Sun travels to the Eastern Sea Dragon King’s underwater kingdom in ch. 3 to acquire a celestial weapon. But when the immortal fails to find a suitably heavy armament, the Dragon Queen suggests that they give him a black iron pillar from their treasury. It is described as 20 feet (6.096 m) in height and the width of a barrel. Only when Monkey lifts the pillar and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable does it comply with his wishes:
Wukong girded up his clothes and went forward to touch it: it was an iron rod more than twenty feet long and as thick as a barrel. Using all his might, he lifted it with both hands, saying, “It’s a little too long and too thick. It would be more serviceable if it were somewhat shorter and thinner.” Hardly had he finished speaking when the treasure shrunk a few feet in length and became a layer thinner. “Smaller still would be even better,” said Wukong, giving it another bounce in his hands. Again the treasure became smaller. Highly pleased, Wukong took it out of the ocean treasury to examine it. He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “The ‘As-You-Wish’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,550 pounds [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135). 
Later in the chapter, Sun shows off the new weapon to his children by shrinking it to the size of a needle and then expanding it to a literal pillar of heaven.
He held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be one hundred thousand feet tall,  with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138).
Fig. 1 – Monkey grows his staff to touch heaven as he performs a cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.
B. Controlling the oceans
Prior to giving Monkey the staff, the Dragon King tells his wife, “That…was the measure with which [Yu the Great] fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). Later, in ch. 88 our hero recites a poem in which he gives more detail about the weapon’s origins and history. The first few lines discuss its power over water:
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 bored through mountains and conquered floods, It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas, […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 201).
Despite the staff’s influence on bodies of water both great and small, it paradoxically doesn’t grant Sun an advantage when traveling through the aquatic realm or fighting water-based demons.  I’ll just chalk this up to inconsistencies born from oral storytelling.
C. Astral entanglement
Ch. 3 shows that Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in the underworld even when the physical weapon is back with his body in the world of the living.
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.” … 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.
[After reprimanding the 10 judges for bringing his soul to hell, Sun says,] “All I want is to erase my name [from the ledgers of life and death]. Bring me a brush.” The judge hurriedly fetched the brush and soaked it in heavy ink. Wukong took the ledger on monkeys and crossed out all the names he could find in it [fig. 2]. Throwing down the ledger, he said, “That ends the account! That ends the account! Now I’m truly not your subject.” Brandishing his rod, he fought his way out of the Region of Darkness.
While our Monkey King was fighting his way out of the city, he was suddenly caught in a clump of grass and stumbled. Waking up with a start, he realized that it was all a dream (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 139).
Sun’s ability to use the weapon as a disembodied spirit implies that it has some power of astral projection and entanglement (i.e. it goes where his soul goes). However, to my knowledge, this only happens once in the story, and the novel clearly demonstrates that he can’t use the weapon if it is physically taken away from him.  This is likely another inconsistency from oral storytelling.
Fig. 2 – Monkey holds his staff as he strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version).From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).
The weapon is shown capable of creating manifold copies of itself. For example, in ch. 4, Monkey multiplies his staff to accommodate his monstrous, multi-armed form while fighting Prince Nezha: “Dear Great Sage! He shouted, ‘Change!’ and he too transformed himself into a creature with three heads and six arms. One wave of the golden-hooped rod and it became three staffs, which were held with six hands” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 155). Later in ch. 50, he rains staves down on a demonic army.
Using the tip of his lance to point at the ground, the demon king shouted for the little imps to attack together. All those brazen fiends, wielding swords, scimitars, staffs, and spears, rushed forward at once and surrounded the Great Sage Sun completely. Entirely undaunted, Pilgrim only cried, “Welcome! Welcome! That’s exactly what I want!” He used his golden-hooped rod to cover his front and back, to parry blows east and west, but that gang of fiends refused to be beaten back. Growing more agitated, Pilgrim tossed his rod up into the air, shouting, “Change!” It changed immediately into iron rods by the hundreds and thousands; like flying snakes and soaring serpents, they descended onto the fiends from the air” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 372).
Sun demonstrates the staff’s magic lock-picking ability in ch. 25.
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, vol. 1, pp. 468-469).
Admittedly, this passage could be read two ways: 1) The staff opens the lock; 2) Monkey uses the staff as a conduit for his own lock-picking magic. But I’m choosing the first interpretation as this ability was likely influenced by Saint Mulian unlocking the gates of hell with his staff. 
In ch. 46, during a competition of Buddhist and Daoist prognostication, Sun magically disguises himself as a Daoist lad’s ritual master and convinces the boy to let him shave his head: “He changed his golden-hooped rod into a sharp razor, and hugging the lad, he said, ‘Darling, try to endure the pain for a moment. Don’t make any noise! I’ll shave your head.’ In a little while, the lad’s hair was completely shorn” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 305). In ch. 65, Sun turns the staff into a drill in order to escape from a pair of magic cymbals, using the tool to bore a hole in the horn of a dragon that was just able to pierce the seam: “Marvelous Great Sage! He changed the golden-hooped rod into a steel drill and drilled a hole on the tip of the horn. Transforming his body into the size of a mustard seed, he stuck himself inside the hole and yelled, ‘Pull the horn out! Pull the horn out!'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 218).
When the Dragon Queen originally suggests giving the pillar to Monkey, she tells her husband: “These past few days the iron has been glowing with a strange and lovely light [fig. 3]. Could this be a sign that it should be taken out to meet this sage?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135). This might imply the weapon was aware of its new master’s imminent arrival. Later in ch. 75, Sun recites a poem speaking of the staff’s desire for flight.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang, Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men. Well-formed and transformed it wanted to fly, Emitting bright strands of five-colored mist. Enlightened Monkey took it back to the mount To experience its pow’r for boundless change. […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 375).
The phase “wanting to fly” (yao feiteng, 要飛騰) could be read as a metaphor for yearning to be released from the dragon treasury and/or a call for adventure. Add to this the staff’s ability to follow Sun’s wishes to grow, shrink, multiply, change form, and pick locks. Therefore, the novel depicts the staff having a certain amount of awareness. 
Fig. 3 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).
Journey to the West (1592) describes the Monkey King’s iron staff having the magic power 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.
1) I have changed Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) dry rendering “Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod” to the more pleasant one based on W.J.F. Jenner. Also, Yu’s original translation says “13,500 pounds”. However, the Chinese version uses jin (斤), known in English as “catty“. The catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this. The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Elvin, 2004, p. 491 n. 133), so 13,500 catties would equal 17,550 lb.
2) Here, Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating 10 Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates it in chapters six (vol. 1, p. 181) and 61 (vol. 3, p. 157).
3). For example, Monkey relies on Zhu Bajie to fight Sha Wujing when they first come across him at the Flowing-Sands River. This is when Sun admits his weakness to water:
“Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim with a laugh, “in this case I’ve really nothing to brag about, for I’m just not comfortable doing business in water. If all I do is walk around down there, I still have to make the magic sign and recite the water-repelling spell before I can move anywhere. Or else I have to change into a water creature like a fish, shrimp, crab, or turtle before going in. If it were a matter of matching wits in the high mountains or up in the clouds, I know enough to deal with the strangest and most difficult situation. But doing business in water somewhat cramps my style!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 423-424).
4) The rhinoceros demon sucks it away with Laozi’s magic steel bracelet in ch. 50 and 51. A lion spirit uses a magic wind to steal the weapons of all three pilgrims in ch. 88. In both cases, Monkey resorts to trickery to retrieve the physical staff from their respective mountain strongholds.
5) One section of Mulian’s tale reads: “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).
6) The idea of sentient weapons is certainly not unique to Journey to the West considering that the ancient Chinese ascribed souls to noted swords. For example, Yuan poet Jia Penglai (賈蓬萊, c. mid-14th-c.) described famed Spring and Autumn period blacksmith Ou Yezi‘s (歐冶子) treasure swords Longyuan (龍淵, a.k.a. Longquan, 龍泉) and Tai’e (泰阿/太阿) 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).
Lee, L. X. H., & Wiles, S. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming: 618-1644. Abingdon: Routledge.
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.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1-4. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
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).
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.
I’ve previously written about the similarities between Sun Wukong and the Water Margin bandit Wu Song. In this article, I would like to explore the similarities shared by the Monkey King and the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Ch: Xidaduo Qiaodamo, 悉達多 喬達摩). I know readers are now collectively scratching their heads in confusion and asking, “How in the world are a 5th- to 6th-century BCE Nepalese philosopher and an immortal monkey from Ming-era Chinese fiction similar?” It’s true that the particulars of their stories are different, but I will show that Wukong and the Buddha follow a similar trajectory in their early lives. Both experience a supernatural birth, spend early years as royalty, feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life, set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death, and, finally, achieve this goal through spiritual practices. For details about the Buddha’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fosuoxing za, 佛所行讚, 2nd-century), a full-length biographical poem that survives thanks to its translation into Chinese from the original Sanskrit (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 150). Information about Monkey will of course come from the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記).
I. Supernatural birth
On the day of his birth, the bodhisattva’s mother, Queen Maya, feels the urge to go to the garden of Lumbini. There, following the tradition of sage-kings, the young prince Siddhartha is born from her right side (fig. 1):
Whilst she (thus) religiously observed the rules of a pure discipline, Bodhisattva was born from her right side, (come) to deliver the world, constrained by great pity, without causing his mother pain or anguish. / As king Yu-liu [Aurva] was born from the thigh, as king Pi-t’au [Pruthu] was born from the hand, as king Man-to [Mandhatri] was born from the top of the head, as king Kia-k’ha [Kakshivat] was born from the arm-pit, / So also was Bodhisattva on the day of his birth produced from the right side; gradually emerging from the womb, he shed in every direction the rays of his glory (Beal, 1883, pp. 2-3).
Chapter one of Journey to the West describes how an immortal stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) splits open and gives birth to a stone egg, which is transformed into a stone monkey (shi hou, 石猴) by the elements (fig. 2):
Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open [benglie, 迸裂], giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101) (emphasis mine).
As I’ve previously written, Wukong’s birth is likely based on the sage-king Yu the Great (大禹) and his son Qi (啟, “open”) of Xia, who are stated in various sources to have been born from stone. For example, one 4th-century tale states Yu’s pregnant wife transformed into stone out of shame for having seen her husband’s shamanic metamorphosis into a bear. Yu ordered the stone to release his son, and it split open to give birth to Qi (Birrell, 1999, p. 123). The emphasis on the stone splitting open is related to ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth,  much like the Buddha is born from Queen Maya’s side. For instance, the Genealogical Annals of the Emperors and Kings (Diwang shiji, 帝王世紀, 3rd -century) writes:
“While traveling up in the mountains she [Yu’s mother] saw a falling star piercing the Mao region (of the sky). Then in a dream, she received and felt it, so upon swallowing a divine pearl and Job’s Tears, her chest split open and she gave birth to Yu at Stone Knob” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101).
While Yu’s mother is not a stone in this case, his birth is effected by a pearl (a type of stone) and happens in a place named after stone. Such tales establish a link between split births and stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth cycle.
Also, just like the Buddha “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” upon his birth, Wukong too produces a great light: “Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar” (fig. 3) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).
Fig. 1 – A stone carving depicting the birth of Siddhartha from Queen Maya’s side (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century) (larger version on Wikipedia). Fig. 2 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article. Fig. 3 – The bright light shines from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).
II. Royal years
Prince Siddhartha (fig. 4) is born into the royal Shakya clan ruled by his father, King Suddhodana (Beal, 1883, p. 1). Shortly after his son’s birth, the king is told by two sages that the new heir is fated to be either a universal monarch or a cosmic sage (Beal, 1883, pp. 8-18). Suddhodana attempts to defy the latter fate by surrounding his son with royal luxury and even finding him a wife with which to have his own son:
‘My son, the prince, having a son born to him, / ‘The affairs of the empire will be handed down in succession, and there will be no end to its righteous government; the prince having begotten a son, will love his son as I love him, / ‘And no longer think about leaving his home as an ascetic, but devote himself to the practice of virtue […] Would that this might lead my son (he prayed) to love his child and not forsake his home; the kings of all countries, whose sons have not yet grown up, / Have prevented them exercising authority in the empire, in order to give their minds relaxation, and for this purpose have provided them with worldly indulgences, so that they may perpetuate the royal seed; / So now the king, having begotten a royal son, indulged him in every sort of pleasure; desiring that he might enjoy these worldly delights, and not wish to wander from his home in search of wisdom (Beal, 1883, pp. 28 and 29).
Following his birth, the stone monkey comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The stone monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers the “Cave Heaven of Water-Curtain Cave” (Shuiliandong dongtian, 水簾洞洞天), a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious,
Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).
The prince is born into a royal clan and yet never rules, while Wukong achieves kinghood through a test of bravery and leads his tribe for over three hundred years (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105). Siddhartha’s lack of authority is of course due to his father’s wish that he indulge in worldly pleasures and forget about leaving to become a sage. But birth tales (Sk: jataka) of the Buddha’s past lives do include several incarnations as rulers, even as a monkey king! 
Fig. 4 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).
III. Shock at impermanence
One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his life. Not wanting his son to see anything unpleasant, King Suddhodana has the path cleared of the old, sick, and poor and decorated with beautiful canopies, banners, and curtains (Beal, 1883, pp. 30-32). But a deva raja intervenes to initiate the first of the “four signs” (Sk: caturnimitta; Ch: sixiang, 四相; i.e. old age, sickness, death, and monasticism) to cause the future Buddha to pursue a spiritual path that will ultimately lead to his enlightenment (fig. 6) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 171-172). The deva raja transforms into an extremely elderly man, and upon seeing the sight, Siddhartha is shaken when his chariot driver reveals that he too will suffer this fate:
The prince greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, ‘Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?’ / The charioteer again replied and said, ‘Your highness also inherits this lot, as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance: / ‘The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot’. Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, / Broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood up right. / Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle; so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed (Beal, 1883, p. 33).
After seeing the sign of sickness (Beal, 1883, pp. 34-35), the prince witnesses the sign of death:
(Once more) he asked, ‘What is this they carry? With streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.’ / And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, ‘This is a “dead man,” all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; / ‘His spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, / ‘Now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch (tomb).’ The prince hearing the name of death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, / He asked, ‘Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?’ Replying thus he said, ‘All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; / ‘The strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay (and die).’ The prince now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, / With bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, ‘Oh worldly men! How fatally deluded! Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; / ‘The heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not “all is vanishing!” (Beal, 1883, pp. 36-37).
After the Monkey King rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for more than three centuries, he tells his children:
Though we are not subject to the laws of man today, nor need we be threatened by the rule of any bird or beast, old age and physical decay in the future will disclose the secret sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld. If we die, shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the Heavenly beings? (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 106).
The “shock” felt by Prince Siddhartha and the Monkey King upon realizing the impermanence of life is known in Buddhism as Samvega (Ch: yanli, 厭離) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, n.d.). It’s interesting to me that Siddhartha is led to the reality of impermanence, while Monkey comes to the conclusion by himself. This is no doubt due to the differences in their lives. King Suddhodana ensures that his son lives a protected life, one free from the woes of the outside world, by surrounding him with luxury and young, beautiful palace attendants. However, Monkey rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for over three hundred years, no doubt witnessing the decline and death of many of his companions, as well as the waning of his own youth. After all, the thought of impermanence would weigh heavy on anyone nearing the end of their life. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, when his soul is taken to hell in chapter three, Monkey learns from the ledgers of life and death that he was fated to die at 342 years old (fig. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150).
Fig. 6 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 7 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version).From Son Goku (1939).
IV. Quest to overcome impermanence
Siddhartha is wracked by constant, obsessive thoughts on the dangers of old age, sickness, and death. After venturing out once more and witnessing poor farmers toiling away in the fields, he proclaims on the spot that he will find some way to oppose life’s suffering. At that exact moment, a deva affects the fourth sign by transforming into a monk (sk: bhikshu), who tells the prince:
Depressed and sad at [the] thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue, but everywhere I find old age, disease, and death, all (things) hasten to decay and there is no permanency; / ‘Therefore I search for the happiness of some thing that decays not, that never perishes, that never knows beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty, / ‘The happiness of one who finds repose alone in solitude, in some unfrequented dell, free from molestation, all thoughts about the world destroyed, dwelling in some lonely hermitage…’ (Beal, 1883, pp. 49-50).
This influences Siddhartha to forsake his royal life to become an ascetic and search for a means of escape from the evils of old age, sickness, and death. Cutting off his topknot, thus severing his royal ties, the future Buddha sets out into the world (Beal, 1883, p. 68). Siddhartha travels the land studying meditation (Sk: dhyana; Ch: chan, 禪) under various sages, pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood for years, and even practicing severe austerities that result in the emaciation of his body (fig. 8). But he eventually forsakes these extreme practices, recovering his bodily strength and vowing to achieve perfect enlightenment via meditation beneath a banyan tree (Beal, 1883, pp. 131-147).
When the Monkey King opines the injustice of impermanence, one of his advisors tells him that only three beings live beyond the reach of Yama:
There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages [shensheng, 神聖]; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).
Monkey then pledges to find these great men and women and learn their secret means of escape from Yama’s grasp:
“Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the corners of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).
He sets sail in a makeshift raft and wonders the world for more than ten years, searching the towns and cities of the Jambudvipa continent before sailing to the Western Aparagodaniya continent. There, he is directed to the Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山, 斜月三星洞), an immortal hermitage lorded over by the great Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 9). The sage accepts him as a student and gives him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or “Monkey Awakened to the Void” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 108-115).
Both tales show that Siddhartha and Monkey set out on their respective quests thanks to outside influences. The devas intervene numerous times to guide the future Buddha’s path to enlightenment,  proving that the heavenly realm has a vested interest in his fate. Wukong’s journey is instead influenced by the words of his mortal advisor. In this case, the gods have no interest in the fate of such “creatures from the world below” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). This of course changes once Monkey starts causing havoc throughout the cosmos.
Fig. 8 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).
V. Achieving a means of escape
The heavenly demon Mara (Mo, 魔) fears that Siddhartha will achieve enlightenment and help mankind break free from his domain, the illusionary world of Samsara, and so he leads a monstrous army against the great rishi. But the army is rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality (Beal, 1883, pp. 147-156).  Continuing his meditation further, the rishi perceives his myriad past lives, as well as the karmic punishment of those who covet or perform bad deeds, being tortured in hell or reborn into lower levels of existence. He then comprehends that suffering arises from clinging, clinging from desire, desire from sensation, sensation from contact, contact from the six senses, and the senses from consciousness. Finally, Siddhartha comes to the realization that breaking each link (e.g. cessation of clinging will end suffering) will stop old age, sickness, and death and ultimately destroy the endless chain of rebirths (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Having achieved perfect enlightenment (fig. 10),
the Buddha then devised for the world’s benefit the eightfold path, right sight, and so on, the only true path for the world to tread. / Thus did he complete the end (destruction) of ‘self,’ as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge; / He finished thus the first great lesson (paramartha); entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared; light coming on, perfectly silent, all at rest, / He reached at last the exhaustless source of truth (dharma); lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth (Beal, 1883, p. 163).
Journey to the West chapter two tells how Wukong serves as a junior monk for seven years before Subhuti takes him as a close disciple. One night, the sage recites him a poem full of flowery esoteric imagery revealing the secret to Daoist immortality and Buddhahood is the cultivation of chaste semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spiritual energy (shen, 神). The poem has a profound effect on Monkey, for the novel states: “At that moment, the very origin was disclosed to Wukong, whose mind became spiritualized as blessedness came to him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120). Following Subhuti’s instructions, Monkey performs breathing exercises after midnight (zi, 子) and before noon (wu, 午), resulting in immortality after three years of dedicated practice (fig. 11).  I should note that the book borrows from real Daoist practices but leaves much of the process up to the reader’s imagination. As I explain here, historical methods combined the aforementioned breathing exercises with the circulation of chaste semen and spiritual energy to create a spirit embryo (shengtai, 聖胎), or an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell. But in the case of the novel, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.
Interestingly, the title of chapter two also refers to Monkey overcoming Mara. It reads: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li / Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title freely associates Buddhist and Daoist concepts, such as Mara and the primal spirit. This synthesis is explained by Darga (2008):
Comparing the development of the embryo to the revelation of Buddhahood is typical of neidan texts of the Ming period. For instance, the Xingming guizhi (Principles of Balanced Cultivation of Inner Nature and Vital Force) uses Body of the Law (fashen 法身, dharmakāya) as a synonym for shengtai. The birth of the embryo represents the appearance of the original spirit (yuanshen 元神) or Buddhahood and is understood as enlightenment (p. 884).
The Buddha’s biography goes on for pages about deep philosophical concepts on the self, suffering, and reality, showing that the means of his liberation was of the utmost importance. By contrast, as noted above, Journey to the West leaves little space for Wukong’s method of immortality. In fact, the hard won moment that he breaks free of Yama’s grasp is not even mentioned in the novel!  So the author-compiler no doubt felt Monkey’s subsequent adventures were far more important. This is understandable considering that, in material as far back as the Song dynasty, Monkey is already an ancient immortal at the beginning of the story.
Fig. 10 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 11 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). By the author.
Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share five similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mater in the same fashion as ancient Chinese sage-kings. Siddhartha emerges from the side of Queen Maya and Wukong forms from a stone egg birthed by a split rock. Second, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Third, they feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life. Siddhartha is exposed to the evils of old age, sickness, and death via the “four signs” initiated by heaven. Wukong instead comprehends the fearsome hand of Yama through his observation of time. Fourth, they set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death. The prince travels the land studying meditation and pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood. Monkey searches the world for over a decade before he is taken in by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti. Fifth, they achieve their goal through spiritual practices. Siddhartha defeats Mara and achieves perfect enlightenment via intense meditation. Wukong breaks free from Yama/Mara and achieves immortality via Daoist elixir arts.
Having discussed the similarities, the question now arises: Did the story of the Buddha influence the Monkey King? It’s certainly possible that the author compiler of Journey to the West drew upon events from Siddhartha’s life to make Wukong’s journey more familiar or compelling. But I can’t say for certain without further research linking specific Buddhist literature with the novel. Some of the similarities could just as easily be tropes borrowed from Daoist hagiography.
1) See Cook and Luo (2017) chapter five for more examples of split-births.
2) The “Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka, no. 407), or sometimes just the “Monkey King”, tells how the bodhisattva is reborn as a monkey who rules over eighty-thousand primates high in the Himalayas. He and his tribe live near the Ganges and eat from a large mango tree that produces succulent, water pot-sized fruits. A human monarch attempts to take the tree by force, calling on his archers to shoot the monkeys. However, the king leaps across the Ganges to the tree with a makeshift rope around his waist and makes a bridge with his body so that all eighty-thousand monkeys can escape. However, his heart is mortally wounded when a rival jumps on his back from a high branch. The monarch takes note of the monkey’s good deed and personally tends to him in his last few moments of life. Before dying, the monkey teaches him a valuable lesson about putting his people’s needs before his own. The monarch then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king (Cowell, 1895, pp. 225-227).
3) Other than the “Four Signs”, another example of the devas intervening in Siddhartha’s life takes place shortly after he forsakes the extreme austerities that emaciate his body. He bathes in a holy river but can’t leave the water due to weakness from malnourishment. That’s when a deva pushes down a tree branch, allowing Siddhartha to pull himself to safety (Beal, 1883, p. 144).
4) For example, one passage reads: “Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, p. 153).
5) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi [子, midnight] and after the hour of Wu [午, noon]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). However, this is likely a transcription error as Daoist sources cite the opposite, after midnight and before noon (Kohn, 2008, p. 84, for example). Therefore, I have corrected the information.
6) The moment that Monkey achieves immortality is only alluded to in passing:
Suddenly he [Subhuti] asked, “Where’s Wukong?” Wukong drew near and knelt down. “Your pupil’s here,” he said. “What sort of art have you been practicing lately?” the Patriarch asked. “Recently,” Wukong said, “your pupil has begun to apprehend the nature of all things and my foundational knowledge has become firmly established.” “If you have penetrated to the dharma nature to apprehend the origin,” said the Patriarch, “you have, in fact, entered into the divine substance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121).
This article is a greatly expanded version of this piece.
One of the many unique aspects about Sun Wukong‘s story cycle is his birth from stone (fig. 1). Chapter one of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) describes how the 36 foot 5 inch (11.09 m) tall, 24 foot (7.31 m) circumference rock issues forth a stone egg after absorbing celestial and terrestrial energies over countless eons:
Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo [xian bao, 仙胞]. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg [shi luan, 石卵] about the size of a playing ball [yuan qiu, 圓毬]. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).
The description of Wukong’s conception draws on ancient Chinese cosmological ideas regarding the gendered nature of the universe. Works of the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (Hinsch, 2011, pp. 157-158). As quoted above, the stone is “nourished…by the seeds of Heaven and Earth”. This line was likely influenced by philosophical works such as the Yijing which states: “Heaven and Earth come together, and all things take shape and find form. Male and female mix their seed, and all creatures take shape and are born” (Wilhelm & Baynes, 1977, pp. 342-343).
Surprisingly, Wukong is not the only figure from world mythology born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Eliade (1978) comments: “The theme recurs in the great civilizations of Central America (Inca, Maya), in the traditions of certain tribes of Southern American, among the Greeks, the Semites, in the Caucasus, and generally from Asia Minor right down to Oceania” (p. 43). In this article, I will explore eight examples from Asian and Western myth, demonstrating how stone-born figures share certain parallels with Monkey. I will show that, with the exception of creator gods and savior figures, stone-born beings generally have one or more of the following in common: 1) they are the product of masculine heavenly forces and feminine earthly forces (anthropomorphic or otherwise); 2) they violate the natural order by challenging heaven (in one form or another); and 3) they are eventually defeated by the gods. The purpose of this preliminary survey is to better understand an ancient myth cycle that may have influenced the development of the Monkey King’s lore.
Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a demi-god, sage-king, and founder of the Xia Dynasty, is generally portrayed in his mythos either violently erupting from the side or back of his mother or emerging (or being hewn with an ax) from the executed body of his father Gun (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 98-101). However, a few sources briefly note his lithic birth. For example, the Han-era Huainanzi (淮南子, 2nd-century BCE) simply states: “Yu was born from a stone” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 100). Lewis (2006) explains Yu’s stone birth is tied to ancient Chinese beliefs about the fertile, creative power of stone, as evidenced by the stone altar of the High Matchmaker (Gao mei, 高媒), which was historically prayed to for children by married couples, as well as legends of the mending of the sky with five magic stones by the primordial goddess Nuwa, the High Matchmaker’s mythic prototype.  This naturally has implications for the stone birth of Monkey.
Interestingly, the Jin-era Diwang Shiji (帝王世紀, 3rd-century) states Yu’s mother was impregnated by swallowing magic seeds and a “divine pearl” (shenzhu, 神珠), a type of stone, and even locates his birth in a place called “Stone Knob” (Shiniu, 石紐) (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101). While the mother is not a stone, his birth is effected by a stone and happens in a place named stone. In this instance, the divine pearl is an encapsulation of the same masculine heavenly and feminine earthly forces that help create Wukong.
Yu is of course most famous in Chinese myth for his monumental effort in quelling the fabled world flood and then establishing the nine provinces of China (Birrell, 1999, pp. 81-83). Therefore, as a savior figure his mythos lacks the rebellious challenge against the gods and eventual defeat that marks several figures in this list. However, in a twist, his father Gun is known for violating the natural order by stealing God’s “self-renewing soil” in his quest to quell the flood. For this crime, he is executed (Birrell, 1999, pp. 79-81).
1.2. Qi of Xia
Yu’s son, Qi (啟) or Kai (開), both meaning “open” (fig. 2),  is said in an early 4th-century source to have also been born from stone: 
When Yu was controlling the floodwaters and was making a passage through Mount Huanyuan, he changed into a bear. He spoke to the Tushan [土山] girl: “If you want to give me some food, when you hear the sound of a drumbeat, come to me.” But Yu leaped on a stone and by mistake drummed on it. The Tushan girl came forward, but when she saw Yu in the guise of a bear she was ashamed and fled. She reached the foothills of Mount Songgao, when she turned into a stone and gave birth to Qi. Yu said, “Give me back my son!” The stone then split open  on its north flank and Qi was born (Birrell, 1999, p. 123).
Lewis (2006) notes that early texts, such as the Diwang Shiji, claim this daughter of the Tushan clan is named Nuwa (with variations on her given name), proving that Yu and the goddess were married in some traditions (p. 134). This then strengthens the association between marriage, procreation, and stones.
Birrell (1999) explains a text appearing in the Zhou to Han-era Guicang (歸藏) records that he tried to “steal” (qie, 竊) music from heaven, while the Shanhaijing (山海經) states he received it as a gift from the realm above (pp. 83-84). While not directly related to Qi’s stone birth story, this shows at least one tradition believed Qi followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by stealing from heaven and violating the natural order, much like Wukong steals immortal peaches and wine.
Fig. 2 – A woodblock print of Qi of Xia from a Ming-era version of the Shanhai jing (larger version). Plate XLIV from Strassberg, 2002, p. 168.
1.3. The Bodhisattva Hilumandju’s Children
One myth explains the origin of the Tibetan peoples from a magic monkey and a rock-ogress (brag srin mo) (fig. 3). While evidence for it goes back to at least the 7th-century,  the best known version comes from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century). As the story goes, the Buddha charges the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva with converting the evil creatures of the “Land of Snow” (Tibet) to Buddhism. The latter sends his avatar, the Bodhisattva Hilumandju (possibly a reference to Hanuman), a monkey king with great spiritual powers, to meditate on a mountain top in Tibet. A rock-ogress comes upon his hermitage and attempts to seduce him by taking the form of a female monkey and then a human woman, but each time her advances are rejected due to his supernatural focus. As a result, the rock-ogress threatens to mate with an ogre and produce a race of demonic creatures that would devour the world, thereby heaping sins upon the monkey king if he does not take her as his wife. So after seeking council with his master, Hilumandju agrees to become her husband (I have archived the full story here):
“So be it (Laso),” he made answer. Then the monkey Bodhisattva, fearing lest the rock-ogress should destroy herself, departed in all haste for the Abode of Snow, and as soon as he arrived he took her unto him as his wife. When the space of nine months had elapsed she bore him six sons, who participated of the nature of the six classes of sentient creatures subject to birth and death. As their father was a monkey, so their bodies were covered with hair, and as their mother was a rock-ogress, so they had tails; their faces were reddish and they were most unsightly. From the mortal gods, one had gentleness and patience; from the mortal (lit., subject to birth and death) Asuras (lh’a-mayin), one of them derived angry passions and quarrelsomeness. One of them had in part great lusts, and love of worldly riches, which qualities he owed to mortal man. One of them owed to hell’s mortal fiends, hate, and anger, and great hardiness. One partook of the mortal Préta’s (yidag) characteristics in being deformed, from his cravings for food (lit., bad stomach), and his avariciousness. One partook of mortal brute beasts in not being able to distinguish right from wrong, and in having neither comprehension nor cleverness. When born they were ruddy-faced, had a taste for flesh and blood, and hair covered their heads and bodies, and, moreover, they knew how to speak (Rockhill, 1891, pp. 357-358). 
The resulting six offspring mate with monkeys and reproduce in the many hundreds, becoming more and more human with each new generation. When they eat all of their resources and begin to starve, Avalokitesvara gives Hilumandju grain and jewels for his descendants to grow and mine until they are fully human and ready to receive the Buddhist teachings (Rockhill, 1891, pp. 358-361).
The rock-ogress and her kind are portrayed as vicious, blood-thirsty creatures beyond Avalokitesvara’s ability to convert to Buddhism (Rockhill, 1891, p. 359). The rock-monkey children inherit not only their mother’s misshapen appearance but also many of her negative qualities, making them resistant to the teachings. So, in a way, they too violate the natural order.
I obviously can’t continue without commenting on this tale’s interesting parallels with Sun Wukong. Hilumandju is a monkey king who uses his magic powers in the service of Buddhism at the behest of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. And like Wukong, Hilumandju’s children are the product of a masculine heavenly force and a feminine earthly force (the rock-ogress). Wukong is a monkey king who uses his magic powers in the service of Buddhism at the behest of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (the feminine form of Avalokitesvara).
Jong (1997) explains Western myths of stone-born figures “are usually connected with the Song of Ullikummi known from Hittite and Hurrian sources” (p. 292). He continues:
There are many more myths or complexes of myths which largely follow the same pattern: the cycle of Agdistis from Phrygia, the Nart-epics of the Ossetes, the Jewish myths of the monster Armillus and—for some aspects—the Georgian myth cycles of Amirani [fig. 4] (Jong, 1997, p. 292).
Fig. 4 – A chart showing the existence of the rock-born son trope from other cultures (larger version). From Jong, 1997, p. 293.
The aforementioned Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE) appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. While named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya” (Ruthford, 2018), foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home (I have archived papers reconstructing the story here and here):
Out of the [rock’s] body like a blade he sprang. He shall go! Ullikummi be his name! Up to Heaven to kingship he shall go, and Kummiya, the dear town, he shall press down! But the Storm-God he shall hit, and like salt he shall pound him, and like an ant with (his) foot he shall crush him! But Tasmisu  like a …… reed he shall break off! All the gods down from Heaven like birds he shall scatter, and like empty vessels he shall break them! (Güterbock, 1951, p. 153).
Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads seventy deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. Güterbock (1951) suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (p. 140). 
Like Monkey and the other figures listed above, Ullikummi is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Kumarbi) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). Although the assault on heaven is orchestrated by his father, Ullikummi’s challenge to the gods, like that of Monkey, violates the natural order. And his presumed defeat in the end also follows the story cycle of Wukong.
I’d like to add that King Tesub seeking aid from Ea, leading to Ullikummi’s defeat, is reminiscent of the Jade Emperor asking for the Buddha to intervene, leading to Wukong’s defeat.
The Greco-Roman god of light, Mithras,  is perhaps the best known and studied of the stone-born deities in Western mythology. Researchers often refer to his birth stone using the Latin term Petra Genetrix, or the “Fecund rock”. Manfred Clauss notes the symbolism of the rock is tied to the earth and the cosmic egg (I have archived the relevant chapter section here).
The multi-layered quality of Mithraic symbolism…reappears in the case of the rock: represented and understood not only as the kosmos but also as the earth, on many images it is encircled by a serpent, [fig. 6] a creature associated with the earth (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 67).
We can discern the influence of Orphic speculation in a Greek inscription from one of the numerous mithraea in Rome, on a statue-base dedicated Διi ‘Hλω Miθpa Φávητı, that is to Deus Sol Mithras Phanes. Phanes is the embodiment of unlimited light, an Orphic deity who emerged from the cosmic egg. There is also literary evidence for the syncretism of Mithras with Phanes. In this community, therefore, Mithras’ identification with the sun god grounded an allusion to the Orphic-Platonic ideas current among the intellectual élites. Mithras-Phanes is also known to us in iconographic form: a relief from Vercovicium (Housesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall shows Mithras emerging from the cosmic egg, [fig. 7] which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 70).
Mithras’ position as a solar deity and depiction emerging from a cosmic egg/stone establishes him as a self-born creator god. This is supported by another aspect of his holy narrative: the slaying of the bull. Stone reliefs depict him in a great struggle to pin the animal down and then strike it in the neck with a knife. Since the bull was symbolic of the moon (and thus death), its sacrifice is seen as the creation of life and the cosmos. This is represented by zodiac symbols—the path of the newly formed planets—on the god’s fluttering cloak and by grapes or ears of corn in place of the pooled blood on the ground (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, pp. 78-90). Therefore, like Yu the Great, Mithras’ feat distances him from the rebellion and defeat that mark other figures in this list.
Sun Wukong is similar to Mithras as he too struggles against bovine opponents, including Laozi’s buffalo in chapters 50 to 52 and the Bull Demon King in chapters 59 to 61. However, Monkey’s conception involves the mingling of masculine heavenly and feminine earthly forces, while Mithras is born of a virginal stone.
Fig. 6 – An example of Mithras’ serpent-wrapped birth rock from Austria. A larger version is available on Wikicommons; Fig. 7 – The deity emerging from a cosmic egg surrounded by the western Zodiac symbols (larger version). From the Homesteads Roman Fort along Hadrian’s Wall. Found on this article.
Mithras’ son, Diorphus, is said to have also been born from a stone. Pseudo-Plutarch (c. 3rd-century) writes:
Near to this [the Araxes] river lies the mountain Diorphus, so called from Diorphus the son of the Earth, of whom this story is reported. Mithras desirous to have a son, yet hating woman-kind, lay with a stone, till he had heated it to that degree that the stone grew big, and at the prefixed time was delivered of a son, called Diorphus; who, growing up and contending with Mars for courage and stoutness, was by him slain, and by the providence of the Gods was transformed into the mountain which was called Diorphus by his name (Plutarch & Goodwin, 1874, p. 505).
Diorphus is similar to Monkey, Qi of Xia, and the Bodhisattva Hilumandju’s children as he is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Mithras) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). He and Qi share a further connection as they are both the sons of beings who were themselves born from stone. And much like Wukong, Diorphus violates the natural order by challenging the gods (in this case Mars) and is defeated, being transformed into a mountain after his death. While not exactly the same, the end result brings to mind Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain.
The tale of Diorphus’ conception follows the same tradition as the Story of Ullikummi where a god intends to sire a son with a stone and not a goddess, resulting in a powerful, rebellious offspring.
The god Agdistis is a monstrous, hermaphroditic being sired by Zeus. His story is recorded by Arnobious of Sicca (died c. 330):
Within the confines of Phrygia, he says (Timotheus), there is a rock of unheard-of wildness in every respect, the name of which is Agdus, so named by the natives of that district. Stones taken from it, as Themis by her oracle had enjoined, Deucalion and Pyrrha threw upon the earth,  at that time emptied of men; from which this Great Mother, too, as she is called, was fashioned along with the others, and animated by the deity. Her, given over to rest and sleep on the very summit of the rock, Jupiter assailed with lewdest desires. But when, after long strife, he could not accomplish what he had proposed to himself, he, baffled, spent his lust on the stone. This the rock received, and with many groanings Acdestis (Agdistis) is born in the tenth month, being named from his mother rock. In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars.
Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skillfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree… (Burkert, 1979, pp. 255-256)
Agdistis is similar to Monkey and the above figures as he is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Zeus) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). And like Wukong’s rebellion, the hermaphrodite’s raw, destructive nature threatens the primacy of heaven. As a result, both Agdistis and Monkey share a superiority complex, believing they are mightier than the gods. The deities fear their power and therefore seek ways to tame them. Wukong is placated for a time with celestial posts before ultimately being imprisoned by the Buddha, while Agdistis is stripped of his manhood.
Agdistis’ conception also follows the tradition of Ullikummi and Diorphus. The end result of Zeus’s attempted rape of the stone/earth goddess is a powerful, rebellious offspring.
The Book of Zerubbabel(7th-century)describes Armilus, a Jewish anti-messiah figure, as the spawn of Satan and a world conqueror who will force all to worship his lithic mother. Knohl (2009) presents the section where Zerubbabel learns of Armilus from an angel:
This city is Nineveh, the city of bloodshed, which is the big Rome. And I have said to him: “When would be the end of these awful things?’ And he took me by my hand and brought me to the house of disgrace.
And he showed me there a marble stone in the shape of a very beautiful virgin. And he said to me: ‘What do you see, Zerubbabel?’ And I said: ‘I see a marble stone in the shape of a very beautiful woman.’
And he told me: “This stone is the wife of Belial [Satan], and when Belial sees her, he will lie with her and she will become pregnant and will bear him Armilus, and she will be the chief idolatry. And he (Armilus) will rule over the whole world and his dominion will be from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth. And he will make signs. He will worship strange gods, and will speak words against the Most High and no one will be able to stand against him. And all nations will go astray after him except for Israel.
And he Armilus will take his mother from the house of disgrace and all places and all nations will worship this stone and will make sacrifices and libations to it. And no one will be able to look upon her face because of her beauty. He is Arimolaus son of Satan, and he will become a King in Emmaus, the city of his father, and his fear will fall in all places (pp. 79-81). 
Another tradition explains Armilus will proclaim himself God and, having won the trust of Christians, lead a vast army to decimate Jews who stand against him. In the end, though, God or the Messiah will gather the scattered Israelites and defeat Armilus:
But as Armilus nevertheless insists upon being recognized as God by the Jews, and they cry out to him that he is Satan and not God, a bitter battle breaks out between Armilus with an immense heathen army on the one side, and Nehemiah with 30,000 Jewish heroes on the other. This unequal combat ends in the death of the “Ephraimite Messiah” and a million Jews. After an interval of forty-five days, … Michael will blow his trumpet; then the Messiah and Elijah will appear, gather the dispersed of Israel, and proceed to Jerusalem. Armilus, inflamed against the Jews, will march against the Messiah. But now God Himself will war against Armilus and his army and destroy them; or the Messiah, as one version has it, will slay Armilus by the breath of his mouth (Kohler & Ginzberg, 1906, p. 119).
Like Monkey and the above figures, Armilus is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Satan) and a feminine earthly force (the stone statue). He violates the natural order by proclaiming himself God and even fights against the All Mighty, much like Monkey proclaims himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” and leads an army against heaven. Armilus’ defeat by God is also like Wukong’s subjugation by the Buddha, Diorphus’ death by Mars, and Ullikummi’s presumed besting by the gods.
Armilus’ conception also follows the tradition of Ullikummi, Diorphus, and Agdistis. Satan lays with the stone statue with the intent of creating a powerful, rebellious offspring.
The hero Soslan, also known as Sozryko, appears in a body of legends associated with the Caucasian Nart Saga:
At the sight of the beautiful Satana [the mother of the Narts] washing clothes on the riverbank, a shepherd across the river poured out his semen on a stone from which, nine months later, the child Soslan came forth. When he had grown up, he demanded to be “tempered” in the milk of a she-wolf, a treatment destined to make him invulnerable. The divine smith Kurdalägon dropped him into a trough containing one hundred goatskins of milk, but since the trough was too short, Soslan had to bend his knees, which consequently were not tempered and thus remained vulnerable.
After a long existence devoted to war exploits, mostly miraculous, Soslan insulted the daughter of Balsäg, a kind of celestial spirit, who took his vengeance by discharging at Soslan a living steel wheel that he controlled. The hero was hit by the wheel on all parts of his body successively and threw it back without being injured until, on the advice of the treacherous Syrdon [a figure similar to Loki], the wheel hit him on the knees and smashed them to pieces. According to an eastern Circassian variant, Soslan indulged in a game during which the Narts, again at Syrdon’s instigation, threw a wheel made of serrated steel at him from the top of a hill. It hit the distracted Soslan in the knees (Honigsblum, 1993, p. 264).
Despite the slight difference, Soslan’s parentage still follows the same tradition as Ullikummi, Diorphus, Agdistis, and Armilus. His father is humanoid, while his mother is a stone. The change from deity to lowly human shows that, in this case, even mortal sperm was thought capable of magically fertilizing earth.
Fig. 8 – “Soslan vs Balsag Wheel” by Maharbek Tuganov (larger version).
3. Influence on popular culture
Monkey’s stone birth is so well known that it is referenced in the world famous anime Dragon Ball Z (DBZ). The original Dragon Ball series presents the main character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, as a good-natured little boy with bulletproof skin and a monkey tail. However, DBZ reveals him to be a Saiyan, a humanoid alien warrior, who was sent as an infant in a rocket ship (à la Superman) to destroy Earth. This vessel, known as an “Attack Ball” (Atakku Bōru, アタックボール), is spherical in shape and represents the stone from which Wukong is born (fig. 9). It is a fun little twist on the original lore.
Eliade (1978) comments that “stone is an archetypal image expressing absolute reality, life and holiness” (p. 43). It is both the cosmic egg, from which the universe sprang, and the womb of the great Mother Goddess, from which all life arises. This brief survey demonstrates that stone is capable of giving birth to creator gods, protoplasts, savior figures, heroes, and even great monsters. But much like a human egg, a father is needed to fertilize it with sperm. Sun Wukong’s stone is nourished by the seeds of heaven. The first Tibetans, born of a rock-ogress, are sired by the Bodhisattva Hilumandju. In almost all cases in Western mythology (with the exception of Soslan), the pater is a heavenly force, an anthropomorphic deity, who begets a son by impregnating a stone in place of a goddess or mortal woman. Examples include Kumarbi and the stone titan Ullikummi, Mithras and the foolhardy Diorphus, Zeus and the violent Agdistis, and Satan and the anti-Messiah Armilus. Misogyny aside, the myths discussed speak to some belief that a son born of stone would pose a threat to the gods. I suggest this tendency towards violating the natural order is a manifestation of their unnatural births.
Sun Wukong’s birth narrative was likely influenced by that of Yu the Great and his son Qi/Kai considering that our hero wields the sage-king’s cosmic ruler, the gold-banded cudgel, as a weapon. But since Monkey’s stone birth and later rebellion mirror the tales above, might this suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West was aware of the ancient myth cycle of a stone-born son who challenges heaven? Many of the cited Western myths show a clear affinity with the Song of Ullikummi. For example, Burkert (1979) notes six similarities between the myths of Agdistis and the stone titan: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (p. 257). Sound familiar? If this circa 12th-century BCE myth cycle spread west from Anatolia to Greece, could not a version of it have spread east and penetrated China by way of Persia? This need not have been the original Ullikummi story but an older protomyth or even a later variation. Of course this begs the question: How would the author-compiler have learned about this story? Needless to say, much, much more research is needed to determine if such a dissemination took place. Similarities alone aren’t enough without some kind of textural, oral, or archaeological evidence. Perhaps in the future a scholar more qualified than myself will pursue this line of inquiry.
I have found a full account of the mythical stone birth of the Nart hero Soslan. It is portrayed as volcanic in nature, with the birth stone growing as it is baked in an oven for nine months. And finally, the child is born glowing red hot, causing a god of blacksmiths to quench and anneal him in water.
There were two brothers, the sons of Sajem. The elder was named Zartyzh, the younger Shawey.
One day Setenaya [Satana] was bathing by the river. On the water’s other side stood one of these brothers, the Nart herdsman Sajemuquo Zartyzh, also called Tezhidada, the “Eldest Ram.” From where he stood he was able to see Lady Setenaya. When that brother saw the beautiful temptress going back and forth, not standing still, strewing her clothes about, he could no longer control his passion. He was enchanted by her beauty and so let loose an arrow of manly fluid.
“Setenaya” It is coming to you.”
“So, let it come, but why did you do that?” said Setenaya.
“Hey, Setenaya! By day I tend the sheep. By night, when I come to you, the lance is always stuck in the ground in front of your house. so how would you have me do it?” said the shepherd.
Heavy steam arose as the bolt skimmed over the water, tracing a path until it reached Setenaya, but the bolt of lust just missed her and instead fell on a stone that was lying beside her on the riverbank. Setenaya picked up the stone, wrapped it in a warm cloth, brought it home, and placed it in the stove. Day by day the stone grew. It lay for nine months and nine days. During this time it grew in size and became very big. Lady Setenaya had her people bring the stone to Tlepsh‘s smithy. There she bade Tlepsh, the god of the forge, to break open the stone.
Tlepsh did as she had bidden him. From inside the stone emerged a baby boy, glowing as bright as fire. The baby fell on the front part of Setenaya’s dress and burned through it until he fell to the ground. Tlepsh seized him with his blacksmith’s tongs, and holding him by the thighs plunged him into the water for the grindstone seven times, thus cooling the baby. Then once again Tlepsh picked up the little child with his metal tongs by his thighs and hardened him seven times, so that the child’s skin became a little bit more flexible. The child became like a human being, but his skin remained tough, like tempered steel. Tlepsh named the baby Sawseruquo [Soslan] and gave him back to Setenaya.
On his thighs, where Tlepsh had held him with the tongs, Sawseruquo’s skin remained soft like human skin, and because his thighs had been squeezed, he was bowlegged (Colarusso, 2015, pp. 52-53).
This story has obvious parallels with the Greek story of Achilles, a mighty warrior with a vulnerable spot on his feet. Interestingly, a character from the Iliad (8th-century BCE) suggests due to his unwillingness to help in comrades in battle, Achilles’ parents were not the human couple commonly associated with him but the very sea and a rock cliff. Alepidou (2020) convincingly argues that these are references to the ancient Hurro-Hittite “Story of Hedammu” and the “Story of Ullikummi”. Hedammu, the offspring of Kumarbi and a sea goddess, was a massive sea creature that plagued the earth and sea. As noted above, Kumarbi’s subsequent offspring, Ullikummi, is a stone giant who attacked heaven. The stone titan is defeated when he is chiseled free from his base of power on the shoulder of an underworld god. This weakness of the lower extremities likely influenced that of Achilles and Soslan.
1) See chapter four, especially the sections “The Mythology of Nü Gua and the Flood” and “Yu, Marriage, and the Body”.
2) Strassberg (2002) explains the variant Kai (開) was used during the Han to avoid conflicting with Emperor Jing’s personal name, Liu Qi (劉啟) (p. 169). Whether Qi or Kai is used, both names reference the story of the stone splitting open to give birth to Yu’s son. See also note four below.
3）Birrell (1999) writes:
It is said by the Tang classical scholar and commentator Yan Shigu (A.D. 581-645) to be a reference he located in a text from Huainanzi, compiled circa 139 B.C. That text, however, does not appear in the extant editions of Huainanzi. The only reference the latter makes to the Yu/Qi myth is: “Yu was born of a stone.” Embroidered versions of the metamorphosis of the Tushan girl into stone begin to appear in the writings of Han commentators such as Gao You (third century A.D.), and Ying Shao (second century A.D.). The fourth-century commentator of The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Guo Pu, however, specifies that the mother of Qi (Kai) metamorphosed into stone and gave birth to Qi on the mountain. Thus the tradition of Qi’s miraculous birth is confirmed by at least the early fourth century A.D. and probably derives from an earlier tradition (p. 122).
I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.
4) The stone “splitting open” is related to stories of sage-kings erupting from the backs or sides of their mothers, splitting them open in the process (Cook & Luo, 2017, pp. 97-100). See also note two above.
5) Sørensen notes that the myth was depicted in a mural from the famous Jokhang Temple, which was built in the 7th-century (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 582).
6) 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.
7) The vizier and brother of Tesub.
8) Güterbock (1951), pp. 138-140 gives a summary of the tale. The paper also translates the first half of the fragmented epic. Güterbock (1952) translates the other half. Both papers are archived above.
9) I am indebted to Jose Loayza for bringing the stone birth of Mithras to my attention. This resulted in the rest of the Western figures in this article.
10) This references another myth in which, following the great flood, mankind is repopulated by Deucalion and Pyrrha casting the “bones” (stones) of the “great mother” (Gaia) over their shoulders. Thus thrown, the stones soften and take on human shape. See for example Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Ovid & More (n.d.)).
11) Knohl (2009) suggests Armilus’ story is a veiled attack against Augustus Caesar: 1) who is said to have been sired by the god Apollo under the guise of a dragon, the Jewish symbol for Satan; 2) who founded the Greek city of Nicopolis, which brings to mind the biblical Emmaus Nicopolis; 3) and who helped spread the cult of the goddess Roma (a statue of a beautiful woman) (pp. 81-83). So Satan impregnating the stone statue to produce Armilus likely refers to the myth of Apollo siring Augustus.
Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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.
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.
Ruthford, I. (2018). Kingship in Heaven in Anatolia, Syria and Greece: Patterns of Convergence and Divergence. In L. Audley-Miller & In B. Dignas (Ed.). Wandering Myths: Transcultural Uses of Myth in the Ancient World. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc.
Wilhelm, H., & Baynes, C. F. (1977). I Ching or Book of Changes (3rd ed.). Princeton University Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2013). Journey to the West, Revised Edition (vol. 1). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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).
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.  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).
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).  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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following video presents 10 facts about Sun Wukong that even superfans of the novel may not know. It is a summation of my and other scholars’ research. I hope you like it and will share with your friends and family.
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).
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.  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). 
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.] 
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 theClassic of Peaks and Rivers (Yuedu jing, 岳瀆經).] 
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). 
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.
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). 
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),  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.  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).
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.
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).
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.
Chapter one of Journey to the West describes Sun Wukong‘s birth from stone (fig. 1).
There was on top of that very mountain [Flower Fruit Mountain] an immortal stone, which measured [36 feet 5 inches (11.09 m) in height and 24 feet (7.31 m) in circumference]. Though it lacked the shade of trees on all sides, it was set off by epidendrums on the left and right. Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo [xian bao, 仙胞]. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg [shi luan, 石卵] about the size of a playing ball [yuan qiu, 圓毬]. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).
So why was Monkey born from a stone? Ancient Chinese fertility cults placed stones on altars dedicated to creation goddesses because the earth element symbolized the fertile, creative forces of nature. For example, one such goddess, Nuwa (女媧), is said to have fashioned mankind from mud and mended the heavens with five magic stones. A few such fertility cults are also associated with Yu the Great (大禹), a legendary sage emperor of the Xia Dynasty, via his marriage to Nuwa (in some traditions), and it is this connection that culminated in stories from the Han Dynasty claiming that Yu was born from a stone. An ancient tale said to be from the Huainanzi (淮南子, c. 139) states the same happened to his son:
Yu went to appease the floods. He pierced through Huanyuan Mountain, and transformed himself into a bear. [Earlier] Yu had said to Tushan [土山, his wife], ‘At the sound of the drum, you would bring me food.’ Yu jumped on a piece of rock, and thus hit the drum by mistake. Tushan [brought the food and] went. She saw the transformed bear. Feeling embarrassed and distressed, she went away as far as the foot of Songgao Mount where she was transformed into a stone. Yu said to her, ‘Return my son.’ Facing north, the stone split open and gave birth to Qi [啓, fig. 2] (Wang, 2000, p. 54). 
Fig. 2 – A woodblock print of Emperor Qi of Xia from a Ming-era version of the Shanhai jing (larger version). Plate XLIV from Strassberg, 2002, p. 168.
What I find interesting about this is that Yu and his son Qi went on to become great heroes and rulers after their births from stone. This parallels Monkey’s birth, enthronement, and later adventures. In a way, this makes Monkey a sort of literary spiritual successor to Yu. The compiler-author of JTTW may have wanted to literally cast Wukong from the same mold as the flood conqueror by giving him a similar origin. This then would explain why Monkey comes to wield Yu’s cosmic ruler, the gold-banded cudgel, the means by which the future Xia emperor put the world into order, as a weapon.
Also of interest is the fact that a later alternative name for Qi (啓) is Kai (開). Both of these names mean “open”, which no doubt refers to his legendary origins (Strassberg, 2002, pp. 169 and 219).
Sun Wukong wishes you a Happy Mother’s Day! Photomanipulation by me.
I have drastically expanded this piece to write a new article. I discuss other figures from world myth who are born from stone and later rebel against heaven just like Wukong. All future updates will be made there:
Strassberg, R. E. (2002). Chinese bestiary: Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. University of California Press.
Wang, J. (2000). 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 [u.a.: Duke Univ. Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2013). Journey to the West, Revised Edition, Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).