Review of DC Comics’ The Monkey Prince

Last updated: 06/16/21

Warning: This post contains spoilers

A follower on social media asked me to write an article about DC Comics’ new character the Monkey Prince, appearing in the story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” (Yang, 2021). He is part of a lineup of new and existing Asian characters in their DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021). I was aware of the Monkey Prince prior to the request, and while I wasn’t a fan of his costume (more on this later), I was optimistic about the story as I’m a big fan of writer Gene Luen Yang’s masterful graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006). This new comic is 100 pages [1] and features art ranging from dark and gritty to bright and cute. It includes short episodes for many characters, including Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), Green Lantern (Tai Pham), Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), Super-Man (Kong Kenan), Robin (Damian Wayne), Cheshire Cat (Lian Harper), Grace Choi (an Asian Amazon), Red Arrow (Emiko Queen), Katana (Tatsu Toro), Atom (Ryan Choi), and of course the Monkey Prince. What’s interesting is that, while he doesn’t appear among the heroes on the front cover of the standard edition, our supernatural simian is given top billing: “Featuring the first appearance of the Monkey Prince!” (fig. 1) (Chen, 2021, p. 1). There’s even a variant cover featuring the character (fig. 2).

DC editor Jessica Chen states the character was her idea, but that she worked with Gene Yang and artist Bernard Chang to craft “the origin and the essence of Monkey Prince together” (Aguilar, 2021). She also explains her close connection to Sun Wukong and her yearning to make a comic book based on him: “Monkey King was kind of my first superhero, and after being at DC Comics, I’ve always wanted to somehow introduce Monkey King as a superhero because his origin story just kind of writes itself” (Aguilar, 2021). She was finally given the go ahead for this “passion project” last year by DC Editor-in-Chief Marie Javins (Aguilar, 2021).

Fig. 1 – The front cover of the standard edition of DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (2021) (larger version). Fig. 2 – The variant cover with the Monkey Prince (larger version). Copyright DC Comics.

I. Story description

The story opens in an abandoned warehouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, where the evil Dr. Sivana has captured Shazam (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) and plans to slice him open with a laser a la Goldfinger (1964). However, unlike the Bond villain, Sivana uncharacteristically boasts about the prospect of cooking and eating the demigod’s heart, much to the disgust of his henchman and woman standing nearby. A broken, blue on white, Yuan-era vase in the foreground foreshadows Shazam’s deduction that the doctor has in fact been possessed by an ancient Chinese spirit hell-bent on eating the hero’s heart to gain immortality. While Sivana is visibly disturbed by this inference, Shazam is kind enough to tear open his own chest with an object retrieved from his ear. But instead of a warm, beating heart gushing blood, loads of large, multi-colored Valentine’s Day heart candies stamped “You suck” comically fall from the cavity. And with the added revelation of a wayward tail, the reader learns the demigod is actually the transformed Monkey Prince and the item is his magic staff. The young hero then flies into action to save the hench people from a large explosion caused from their careless shooting. The blast separates the spirit from Sivana.

“Shifu Pigsy”, a master of magic and martial arts, arrives by cloud to chastise his young disciple’s sloppy work. We learn through subsequent conversations that the Monkey Prince is bitter towards his estranged father, the original Monkey King, leading him to quickly correct anyone who confuses him for his pater. With the help of a magic powder blown into his eyes by Shifu Pigsy, the Prince discovers the invisible, disembodied spirit is a large, armored deer demon. The latter tries to justify his lust for immortality by stating the need to rule humanity for the damage they’ve caused to the earthly realm. But when the real Shazam shows up and the spirit tries to attack him, the Monkey Prince is caught off guard and punched to the ground. This causes him to revert back to his human form, showing that his magical transformation is connected to his mental state. Shifu Pigsy calms his mind with sage advice, allowing the Prince to spring back into action.

Having survived the explosion, Dr. Sivana shoots Shazam with a ray gun but to no effect. The demigod attempts to apprehend his foe, but the spirit sneaks up behind him and bites down on his head. Luckily, the adamantine nature of Shazam’s magic body protects him from the attack long enough for the Monkey Prince to land a devastating blow with his staff, thus vanquishing the deer demon. Shazam, however, threatens to arrest the Prince because, unaware of the invisible spirit, he confused the simian character for his attacker. But the Monkey Prince preemptively strikes the demigod so hard that the impact destroys public property. This causes Shifu Pigsy to activate the golden headband on the young hero’s mask, which painfully constricts to tame his rage. Once again, the Monkey Prince reverts to his human form and we learn the mask is used to protect his true identity.

Upon returning home to a Philadelphia suburb, we learn the Prince’s adopted parents are actually the two hench people whom he had saved earlier that night (they are seemingly unaware of his magic heritage). Later at school, we not only learn that his human name is “Marcus”, but that also one of his few friends just so happens to be Billy Batson, the kid alter-ego of Shazam. Billy tries to interest Marcus in a video of Shazam’s latest battle, but the latter refuses on the grounds that “superheroes suck” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). The Monkey Prince’s problem with superpowered beings is illustrated earlier during his confrontation with the demigod:

You superheroes think you’re better than everyone else! You think your powers and fancy capes make you the sole arbiters of right and wrong! Well, you know what? I am the mother-flipping Monkey Prince! And I actually am better than everyone else! I can beat you or any of your doofy superhero friends from here to next Sunday! (Yang, 2021, p. 80).

The story ends with a note suggesting that our hero will be getting his own comic: “The adventures of the Monkey Prince continue later this year!” (Yang, 2021, p. 82).

2. References to Journey to the West

There are several things from the story that call back to elements from the classic novel. The need to eat holy flesh to gain immortality refers to the many demons who attempt to cheat the cosmic hierarchy by trying to eat the monk Tripitaka. The Prince keeping his extending staff in his ear refers to the same thing his father does throughout the novel. Him tearing open his chest to reveal multiple hearts refers to one of the Monkey King’s tricks from ch. 79:

“In that case,” said the spurious Tang Monk [a transformed Monkey King], “bring me the knife quickly, so that I may cut open my chest. If I have a black heart, I’ll be pleased to present it to you.” Delighted, the befuddled king thanked him and asked the attendant to the throne to hand the spurious monk a curved dagger. Taking the dagger, the monk untied his robe and stuck out his chest. As he rubbed his belly with his left hand, he plunged the dagger into himself with his right hand and, with a loud ripping noise, tore open his own chest. A mass of hearts rolled out, so terrifying the onlookers that the civil officials paled in fright and the military officers turned numb. When he saw that, the royal father-in-law said in the hall, “This is a monk of many hearts!”

The spurious monk took those bloody hearts and manipulated them one by one for all to see: a red heart, a white heart, a yellow heart, an avaricious heart, a greedy heart, an envious heart, a petty heart, a competitive heart, an ambitious heart, a scornful heart, a murderous heart, a vicious heart, a fearful heart, a cautious heart, a perverse heart, a nameless obscure heart, and all kinds of wicked hearts. There was, however, not one single black heart! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 49-50).

The Monkey Prince’s inability to transform his tail refers to his father’s weakness from the novel. This is best illustrated during his fight with Lord Erlang:

Rolling down the mountain slope, he [Sun Wukong] squatted there to change again—this time into a little temple for the local spirit. His wide-open mouth became the entrance, his teeth the doors, his tongue the Bodhisattva, and his eyes the windows. Only his tail he found to be troublesome, so he stuck it up in the back and changed it into a flagpole (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 183).

Of course Pigsy, or Zhu Bajie/Wuneng (豬八戒/悟能), is a main character from the original novel. Like his comic book counterpart, he knows martial arts and magic. The name Pigsy is a nickname used in place of the original Chinese name from Arthur Waley’s famed abridgement, Monkey (1942). The golden headband is exactly like the one used by Tripitaka to rein in the Monkey King’s unruly nature. In the case of the Monkey Prince, his band is activated when his master recites the name of the Amitabha Buddha (Yang, 2021, p. 80). And the Prince’s angry, egotistical nature and boastful statements of superiority are just like his father. This is what leads to Sun Wukong’s rebellion against heaven and subsequent imprisonment by the Buddha.

3. Problems with the story and character design

One problem any adaptation of Journey to the West is going to face is lack of originality. It’s all been rehashed before endless times. An adaptation has to be super accurate or just different enough for me to find it fresh and interesting. An example of the former is the 2011 TV show, while the latter is the Korean drama Hwayugi (2017-2018). For me, this story falls in the perilous middle ground. The Monkey Prince’s power set/weaknesses are just carbon copies of his father, and yet an effort has been made to differentiate both characters. Marcus is not an immortal monkey protecting a holy monk en route to the Western Paradise of ancient India, but a brooding, teenaged, half-human-half-monkey spirit demigod navigating a normal life in the modern United States, while also attempting to master heavenly arts and fight evil. Mr. Yang explains in an interview why he made the character a teenager:

Pretty early on, we knew we wanted the Monkey Prince to be a teenager. I think there’s something about the American conception of adolescence that ties very well with the character of the Monkey King from the original stories. He’s trying to figure himself out, he’s trying to gather power to himself, he’s really arrogant, but then he also has these moments of self-doubt. Even in the original, 500 years ago (Ching, 2021).

But this portrayal of the Monkey Prince is the first of several problems that I have with the present narrative. While I’m willing to keep an open mind for future comic issues, the current story structure is not original. It seemingly draws upon formulaic tropes from other young adult literature with teenaged demigods angry at their estranged fathers (e.g. Percy Jackson). And the fact that the Monkey Prince was transplanted onto this formula, and has been so heavily marketed over other Asian heroes, reads less like a bid at expanding diversity in comics and more like a ploy to drum up business in East Asia, where the Monkey King is insanely popular.

Second, the Monkey Prince’s addition to existing canon doesn’t feel natural. Mr. Yang claims making Marcus a teenager with a mystical background made it easier to connect him to Billy Batson, who’s also “a teenager with mythological ties” (Ching, 2021). But this connection is just way, way too forced. To recap, the young hero’s adopted parents just so happen to be the hench people of Dr. Sivana. This isn’t even acknowledged by Marcus, even after saving them. He just notes: “Because of my parents’ jobs, we move around a lot” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). The Prince also just so happens to go to the same school and is friends with Billy Batson. The story even mentions Billy is one of his few friends: “Not many kids here are nice to me. Heck, not many know I even Exist. Billy Batson is one of the few who do” (Yang, 2021, p. 82). So the Monkey Prince wasn’t just shoe-horned into canon, he was hammered in whether it made sense or not.

Third, the comic doesn’t explain why Sun Wukong would take a human Chinese wife after becoming a Buddha in the Western Paradise of India at the end of the novel. I hope this gaping plot hole will be addressed in later issues.

Fourth, making Zhu Bajie a sagely teacher to the Monkey Prince is not a well-thought-out idea. Zhu is the very symbol of gluttony and sloth throughout the novel. After reaching the Western Paradise, the Buddha tells him: “Although you protected the sage monk on his way, you were still quite mischievous, for greed and lust were never wholly extinguished in you” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). When Zhu asks why he’s only promoted to an altar cleaner while the rest of his companions became Buddhas and arhats, the Enlightened One replies: “Because you are still talkative and lazy, … and you retain an enormous appetite” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 382). So he’s definitely not teacher material. [2]

Fifth, the term “Shifu Pigsy” is just grating to my inner reading voice. Why mix two languages when you could just call him “Zhu Shifu” or “Master Pig”? [3]

Sixth, Pigsy’s design, while similar to some Chinese depictions, is too cutesy. His description in the novel is far more grotesque: “He has a long snout and fanglike teeth, tough bristles on the back of his head, and huge fanlike ears. He is coarse and husky, and he causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). The first drawing of Pigsy in the comic does portray him with large ears, but this is said to be a magic transformation that allows for better control when flying (Yang, 2021, p. 76).

Seventh, the golden fillet disappears when Marcus is in his everyday human attire. This goes against the point of the band. In the novel, it can’t be removed and thus serves as an ever-present reminder of self-restraint (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 319-320). Maybe this will be addressed later.

The eighth and biggest problem is the Monkey Prince’s design (refer back to fig. 2). His golden headband is bent into a subtle “M” (for Monkey), which likely borrows from the double “W” motif on Wonder Woman‘s chest. He even wears a vigilante-type mask and sports a large “M” logo on his chest. And the most egregious of all, he wears basketball sneakers! Mr. Yang explains this costume and the Monkey Prince’s secret identity tie him to other heroes in the DC Universe. He also states the logo is “not really an ‘M’ [but] a graphic presentation of Flower Fruit Mountain” where the monkey king was born (Ching, 2021). But this symbology doesn’t agree with the internal story details. Marcus is adamant in his hatred for superheroes, so why dress him like one? It just doesn’t make any sense.

The character designer Mr. Chang explains his reasoning for the final look:

Monkey Prince Is all about attitude and character. My initial reaction to the original Monkey King character is that he’s a rebel, a mischievous figure who defied the gods and wanted to do things his way. So, bringing that element into the design was a key factor. There are already a ton of previous adaptations of this great story, so I wanted to find a balance between the traditional uniform elements (in reflection for previous fans of the mythological hero) and our modern-day superhero elements you would find in heroes in the DC Universe and form that into a new, authentic variation for our times and story.

I was also initially drawn towards the curlicue motif, with it also representing clouds or wind, which the monkey would fly around on, and you can see that throughout his armor. I balanced the traditional deep red, for blood and family, with an old gold, for history and flashiness, and teal, a more modern and hip variation of traditional green or jade (Ching, 2021).

While I like some of the golden armor elements and the use of ruyi (如意) / lingzhi (靈芝) mushrooms (the “curlicue motif“), the striped teal paints and, especially, the sneakers just look tacky. Moreover, the design appears to be recycled from previous characters. Several people have commented online that the Monkey Prince is just a combination of Beast Boy‘s hair and body (fig. 3) and an altered version of Tim Drake‘s red and green Robin costume (fig. 4). I also see touches of Damian Wayne’s costume, specifically the red tri-panels with yellow borders at his waist (fig. 5).

Now, I have to address the sneakers. Why, why, why would a Chinese monkey demigod wear basketball sneakers? Well, according to Mr. Chang, it’s because a high school teenager like Marcus is bound to wear something with “some hotness to it” (Ching, 2021). Additionally, the designer admits it’s also because he’s trying to (shamelessly) plug his own brand of shoes (Ching, 2021).

Fig. 3 – Detail of an advertisement featuring the design for Beast Boy in Fortnite (larger version). Image found here. Fig. 4 – Tim Drake’s costume (larger version). Take note of the staff. Image found on Wikimedia commons. Fig. 5 – Damian Wayne’s costume (larger version). Take note of the waist panels. Image found here. Copyright DC Comics.

4. My rating

Overall, I would give “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” 2 out of 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars (see the 06/16/21 update below). [4] I gave extra points for comical story elements and the technical proficiency of the art. But I just can’t overlook problems with the writing and character design. This is a weak showing for the creative team involved. I think part of the problem is that not all parties had an intimate familiarity with Journey to the West. Mr. Chang admits that he only heard a few stories as a child and doesn’t know how the novel ends (Ching, 2021). Editor Chen says her parents also told her stories (Aguilar, 2021), but I don’t know if she has ever read the novel. As for Mr. Yang, I’m sure he knows the story forwards and backwards. So I’d like to think he was forced to sacrifice authenticity while working within certain constraints set by DC Comics.

Having said that, I’m honestly interested to see where the Monkey Prince story goes in future issues of his comic book. I will update this article as the narrative progresses.

5. What I would change

I would do away with the Monkey King taking a human Chinese wife centuries after he became a Buddha. Instead, the son could be born during the Tang Dynasty to Princess Iron Fan, the rakshasi wife of the Bull Demon King. Though seemingly impossible, there is precedent for this idea. An early 15th-century zaju play predating the novel describes Sun Wukong’s delight upon learning that the Princess is unmarried (Ning, 1986, pp. 139-140). He then resorts to seduction in an attempt to gain the iron fan needed to extinguish Flaming Mountain. For example, he recites a poem to her chocked full of sexual innuendo: “The disciple’s not too shallow. / the woman’s not too deep. / You and I, let’s each put forth an item, / and make a little demon” (Ning, 1986, p. 141). In addition, a 17th-century sequel to Journey to the West even describes the Monkey King having a number of sons with Princess Iron Fan. He faces one of his offspring, King Paramita (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王), during a final battle between all the armies of the world (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In our story, the son could have been conceived during ch. 60 of the original novel when Monkey shares a tender moment with the Princess while disguised as the Bull Demon King (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 144).

Being a half-monkey spirit-half-rakshasa demigod, [5] I’d like to think the Prince’s base form would be more monkey-like. This would mean any lapse in concentration would cause him to revert to this state instead of a human form like in the original comic story.

I can already hear someone ask: “How can the Monkey Prince still be a teenager by the start of the story if he was born hundreds of years ago?” Well, this leads me to my next change. Instead of Zhu Bajie, it would make much more sense for his teacher to be the Bodhisattva Guanyin. After all, she tutors the children of several characters from the novel, including Muzha (木吒), 2nd son of Heavenly King Li Jing, and Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Princess Iron Fan and Bull Demon King. [6] Already having a son under the goddess’ tutelage would make it easier for the Princess to send another child to learn from her. Also, Guanyin helped subdue both Monkey and Red Boy with golden fillets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 316-320; vol. 2, pp. 251-252). Perhaps the Monkey Prince has a temper like his father and half-brother, so the goddess would make him wear Wukong’s fillet as it’s no longer needed once the latter attains Buddhahood (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 383). Most importantly, the bodhisattva lives on the earthly paradise of Potalaka Mountain. The novel explains one day in heaven equals one year on earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). A similar constricting of time would no doubt happen in Guanyin’s holy land. Therefore, the Monkey Prince would still be a teenager even after hundreds of years have passed on earth.

Next, I would completely do away with the tacky superhero costume. As a disciple of Guanyin, he would just wear a monk’s robe, the golden fillet, and possibly even sport a tiger skin skirt (like his father) since he would technically be a heavenly guardian. There’d be no unnecessary logos, recycled costumes, or cursed sneakers. And the best part, this attire wouldn’t contradict the Monkey Prince’s hatred for superheroes, provided that was still a necessary plot element. Perhaps this hatred could be born from the fact that heroes like Shazam are given their powers (or happen upon them by accident), while the Prince’s abilities are the hard-won product of long years of spiritual cultivation.

My changes are less confident, however, when it comes to naturally fitting the Monkey Prince into existing canon. The first thing that comes to mind would involve the Shazam villain Sabbac, a hellish demon, causing havoc in Philidephlia’s Chinatown. Perhaps his assault could be related to the deplorable reports of Covid-related violence against Asians. A devotee of the goddess could pray to her in their time of need, and then the Monkey Prince is sent in her stead to exorcize the evil. But Shazam arrives while the Prince is battling the demon, and not knowing one from the other, he attacks them both. This might add fuel to the Monkey Prince’s dislike for Shazam.

I personally think the secret teen identity is a bit much. But if it is a necessary plot element, Guanyin could assign the Monkey Prince to watch over her flock in Philadelphia (and the rest of America?), [7] and at the same time allow him to experience a slice of modern teen life. And, again, if necessary, we can borrow from the original story and have the Prince attend high school, where he feels drawn to Billy Batson because of his godly aura. A local earth god (tudi gong, 土地公) and his wife (tudi po, 土地婆) (fig. 6) could be tasked by heaven to act like his grandparents to keep up the appearance of a normal human family.

Fig. 6 – A colossal Taiwanese statue of the earth god (larger version on Wikimedia commons).


Update: 05/21/21

Last time I suggested changes to the Monkey Prince’s costume. One thing I forgot to mention was his hair. In order to be more authentic, there are two choices: 1) he can be bald (like his father in the original novel) since he’d be a Buddhist monk; or 2) he can have long hair since he’d be a martial monk (wuseng, 武僧). It’s interesting to note that religious statues of Sun Wukong sometimes depict him as a martial monk, complete with the golden fillet and long hair (fig. 7). This is heavily influenced by Chinese opera (fig. 8) (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178).

Fig. 7 – Detail of a religious statue of Sun Wukong as a martial monk (larger version). See the full version here. Photo taken by the author at one of the many temples in Taiwan dedicated to the Monkey King. Fig. 8. – A detail of the literary hero and martial monk Wu Song from a Chinese opera about his adventures (larger version). Full version available on Wikimedia Commons.


Update: 06/16/21

I’ve just posted my review of Marvel Comics’ Sun Wukong character. Reading the comic book equivalent of a train wreck has allowed me to view the Monkey Prince in a new, more positive light. I have therefore decided to increase my previous review score.

https://journeytothewestresearch.com/2021/06/16/review-of-marvel-comics-sun-wukong/

Notes:

1) Though, the online version I bought through Google Play only has 84 pages.

2) Zhu Bajie and his brothers do briefly take students in ch. 88, but they only teach them how to wield weapons (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 198-203). This is not the same as the sagely teacher of magic presented in the comic.

3) Admittedly Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) does use “Master Zhu” (vol. 4, p. 199), but that is far more accurate than mixing “Shifu” with “Pigsy”, a nickname used in place of the proper Chinese from the English abridgement Monkey (1942).

4) I’m willing to revise this in the future as the narrative progresses.

5) Muzha (a.k.a. Hui’an, 惠岸) is already Guanyin’s disciple by the start of Monkey’s rebellion. In ch. 6, the goddess sends him to help in case his skills are needed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 175). Red Boy is taken in by her at the end of ch. 42 and beginning of ch. 43 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 251-252).

6) Though a rakshasi, the Princess Iron Fan has attained human form through self-cultivation (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 162).

7) I’ll have to wait and see how far the Monkey Prince’s adventures take him in his ongoing comic.

Sources:

Aguilar, M. (2021). Jessica Chen Talks Returning Favorites and the Monkey Prince’s Debut in Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. Comic Book. https://comicbook.com/comics/news/dc-festival-of-heroes-the-asian-superhero-celebration-jessica-chen/

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Chen, J. (Ed.). (2021). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

Ching, B. A. (2021). Meet the Monkey Prince: Yang and Chang Introduce DC’s Newest Hero. DC. https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2021/05/12/meet-the-monkey-prince-yang-and-chang-introduce-dcs-newest-hero

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

Ning, C. Y. (1986). Comic Elements in the Xiyouji Zaju. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8612591)

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

Yang, G. L. (2021). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

Archive #23 – Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (1997) by Keith Stevens

The novels Journey to the West (1592) and Investiture of the Gods (1620) are good representations of the syncretic pantheon from Chinese Folk Religion. The number of Buddhas, sages, gods, immortals, spirits, guardians (etc.) revered by people of Chinese descent is enormous, and new figures are being added to the list even to this day. Needless to say, laymen and researchers who visit temples and wish to correctly identify a particular deity need a resource with images, names, and listed attributes. Luckily there is one such source. Keith Stevens (1926-2015), a veteran of the British Army and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, traveled East and Southeast Asia for 40 years collecting information on the folk pantheon. He produced an invaluable monograph titled Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons (1997). The book is unfortunately out of print and available copies are expensive to buy. So I am pleased to host a PDF of this wonderful work on my site.

The scan was produced with an overhead document camera. The glossy pages made scanning somewhat difficult. I had to use a soft, indirect light source. Therefore, not all pages are crisp due to the low light levels. The original file was quite large at 520 mb. I compressed it to a smaller file. I can provide the larger file upon request.

Dust Jacket Description

China is a land full of gods and goddesses, ranging from the Creators of the World to Worthies local to only one or two villages.

This book introduces the reader to the most important figures of Chinese folk history, and those of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Intensely pragmatic in their religion, Chinese people hold all gods in reverence, but it is only the ones who answer prayers with concrete results that are exceptionally praised. Many gods have particular specialities, for instance, there are different Wealth Gods for success in business and for gambling. There are also individual gods for each trade, from those for removal men in Hong Kong to students at Beijing University.

In addition, there are the City Gods and Kitchen Gods, the Earth Gods who protect a specific piece of land, and myriad spirits who protect wells, mountains or bridges, distribute rain or snow, control flooding or protect humanity from disease and epidemics.

Keith Stevens has spent a lifetime researching the subject, travelling extensively in China, Taiwan and throughout South-East Asia. He has gathered information from hundreds of temple keepers, god-carvers and religious specialists and collected details of images and their stories – providing glimpses into the sometimes little-known folk history of China. The author also provides pointers on how to identify images, together with invaluable background information including chronology of Chinese history, a map of the area covered, a glossary and detailed index with the names of deities in Chinese characters.

Book Link

Disclaimer

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you like the digital version, please support the official release.

Citation

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Review of Imagin8 Press’ Bilingual Edition of Journey to the West for Chinese Language Learners

Note: This post is not endorsed. I received no compensation for the review.

I have an ongoing international survey gauging the readership of Journey to the West. With almost 1,000 responses, 53.4% of the respondents have never read the novel. Another 28.8% have only read a few chapters, including abridgements. Most have learned about the story via video games, comic books, or the internet. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as the majority of respondents come from North America (52.5%) and Europe (18.8%). Such non-Chinese speaking/reading populations do, however, have access to assorted translations. For example, the most popular English renditions are Arthur Waley’s 30-chapter abridgement Monkey (1942) and full translations like W.J.F. Jenner’s Journey to the West (2001) and Anthony C. Yu’s The Journey to the West (revised 2012 edition). Yu’s version is by far the most accurate, but it runs well over 2,000 pages (including a 100 page introduction, copious explanatory notes throughout the four volumes, and many scholarly sources), making it a daunting task to read. But what about those who wish to read the original Chinese? Well, the edition put out by the People’s Literature Publishing House (人民文學出版社, 1955/2017), for example, has 866,000 Chinese characters, and while the novel is written in the vernacular, a person would need to know 3,000 or more characters before they could comfortably read it. This means beginning students would normally have to wait years until they reached the appropriate reading level. But now they have a new option.

Jeff Pepper (writer and publisher) and Dr. Xiaohui Wang (translator) of Imagin8 Press have produced a series of bilingual retellings of the tale at the 600 and 1,200 HSK word levels, as well as a few with 1,500 based on new words introduced in past books. [1] So far there are 14 books in the series covering chapters one to 42 (Monkey’s stone birth to the defeat of Red Boy). All are available in Simplified Chinese, while (as of March 2021) only the first six books are available in Traditional Chinese. Each is divided into four parts: 1) a preface with a brief explanation of the series and a recap of the story from previous books; 2) the story proper presented in pinyin with the corresponding Chinese on the adjoining page; 3) the English translation; and 4) an alphabetized glossary of terms with four columns listing the Chinese character, pinyin, English meaning, and when new words (not part of HSK3) are “First Used” in a given book (i.e. 1, 2, 3, etc.). [2] If the First Used column is blank for a given character, this is because “the word is part of HSK3 or is in common usage” (Pepper & Wang, 2018a, p. 119). Furthermore, students have the added option of listening to audiobooks available for free on Imagin8’s YouTube channel. This means they can practice both their reading and listening skills. Needless to say, this series truly is an amazing resource.

The cover of book one. Design by Katelyn Pepper (larger version).

Now on to the story. Given the reduced word count, the tale in each book is a simplified version of the original. The first book opens on a parent telling Journey to the West as a bedtime story to their child, each subsequent volume representing a different night’s story. Certain aspects, such as the names of minor gods, immortals, and demons, as well as copious literary poems, are cut out as they don’t really affect the overall story. [3] The narrative flows smoothly and follows the general outline from Anthony C. Yu’s English translation. [4] The rhythm of pages is occasionally broken up by beautiful black and white drawings by Next Mars Media, each of which is accompanied by a bilingual caption.

Beyond a few very minor inaccuracies in the story, I only have two major complaints. One, the tendency to gloss over certain facets of the narrative resulted in the removal of one major aspect of Sun Wukong’s early training, which is the source of his most famous magic power. In the original, the Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti teaches Monkey the 72 transformations in order to hide from a trio of heaven-sent punishments scheduled to kill him for attaining immortality. After subsequently learning how to fly via the cloud somersault, he is expelled from the Sage’s school for showing off his newfound powers of metamorphosis to his less accomplished classmates. But in book one of the series, Wukong’s lesson on shapeshifting is mysteriously replaced with flight training. It is implied that he can simply fly away from said punishments (Pepper & Wang, 2018c, pp. 55 and 57 and 82-83). And instead of being kicked out for showing off his transformations, Subhuti simply tells him to leave because he’s “disturbing the other students” (Pepper & Wang, 2018c, pp. 57 and 83). This removal doesn’t make any sense, especially when our hero exhibits transformations in later books (Pepper & Wang, 2018b, pp. 39 and 78, for example).

Two, the Chinese sections of books one to five are very short, running between 25 to 30 pages with only 14 lines per page. The rest of the books are comprised of the aforementioned preface, the pinyin pages, the English translation, the images, and the glossary. However, book six and beyond tend to have more pages, especially those from book seven onwards as this is when the 1,200 word level is introduced. In addition, Imagin8 has produced a number of compilations, each collection containing three books (example).

For my overall rating, I would give the series 4.5 out of five stars. I highly recommend it for those in the early stages of learning Chinese. It will surely serve as a gateway to learning more about Chinese history, religion, and mythology.

Notes:

1) Mr. Pepper was kind enough to send me the first six volumes in Simplified Chinese back in 2019. He recently sent me the Traditional Chinese version of volume six.

2) Book one is missing this “First Used” column. It was introduced in book two under the listing “New?”. This was subsequently changed to “Used In” in book five and then “First Used” in book six.

3) The names of certain reoccurring characters, such as Heavenly King Li Jing and his son Prince Nezha, are cut in earlier books. I’d be interested to see if their full names grace later books as the characters do appear several more times in the original narrative.

4) Dr. Yu is thanked in the acknowledgements.

Sources:

Pepper, J., & Wang, X. (2018a). The Emperor in Hell (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Imagin8 Press.

Pepper, J., & Wang, X. (2018b). The Immortal Peaches (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Imagin8 Press.

Pepper, J., & Wang, X. (2018c). The Rise of the Monkey King (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Imagin8 Press.

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

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

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

Book links

Disclaimer

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

Citation

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

The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff

Last updated: 07-04-2021

I’ve written several articles on Sun Wukong’s iron staff, including its origin from religious and martial staves used by historical Buddhist monks, the meaning of its inscription (“‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: 17,560 lbs” (7,965 kg)), the real world metal that it is made from, its ties to Yu the Great and flood control, its ties to the Buddhist Saint Mulian, its possible ties to a Hindu monument, and modern day misconceptions about its ability to weigh down the entire Milky Way galaxy. Now, I’d like to briefly survey the magic powers associated with this weapon. This will by no means be exhaustive.

I. Powers

A. Size Manipulation

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: 17,560 lbs. [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). [1]

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, [2] 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).

cosmic transformation

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. [3] 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. [4] 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). 

D. Multiplication

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).

E. Lock-Picking

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. [5]

F. Transformation

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).

G. Sentience

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. [6]

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).

II. Conclusion

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.


Update: 07-04-21

Here I present my theory on why Sun Wukong’s staff weighs 13,500 catties (17,560 lbs/7,965 kg). I believe the number is an embellishment on the weight of a stone block lifted by the bandit Wu Song in the Water Margin (c. 1400).

Notes:

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).

Sources:

Elvin, M. (2004). The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press.

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.