. The novel then explains: “Thus the custom of leading the buffalo with a ring in its nose was established, a custom in use even now” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 30).

7) People struck by lightning were thought to have been marked (scarred) with a sign of their guilt much like a convict in ancient China was tattooed (Meulenbeld, 2007).

8) See Meulenbeld (2007) chapter 4. See also section 6.4 for a discussion on Sun Wukong and his relationship to Sire Thunder and the Thunder Ritual.


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The Origin of Monkey’s Punishment in Laozi’s Furnace

The beginning of chapter seven sees Sun Wukong transported to the realm above to be executed for his rebellion against the primacy of heaven. However, his immortal body proves impervious to blades, fire, and lightning. Laozi theorizes Monkey’s extreme invulnerability is the result of having consumed large quantities of immortal peaches, wine, and elixir that were later refined in his stomach into “a solid single mass”. The Daoist god goes onto to suggest that the demon be subjected to his Brazier of Eight Trigrams (Bagua lu, 八卦爐) in order to separate the elixir and make his subsequently weakened body susceptible to death:

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]. He then ordered the Daoist who watched over the brazier and the page boy in charge of the fire to blow up a strong flame for the smelting process. The brazier, you see, was of eight compartments corresponding to the eight trigrams of Qian [☰/乾], Kan [☵/坎], Gen [☶/艮], Zhen [☳/震], Xun [☴/巽], Li [☲/離], Kun [☷/坤], and Dui [☱/兌]. [1] The Great Sage crawled into the space beneath the compartment that corresponded to the Xun trigram. Now Xun symbolizes wind; where there is wind, there is no fire. However, wind could churn up smoke, which at that moment reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189).

Laozi checks the furnace forty-nine days later expecting ashes, but is surprised when Sun Wukong emerges and kicks over the mystical oven (fig. 1). This episode has two likely sources.


Fig. 1 – Monkey knocking over Laozi’s furnace (larger version).

I. The Story

The first source is The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the earliest edition of Journey to the West published during the 13th-century. The 17th chapter describes the trials of Daffy (Chi na, 癡那), a merchant’s son, at the hands of his evil stepmother Meng (孟). She resents the boy because he stands to inherit all of his father’s wealth, leaving her son with nothing. So she and her handmaiden try to kill the heir by respectively boiling the child in a pot, ripping out his tongue, starving him, and finally pushing him into a river, but each time he is magically saved by heaven. For instance, after four days boiling in the pot, Daffy emerges unscathed and claims:

[T]he iron cauldron changed into a lily pad on which I sat, surrounded by the cool waters of a pond. I could sleep or just sit there. It was very comfortable (Wivell, 1994, p. 1203).

Mair (1987) notes the story of a youth being tortured by his stepmother is based on a Dunhuang transformation text with two versions dated 946 and 949, respectively (p. 43). The text focuses on the trials of the future Emperor Shun. [1] The boiling episode does not, however, appear in the story.

II. Laughing at the Dao

The second source is Laughing at the Dao (Xiaodao lun, 笑道論, 570), an anti-Daoist polemic written as part of a court debate between Buddhist and Daoist representatives vying for state sponsorship. One section recounts Laozi’s rebirth in the mortal world and his later attempt to convert a King in India:

He [Laozi] had (long) hairs on the temples and his head was hoary; his body was sixteen feet tall; he wore a heavenly cap and held a metal staff. He took Yin Xi with him to convert the barbarians. (Once arrived in India) he withdrew to the Shouyang 首陽 mountains, covered by a purple cloud. The barbarian king suspected him of sorcery (妖). He (attempted) to boil him in a cauldron, but (the water) did not grow hot … [2]

I find this source particularly amusing because the high god of Daoism is in essence subjected to the same punishment as the one he suggests for Sun Wukong.

III. The Furnace in Daoist Alchemy

The furnace has two meanings in Daoist alchemy. The first refers to the physical vessel and stove (dinglu, 鼎爐) combo used in External alchemy (waidan, 外丹) to smelt the elixir of immortality (fig. 2). Kim (2008) describes the various parts and models of this contraption:

The reaction vessel has fire around it (when it is placed inside the heating apparatus), under it (when it is placed over the heating apparatus), or above it (when it is entirely covered by ashes inside the heating apparatus). It may contain an inner reaction-case in which the ingredients are placed. In a more complex model, a “water-vessel” containing water and a “fire-vessel” containing the ingredients can be assembled, the former above and the latter below or vice versa. The vessel must be hermetically closed and should not bear any openings or cracks.

The heating apparatus has fire within it and is often placed over a platform or “altar” (tan 壇). The openings on the wall sides allow air to circulate, while those on the top serve to settle the reaction vessel or to emit flame and smoke. One of the main functions of the heating apparatus is to control the intensity and duration of the heat. (pp. 360-361)

Fig. 2 – An ornate wooden replica dinglu reminiscent of the metal type used in external alchemy (larger version). Fig. 3 – An early 17th-century woodblock print depicting a lidless ding vessel in the lower torso of a Daoist practitioner (larger version).

The concept of consuming alchemically derived elixirs is first mentioned in Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantie tun, 鹽鐵論, c. 60 BCE). Later, the Token for the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes (Zhouyi cantong qi, 周易參同契, c. 2nd-century CE) standardized the use of toxic materials, such as lead and mercury, for making said elixir, and this idea remained entrenched until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Pregadio, 2008, pp. 1002-1003). External alchemy was eventually superseded in popularity by Internal alchemy (neidan, 内丹) from the Tang onward and was still popular during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when the final version of Journey to the West was published.

The second meaning is the human body as a metaphor for the furnace (i.e., internal alchemy). The Token for the Agreement of the Three, the aforementioned Daoist text, considers “the 5 organs, 12 vessels, 24 vertebrae, and 360 joints … all part of this body dinglu” (Wang, 2012, p. 192). The corporal furnace, the ingredients (yao, 藥), and the firing time (huohou, 火候) combine to make the “three essentials” (sanyao, 三要) of internal alchemy (Robinet, 2008). The ingredients are yin and yang energy and the firing time is the measured absorption of said energies and the time at which this activity is partaken (Wang, 2012, pp. 192-193). The methods that Sun Wukong use to achieve immortality stand as perfect examples of this process. For instance, he performs breathing exercises after midnight and before noon (in the period of “living qi”) to absorb yang energy. This energy is then purified and circulated throughout his body to power the formation of his immortal spirit.

IV. Conclusion

Monkey’s time in Laozi’s furnace likely borrows from two sources, the story of a child magically surviving boiling in The Story, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, and the story of Laozi magically surviving boiling from Laughing at the Dao, an anti-Daoist polemic of the 6th-century. The latter is humorous as it shows Monkey’s punishment is a recapitulation of the high god’s punishment. Journey to the West presents two forms of alchemy; the concept of Laozi’s furnace refers to “external” alchemy and harkens back to Han Dynasty China when alchemists used such furnaces to fire toxic mercury and lead in an attempt to produce an elixir of immortality; Sun Wukong’s use of breathing exercises and qi circulation is a prime example of “internal” alchemy in which the body is used as the furnace to fire the immortal elixir. External alchemy fell out of favor during the Tang and was superseded by Internal alchemy from then on into the Ming when Journey to the West was published. Therefore, the novel portrays the high god of Daoism as a proponent of the dated external school, while earthly immortals like Monkey are portrayed as proponents of the then current internal school.

Sun Wukong fears the more powerful of his earthly counterparts, [3] while he gives Laozi little to no respect. For example, when Monkey first escapes from the furnace, “Laozi rushed up to clutch at him, only to be greeted by such a violent shove that he fell head over heels while the Great Sage escaped” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189). This could have been meant as a statement declaring the superiority of the internal over the external.


1) For a complete translation, see Bodman (1994).
2) See Zürcher & Teiser (2007) pp. 299-300 and p. 431 n. 53.
3) One example is his teacher Subhuti.


Bodman, R. W. (1994). The transformation text on the boy Shun’s extreme filial piety. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1128-1134). New York: Columbia University Press.

Kim, D. (2008). Dinglu: I. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 360-361). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Mair, V. H. (1987). Parallels between some Tun-Huang manuscripts and the 17th chapter of the Kozanji Journey to the West. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 3, 41-53.

Pregadio, F. (2008). Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 1002-1005). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Robinet, I. (2008). Dinglu: II. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 361-362). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Wang, R. (2012). Yinyang: The way of heaven and earth in Chinese thought and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge 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 Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Zürcher, E., & Teiser, S. F. (2007). The Buddhist conquest of China: The spread and adaptation of Buddhism in early medieval China. Leiden: Brill.

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Golden Fillet

Last updated: 08-16-20

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

1. The Fillet’s Literary Origin and Purpose

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

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

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

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

Click the image to open in full size.

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

2. Past Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. My Findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click the image to open in full size.

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

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

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

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

4. Conclusion

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

Update: 12-23-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 08/16/2020

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Monkey Wears a Tiger Skin Loincloth and How it Ties Him to Supreme Esoteric Buddhist Guardian Deities

Last updated: 06-07-2018

After being released from his mountain prison in chapter fourteen, Sun Wukong effortlessly kills a tiger with his iron staff and uses a magic hair-turned-knife to skin the beast. He cuts a large square from the fur and uses half to create a loincloth to cover his naked body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 309-310). This tiger skin clothing is a highly recognizable element of Monkey’s iconography (fig. 1). But did you know it has a connection to the Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles (Sanskrit: krodha-vighnantaka), [1] a class of supreme guardian deities in Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism?

Before I continue, some historical background is needed. Esoteric Buddhism first developed in India as an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism during the sixth-century CE. Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles (WDO, hereafter) appear in three recognized iconographic phases stretching from the sixth to the twelfth-century. The first and longest phase (6th-12th cent.) depicts the WDO as a dwarfish attendant to a full-size Bodhisattva. [2] He serves as the personification of his master’s wisdom and abilities. The second phase (8th-10 cent.) represents the WDO as an independent deity with his own attendants. He serves as the personification of the attributes of the five esoteric Buddhas. The third phase (late 10th-12th cent.) represents the WDO as the equal of Buddhas (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 11-14).

Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are often depicted as fierce, multi-armed figures bearing weapons and, most importantly, wearing tiger skin loincloths (Sanskrit: Vyaghracarma-nivasana). For example, the Manjusrimulakalpa, an eighth-century esoteric text, dictates the prescribed iconography of Manjusri’s WDO guardian Yamantaka (“the Destroyer of Yama, god of death”):

Six faces, six arms and feet/Black in color, with a big belly / Bearing a skull, his hair flaring out in anger / A tiger skin wrapped around the hips / Holding all kinds of implements and weapons” (fig. 2) (Linrothe, 1999, p. 66). (emphasis mine)

The Hevajra Tantra, another eighth-century esoteric work, ties tiger skin clothing to Yogin practices. The text instructs them on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping the WDO Heruka:

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

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

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

Van Kooij (as cited in Linrothe, 1999) comments, “Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the … yogin himself” (p. 251). This suggests the WDO are dressed according to what is worn by the very Yogin ascetics who worship them. But I would like to take this one step further. It is important to note that many of these elements, such as the earrings, bracelets, arm bangles, bone necklace, tiger skin dress, khatvanga staff, drum, and dancing, are all attributes of the Hindu God Shiva. He is considered the yogin par excellence, as well as a wrathful deity in his own right (Elgood, 1999, pp. 44-54). I therefore suggest the practice of wearing tiger skin was just one of many elements that esoteric Buddhism borrowed from Hindu asceticism.

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Fig. 1 – (Left) A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Center) A 13th-century Japanese depiction of the Wrathful Destroyer of  Obstacles Yamantaka (larger version). Fig. 3 – (Right) A modern depiction of the Hindu god Shiva (larger version).

Shiva is often depicted as wearing a tiger skin and/or using it as a meditation mat (Skt: Asana) (fig. 3). This skin has two interpretations: 1) it represents his power over nature; 2) it represents him killing the personified “tiger of desire” (Elgood, 1999, p. 52; Beer, 2003, p. 65). When viewed from a Buddhist context, it seems only natural that Buddhist ascetics and deities would use the skin to represent the cessation of desire. It should also be noted that tigers and their skin were symbols of strength in ancient India. For instance, the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (circa 4th-cent. BCE), describes the martial feats or attributes of many powerful warriors and kings as being tiger-like (Śarmā, 1988, p. 66). In addition, during the royal consecration ceremony (Skt: Rajasuya), newly appointed Vedic kings would step on a tiger skin to gain the animal’s strength (MacDonell & Keith, 1995, p. 337). I therefore suggest the WDO tiger skin loincloth serves a secondary function as a symbol of the WDOs spiritual or physical strength.

There are numerous classes of Buddhist deities that share similarities with the WDO, such as having a wrathful appearance and serving a protective function, but do not rank as high in the esoteric pantheon. These include the Heavenly Kings (天王, tianwang; Skt: Lokapala) (fig. 4), who protect righteous kingdoms and monasteries; Gate Guardians (門神, Menshen; Skt: Dvarapala), who protect the doorways of monasteries and temples; the Protector of Fields (Skt: Ksetrapala), who protect plots of land; the Guardians of the Directions (Skt: Dikpala), former Hindu gods who protect the eight directions; and the Dharma Protectors (Skt: Dharmapala), who protect the Buddha’s teachings (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 20-22).

Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles stand high above these other guardians because they are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These barriers include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). [3] And they have the power to subdue even supreme devas. For example, the Compendium of the Truth of All Buddhas (Skt: Savra-tathagata-tattva-samgraha, late 7th-cent.) tells of the Cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana ordering the WDO Trailokyavijaya (the wrathful form of Vajrapani) to conquer Mahesvara (a.k.a., Shiva), king of the gods and master of the three realms. After being subdued, the fallen god asks the Buddha: “[H]ow it can be that Vajrapani, whom in anger [I]…called a mere Yaksa, can be so strong, stronger even than the Tathagata as Lord of the Trikaya[?]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 26). [4]

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Fig. 4 – (Left) Statues of the Four Heavenly Kings located in Beihai Park, Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 5 – (Right) A modern toy depicting Monkey’s fearsome three-headed, six-armed form (larger version).

Many of Sun Wukong’s attributes and abilities align with those mentioned above, I would therefore like to argue that he is a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles. First, he wears the tiger skin loincloth, which ties him to the same spiritual tradition represented by WDOs and Yogin ascetics. Second, he has a wrathful appearance (Skt: krodha). During his war with heaven, he takes on a fearsome form with three heads and six arms and multiplies his iron staff to defeat wave after wave of celestial opponents (fig. 5) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 157 and 191). This is similar to the multiple heads, arms, and weapons of the WDO Yamantaka, as well as other such deities (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 188, 268-269 and 279-280, for example). Third, he serves as a destroyer of obstacles (Skt: vighnantaka). By vanquishing the various monsters, spirits, and fallen stars that threaten the life of his master Tripitaka, Sun clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment. Thanks to his help Tripitaka becomes an enlightened Buddha at the end of the novel (Wu & Yu (Vol. 4), 2012, p. 381). Fourth, Sun serves as the guardian and strong-arm of a Bodhisattva, per phase one of the recognized WDO iconography. Tripitaka is after all the Golden Cicada Bodhisattva reborn on earth. Fifth, Monkey is so powerful that he poses a threat to the August Jade Emperor of Heaven, just like the WDO Trailokyavijaya did for the supreme deva Mahesvara. This ultimately explains why the celestial army is no match for Sun and why other guardian deities, like the Heavenly Kings, fear and respect him. [5] Identifying the Great Sage as a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles helps locate his position in the novel’s Buddhist pantheon prior to his elevation to Buddhahood. This means Monkey is no longer the Buddho-Daoist “wild card” that doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere.

The author-compiler of Journey to the West would have had plenty of esoteric material to influence his depiction of Monkey. Esoteric Buddhism filtered into China by the early Tang Dynasty (618-907) and continued into the Song (960-1279) thanks to royal patronage. People of the neighboring foreign Khitan Liao (907-1125), Tangut Western Xia (1038-1227), and Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, all of whom conquered northern China at one time or another, adopted the religion. The Mongols, another foreign ruler of the Middle Kingdom, were great adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), which ensured the continued presence of esoteric imagery in China. And during the Ming (1368-1644), when Journey to the West was first published, the Yongle (r. 1402-1424) and Zhengde (r. 1505-1521) emperors, as well as other elite members of society, patronized and/or practiced the religion (Stoddard, 2008; Orzech, Sorensen, & Payne, 2011).

Update: 12-16-2017

My new article expands on the WDO connection by highlighting Monkey’s association with the circlet mentioned above as one of the ritual items worn by yogis. This shows Sun’s trademark headband can be traced to Esoteric Buddhism.

Update: 06-07-2018

A stone carving of Sun Wukong from one of the Kaiyuan temple’s stone pagodas (erected in 1237) portrays him wearing nearly all of the aforementioned ritual items, further solidifying his image as a WDO.


1) The krodha-vighnantaka term was coined by Rob Linrothe (1999) since the names traditionally given to said wrathful deities over the centuries are not appropriate to cover all three historical phases of their existence (pp. 19-20).

2) The first artists to represent WDOs drew on previous depictions of semi-divine Yaksa spirits, the dwarf-like Gana attendants of Shiva, and the humanoid personification of divine Hindu weapons (Skt: ayudhapurusa) (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 12-13).

3) The three poisons are stupidity, greed/lust, and anger. These are often depicted in the center of Buddhist Wheel of Life art as a boar, a snake, and a rooster, each biting the others tail, forming a circle.

4) Linrothe (1999) writes that Shiva in this case represents the conquering of ego instead of “a Hinduism which must be humiliated” (p. 26).

5) During the Great Sage’s rebellion, the August Jade Emperor is forced to ask the Buddha to intervene because Sun Wukong is too strong (Wu and Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, p. 191-192). Monkey defeats the celestial army, along with the Heavenly Kings, prior to being subdued (Wu and Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, p. 172). And later the guardians “ben[d] low to bow to him and dare not bar his way” when he visits heaven some centuries after his rebellion (Wu and Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 118).


Beer, R. (2003). The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Chicago, Illinois: Shambhala.

Elgood, H. (1999). Hinduism and the religious arts. London, u.a.: Cassell.

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

Orzech, C. D., Sorensen, H. H., & Payne, R. K. (2011). Esoteric Buddhism and the tantras in East Asia. Leiden: Brill.

MacDonell, A. A., & Keith, A. B. (1995). Vedic index of names and subjects. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Stoddard, H. (2008). Early Sino-Tibetan art. Bangkok: Orchid Press.

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

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

The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) spawned numerous unofficial sequels years after its publishing in 1592. One such sequel, titled Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記) by an anonymous author of the 17th-century, is set two hundred years after the original and follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s spiritual descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真). He too learns the secrets of immortality and causes havoc in heaven, before being tasked to protect the historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) on a similar journey to India. The two are accompanied by the son of Zhu Bajie, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), and the disciple of Sha Wujing, Sha Zhihe (沙致和). This may at first seem like a cookie cutter retelling of the story, but it is so much more. Unlike the original, which only used allegorical terms for given characters, Later Journey to the West is comprised of extremely dense layers of allegorical meaning, from the names of characters and the words they speak to the places they visit and the villains they face. Below, I present the first of a three-part overview (part 2 and part 3), which covers Sun Luzhen’s early adventures. I rely very heavily on the engaging work of Xiaolian Liu (1994) as the novel has yet to be published in English.

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

I. The riddle

The novel begins with the following riddle:

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

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

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

II. Sun Luzhen’s early adventures

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

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

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

Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.

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


III. Sun Luzhen’s enlightenment

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

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

Liu explains the significance of the verse:

In the poem Sun Wukong tells his descendant to resort to wisdom and courage, rather than brute force, to achieve this goal. This teaching is borne out by the fact that it is not the celestial army but Sun Wukong who subdues Monkey with his enlightening words. But more important is the message conveyed in the last two lines. Though Monkey has obtained physical immortality, he is still a yexian 野仙 (wild immortal), because he is unable to quench his desires and emotions […] According to Chan Buddhist doctrine of wunian 無念 (no-thought), man’s original nature is pure and free from all thoughts and passions. In the first section of the novel, Monkey tries a Taoist approach in his effort to seek immortality. Though he succeeds through Taoist meditation in calming his mind and in realizing his self-nature, his desire for immortality and his practice of internal alchemy, symbolized by his celestial adventures, violate the Chan Buddhist principle of non-attachment, and are therefore considered “wild” and “unorthodox” by Buddhist ontological non-dualism. The completion of the Taoist physiological alchemy is only the beginning of a self-cultivation process for the hero whose ultimate goal … is to accomplish zhenguo 正果 (right or orthodox fruition), i.e. to achieve the Buddhahood inherent in one’s own nature, through the journey proper to the Holy Mountain in the Western Paradise. (Liu, 1994, p. 49)

IV. Allegory explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H) This represents self-realization.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Origins of the Chinese Underworld Appearing in Journey to the West

Did you know that the underworld presented in Journey to the West is actually an amalgam of native Chinese and foreign Hindu-Buddhist beliefs? As far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), hell was considered an otherworldly bureaucracy where souls were kept en masse. With the coming of Buddhism from India, a different view of the underworld evolved wherein souls would be reborn in one of six paths (deva, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell) and burn off any bad karma via suffering in life until they were pure enough to be reborn in a Buddha realm. But starting around the 7th-century, the idea of purgatory appeared and brought with it the concept of the Ten Judges or Kings (shi wang, 十王). This is where the two previous views were combined. Souls would be brought before a magistrate and suffer punishment for a given sin before being sent onto the next court and so forth. After suffering for a three year period, the soul would finally be sent onto their next life (Teiser, 2003, pp. 4-7).

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Detail from a 20th-century hell scroll (larger version)

Two of the Ten Judges stand as perfect examples of the intermixing of the two belief systems. The seventh judge, King of Mount Tai (Taishan Wang泰山王), is an allusion to a famous Chinese holy mountain. The fifth judge, King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), is a Buddhist holdover from Hinduism who originally ruled as the god of the underworld (Teiser, 2003, pp. 2-3).

Not everyone living in medieval China could read Buddhist scriptures, so the purgatories were eventually illustrated as a powerful teaching tool. Nothing says behave like seeing a demon eviscerating someone in full bloody color. Such “Hell Scrolls” (Diyu tu地獄圖) remain quite popular even to this day. Charles D. Orzech (1994) suggests that one of the reasons why they remained popular through the end of dynastic China was because they served as not so subtle reminders to be a law abiding citizen. Otherworldly judges doling out painful punishments mirrored the actions of their earthbound counterparts. Real-world magistrates were known for using torture to gain confessions. One such device was used to slowly fracture the ankles and shins.

Those interested can see full color versions of hell scrolls here:


Orzech, C. D. (1994). Mechanisms of Violent Retribution in Chinese Hell Narratives. Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 1. Retrieved from…n01_orzech.pdf

Teiser, S. F. (2003). The scripture on the ten kings and the making of purgatory in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Journey to the West and Islamic Lore

Last updated: 04-04-2020

Did you know that certain portions of Journey to the West were influenced by Indo-Persian and Arab Islamic lore? For instance, in chapter six Sun Wukong and Lord Erlang engage in a magical battle of skill in which they freely transform into myriad animals, each trying to one-up the other. This battle is unusual as Chinese stories going back to pre-Tang dynasty sources show characters could not transform at will. Conversely, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1704), which is based on stories as far back as the 9th-century, contains a tale featuring a magical battle of transformations between a princess and a genie. Literary critic C.T. Hsia (1996) notes that the similarities in magical combat “does not mean…the makers of the Monkey legend were specifically indebted to [the Arabian Nights], but it certainly indicates their general awareness of the popular literature of the Middle and Near East” (pp. 132-133).

(I no longer feel Hsia’s (1996) suggestion is accurate. See the 11-21-2019 update below.)

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) Modern pears grown in molds to imitate ginseng baby fruit. Fig. 2 – (Right) A 14th to 15th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the women fruit of the Waqwaq tree (larger version).


Chapters 24 to 26 of Journey to the West feature a magical Ginseng Tree (人參樹, Renshen shu) that produces crying, baby-shaped ginseng fruits (人參果, renshen guo) capable of extending the lives of those who eat them to 47,000 years (fig. 1). The literary antecedent of this fruit first appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, “The Story” hereafter), a 17-chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. Chapter 11 features an immortal peach tree with fruits that transform into edible children once they drop into water. Each is capable of answering when asked a question:

Monkey Pilgrim continued: ‘There are more than ten peaches on the tree now, but there are gods of the earth who are posted here especially to protect them. There is no way to steal the peaches.’ The Master teased: ‘Your supernatural powers are stupendous. If you were to go, what could prevent you?’ Before his words were finished three peaches of immortality fell down into the pool. The Master was startled by the splash and he asked: ‘What fell down?’ Monkey Pilgrim replied: ‘Don’t be alarmed, Master. It was just a few ripe peaches of immortality which fell into the pool.’ The Master said: ‘Can we find them and eat them?’

Monkey Pilgrim took the golden-ringed staff and shook it three times in the direction of the huge, flat stone. A small child with a greenish face appeared. His fingernails were as sharp as a hawk’s claws and from his gaping mouth the teeth showed as he emerged from the pool. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child answered: ‘Three thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I have no use for you.’ Again he rapped five times and a child appeared whose face was as round as the full moon. He wore embroidered clothes and a headdress with tassels. Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ The child replied: ‘Five thousand years.’ Pilgrim replied: ‘I will not use you.’ And once more he rapped several times with the staff. Another child appeared all of a sudden. Monkey Pilgrim asked: ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seven thousand years,” the child replied. Monkey put down the golden-ringed staff and made the child get on his hand. Then he asked: ‘Monk! Will you eat this?’ The monks were terrified and fled. Pilgrim whirled his hand with the child in it a number of times and the child became a milky jujube which he popped into his mouth (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

The concept of speaking, human-shaped fruit can be traced to the “Waqwaq tree” from Islamic lore. For example, The Book of the Wonders of India (Kitaab Ajaaib al-Hind), a set of Indo-Persian sailor stories collected between 900 and 953, contains a brief anecdote which reads:

Muhammad b. Babishad told me that, according to what he had learnt from men who had been to the Waqwaq country, there is a large tree there, with round leaves, or sometimes oblong, which bears fruit like a marrow, only larger, and looking something like a human being. When the wind blows, a voice comes out of it. The inside is full of air, like the fruit of the usher. If one picks it, the air escapes at once, and it is nothing but skin (Buzurg & Freeman-Grenville, 1981, p. 39).

The 15th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi took the concept further by describing the fruit as being shaped like voluptuous women (fig. 2) with the power of speech:

On this island are trees that bear as fruit women: shapely, with bodies, eyes, hands, feet, hair, breasts, and vulvas like the vulvas of women. Their faces are exceptionally beautiful and they hang by their hair. They come out of cases like big swords, and when they feel the wind and sun, they shout “Waq Waq” until their hair tears (Toorawa, 2000, p. 393).

Various sources respectively locate the Waqwaq tree and its home of Waqwaq, a faraway, exotic land or island, somewhere within the Indian Ocean, beyond Iraq, or, further still, beyond China. The Waqwaq term was most likely used to describe the limits of the known world at given times (Toorawa, 2000). The tree itself can possibly be traced to a passage in the Quran (Sura 37, verses 60-64) that describes how the “Tree of Zakkum” produces fruit shaped like the heads of demons. The earliest mention of the Waqwaq tree in Chinese sources appears in the late 8th-century Comprehensive Encyclopedia (通典, Tongdian) by the travel writer Du Huan (杜環). This is apparently based on an earlier Arabic source (A floral fantasy, n.d.).

Update: 02-28-2018

I was looking through the Ming-era Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Three Realms (三才圖會, Sancai tuhui, 1609, “Three Realms” hereafter) and happened upon a woodblock print of a Waqwaq tree (fig. 3). The image is labeled Dashi Guo (大食國), A term used since the Tang Dynasty to refer to an ancient country in the Arab World (Zhang & Unschuld, 2015, p. 81). This shows the Chinese were still aware of the tree’s foreign origin around the time that Journey to the West was published.

Ginseng tree - From Sancai tuhui (1609), based on image of Iskander (Alexander the Great) talking to the Talking Tree from the Shamanah

Fig. 3 – Woodblock print from the Three Realms showing the Waqwaq tree (larger version).

Update: 11-21-2019

As noted above, Hsia (1996) suggests the battle of transformations between Monkey and Erlang was influenced in some way by Islamic literature. However, Robinet (1979) describes a tit-for-tat battle from Daoist literature that casts doubt on this view:

The Xianyuan bianzhu [仙苑編珠, “Paired Pearls from the Garden of Immortals”, after c. 921] tells how Wang Tan [王探] received “the art of hiding his light and transforming his body.” Dared by someone to metamorphose himself, he took the form of a tree, but the other fellow seized an axe. Wang immediately transformed himself into a stone, but the other lit a fire (in the theory of the five elements, fire prevails over minerals). After turning himself into bubbling water and so on, Wang Tan finally achieved the upper hand by adopting the appearance of a corpse-the man fled immediately (p. 46). [1]

The way the Daoist and his opponent try to one up the other is very similar to the battle between the Great and Small Sages. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to suggest this story (or related media) was embellished by a storyteller or the author-compiler of the Ming Journey to the West to include two masters of transformation instead of one.

Update: 04-04-2020

Thanks to a recent Twitter post by Guy Reisman, I was delighted to learn that the Islamic Waqwaq tree made its way to Japan, where it is known as the Jinmenju (人面樹, “human-face tree“). In fact, an illustration of the tree appearing in the Edo-period bestiary Konjaku Hyakki Shūi (今昔百鬼拾遺, “Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past”, c. 1781) appears to be based on that from the Three Realms cited above (refer back to fig. 3).

Even more exciting, however, is the revelation of the identity of the man standing beneath the tree in the Three Realms illustration. Foster (2015) traces the Japanese image to the Three Realms and then further back to a Persian source, thereby associating the man with a famous historical king:

If we continue back in time and along the Silk Road, we find different versions of the great Persian epic poem Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020), with illustrations of a man conversing with a tree bearing human heads. The man, it turns out, is Alexander the Great (Sikandar or Iskandar), and the illustrations portray his legendary encounter with a talking tree, sometimes called the Wakwak Tree, that prophesied his death (p. 185).

That’s right, the man in the Three Realms is based on Alexander the Great! See image four for a comparison of the Chinese illustration and one example of Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree”-genre drawings. Both men stand in a similar position, looking upwards. The Persian Alexander is passively listening, while the Three Realms Alexander is actively talking.

Iskander and the Talking Tree - Three Realms Ginseng Tree

Fig. 4 – A comparison of a 15th-century Persian “Iskander and the Talking Tree” image and the Three Realms image (larger version). The former is held by the Bodleian Library.

This then raises the question: Did material related to the Shahmana influence the Ginseng Tree in Journey to the the West? [2] I’ve already demonstrated that an antecedent of the Ginseng tree appears in The Story. But this doesn’t necessarily negate some sort of influence. After all, both the Shahmana and Journey to the West feature mythic kings (Alexander and Sun Wukong) coming into contact with magic trees with humanoid fruit. I should note, however, that the trees represent two drastically different fates. Alexander’s tree foresees his death, while Monkey’s tree holds the promise of eternal life. Further research might shed light on stronger connections between both stories.


1) I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

2) Hall (2019) explains Iskander’s meeting with the talking tree takes place in both the Shahmana and the older Greek Alexander Romance (p. 149).


A floral fantasy of animals and birds (Waq-waq). (n.d.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from…0Waq%20waq.pdf

Buzurg, S., & Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. (1981). The book of the wonders of India: Mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West.

Foster, M. D. (2015). The book of yōkai: Mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hall, M. (2019). The imagination of plants: A book of botanical mythology. Albany : State University of New York Press

Hsia, C. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia program, Cornell University.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Toorawa, S. M. (2000). WaÃq al-waÃq: Fabulous, fabular, Indian Ocean (?) island(s). Emergences, 10(2), 387-402.

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.

Zhang, Z., & Unschuld, P. U. (2015). Dictionary of the Ben cao gan mu: Volume 2 – Geographical and administrative designations. Oakland, California: University of California Press

The Monkey King and Cinderella

Did you know that the Monkey King has a connection to Cinderella? The earliest known version of her story is based on Rhodopis, a tale set in ancient Egypt. It describes how the god Horus sends an eagle (or takes the form of one) to steal the slipper of the titular Greek slave and deliver it to an Egyptian Pharaoh, who launches a search for and eventually marries the woman. The tale was first recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in 7 BCE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 185-188). However, the work is part of a wider story cycle evident throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The earliest version that appears to have many of the familiar elements from the final European version hails from China. Titled “Yexian” (葉限), the story describes the titular heroine working as an imprisoned servant for her evil stepmother, the bestowal of a beautiful dress and slippers by a female ancestor from heaven, her attendance of a local festival, the loss of one of her slippers while fleeing the festivities, the discovery of the shoe by a foreign king, and a search that results in their eventual marriage. The story is based on the oral tales of the Zhuang ethnic people (of the Vietnamese-Chinese border) and was first recorded by Duan Chengshi (段成式) in the 9th-century CE (Ripley, 2010, pp. 191-192; Beauchamp, n.d.).

Click the image to open in full size.

Hanuman giving Sita Rama’s ring (larger version)


Certain elements of the story appear to have been influenced by the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, written by Valmiki around 500 BCE. The story tells how Sita, the wife of Vishnu’s reincarnation Prince Rama, is kidnapped and held prisoner by the demon Ravana (with the intent of making her his wife) on the island of Lanka. It is during her time in captivity that she is visited by Rama’s servant, Hanuman, a monkey demi-god, who brings her the prince’s ring to prove himself a trustworthy ally. The simian character then brings her anklet to Rama to prove she is still alive. Rama’s army assaults Ranava’s fortress, and he is eventually reunited with his wife. This at first may not seem like it matches at all, but you have an imprisoned beauty (Sita vs Yexian), supernatural assistance from heaven (Hanuman vs. the female ancestor), the exchange of personal items to prove one’s identity (the ring and anklet vs the slipper), and a campaign that brings together the woman and a man of royal blood (Sita and Rama vs Yexian and the foreign king) (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Scholars believe that secularized snippets of the Rama story cycle came to China in several waves, one of which was via Southeast Asian Hindu converts who settled in Southern China from the 7th-century onwards (Walker, 1998).

As some of you may know, many scholars believe Monkey was influenced by Hanuman, and this fact is best illustrated in chapters 68 to 71. The episode sees a queen being kidnapped and held prisoner by a demon (with the intent of making her his wife) in a faraway land. Sun Wukong is employed to find her. He brings back a bracelet to her husband as proof of life and identity, and eventually reunites the couple after defeating the demon (Beauchamp, n.d.).

Beauchamp (n.d.) provides a diagram showing the similarities between the stories of Yexian, Sita, and the queen from Journey to the West.


(larger version)


Beauchamp, F. (n.d.). In the Realm of the Dragon King: Sita and Hanuman meet Cinderella and Sun Wukong. Retrieved from [Original link dead. Click on article title to read.]

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

Ripley, D. (2010). The maiden with a thousand slippers: Animal helpers and the hero(ine)’s journey In Patricia Monaghan (Ed.). Goddesses in world culture (pp. 185-200). Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Religious Name

Did you know Sun Wukong was named after a historical Tang Dynasty monk? Originally a Chinese diplomat of Tuoba origin, Che Fengchao (車奉朝, 731-812) was part of a royal mission sent to Kashmir in 751. Che was too sick to return with them in 753, so he stayed in country and was eventually ordained as a Buddhist monk with the religious name Fajie (法界), or “Dharma Realm”. He lived abroad for several decades before returning to China in 790. There, he presented Emperor Dezong with various translated Sutras and a Buddha relic in the form of a tooth. The emperor was so pleased that he renamed the monk Wukong (悟空), or “Awakened to Emptiness” (Wang, 2006, p. 66).

Che Fangchao - The REAL Wukong

A modern depiction of Che Fengchao, the monk known as Wukong.

It’s interesting to note that the name Sun Wukong does not appear in The Story of Tang Tripitaka Procuring the Scriptures, the 13th-century precursor of JTTW. Instead, the novelette refers to him simply as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (hou xingzhe, 猴行者) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). Therefore, the name Sun Wukong was most likely chosen by the compiler/author of the version we know and love today.

See also: Monkey’s Surname and its Connection to Daoist Doctrine


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

Wang, Z. (2006). Dust in the wind: Retracing dharma master Xuanzang’s western pilgrimage. Taipei: Rhythms Monthly.

The Connection Between Monkey’s Staff, Yu the Great, and Flood Control

Last updated: 02/06/21

Have you ever wondered why Monkey’s staff was stored in the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, or why it was associated with Yu the Great? The weapon is most likely based on a number of native Chinese mythic and historical iron objects.

First and foremost is a famous Chinese story concerning the immortal Xu Xun (a.k.a. Xu Jingyang, 239-374) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Xu was a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province considered a paragon of filial piety. Popular stories describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century story titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace” describes how the immortal chained the patriarch of the flood dragons to an iron tree that he had constructed and submerged it into a well, thus blocking the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm (Feng, 2005, pp. 673-744). Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 1) (Little, Eichman, & Ebrey, 2000, pp. 314-317). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

There are numerous historical examples of iron objects from the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th cent.) being used to control water. Tang official Li Deyu (787-848) erected the great Iron Pagoda on Mt. Beigu in Jiangsu “in order to subdue the tidal waves of the [Yangzi] river” (Andersen, 2001, p. 72). Iron oxen, such as the one by Pujin Bridge in southern Shanxi, were cast during the Tang and Song dynasties and placed along river banks, some serving as bridge anchors or possibly Daoist altar pieces. The thought was that the oxen would ward off flood waters. The first iron oxen is said, according to legend, to have been created by Yu the Great to ward off future floods. Yu is connected to other iron figures placed in or near flowing bodies of water (Andersen, 2001, pp. 73-75; Cast Iron Recumbent Ox, n.d.). Small statues of the monkey-like river spirit Wuzhiqi (無支祁) were submerged in rivers in southern China during the Song (fig. 2). The spirit is mentioned in Tang-Song records as being a fiery-eyed beast known to cause devastating floods, so Yu trapped the creature under Turtle Mountain (Andersen, 2001). This story has obvious parallels with Monkey’s fiery eyes and imprisonment under the Five Elements mountain.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting Xu the immortal overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement in a well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version). Fig. 2 – A Song Dynasty iron figurine of the monkey river spirit Wuzhiqi (larger version).


The 88th chapter of JTTW notes that the staff was created by Yu the Great to aid in his legendary quest to quell the fabled world flood:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 201)

As previously noted, Five Elements Theory dictates that metal has dominion over water. Therefore, an iron pillar would have been the best tool for controlling vast bodies of water, including the Eastern Ocean. This explains why the pillar was in the dragon treasury. The connection between Yu and Monkey comes in the form of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi tale.

The pillar has ties to two literary precursors of Sun’s staff appearing in the earliest known edition of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (c. late 13th-century). Our hero uses an iron staff borrowed from the Queen Mother of the West and a Golden Ringed Monk’s staff given to him by the Mahabramha Deva, king of the gods. One chapter sees the latter being changed into a “gigantic yaksha whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth” in order to fight a demon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). The transformative powers of the monk’s staff was eventually grafted onto the iron staff to create the current incarnation of Monkey’s staff. These powers were, in effect, transferred to the pillar, giving it the ability to grow or shrink to any size. This is why the novel states Yu used the pillar as a ruler to set the depths of the rivers and oceans.

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


Andersen, P. (2001). The demon chained under Turtle Mountain: The history and mythology of Chinese river spirit Wuzhiqi. Berlin: G-und-H-Verl.

Cast Iron Recumbent Ox – X.0518. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2016, from…ntOxX0518.html

Feng, M. (2005). Stories to caution the world: A Ming dynasty collection. (S. Yang & Y. Yang Trans.). University of Washington Press (Original work published 1624)

Little, S., Eichman, S., & Ebrey, P. B. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.

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

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

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

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

A Supplement to the Journey to the West: An Overview

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question and Answer

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

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

Proper dating

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

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

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

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


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

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

Click the image to open in full size.

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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