The Journey to the West Research blog is proud to host an entry by our friend Monkey Ruler (Twitter and Tumblr). They have graciously written an essay on the global nature of Journey to the West adaptations, as well as provided a link to their ongoing project recording JTTW media (fig. 1). As of the publishing of this article, it includes a long list of almost 570 movies, 90 TV shows, and 160 video games! – Jim
Fig. 1 – Depictions of Sun Wukong from adaptations produced over 50 years apart: (left) Havoc in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 大鬧天宮, 1961) and (right) Monkey King: Hero is Back (Xiyouji zhi Dasheng guilai, 西遊記之大聖歸來, lit: “Journey to the West: Return of the Great Sage,” 2015) (larger version). Courtesy of Monkey Ruler.
I. Media adaptations
This started out as a collection of Xiyouji (西遊記; lit: “Journey to the West,” 1592) movies and TV shows for the sake of a Master’s class project; it was simple enough to look for Xiyouji media and start adding them to a collection datasheet. But even when the project was over, I kept finding more and more adaptations, even stumbling across others trying to show the magnitude of how much this novel has encompassed popular culture throughout the centuries. It has been told and re-told again and again in oral and published literature, plays, art, songs, poems, etc., and now on the big and small screens. Audiences are re-introduced to the image of Sun Wukong and his fellow pilgrims with every new media addition.
What really inspired me was the book Transforming Monkey: Adaptations and Representation of a Chinese Epic(2018) by Hongmei Sun, where she explained in depth the cultural impact that Sun Wukong (fig. 2) and Xiyouji has had on Chinese media, as well as how this loose set of franchises have come to represent Chinese culture as these shows and movies have become more globally accessible. Xiyouji is such an iconic cultural universe that it can be both heavily entertaining while still being so personal to audiences of any generation depending on how the artist/writer portrays their interpretation of these characters and their stories.
There hasn’t been a lot written about how these interpretations influence modern Xiyouji adaptations despite how the story has greatly influenced popular culture.
Fig. 2 – The front cover of Transforming Monkey (2018) (larger version).
Xiyouji is such an influential story, one that will continue to grow more and more globally known throughout time because it is such an all-encompassing piece that can cover politics, identities, and allegories, while still being a very personal and interpersonal work that artists or writers can relate to.
However, even with these layers of meaning and symbolism to be found, the story never loses the charming and entertaining aspects that can and have captured audiences. Despite being published over 430 years ago (with a history stretching back even further), Xiyouji is still able to relate to modern audiences through its allegories of oppression, rebellion, and self-identity. It has the capability to resonate with any generation depending on what artists or writers at the time wish to highlight or personally connect with themselves or their current world around them, using Xiyouji as a medium for their own struggles.
As Xiyouji starts to become more and more globally known, it is important to understand and resonate that this is still a Chinese story and how to address further adaptations with cross-nation gaps in both translation and cultural differences. There are media forms that are far more exploitative of the mythical journey, creating impractical scenarios of the narrative and thus changing the message of the story and characters completely. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what doesn’t work as Xiyouji adaptations due to the ever-changing zeitgeist in not only its home of origin but introducing it to a global sphere as it adds influence.
In order to see what works for adaptations, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what is the core of the story and just why it remains popular, story-beat or character-wise. For example, Sun Wukong can be used as a great model for positive ambivalence in media, moving away from set limits of a single stereotype and rather being a constant motion of new ideas and new identities. Monkey has been changed from a mischievous monkey to a revolutionary hero to a post-modern rebel against authority throughout the years. But even throughout the constant changes and interpretations, people never lose sight of what the nature of Sun Wukong is: rebelliousness, variability, optimism, and persistence.
Monkey is a transcending character as he is able to mediate contradictions within his own design, one being his gold-banded staff, a symbol of breaking barriers, and his golden filet (fig. 3), a symbol of limits. These two simple but prominent pieces of iconography immediately tell audiences who the character is supposed to be and what they are about.
Fig. 3 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden filet or headband (larger version).
While it is entertaining and able to be enjoyed by younger audiences, Xiyouji still has a deeper meaning that can be interpreted and recognized into adulthood. This is one of the few stories that I imagine can be adapted again and again without the issue of overlap as there are so many ways people can personally connect with these characters.
Having that any generation, anyone really can find enjoyment in this media, and perhaps even be inspired to read the novel itself.
II. Archive link
Please consult the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet linked below. They are listed as “Movie Information,” “Movie Links,” “Honorary Shows,” “Game Information,” “Game Pictures,” “Honorary Games,” and “Sources.” – Jim
Ever since I published my article “The Monkey King’s Children” (2021), I’ve noticed that people have fallen in love with Sun Wukong’s monstrous, magic skull-wielding daughter Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). For instance, search Tumblr and you will find plenty of art and short stories featuring her. The character does not appear in the original Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) novel, so I’m honestly surprised that she has captured the imagination of so many.
Here, I would like to collect all that I’ve written about her, along with new information, into a single article. This piece discusses her brief character arc, her astrological origins, her appearance in other literature, and her religious iconography.
I. Character arc
In chapter 17 of Journey to the South, Sun Wukong is framed for once again stealing immortal peaches. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give him a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit. Monkey returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, and it is here, among his people, that the story briefly mentions three children, including sons Jidu (奇都, “Ketu”) and Luohou (羅猴, “Rahu”) and daughter Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”).
Sun eventually seeks out Guanyin, who reveals that the troublemaker is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光). Returning home once more, Monkey’s news prompts his daughter to volunteer to battle the impostor. But her tribe simply pokes fun at her monstrous appearance. Yuebei Xing is said to have a crooked head with huge eyes and a broad mouth, coarse hands, a wide waist, and long legs with thunderous steps.
Sun travels with his daughter to Huaguang’s home of Mt. Lilou (Lilou shan, 離婁山) to provoke battle by chastising him for stealing the immortal peaches. Monkey strikes at him with his magic staff, causing Huaguang to deploy his heavenly treasure, a golden, triangular brick (sanjiao jinzhuan, 三角金磚). But Sun responds by creating untold monkey clones that not only confiscate the weapon but also overwhelm the immortal. Huaguang is seemingly defeated at this point; however, he manages to deploy one last treasure, the Fire Elixir (Huodan, 火丹). This weapon engulfs the Great Sage in heavenly flame (akin to the Red Boy episode), causing him to flee to the Eastern Sea. Yuebei xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull (kulou tou, 骷髏頭). The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.
Huanguang’s religious teacher, the Flame King Buddha of Light (Huoyan wang guangfo, 火炎王光佛), then intervenes in order to sooth the situation between his disciple and the Great Sage. He promises to bring the rogue immortal to justice on the condition that Yuebei Xing withdraws her deadly magic. In the end, all parties are pardoned by the Jade Emperor, and Huaguang and Monkey become bond brothers (Yu, n.d.).
II. Astrological origins
The Monkey King’s daughter is based on Yuebei xing, a shadowy planetary deity representing the lunar apogee, or the furthest point in the moon’s orbit. They are counted among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) of East Asian astrology (fig. 1). These include the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”) of Hindu astrology, namely the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and Rahu and Ketu (Gansten, 2009), as well as Yuebei and another shadowy planet called Ziqi (紫氣/紫炁; “Purple Mist”) (Kotyk, 2017, p. 60). The latter two are mentioned in Daoist writings as early as the late-9th-century (Kotyk, 2017, pp. 61-62).
The late-Yuan to early-Ming scripture Secret Practice of the Primordial Lord Yuebei (Yuanhuang Yuebei mifa, 元皇月孛祕法; Secret Practice hereafter) describes them having two forms, one human and the other monstrous:
Surnamed Zhu [Vermillion] with the honorific title of Guang [Luminous]. In the form of a celestial human, their hair is let down over their naked body. Their mass of black hair covers the navel. Red sandals. Their left hand holds the head of a drought demon. Their right hand holds a blade. They ride a jade dragon. In their modified form, [they display] a blue face with long fangs, a crimson garment and blade, while driving a bear (Kotyk, 2017, p. 62).
Both versions are known from late-Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) art. The first figure takes the form of a lightly clad or even topless woman with long, sometimes unkempt hair and red garments. One painting shows her with a bloody head in her right hand and a sword hanging from her hip (fig. 2). (Though, I should point out that she isn’t always depicted with the head in Xixia or Chinese art (fig. 3 & 4).) The second figure is much rarer and takes the form of a yaksha-like guardian with green skin, a fiery red beard and hair, and red garments. He wields a flaming sword in his right hand and a bloody head in the other (fig. 5). Thank you to Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk for bringing these to my attention.
Fig. 2 – Yuebei as a woman (larger version). Take note of the severed head in her right hand and the sword at her waist. Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 3 – A topless Yuebei wielding only a sword (larger version). Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 4 – Detail of Yuebei from the Chinese Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (c. 13th-century) (larger version). She too is holding only a sword. Take note of her lunar halo. Fig. 5 – Yuebei as a man (larger version). He clutches a small head in his left hand. Detail from a 13th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum.
What’s interesting about the yaksha-male Yuebei is that his iconography is strikingly similar to Arabo-Persian depictions of al-Mirrīkh (Mars), who is also known for wielding a sword and head. Dr. Kotyk has directed me to several examples (fig. 6-8). Carboni (Carboni & MET, 1997) suggests that the war god’s imagery is connected to another deity:
The bold iconography of the severed head underscores the warlike character of the planet but it probably is also related to the astronomical image of the constellation of Perseus, called in Arabic ḥāmil ra’s al-ghūl (“the Bearer of the Demon’s Head”), which represents a transformation of the Greek iconography of the severed head of Medusa [fig. 9] (p. 17).
The literary Yuebei’s use of a deadly skull is fitting considering its possible link to the beheaded Gorgon.  Remember that the Secret Practice describes Yuebei’s symbol as that of a “drought demon’s head” (batou, 魃頭), and Arabic sources call Perseus’ symbol the “demon’s head” (ra’s al-ghūl). This shows that both cultures considered the head some kind of supernatural monster.
Dr. Kotyk tells me that East Asian depictions of Mars do not show him holding a head. But given the similar iconography of the Arabo-Persian deity and the yaksha-male Yuebei xing, there could be a South Asian intermediary. Bhattacharyya (1958) describes the Indian Buddhist iconography of Maṅgala (Mars) in similar terms: “[He] rides on a Goat. He is red in colour. In the right hand he holds the Kaṭṭāra (cutter) and in the left a severed human head in the act of devouring” (p. 368). But I don’t know how established this description is considering that a cursory search doesn’t turn up any ancient depictions of the Hindo-Buddhist deity holding a head (I’ll update the article if new evidence arises). Another possibility is that the similarities are evidence of cultural exchange between Muslim and Xixia (Tangut) astrologers. Either way, I should point out that the paintings of the yaksha-male Yuebei xing and al-Mirrīkh come from the same time period, the 13th-century.
Recall that Xixia dynasty art (refer back to fig. 2) and the Secret Practice associate the human-female Yuebei xing with the head and sword, showing that it’s not the purview of the yaksha-male figure. It’s interesting to note that both the female figure and Mars are associated with the color red. Kotyk (2017) explains that there is a likely connection between Yuebei xing and the Irano-Semitic Āl–Līlīṯ (a.k.a. Lilith), who is also described as a demoness with a red, naked body and long, unkempt hair (pp. 63-64).
While I’m unsure if there is a connection, Yuebei’s imagery brings to mind the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā–Chinnamunda(Vajrayoginī). She is commonly shown as a naked, red-bodied figure holding a bloody head in one hand and a sword in the other (Kinsley, 1997, p. 144). In this case, the severed head is her own. Her sister attendants are also sometimes shown holding a head and sword (fig. 10).
Beyond art, I learned that the respective astrological paths of Yuebei xing and Mars can cross in East Asian astrology. According to Wan Minying (萬民英), author of the Great Compendium of Astral Studies (Xingxue dacheng, 星學大成, 1563): “If Yuebei and Mars are conjunct in the same sign, [the native’s] heart will enjoy virtue, but they will be unable to actually act. They will also have many noxious sores, and pus and blood 孛火同宮心好善而實不能行亦多癰疽膿血.” 
III. Appearance in other literature
Apart from Journey to the South, Yuebei briefly appears in an earlier Ming-era fiction titled Drama of Yang Jiajiang (Yang Jiajiang yanyi, 楊家將演義, 16th-century). Kotyk (2017) explains that she is depicted as a red-skinned figure “holding in her hand a skeleton (手執骷髏骨)” (p. 63). I should note that the kulou (骷髏) in kulou gu (骷髏骨) can also mean “skull”, which aligns with her iconography.
Recall that the Irano-Semitic demoness Lilith and the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda are described or depicted as having red skin. This might explain Yuebei xing’s vermillion body in the novel.
IV. Religious iconography
I know nothing of the actual worship of Yuebei xing, but Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project was kind enough to show me a pattern sheet of her from an idol-maker’s shop in 1970s Singapore (fig. 11). She wears flowing robes just like her ancient Chinese depictions (refer back to fig. 4), but the signature sword and head are not included. They are instead replaced by a fly-whisk and a placard marked “moon” (yue, 月), which compliments the lunar halo behind her head. Additionally, she is labeled Zhuli fu niang Yuebei tianjun (朱李孚娘 月孛天君). This is similar to the way it’s listed among the 36 celestial generals of the Journey to the North (Beiyou ji, 北遊記, 1602), Zhubei wei Yuebei tianjun (朱孛娘為月孛天君). I also found a more recent religious drawing that appears to mix the feminine and masculine iconography to depict her as an armored general named Taiyi Yuebei xingjun (太一月孛星君) (fig. 12). Both the head and sword are present.
Fig. 11 – The vintage Yuebei pattern sheet from a Singaporean idol shop (larger version). Original photograph by Keith Stevens. Fig. 12 – The Yuebei general image (larger version). It was posted by an Indonesian Daoist priest of the Quanzhen school on Facebook.
Yuebei xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”) briefly appears in chapter 17 of Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century) as the Monkey King’s monstrous daughter who uses a magic skull weapon to curse a rogue immortal. The demoness is based on a shadowy planetary deity from East Asian astrology that represents the lunar apogee. Xixia dynasty art and the Yuan-Ming Secret Practice scripture depict this deity having two forms, a lightly clad or even topless human-female with red clothing and long, disheveled hair, or a green-skinned, red-bearded yaksha-male. Both of these forms are sometimes depicted wielding a sword and a disembodied head.
The yaksha-male Yuebei xing surprisingly shares iconography with Arabo-Persian depictions of al-Mirrīkh (Mars), who is also represented as a bearded figure wielding a sword and head. Carboni (Carboni & MET, 1997) suggests that the Middle Eastern iconography is related to the constellation of Perseus (a.k.a. “Bearer of the Demon’s Head”) in which he holds the head of Medusa. This is interesting as the head held by the human-female figure is called a “drought demon” in the Secret Practice. This suggests a possible connection between the literary Yuebei xing’s skull and the deadly Gorgon.
Kotyk (2017) notes a possible connection between the human-female Yuebei xing and the Irano-Semitic Lilith. The latter too is described as having a red, naked body and unkempt hair. This same iconography is shared by the Hindo-Buddhist goddess Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda, who is also depicted bearing a sword and (her own) head. This may then explain why Yuebei xing is described as having red skin in the Drama of Yang Jiajiang (16th-century), which predates Journey to the South.
Yuebei xing is worshiped in modern Chinese folk religion. Religious art depicts them as either a robed figure or an armored general. In both cases, the deity is a woman, but only the martial aspect is shown with the head and sword.
Bunce (1994) describes Maṅgala (Mars) just like Bhattacharyya (1958) (refer back to the material below figure 9):
Face: one, angry; arms/hands: two, right hand holds ritual chopper (karttrika, grig-gug), left hand holds severed human head (emphasis added); legs: two; color: red; vahana: goat (p. 328).
But I still haven’t been able to find any ancient drawings of the planetary deity like this.
The iconography of the Hindu goddess Kālī also includes a sword and severed head (fig. 13). I didn’t mention her in the original article because she is traditionally depicted with dark skin, but she likely influenced the red-skinned Chinnamastā-Chinnamunda. It’s important to note that her mythos also associates the head with demons (asuras). For example, the Devī-Māhātmyam (c. 400-600 CE) reads:
Mounting her great lion, the Goddess ran at Caṇḍa, / And having seized him by the hair, she cut off his head with her sword. / On seeing Caṇḍa slain, Muṇḍa rushed at her. / She caused him to fall to the ground, wrathfully smitten with her sword. / On seeing Caṇḍa slain, and also the valorous Muṇḍa, / What was left of the assaulted army was overcome with fear and fled in all directions. / Picking up the heads of Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, Kali / Approached [Durgā] and spoke words mixed with loud and cruel laughter: / “Here, as a present from me to you, are Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, two beasts / slain in the sacrifice of battle…” (Coburn, 1991, p. 62).
This adds to our list of sword-wielding, demon head-holding deities: 1) Perseus-Medusa; 2) Yuebei xing-Drought Demon; and 3) Kali-Asura.
I thought of a way for artists and fan fiction writers to mix Yuebei xing’s skull with Medusa’s head. But first recall that section 1 reads:
Yuebei xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull. The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.
Perhaps the skull’s gaze can turn any living thing into stone, but this lithic death happens over the aforementioned three days. After the target’s name is called, the skull’s glowing eyes open wider and wider upon the dawn of each successive day, causing compounding confusion and pain. The final dawn sees the eyes open wide (fig. 14), making the unfortunate soul (no matter their location) turn to stone.
Refer back to note #1 for a possible defense.
Fig. 14 – The skull would look something like this on the third and final dawn (minus the bullet hole) (larger version). Image found here.
“Who is the mother of Sun Wukong’s children in Journey to the South?” This is a question I’ve been asked a few times on Tumblr. The novel never answers this, but one can make an educated guess for the purposes of fan fiction.
Each child is based on one of three lunar deities appearing among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) (mentioned above). The specific gods are:
Given their close connection to the night time celestial body, it would make sense for the mother to be Taiyin xing (太陰星, “Star of Supreme Yin”), goddess of the moon from the Eleven Luminaries.
Taiyin xing is commonly equated with Chang’e, goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology. The latter briefly appears in Journey to the West as a victim of Zhu Bajie. The former celestial general was exiled from heaven for drunkenly forcing himself on her (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 379).
The goddess’ past connection to Zhu wasn’t lost on me, but I like the way @sketching-shark articulates the potential for comedy (lightly edited):
There’s something hilarious about the idea that Zhu considers his yaoguai-ness a punishment. He was kicked out of heaven for harassing a moon goddess, and then Sun ‘always was & always will be a proud yaoguai.’ Wukong ends up forming a romance with a moon goddess that at least lasted long enough for them to have 3 kids together. Just imagine Sun Wukong: ‘Haha yeah idk she’s a cool lady & we just clicked. I guess Zhu Bajie with teeth clenched & trying hard not to cry: ‘Huh…imagine…that…’ […] Cue Zhu Bajie eating his heart out (see the tags here).
Fig. 15 – A detail of Taiyin xing from the Ink Treasure of Wu Daozi (Daozi mobao, 道子墨寶, c. 13th-century) (larger version). See figure 1 for the complete image. She is the fourth person from the left on the top row.
I’ve decided to make this the only article on my blog where Yuebei xing information can be found. Therefore, I have removed all of it from “The Monkey King’s Children“. This means I have to also transfer some previous updates.
I’ve recently started watching the Lego Monkie Kid series, which follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s human disciple, MK, in a very toyetic, Lego-inspired world. This is why @TustiLoliPop‘s lovely drawing of Yuebei xing (fig. 16) really stood out to me. They were kind enough to give me permission to post it here. It’s based on the Xixia dynasty painting from figure 2.
Fig. 16 – The Lego Monkie Kid-style Yuebei xing by @TustiLoliPop (larger version). Used with permission.
Tumblr user @sketching-shark has drawn some great pictures of Monkey and his children. Here is one of them (fig. 17). I love the alternating black and white color scheme of Rahu and Ketu, as well as Yuebei xing’s size.
Fig. 17 – Monkey’s family by @sketching-shark (larger version). Used with permission.
1) I’ve already suggested that an acquaintance draw Yuebei wielding Medusa’s head in place of her signature skull. The real question is: Could Medusa’s glare actually kill an immortal? This insightful reddit post provides evidence from the Dionysiaca showing that even the god Dionysus considered it deadly enough to bring a magic diamond to protect himself from the Gorgon’s death stare:
The thyrsus was held up in his hand, and to defend his face he carried a diamond, the gem made stone in the showers of Zeus which protects against the stony glare of Medusa, that the baleful light of that destroying face may do him no harm (Rouse, 1940, vol. 3, p. 413).
From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
Last updated: 05-09-2023
Anyone who has read my blog will know that I’m an avid fan of researching the history and influences of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). But as an artist, I am also a fan of JTTW-related artwork. There are so many talented people in the world who post their traditional and original designs and comics online, so I’ve decided to feature some of them on my blog. My hope is that such posts will expose this art to a wider audience interested in JTTW, while also documenting modern day perceptions and depictions of the novel and its characters.
Hi there! I go by Ninja, and I am a freelance artist! I recently just started my freelancing career this year, and work on a few indie comics along with thumbnails for youtube!
2) Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?
I am self taught! I always wanted to go to art school, but life had other plans in mind!
3) What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?
While growing up, comics for sure! Was a huge fan of sonic comics, and now, it’s a mix of that and other media!
4) How did you learn about Journey to the West?
I learned about the Journey To The West after watching the show LEGO Monkie Kid! My friends and I have seen clips of it on twitter, and so we binged the entire series up to date. I was so interested in the characters and the world, I had to look up more. I then discovered the novel and was hooked. I am still looking into more movies to see their take on the novel!
5) Who is your favorite character?
Sun Wukong! He grows so much throughout the story and faces so many challenges. It’s hard not to love this murderous Monkey King who seeks redemption.
To me, seeing what the characters have acted before in the past and seeing them grow and learn makes me happy. It helps me remember that even though you may have done some awful stuff in the past, you can still make a difference and grow from it.
8) Can you tell me about any ongoing JTTW-related projects?
Currently I am working on my own designs of the characters for fun! Making illustrations about my versions of them, and making some merch of the designs for my shop!
II. Art and Thought Process
Note: Click each image to enlarge it.
1. Ever since I started reading Journey To The West and watching movies with the Monkey King or anything JTTW-related, I wanted to create my own take of the characters. With this piece, I was seeing how my designs would look with all of them together! I had rough sketched out some draft looks that got inspired by different pieces of them from either shows, movies, or ancient drawings of them, then fit in what I liked most and created this piece! I wanted to have them express their own personality through the look, and I am quite proud of the final results! I imagined some unlucky villager getting a visit from these “ugly demons” and their Master asking for a place to visit.
2. With this piece, I wanted to capture a fun moment on their journey to the west. These guys have to deal with so much while trying to protect their master, so I figured giving them a nice snow day would be a fun thing to draw!
3. The Six-Eared Macaque. Definitely one of my favorite characters from the stories. I wanted to show him off along with the opera mask, kind of symbolizing him transforming into Wukong to trick his companions.
4. I wanted to put these three pieces together, showing how Sun Wukong acts around his companions and Master.
I know for sure Wukong and Zhu Bajie argued a lot, and I haven’t seen any issues between Sha Wujing and Wukong (still reading and learning) and figured they’d have some nice conversations. And of course, Wukong protects his master from a group of hungry demons or bandits!
5. Now this one I did decide on having some fun on creating my own version of a “spider queen” (I know there wasn’t a queen in the story, but it was still fun)! I based this loosely around the chapter with the spider sisters, making the eldest one the queen. I had a fun time drawing this out, making the eldest have a thing for Wukong, haha!
6. In this piece here, I wanted to have my design of Nezha interacting with Wukong. I based Nezha’s design on a few different inspirations (some being from the Monkie Kid series and ancient art of the deity), and descriptions from the story. I also wanted to add in a dragon tattoo, sort of as a remembrance of what Nezha had done in the past. But this picture was to show the type of relationship these two have. Nezha would definitely feel a bit salty of losing to Wukong all those years ago!
I commissioned NinjaHaku21 to draw a religiously accurate illustration of Sun Wukong as the “Victorious Fighting Buddha.” It is based on the traditional iconography of the Yuddhajaya Buddha, the deity from which his religious title is derived. The results are stunning!
I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.
In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.
This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.
The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).
The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.
So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).
The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).
Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).
His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branchshen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).
His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’sNuminous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen, 鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).
The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬三千五百斤.
He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!
His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.
Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishingkyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwarkyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).
He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).
He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.
Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.
Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.
Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming in Early Medieval China. In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150), University of Hawaii Press.
Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Plucking a handful of hairs from his own body and throwing them into his mouth, he chewed them to tiny pieces and then spat them into the air. “Change!” he cried, and they changed at once into two or three hundred little monkeys encircling the combatants on all sides. For you see, when someone acquires the body of an immortal, he can project his spirit, change his form, and perform all kinds of wonders. Since the Monkey King had become accomplished in the Way, every one of the eighty-four thousand hairs on his body could change into whatever shape or substance he desired (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129).
This tactic of transforming chewed up hairs into dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of monkey clones also appears in chapters 3, 5, 21, 35,44, 86, and 90 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 132, 165, 172, & 409; vol. 2, pp. 138 & 277; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, pp. 164-165, 168, 219, & 221). But these chewed up hairs can also be transformed into other objects, such as sleep-inducing bugs in chapters 5 and 86, as well as seven kinds of hawks in chapter 72 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 165; vol. 3, p. 332; vol. 4, p. 168).
But the novel states that Sun sometimes changes his hair by first blowing on it with his magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣). This article will provide a brief survey of this skill and its abilities.
Explicit mentions of the immortal breath show that it can transform hair into:
Yellow-gold rope to replace a magical weapon of the same name (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 130).
Gold-plated, red lacquered box to hold a white jade token (ch. 37) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 169).
Wrapper to infiltrate a demon’s lair (ch. 41) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 235-236).
Yellow hound to carry away a bogus immortal’s decapitated head (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308).
Hungry hawk to eat a bogus immortal’s entrails (ch. 46) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 310).
Group of 30 tigers to scare away monks (ch. 64) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 194).
Sleep-inducing insects and lice, fleas, and bedbugs (ch. 71 (A & B) & 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 303 & 304; vol. 4, p. 139).
Gold-headed fly to scare a demon king (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 366).
Bow drill (comprised of a diamond bit, a bamboo strip, and a cotton string) to drill out of a dangerous magic treasure (ch. 75) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369).
Very thin but long rope to climb out of a monster’s stomach (ch. 76) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 3).
Thirty ropes for tying up bandits (ch. 97) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 328).
It should be noted, however, that the novel is very inconsistent regarding this ability. The immortal breath is not always used; Sun often just commands the hair to transform or changes it without saying anything, such as in chapters 4, 33, 34 (A, B, & C), 42, 46, 49, 51, 59, 65, 68, 71, and 74 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156; vol. 2, p. 115, 124-125, 237, 301, 305, & 345-346; vol. 3, p. 13, 120, 216, 269, 305, & 358). The “chewing” and “spitting out” of the hair is another example (see above). But one might argue that spitting requires a build of air in the lungs, so by extension, the immortal breath is being used.
This inconsistency is probably due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, some story tellers likely employed the immortal breath, while others did not.
Fig. 1 – “Wukong Blows His Hair” (c. 1882) by Yoshitoshi (larger version).
This immortal breath is also shown capable of transforming the magic iron staff (fig. 2).
Steel file to file through a magic golden ring pinning Monkey’s neck to a column (ch. 34) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 129).
Razor to mutilate two lesser demons (ch. 63) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 180).
Flag pole to make a pair of magic cymbals stand upright (ch. 65) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 216).
Seventy forked weapons to cut the threads of supernatural spider webs (ch. 73) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 340).
Nail to prop open a demon’s mouth while Monkey climbs out of their stomach (ch. 83) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 113).
Three-pointed drill to make a covert hole in a wardrobe (ch. 84) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 139).
As noted above, the novel is inconsistent in this regard. For instance, Monkey changes the staff into a steel drill without blowing on it in chapter 65 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218). Likewise, no breath is used in chapters 46 and 84 when Sun transforms the weapon into razors for shaving heads (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305; vol. 4, p. 139).
Monkey can also transform items not in contact with his body. For instance, in chapter 46, he changes a Daoist lad’s clothing from a spring onion white robe into a brown monk’s robe (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In chapter 78, Sun transforms Tripitaka into his likeness using a mask made from mud:
Pilgrim, too, had little alternative but to flatten the mud and press it on his own face and, after a little while, succeeded in making an apelike mask. Asking the Tang Monk to stand up but without uttering another word, Pilgrim pasted the mask on his master’s face and recited a magic spell. He then blew his immortal breath onto the mask, crying, “Change!” At once the elder took on the appearance of Pilgrim. He was told to take off his own garments and switch clothes with Pilgrim, who made the magic sign and then recited another spell to change into the form of the Tang Monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 47).
Again, the novel is inconsistent regarding external objects. Sometimes Monkey bights his tongue and spits blood out to change said item, such as in chapter 25 (A & B) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 474-475 & 477; vol. 2, p. 303). [1-2] But, again, one could argue that the immortal breath is used as spitting requires a build-up of air in the lungs.
IV. Special abilities
The immortal breath (fig. 3) is also shown to have other special abilities. For instance, in chapter 46, Monkey uses it to heal a gaping wound in his stomach:
With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).
The novel implies that Sun’s immortal breath also has the ability to manipulate souls. For example, in chapter 88, Sun uses it in an arcane ritual designed to bestow three human disciples with super human strength. The pertinent section reads:
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 [yuanshen, 元神] were thus restored to their original abodes …
The term “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神) is commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, it is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008). This suggests that Monkey’s immortal breath also grants the disciples some form of immortality. You can read about the entire ritual here.
Fig. 3 – A vapor blowing smoke (larger version). Image found here. Photographer unknown. I imagine this is what the immortal breath would look like.
And in chapter 97, Sun uses the immortal breath to transform an old man’s soul into “ether” for easy transport back to the world of the living:
Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether [qi, 氣] by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave [Hell] and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house. Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] was told to pry open the lid of the coffin, and the soul of the squire was pushed into his body. In a moment, he began to breathe once more and revived (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 339).
The phrase “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) is missing in the original Chinese, but the ability’s use is understood as the passage mentions Monkey “blowing” (chui, 吹) on the soul.
Various chapters of Journey to the West show that Sun Wukong can use his immortal breath to transform his hair, his magic staff, and items not directly in contact with his body into anything he desires. These range from utilitarian items like files, blades, drills, and ropes to living creatures like insects, birds of prey, dogs, tigers, lesser demons, and even independent copies of himself. It can also change the color and appearance of clothing, as well as magically disguise someone when used in tandem with a mask. The skill’s special abilities include healing and soul manipulation. Evidence suggests that it can restore the “primordial spirit”, granting some form of immortality, as well as transform souls into “ether” for better ease of transport.
The immortal breath, however, is not used consistently throughout the novel. Monkey sometimes chews up and spits out the hair, commands it to change, or simply transforms it without saying anything at all. This inconsistency is likely due to the novel coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries.
1) Thank you to Irwen Wong for reminding me of this.